Jael Chambers is the founder of Cultured Enuf, a diversity consultant firm.
Why is creating a truly diverse team and knowing how to truly value diversity in our lives, ‘valuing differences’, so difficult?
Growing up in LA made me feel like I earned my Ph.D. or some advanced degree in the urban culture and the African-American race. I mean, ain’t nothing you can’t ask me about “the culture”, but I was far from being cultured enuf. I still remember one of my first interactions with a white person. It sticks out in my memory like that “misspelled” word from a couple sentences ago. Unfortunately, I did not grow up in an environment with healthy cross-racial and cross-ethnic relationships. I was born into a community that only taught me how to navigate and succeed around people who looked, acted, or thought like me, without exposure to anything different. This lack of exposure in my upbringing has incited me to educate myself and others for all topics related to diversity, cross-racial/cross-ethnic interactions, racial identity development, inclusion, equity and bias. In my day-to-day conversations, I frequently come across a common question: “Why is diversity so hard?”
One of my favorite verses that reminds us of the diversity of the gospel and what heaven will be like is Revelation 7:9-17. It specifically details a multitude of people from all tribes and nations. Heaven being incredibly diverse is not a new idea for Christians. Yet our lives do not reflect the diversity that will be in heaven. Hear me, and this is not just for white people, but for the rest of y’all too. We typically think diversity is just a white or Caucasian issue, but the reality is that people of color are a major part of this conversation. For us Christians to effectively live out the gospel, we should desire to have diversity, inclusion and equity in our lives because it displays God’s heart for all people and gives Him the glory. We must truly value diversity and help create teams and communities that do this too. Diversity, inclusion and equity is not meant to be easy, but with the following three main components it will start to become fun, simple and relational – not just challenging.
“Diversity, inclusion and equity is not meant to be easy.”
Let’s start with proximity. Proximity is, “nearness in space, time or relationship” according to a quick Google search. John 1:14 says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…” God came down in the flesh to dwell, live, and you know, to kick it. It is humanly impossible to have diversity without being in proximity to others. The Pew Research Center in 2015 published a study sharing that even though the world is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, fewer adults say they have things in common with those who do not share their own racial and ethnic background. People often ask me how to have healthy diversity in their team or organization. In response, I ask a few questions such as, “Do staff members interact outside of work? Do team members know each other? Are you in real authentic relationships with people who are different from yourself? It will be difficult to have healthy diversity if we are not in proximity with others who look, act, and make decisions differently than ourselves.” In order to build a collaborative, healthy, diverse team and to have lives that value diversity, we need to practice proximity.
Now let’s talk about empathy. When we are in proximity to others and begin to have those connections, we start to move towards having empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. As many of us can tell from simple observation, empathy is a concept that the incentives of society undervalue. However, over the years, research has shown that the best leaders are highly empathetic, especially to those who are different from themselves. Annie McKee, an educational author from the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “If You Can’t Empathize With Your Employees, You’d Better Learn To.” In it, she shares the impact positive empathy has on teams. Annie McKee mentions how empathy enables us to connect with others in real and meaningful ways, which makes us happier and more effective at work. The “secret” to having diversity in your organization, and how to value it in your life, is to listen. Most of us think we are better listeners than we actually are, but listening is a skill that most people have to develop over time. It is not easy.
Here are five elements of empathy and active listening to keep in mind when someone is sharing with you:(1) perspective taking, (2) staying out of judgment, (3) recognizing the emotions of the other person, (4) the ability to communicate the emotions to the other person, (5) mindfulness. Having healthy interactions with people from diverse backgrounds takes a person who has developed a strong ability to be empathetic, so practice this disciplined skill.
Lastly, there’s something called psychological safety. When a person is in proximity and empathic to others, it breeds feelings of being “psychologically safe”. Take a second to think of environments that you didn’t feel safe in. You might have felt like you could not be yourself or felt that you were being judged by others. How did that environment make you feel? Most people can name an environment or experience that was the opposite of safe. Dr. Amy Edmondson, a scholar of psychological safety, states that her definition of psychological safety is, “The belief that one will not be rejected or humiliated in a particular setting or role, in which people feel free to express work-relevant thoughts and feelings.” The nature of my work allows me the opportunity to partner with organizations, and how psychologically safe employees feel can be a challenging element to notice. It takes intent from someone to be aware of the culture (beliefs, norms and values) of others and of the organization you are in. An important element of creating a psychologically safe environment is the implementation of a culture of feedback in meetings. People in your team should be encouraged to share new ideas or thoughts. Psychological safety in a team takes time – especially when it is a diverse group.
Let’s revisit the original question, “Why is diversity so hard?” It is actually kind of simple, really. We, as humans, in our sinful nature, have trouble thinking of effective ways to live out the second commandment. In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked a simple, but very profound question,
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Focusing on these points of proximity, empathy and psychological safety can help us all love our neighbors better and help us live out principles of diversity better in our organizations and in our lives.