By Candice M. Williams
We are at an unprecedented moment in American history, in what feels like a series of unprecedented moments. Over the past decade, an increasingly partisan public forum has struggled to facilitate discussion or to gain consensus in our policy responses to challenges before our community. Questions about the integrity of our voting processes, the science underscoring public health policy, and the strength and nature of threats to our democracy have highlighted the danger posed by our inability to deliberate in good faith. Changes in how people access, process, and discuss information have also transformed the dynamics of public learning and deliberation. Unlike our more traditional civic communes, increasingly popular forms of online engagement are often anonymous, less likely to be local in nature, or foster the relationships necessary for empathy and understanding despite differences. While we should not abandon these online channels of communication, the creation of hospitable communities requires an understanding of how they impact our ability to come together and develop inclusive and responsive policies and practices.
To engage an increasingly diverse public and consumers, many companies, civic organizations, educational institutions, and local governments have developed trainings and workshops designed to inform our community response to matters of equity and inclusion. However, while these trainings and workshops are important for communicating institutional policies, public learning and deliberation are significantly benefitted from the ongoing discussion of issues of equity and inclusion in informal, familiar spaces among peers.
Informal, Familiar Spaces
Trainings and workshops are good forums in which to communicate institutional policy and practices; however, I would argue they are significantly less effective at facilitating meaningful discussions, in which a plurality of viewpoints are engaged, than informal, familiar spaces, which can facilitate work that is essential to the long-term success of equity and inclusion efforts.
- Lower-risk learning environments – Education theory suggests that greater learning happens in lower-risk environments.1 Unlike a workplace, participants in informal, familiar spaces perceive less risk in being honest about their current beliefs or asking questions that may challenge or appear at odds with equity and inclusion policies and practices. Discussions in which participants can be honest about their current perspectives, intellectually challenged where appropriate, with low risk for ridicule or embarrassment, are crucial for deep thinking and self-reflection.
- Voluntary participation – The voluntary nature of informal, familiar spaces also supports deeper engagement with issues of equity and inclusion. Participation in these spaces is entirely by consent, which can be withdrawn at any time without fear of institutional economic reprisal or employer retaliation. Framing discussions about equity and inclusion in terms of voluntary participation is also important to developing long-term buy-in and community ownership and support for equity and inclusion efforts.
- Vulnerability – Unlike larger, institutionally organized forums, informal, familiar spaces offer participants the opportunity to be vulnerable and to discuss the personal experiences and emotions that often accompany equity and inclusion work. Research has shown that our most steadfast beliefs and opinions are buttressed by personal experiences and strong emotions.2 Informal, familiar spaces create a safer opportunity for participants to engage their reasoning and the personal experiences and emotions that underscore their perspectives.
- Shared governance – Because informal, familiar spaces tend to be selectively voluntary, participants in these spaces participate in the shared governance of the space, creating the rules and conditions for participation and behavior. Space governing conditions, such as confidentiality, can lower the risk for participants who may be concerned about long-term social ridicule or exposure, were their comments to be shared without appropriate context.
- Shared interests – Having shared interests or an alternate basis for interaction beyond discussions of equity and inclusion can be helpful to discussions of equity and inclusion in a number of ways. First, it can help to support discussion by serving as a natural, temporary transition away from a discussion that may have become emotionally charged. Shared interests also serve as a conversation primer, creating a point for initial participant entry into the discussion. They may also serve as transitions into discussions about equity and inclusion, further reducing the bar to discussion participation by beginning with shared knowledge.
- Production and reproduction of culture, attitudes, and norms – Society is not principally produced through visible, institutional policies but through social policies, practices, and behaviors that shape culture, attitudes, norms, and beliefs. It is not possible for us as a society to fully legislate the changes necessary to have equitable and inclusive communities. This work principally happens in informal, familiar spaces. Therefore, it is essential that we approach these spaces with intention, as spaces where the ongoing work of equity and inclusion must be performed.
- Among Social Peers – Informal, familiar spaces are also stronger sites for the work of equity and inclusion when they bring together social peers. Social peerage, which I use here to differentiate from someone who might be a colleague or financial peer, assumes some commonality in lived experiences or social identity.
- Similar backgrounds or similar life experiences – For members of marginalized groups as well as members of dominant identity groups, spaces comprising social peers perceptually lower the risk for misunderstandings based on social identity. As visible social identities often serve as filters through which language and behavior are read, having participants who come from similar backgrounds or with similar life experiences can reduce the miscommunication risk associated with this social reading. Additionally, a group of social peers may reduce the need for participants to narrate aspects of their lived experience as a result of shared group knowledge or experience.
- Authority of knowledge – We tend to question the knowledge and authority of those who are dissimilar to ourselves, and this tendency is magnified when it comes to issues of equity and inclusion, where community organizers or organizational leaders may often be members of marginalized groups. Informal, familiar discussion spaces are likely to reduce this social tendency to undermine speaker knowledge.
- Zero-sum mentality – One of the biggest challenges to equity and inclusion work is the “zero-sum” mentality which suggests that greater equity and inclusion “trade-off” with the well-being of others.3 Attempts to address the zero-sum mentality are likely to be more successful among social peers who are perceived as having as much to “lose” or as much “at stake” in equity and inclusion discussions.
One might assume that my championing of informal, familiar spaces as significant sites for the work of equity and inclusion is predicated on a conversational participant that is opposed to equity and inclusion policies and practices. While this forum for discussion would be helpful to an individual holding such views, I would argue that it is of equal importance for those who align themselves with prevailing equity and inclusion practices to ensure they are also engaging in rigorous reflection of their perspectives and views that is attentive to the historical and systemic ways in which social and legal institutions have codified norms and behaviors, shaping the understanding, life experiences, and beliefs of many of our community members.
It is not in the long-term interest of equity and inclusion to expect the viewpoints of community members to change overnight, and a more nuanced understanding of why some community members hold the perspective they do is necessary for the long-term success of this work, particularly as it relates to public policy development and community governance. Oversimplifying the perspective of others or immediately assuming that a difference of perspective is rooted in hate, apathy, or indifference to the well-being of others should rarely be the starting point. For all the reasons I have previously stated, I believe that informal, familiar spaces might best support this ongoing learning and reflection as well.
What this means:
- Allies are important – If we acknowledge the potential for equity and inclusion work in informal, familiar spaces, then we also must acknowledge the importance of allies. Informal, familiar spaces, by their very nature, are usually not accessible to all. It is important that we recognize the need to have allies in those spaces who are empowered to do the work of equity and inclusion.
- Bravery in informal, familiar spaces should not be underappreciated - A willingness to instigate or participate in discussions of equity and inclusion in informal, familiar spaces should not go underappreciated. As much as it may serve to facilitate discussion, the lack of public scrutiny means there are rarely consequences for not speaking up or not participating. Even in informal, familiar spaces, among social peers, there is social and emotional labor associated with the work of equity and inclusion. It is not labor everyone is willing or has the capacity to perform, and we should appreciate those who do it.
During my time with the National Civic League as a participant in Kettering Foundation Learning Exchanges, I had the opportunity to meet city managers and community leaders from across the United States who recognized the need for ongoing personal and professional development as being necessary to their leadership of equity, inclusion, and belonging in their communities. David Cline, city administrator for the City of Tukwila, Washington, was one of those city managers, and the “Lazy Boy’s Book Club” is an example of the work that can be achieved towards equity and inclusion in informal, familiar spaces, among peers. David’s experience with this book club is recounted in another article in this journal.
Candice M. Williams is the former Program Director of Equity and Inclusion for the National Civic League and a private diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant.