Let me start by sharing my experience with inequity and isolation. Close your eyes and picture yourself as a 5-year-old girl riding on a school bus with everyone staring at you and your 6-year-old brother. You hear various comments coming from children your age about your tan skin and your brother's “scrub-pad” hair and dark black skin. Now replay scenarios like this repeatedly, but in different environments, with different people, and at different ages, including adulthood.
Diversity is defined as a range of many people from different social and ethnic backgrounds and of various genders and sexual orientations. Inclusion is defined as the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized. Marginalization is manifested in social, political, and financial situations. I've experienced marginalization related to my skin color and my gender. Why are values of worth and importance assigned based on attributes that are out of an individual's control? One variable may be attributed to the lens of a person's implicit biases and expressed explicitly.
Along with a cohort of fellow associates, I was asked to write out my life story to later share with the entire group. I am the middle child in a family of four children. Once married, my parents decided to move our family to Roundhead, Ohio, after finding 14 acres of land and plenty of room to roam and discover. We were the only family of color that lived in this small country town, and the only school-age students of color. We were normally the only black faces in the crowd. Have you ever been in an environment where your skin tone, hair texture, word enunciations, and dress attire marked you as worthwhile or acceptable? Have you ever been the minority because of your race, gender, and/or socioeconomic status? Have you been present in a group where people talk around you and not to you? Have you ever felt isolated in the presence of many? Have you ever been told that you will never be good enough because you're black? Has anyone ever said to you, “I know you wish you were white and not black,” “I know you wish you had straight hair and not that nappy hair,” or “I know you wish you were one of us and not you.”
This assignment to share my story brought many childhood experiences to the surface for me. The sense of being judged through the lens of others based on my exterior attributes was like carrying my heart outside my chest. Evident from my kindergarten year of school, these thoughts followed me everywhere and have never left me I encourage you to take a bold step and intentionally place yourself in an environment where you're the minority representation. I call this immersion.
I'm grateful for the tenacity, advocacy, and resilience my parents modeled for me and my siblings. My mother made many trips to the school to stand up and educate the educators regarding race relations, stereotyping, and any other issues related to her children. My momma's mother bear sessions to protect her children resonate within me and imprinted my parenting style. This was evident when my children were in grade school and, every year, I'd send their new teachers a copy of a newspaper article on bullying and a note reminding them that they set the tone for a kind, caring environment for all students.
I have to fast forward to the present. I've worked in behavioral services at Mercy Health — St. Rita's Medical Center for nearly 30 years. One of my responsibilities in utilization review has been to attend daily team meetings on the inpatient unit. I recall one meeting where the multidisciplinary team was waiting for the next patient, and when he came in, the patient told me immediately, “You can dismiss your black self from this meeting.” One of the unit social workers (NS) stated, “We're your team and no one is leaving this meeting unless you choose to leave.” I was so uncomfortable, conflicted, relieved, sad, and hopeful. My natural personality is to leave when not wanted. I wanted to leave the meeting, but I couldn't leave. My cohort stood up for me! No one other than my mother and family members had ever stood up for me in such a profound and demonstrative way. This response was different; it was in front of the group and spoken without hesitation with such resolve, compassion, and resistance to any status quo. NS's statements empowered a paradigm shift within me, and it overflowed into the milieu of that conference room. I thanked the patient for coming to the treatment meeting. I couldn't help but to reflect on the flood of emotions from moving past the rejection of peers to experiencing the acceptance of peers. I didn't know I needed the affirmation that only inclusive language and an inclusive environment could nourish. I wasn't aware that I needed that nourishment. I personally committed to choose to empower all, as I had been empowered.
I endeavor to open safe space conversation zones for my cohorts, family, and community members to take the biases we all have and identify them; hold them; examine, smell, taste, and listen to them.Embrace vulnerability as we look at biases, examine the barriers formed from them and figure out how they can be dismantled bit by bit. Once this is done, peace and kindness can be cultivated more genuinely for an interconnected and caring world. This space is also called a brave space because it compels an individual to recognize, reflect, and wrestle with their own upbringing and experiences. I've found this discernment practice causes a pause to choose to stand firm on biases or tear down the biases that have driven uncivil behaviors and communications, which serve as a default button to protect people from the perceived threat of change. I want to foster change and challenge growth, curiosity, and courage to step onto the diversity and inclusion highway. Diversity and inclusivity isn't a program, an initiative, or a process. It's a way of living and acknowledging that everyone is valuable and has an active place at the table of life.