Learning to Weave in Olympia

My last post described our need to weave together a stronger social fabric that both honors our common humanity and respects and values diversity. At A Human Workplace: Olympia on June 22, we took a first step by exploring and learning about empathy and diversity. Here’s what we did and what happened. But first, what seems most essential.

What’s Essential

I've had requests to describe the meeting design and activities for those who couldn’t be there or who live in other parts of the world interested in taking a first step too. The design team did a terrific job of considering our objectives, taking into account our participants, and crafting a process and activities just right for this step.

But I want to be candid and clear about something: What is essential is not the design. Talk to anyone who works in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and they will tell you that there is nothing groundbreaking about the activities and tools we used. They were solid, thoughtfully chosen, and really beautifully executed by the team, but there’s something more that is really the essential ingredient.

A Human Workplace: Olympia is a gathering of people meeting to explore exactly how to create a workplace that works for people. Since starting seven months ago, the culture of the gathering is clearly welcoming, safe, positive, curious, thoughtful, and caring. Even though about one third to one half of all participants are new at each gathering, the spirit, focus, and norms are consistent.

As people in Western cultures, we can be pretty obsessed with tools and methods. This is part of our cultural mindset, as Richard Nisbitt points out in his book The Geography of Thought. A focus on things is so ingrained in a Western way of thinking that it's hard to imagine any other way of thinking about a problem. We are sure tools are what we need first and most to solve our diversity problems. 

Or maybe not. Maybe first, we need relationships. Maybe we need people-focused values. Maybe we need a supportive environment so that people can then use those tools and activities. Relationships, people-focused values, and a supportive environment are the essentials that make the use of any tools or methods possible. 

What We Did at the Gathering

So with clarity that all this starts with focusing on people, here is what we did.

To begin, people got to know each other. Table groups of four identified five things they shared in common and one thing that was different for each. These weren’t to be things like we are all in Olympia right now. But less obvious things that took some conversation to discover. As groups did this, friendly connections formed and people began to open to each other.

Next to set some context, Jeannie MacNab, King County Office of Performance, Strategy, and Budget, and Ryan Leisinger, Accessibility Champion and Solutions Architect at Washington Technology Solutions shared the ADDRESSING Model developed by Pamela Hayes and the Diversity Wheel from Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener which further explores many levels and sources of identity. They introduced Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe our multiple, overlapping identities that create a complex convergence of experience. And they shared a few of the many U.S. trends underscoring why it is important to embrace diversity:

·        Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, now number 83.1 million and represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population. Their size exceeds the 75.4 million baby boomers.

·        Millennials are more diverse than the generations that preceded them, with 44.2 % being part of a minority race or ethnic group (that is, a group other than non-Hispanic, single-race white).

·        The U.S. population is expected to become majority-minority in 2044. The minority population is projected to rise to 56% of the total in 2060, compared with 38% in 2014.

·        In 2015, 17.5% of people employed experience a disability.  It’s probably more like 20% when you consider undisclosed non-visible disabilities.

Then participants talked about why it was important for them to be there.

One woman shared that she left public service years ago after a really bad experience. But when she saw the Eventbrite posting for this state sponsored gathering focused on empathy and diversity she couldn’t believe it and had to attend. As she began to participate and experience the conversations, she found it healing saying, “My heart’s having a party right now!”

A man revealed that he was there because he was deeply troubled by difficult news about a coworker and even more troubled by the judgmental responses to the situation from other coworkers. He needed to be in a place of positivity and care.

Listening from the Heart

With that, Jessica Zinda, Chief EDI Officer from Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services, introduced “Listening from the Heart.” This listening exercise is based on the model of Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening (2011) by Andrea Cohen with Leah Green and Susan Partnow.

Participants listened as their partners shared a story of a time when one aspect of their identity was honored or dishonored. They “listened from the heart” for facts, feelings, and values. Afterwards, each reflected individually on the experience and then shared insights with their partner.

What Happened

While the exercise was going on, it was amazing and encouraging to watch people around the room. Ryan noticed people were receptive, open to listening, and willing to go step by step through each stage of the listening process. Jessica carefully observed participants directly facing each other, with open expressions and postures. She saw people making eye contact, smiling, and leaning in. And she said she could almost sense a tangible tether forming between people, heart to heart.

What Participants Said

As a community we talked about this experience.

One participant said, “This is exactly what I needed. I’m ready to start my weekend now.” Another shared, “I wish my wife knew some of these techniques!” and he planned to share them with her so she could use them in her work.

A third noted that a core belief of A Human Workplace is that it’s a leader’s job to eliminate fear and create the conditions for love to flourish in the workplace. She pointed out that this exercise addressed the fear of holding these conversations at work in the first place by creating a safe way to begin to listen and learn.

Two men who were paired up shared their experience. Previously strangers, these two started out skeptical of each other and aware of their obvious racial differences. One was Black and one was White. But as they practiced listening from the heart with the intent to understand, those differences vaporized and were replaced by feelings of unity that were so much stronger than anything that might have separated them. Though they were there to explore diversity, they ended up discovering their many commonalities.  One described it this way, “It was like watching a friendship form.” And in fact, these two are continuing to cultivate their friendship after the gathering.

How We Finished

We completed the gathering as we always do with the Circle, introduced by Reginald Cuffee who works in the Office of Risk Management at the Department of Enterprise Services. Linking elbows around the room, which brought us just a tad bit closer than just standing in a circle, each offered a word to describe their thoughts or feelings in the present moment.

A few people described feeling uncertain and annoyed. Their candor was welcome. This is challenging territory, and we can give each other room and support to be uncomfortable and unsure. Others described feeling inspired, connected, hopeful, energized, and peaceful. We ended by sharing the Islamic saying, “A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.” People applauded, some shook hands, a few hugged, then we scattered to head back to work

So that’s what we did, how it went, and what seems essential. We took a first step on this day. There will be more. But we began to weave together our common threads and our diverse threads that morning.

And now, a small corner of the social tapestry is a little stronger and more beautiful.