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Diversity Must Be Actionable

I’ve been a keynote speaker at various conferences for Women’s and Diversity Initiatives all over the country. I’m often troubled that those most needing to hear the message of inclusion, implicit bias or equity are back at the office and the focus is on what the marginalized population can do to self-advocate or fully participate. When there are men present there are two almost obligatory responses that occur: a joke is made that the men are brave to have shown up or someone mentions how grateful they are that the men are in attendance and awkward laughter and applause follows. These responses are consistent in California, Ohio, Washington and New York and every other state I’ve visited. I am grateful for the men attending as well. I am. But just to be clear, marginalized populations have been enduring the role of other without congratulations or applause or support for a long time. We seem to feel obligated to reward someone for showing up to a nice lunch, which seems to me a continuation of the problem. We aren’t partnering and collaborating or agreeing together that something must be done. True inclusion comes in action – small, intentional, thoughtful action.

It’s not enough to merely invite someone to the table, it’s critical to ask them to speak and hear their voice. Opportunities for inclusion are abundant in everyday business but it requires a conscious desire and mindful effort. I have been fortunate enough in the course of my career to be the recipient of such conscious, small acts of inclusion and they were anything but small in impact.

I was working for a real estate firm as a single mother with two young sons, a couple of years out from my divorce. I had to bring my son Jackson to work one afternoon because he got out of school early and I needed to attend a meeting but I didn’t have anyone to watch him. He was about 7 or 8 at the time. Jackson was a wildly curious, active, noisy, messy, brilliant, active boy that was anything but quiet or still. I did what all single parents do when they are filled with fear of judgment for daring to be human and bringing a child to work. I told him to be quiet and still until I was finished; and I’m sure I resorted to some form of bribery as well. After settling him at my desk, with pens, paper, snacks and anything else I could find to entertain him, I turned around to head into my meeting.

I didn’t get far before my boss, Alex came marching towards Jackson. Alex was as always, impeccably dressed in a well-tailored suit and with coiffed hair that cost more than my entire outfit. His gait was full of purpose when he looked at my son and said, “Well, hello sir! My name is Alex, what is your name?”

Jackson looked up and said, “I’m Jackson Leake. I’m Ann marie Houghtailing’s son.”

“I see. And what are you doing here today?”

“I’m waiting for my mom to finish a meeting.”

“Oh! This is excellent. Please come into my office and join us.”

I thought about Alex’s organized office and imagined my son possibly picking his nose or getting distracted and doing who knows what in the middle of this meeting. My anxiety sat in my chest like a stone

“Oh, he’ll be fine here,” I said full of nerves.

“Absolutely not, come this way.” Alex insisted.

We all sat down in Alex’s office, me with my notepad and Jackson with his brown eyes and boundless curiosity.

“I wanted you to join us today because I wanted you to have the opportunity to observe how brilliant your mother is. That is why she is here. She is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and you don’t know that yet but someday you will, and I wanted you to have the opportunity to see her work.”

It took so much restraint not to cry. I was moved by his conscious effort not to push my son into a corner but instead to bring him in and treat him like he mattered. I was moved because I didn’t feel brilliant but I sure wanted to be after Alex told my son that I was. I had all the insecurity of a newly divorced, single parent unsure of her worth. It didn’t cost Alex anything other than a little bit of time.

My son is now 20 and he still remembers that day. Alex didn’t raise an eyebrow when he saw my son at the office. He didn’t try to silently shame me for being a mother with a child and no daycare for an afternoon. He took that afternoon and treated it like an opportunity rather than an annoyance.

Every human being has this power. You can bring someone in, bring someone along or pull someone up just by making a little effort. You are powerful and you should never waste an opportunity to exercise your ability to fully embrace someone different than yourself. Every business benefits from diversity but it comes in action, not merely a value statement in a manual that no one has ever read.

Inclusion is expressed in a million, small decisions and actions and only if we can see the opportunities. I have been the recipient of such power and grace packaged in a modest action. The impact is so large that it’s impossible to measure. If you so choose, you can be powerful and create a legacy of inclusion. There is no solution in stating and restating the problem, the solution comes in a daily practice of conscious choice.

Ann marie Houghtailing is speaker and writer. Her speaker’s reel can be viewed here:

Her writing has appeared in Washington Post, Huffington Post, Daily Worth, Yahoo! Finance, XO Jane, Catalyst, Thought Catalogue and San Diego Business Journal

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