Creating Inclusive Spaces

Creating Inclusive Spaces

In November 2021, I was fortunate to be able to do a TEDxBath talk and you can watch it here.

Renée Jacobs: TEDxBath

The script for the talk is below, as I struggled to remember the whole thing!

So, I’m going to start by telling you a story. When I was a little girl, perhaps 8 or 10, PE was my least favourite lesson at school. I hated sports. I also hated the process of picking for teams. The dreaded moment: Our PE teacher saying: Today we’re playing Rounders. Jill and Jane are picking teams. And so, I would wait to be picked. Knowing that I would not be chosen. I would be left till last and the unlucky team would get me – the me who can’t catch a ball, or hit one, and who would much rather be doing literally anything else than standing at the very edge of the rounders field, hoping the ball came nowhere near me – so I didn’t have to move at all.

When you’re thinking about “inclusion” perhaps you’re thinking about it like picking that dreaded rounders team. And to do “better” at inclusion, you simply need to pick that last person (me), first. Or change the person who is doing the picking. Or randomise the picking. Or change the game.
And that certainly is one way of thinking about it. But right now, I’m going to start by thinking about belonging.

When I was slightly older, 16 or 17, I no longer had to do PE. Excellent. Instead, I did singing. I was clearly feeling brave and decided to try out for the school musical. A musical which involved singing -yep, I could do that. Acting – I could probably do that, although my ability to memorise things is questionable at best. And dancing – which I definitely, cannot, and should never ever do.
So anyway. I did the audition. I read some lines, which went fine. There may or may not have been dancing, I literally can’t remember – might have blocked it out. And then I did the singing part of the audition, which went amazing. I got offered a part with a solo.
Despite my complete inability to dance, and my mediocre acting, my strength – singing – meant I got the part.

I was able to contribute to the school musical using my skills and strengths and not be made to feel bad or insufficient or guilty about my weaknesses. That is an element of belonging.

By valuing the input of an individual, their unique skills and attributes, we are starting on the path to belonging. Doesn’t that sound like a better version of inclusion?

The power of a network

But how can we value someone’s unique skills and attributes without understanding how that fits into our lives?

For my day-job, it is easiest to describe what I do as project management. Very simply, that is organising a whole bunch of people, with different skills, knowledge and attributes, to deliver an outcome for a customer. We are creating a report for a customer and we need a new visual or image. No one currently involved in the project has that ability, so I get someone else involved – to become part of the team for that short amount of time – to create the visual. And now a team of people, who were previously unconnected, have collaborated to create something of value.
By working together, with different people, and understanding how our unique skills and attributes complement each other, we can add more and bring more to the whole.

That is the power of a network.

For that to have worked, for me to have successfully found someone to do that work, I needed to already know about that person and their unique skills. I also need to understand the value of those skills and how they could be applied to the project I was working on.

And that hints at the key question. Exactly how do we, how do I, include those people who are otherwise excluded? People from minoritised backgrounds? People who are different from me? Who I don’t already know?

Conversations are doorways

Anyone who knows me, knows I love talking. But more than that, I love conversations. I have spent the past year and a half having conversations.

Last year, I was approached by someone to give some input into something they were working on. They wanted the thoughts and perspectives of a Black person on some marketing-type work. I said yes, and we met for a coffee and had a conversation. We kept in touch, fairly sporadically until I needed some help with something I was working on. It turns out that this person was perfectly connected and ideally knowledgeable for a challenging piece of work I was struggling with. We worked together and created something really great, and that I am very proud of.

We continued to keep in touch quite randomly. I began to understand more of their unique skills and attributes, and they began to understand more of mine. Somehow, over the course of the past year, we have realised that we have a lot of our goals, and struggles in common. We have started discussing ideas and potential pieces of work that I had never even imagined I would be thinking about.
Our conversation, over a coffee, opened up a doorway to innovation, understanding and connection. A doorway to little slice of belonging.

Imagine if I could get that with more people. Well I have. I’ve had many similar (and very many different) conversations and opened doorways.
And so could you.

On purpose

So, we all know that social media is self-perpetuating. If you watch lots of videos about cookery, more videos about cookery will be suggested to you. If you “like” lots of posts about dog-training, you will see more dog-training content. Real life is a lot like that too. If you’re not deliberate about it, your friendships, workplace, running group, can all become filled with variations on the same person. You have to purposefully choose to interact, involve, include, different people.

When I started my journey on creating a network I hardly knew anyone apart from the people I worked with. And there I was, outrageously starting something that relied on my connections to others to deliver it’s core benefit.
And so I discovered something. The best way to meet the people I wouldn’t during the course of my normal day, is to try. To ask for introductions. To go to different places and events. And to reach out to people. On purpose.

But I found something wonderful. Once I knew one person, they introduced me to another. Said “perhaps you should talk to this person”. And there it was, my network – B in Bath – was growing. Person by person, individual by individual, link by link.

The power of you/Permission to do something

I don’t have a PhD. I don’t have 1000s of followers on social media. I haven’t written a book or curated a museum. I am just a Mum. I am just a project manager. I am just me. And I’m doing my best to make the place where I am slightly better.

It’s easy to underestimate your own impact. Your own power. I know I did (and still do) mine.
But you do have power. You do have an impact.

Responsibility

So, I’ve talked to you a bit about inclusion and belonging. I’ve talked to you about the power of a network and how a conversation can be a really good starting point to fundamentally to get to know and truly understand people.

I was going to stop there.I was going to treat this as our initial conversation, and keep it light. But then I realised, for some of you this might be the first or only time you are thinking about inclusion and belonging. And if you are going to be using this as your inspiration to take some steps forward, and I hope you do, there is something else that you need to consider, and that is responsibility.

A while ago, I was talking to a young lady who had been working at a company that had a real culture around drinking. Social events were at the pub. If people went for lunch or dinner, drinking was not just permitted, it was encouraged. There would be drinking in the office too, and Monday mornings were full of conversations about how drunk everyone had got over the weekend. This young lady chose not to drink alcohol for religious reasons, for her even being around alcohol and talking about it was problematic. There are also people who chose not to drink for social, health and other personal reasons. By having such a culture around drinking, it is impossible for anyone who does not want to drink to fully engage, socially, with their colleagues. They will be left out, ignored, perhaps made fun of, miss out on opportunities for conversations and social interaction with senior management which could lead to promotions and other job opportunities. Even if those people stay at the workplace, they will be miserable and eventually will leave.

It is not enough to just invite someone into a place. As the inviter you do have power, and (as someone’s uncle once said) with great power comes great responsibility.

Really, the responsibility is to remember that everyone you talk to is a human being. They will have experiences and things about themselves that you don’t know about, haven’t experienced or can’t relate to. Things that might make it more difficult for those people you are hoping to talk to, engage with, to be able to engage with you or to feel that sense of belonging in the place that you are hoping to bring them into.

In any aspect of thinking about how to include, involve someone we also need to think about the barriers that they might face in interacting with you, and about how you can remove those barriers. That is your responsibility as you are going out there and saying “I want you..”, as part of those initial conversations you should be asking “what do you find difficult, what is preventing you from accessing this space/offering/whatever it is” and then working out, with humility and the intention to understand and open, how you can remove or get around those barriers.

Conclusion

A City can feel like an isolating place, full of barriers. A mini-world where none of the people are like you. Whether its a gym or a book club, a new place – full of strangers – can feel terrifying. Especially if you are (or expect to be) the only person like you in that place. How do I know I’m welcome there? AM I welcome there? Will anyone like me? Or talk to me?

Panic.

But whether the place is a book club or a gym, or something else entirely, someone will be the picker. The inviter. The membership coordinator. The marketing manager. The person who welcomes, or invites, or publicises.

I’ve got news for you: we are all pickers, at least sometimes. You are a picker. So, if you want to see a change in the place where you are (your city, workplace, choir) it’s probably time you got to know about, found out, discovered, the unique skills and attributes – you know, GOT TO KNOW – some different people. Start to understand them, their unique value.

So, as I come to the end, its time for the big reveal. And its a shocker.

I can’t do this on my own. An inclusive city needs you. So I pick you for my team. Why don’t you go out of here and put yourself in front of someone you wouldn’t normally meet or work with, and see where that link takes you.

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