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“It’s the Culturally Unfamiliar Choices that Require a Commitment”

Shereen Samuels talks about meaningful inclusion, permeability to the new and how to promote diversity in board membership.

Shereen Samuels is Chair of the Governance committee at the Calgary Public Library and principal of Samuels Group Consulting (SGC). Shereen has 20 years professional experience with organizational communication and culture; diversity-based issues; non-profit management; human resources, and board management.

Christophe Bruchansky: In your opinion, why do organizations not reflect the cultural diversity of society?

Shereen Samuels: I believe that our organizations reflect the values and culture of dominant society, and I think that’s probably true anywhere you have a human endeavour. Our organizations reflect our dominant culture, which is Eurocentric “white” and I put white in quotation marks because white is a social construct.

Could you explain the difference between diversity management and meaningful inclusion?

Diversity management is a term that most people are familiar with. And it’s been sort of a buzzword in organizational management since probably the ’80s, early ’90s.

When I did my research, there were two primary concerns I had around trying to create meaningfully inclusive organizations. One is the attitude that has been taken, which is the attitude of diversity management and the second is the implications of that term. Who is diversity? Diversity is everyone who doesn’t fit that dominant paradigm we just talked about. So it’s like managing the difficult others: the ones who don’t fit in, who are causing us problems. We have to figure out what kind of special things we need to do to manage diverse people and what really are the implications of that term. And it’s centred largely around individual sensitivity training. So the notion that if you could just get white people comfortable enough with people who weren’t, that organizations would diversify on their own; that if we were all just nicer to each other and more people talked to each other, that somehow the magic would happen and organizations would just become diverse.

There was very little success over time attached to the concept of diversity management. It’s not that it’s not a good thing to do. Awareness raising, education, the active work of breaking down prejudices and biases, all of that is valuable work. But it is a separate idea from the idea of making an organization meaningfully inclusive.

Meaningful inclusion is about structures: when I look at what I have constructed here, where have I embedded barriers? And how can I dismantle or mitigate those barriers such that people aren’t having to climb over them or try to break through them in order to get to the centre where I am?

It’s a shift in focus from “I’m looking at you to see how I manage you” to “I’m looking at myself to see how I manage myself”. And that’s a much more powerful stance because when you’re looking at yourself, that’s something you can control: your structures, the structures that you have built, that’s something you can control and do something about. And that’s why a meaningfully inclusive approach is much more likely to garner results over time.

Does meaningful inclusion require a change in how organizations are governed?

There isn’t a one size fits all approach to governance. Every organization has to consider what is its purpose, who is its audience, who is its membership, and then what’s the most perfect version of that organization for that audience. They seem like obvious questions. But those answers often lie in our subconscious. I think one of the places that a lot of organizations get stuck is the why. Why should we do this work?

Organization require newness in order to thrive. In the 21st century, where things move extremely fast and so much depends on your ability to stay current, not being able to incorporate the new and the different into your model can be the kiss of death. It’s not that I don’t hold an ideological point of view on the question of pluralism and diversity and inclusion. Obviously I do. However, the reason for an organization to consider it, universally, is that it needs to be able to incorporate new things or eventually it’s going to die.

European and North American birth rates are stagnating. Immigration is the way we keep our economies alive currently and for the foreseeable future. And so the reality is that if you are running a business in North America, there is no way around the fact that your audience is diverse, that your membership is diverse, that your workforce is diverse and is going to just increase in its diversity.

In order to be effective, old traditional models of governance and leadership don’t necessarily have to change wholesale, but they have to be able to let in the new. When I talk about the concept of semi-permeability, what it means is that you don’t have to allow the new to come in and change it out of all recognition. But you do have to allow the new to come in and change things.

When you think of all of the hottest business practice authors, people like Peter Senge or Patrick Lencioni writing about how to make your organization flexible and future oriented, the practices that they espoused came directly from ’80s feminist organizational theory (even though it is never credited by any of these guys). What the ’80s feminist organizational theory would tell is that there is only one way to make an organization meaningfully inclusive, and that is to demolish the hierarchy and put in place a collectivist decision-making process.

I disagree with that, a flattened hierarchy and consensus-based collectivist decision-making processes don’t automatically lead to inclusive organizations. Governance structure to me is not the most important element, because the organization that has a board of directors and shareholders and a CEO and a very clearly traditionally understood hierarchy can still allow for people’s creativity to be included and rewarded, and for that creativity to move them up that ladder into positions of power.

What are the challenges of an inclusive culture and how can organizations overcome them?

A lot of times what you have is a leadership that has a very strong attachment to how they define the organization. Inclusive culture requires leadership to really buy into that idea that newness is not a threat, newness is lifeblood.

I sit on the board of the Calgary Public Library. And one of the things that the library had been grappling with and working with in the past is how to meaningfully incorporate the concept of reconciliation and decolonization into the work of the library.

Libraries are an extremely Eurocentric structure. Anyone can walk in the doors of a library. Anyone can pick up what’s on the shelves. But the doors simply being open is not the same thing as there being no barriers.

In Calgary, First Nations people who were registered as living on the reserves, which are outside the city limits, were not allowed to have library memberships. Because they didn’t live in the city proper, they were registered and living outside the city. So you have people whose land this is historically, they could walk in the doors, but they couldn’t take out any of the books. And there was nowhere in the structure or physical nature of the buildings that they saw themselves. We had a whole floor dedicated to the history of Calgary that started when the settlers arrived. That was the history of Calgary as the library was selling it at that point.

So there was work to be done in terms of how we let in what was out there to be let in, that could expand our understanding of what a library’s purposes are. But we had to allow that to happen. Leadership has to say there’s value in doing this. We can’t name precisely what the value will be, but we believe there’s value in allowing the new in and allowing it to permeate the organization and seeing where that takes us.

Allowing the new can mean many different things. How to make sure not only a specific novelty is welcomed?

I’ll talk about the library again. We’ve been in the process for the last six years of working to diversify the membership of the board. And it’s a struggle because everybody knew everybody else. It’s not that we were completely homogenous at all six years ago, but certainly we all spoke a similar language.

I think even when we had ethnic diversity and gender diversity, that there was still a bit of a cultural sameness on the board. And we recognized that. And we were constantly trying to like, how do we break through that? How do we talk to and encourage people from the areas of Calgary that don’t see themselves as the kind of person who sits on the library board? How do we get them? How do we encourage them to join the library board?

It took us six years. And this year for the first time, we got some actual diversity of perspective in our applicant pool. I think that part of what happens, and this was certainly evident in the library’s reconciliation work over the last six or seven years as well, is that consistently making the effort, consistently reaching out and talking to people in the community, consistently demonstrating this is a value and that although you’re not doing it perfectly yet, you’re going to continue to it at the highest levels of leadership makes a difference over time.

What advice would you give to other boards wishing to do the same in maybe less than 6 years?

I don’t know if speed can be one of the measures of success. Because oftentimes what is necessary for an organization is to build trust with elements of the community that don’t trust them yet. There isn’t a shortcut to trust-building. However, I will say that the two things that helped were rethinking the job description and reaching out to communities.

We had to articulate what we consider the most important qualities in a candidate. I think that when you define the ideal candidate in narrow ways, when people do accomplish it from marginalized or underserved or equity seeking communities, they’re doing it against enormous odds often. It can be done but it’s not easy. Those people who do it are usually struggling to be seen and accepted and valued. So they’re in, but they’re not all the way in. It can require rethinking fundamental elements of what you consider to be a qualification.

We really had to talk through what we understood to be a successful interview. Because we had people in the interview process who brought very, very different cultural approaches to being interviewed. For example, the cultural notion that you unpack all of your strengths and all of your connections and you display them proudly and talk about them, namedrop your connections, all of that is a totally culturally specific approach that for many people in the world is an extremely uncomfortable and antithetical way to go about presenting yourself.

So we had to unpack our own cultural bias and blind spots during the interview process. We had choices that felt like they would be easy “yes”, because they were culturally familiar. It’s the more difficult “yesses”, the culturally unfamiliar choices that require a commitment.

The second piece is building community connections. The thing that finally broke it open for us was we found out about an organization that did exactly what we were looking for. They were building leaders in the newcomer sector. And yet we had to build their trust that the opportunity they offered us would not be squandered. That trust-building takes time and part of how it had happened was that at lower levels operationally in terms of building programmes, those relationships existed for several years, so they knew there was willingness and openness and commitment at that level. When they heard from us at the leadership level, they were willing to trust us.

Leadership is not the only thing that matters, people doing front line work can also be the trust-builders in the community, they do invaluable work in terms of trust-building. This is why that permeability is so important, because if those front line people are building the trust, leaders need to be able to listen to what the front line people are telling them and incorporate that as part of the wisdom of the organization on how to move forward.