Photo by Michael Blenderman.
This April, Reverend angel Kyodo williams spoke at Naropa’s Authentic Leadership Center as part of their Mindfulness in the Workplace Series. williams has been called “the most vocal and intriguing African-American Buddhist in America.” Following are some excerpts of her talk and conversation with the audience.
Reverend angel Kyodo williams spoke at Naropa’s Authentic Leadership Center as part of their Mindful Workplace Series.
The quest for leadership is very much the quest for “What is it I am unaware of? And how can I become a fuller individual?”
For me, that’s what our topic this evening is about— about how it is that we create inclusivity in the workplace. But I think before we get to how we create inclusivity, it’s important to think a little bit about why. I am not an expert in any way on diversity in the workplace, but I picked up a few little statistics just to ground the conversation. Generally, science believes that it is in fact better to have diversity, to have a variety of opinions and perspectives and worldviews, not just because it’s good, but because it actually improves performance. It improves innovation. It even improves financial performance, which isn’t usually the marker that I look at but I know that people in business do consider that important.…
At a performance level, we can see that diversity is important. The reason that inclusivity and diversity are challenging is two sides of the same coin. It’s harder and so people work harder when they expect there is going to be a different perspective. Automatically, if I get in a group and I am like, “Oh, there is a South Asian woman in this group,” I have to begin to think differently than if I am with a group of sister girls. Right? So I get a bunch of sister girls and I’m like, “Oh, you know, we all know we are talking the same language and code switch around the language that I am using.” I have to actually think differently if there is an Asian man in the group.… I actually have to work harder, and working harder is both what creates space for innovation and a much broader perspective in terms of how we are thinking, but it is also the thing that makes people resist. Because we just don’t want to work hard—we’re lazy.
… What is it that happens for people and can happen for people that would make this hard work worthy?
… When people expect difference, they actually turn on and tune in better. The other thing that they expect is that they can bring their own difference. Right? So the aspects of themselves that would usually fall in line with the expectations of the dominant group are allowed to come forth.
As authentic leaders, the presence of diversity, the choice to be inclusive, is not just about getting those different people and making sure that they’re included because we’re such good people. It’s about being more authentic ourselves. It is about giving ourselves permission through the presence of others … It’s like we lose parts of ourselves when we get into sameness. And that’s by design, I think. We have hundreds of years of history in this country that set up what I like to call a politics of disbelonging. And that politics of disbelonging says, through a variety of mechanisms that go back to pre-slavery, that if you want to belong you have to make sure to exclude these others. If you want to belong to the owning class, to the privileged class, to the class that has the opportunity for more access, you have to join us in making sure that others do not belong.
As leaders, our role is to begin to assume a position which other people can model and emulate ... in order to find ourselves in authentic ways so that we know what it is we are passing on. We have to probe these areas in which we’ve been veiled. The truth of exclusion in our communities, in our societies, in our workplaces, has been hidden from us. The reasons for it have been hidden from us. So we have more than just financial gain and performance. We have more than just innovation. We, at the very core of it, have our own humanity to contend with, to grapple with wanting to draw back for ourselves, to reclaim for ourselves.
… I want to encourage each of you to just take a moment and turn your inner eye to that aspect of yourself that you know is being left behind, pushed down, set aside, feeling underattended to. Unseen, unheard. Whatever it may be. And just allow your mind to wander for a while. And to wonder, How much more authentic could I be if I would allow that aspect of me to be fully present and integrated in who I am? How much more authentic could I be if I created just a little bit more space to include that part of me?
And what might it open up for me if I allowed myself to tolerate the discomfort of difference? To actually see people—to really look at them. To really take them in when they are different. Rather than that way that we avert our eyes, avert our attention. Contract within ourselves. Pull back.
What would it be like?
Could it impact the way in which I accept members of my family? Would it create more space around the way in which I hold my loved ones? Would I be able to see more about them if I allowed myself to see more in other people? If I could include myself unapologetically and in concert with others creating the space in which I am accepted wholeheartedly with all my flaws? My bent places?
Could some of those places that are challenging have more of an opportunity to be processed? To grow? Could I learn more? Could I get more information about how to help, how to work with myself? If I could just include it, and by creating that space of inclusivity, little by little in my own being first. And extending that into my workplace. In which my workplace becomes a place of thriving, of acceptance, of love, of openness, of compassion, of genuine care.
Would that not be a worthy contribution?
I think it would.
williams opened up the conversation and invited questions, sparking a lively discussion on restorative justice and about her practice of only working with organizations that have a mindfulness component. One audience member, Andrew, asked about the usefulness of exclusive or monocultural spaces.
Sometimes the argument for, the admonition for, inclusivity gets twisted and people think, “Oh, well, we can’t have all white space, that is bad because then we are not being inclusive.” People actually use it almost as a weapon against having white peer groups. And let me just say for my little corner of the world—white folks, you need to do your own work by yourself. Without folks of color there. Because there is a way in which you can develop your sense of safety. Right? To probe and to navigate things that you have been utterly blind to. It can be devastating, honestly, to come into the realization that things have been happening all along, have just gone over your head, passed you by.
People of color have figured out that they can create enough community amongst themselves and with themselves to not be bothered. And to not go and work at institutions where they have to deal with that. And to not show up in spaces anymore. And so you’re seeing simultaneously, it’s very interesting, as white America is entering into a space where it’s like, “Oh, I think I want to do something about this,” a lot of folks of color are going, “Yes, I don’t care. Come back when you have figured that out.” So it’s real important to understand that. That we are in different spaces in terms of how we have been confronted with the racialization of America all our lives.
Reverend angel Kyodo williams is an author, activist, yogi, and master trainer. A Sensei, or teacher in the Zen tradition, she founded the Center for Transformative Change and has been bridging the worlds of personal mastery, leadership, environmental and social justice for more than fifteen years. Her newest book collaboration, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, expands on these topics and more.