season 1 Dec 25, 2023

We are driven by our values, beliefs and goals. In life we are often motivated by or guided by our goals – where we want to be and when do we want to get there. The same can be said for our "why" and how we ground everything that we do.

For me, I think my why was created throughout my entire life. There were a lot of situations in my life that built the person I am today and built my interest in helping others. I often tell people that I want to make the world better for people like me. What I mean by that is people who didn't have the support they needed in education, the workplace, or society.... people who weren't seen as valued or valuable. While that wasn't the case in every situation for me, as I did receive a lot of love and appreciation in my life, the dehumanizing experiences were a primary pillar of what shaped my experience.

After numerous experiences of dehumanization ...

I started to disassociate and keep myself physically and mentally out of these spaces. Time and time again I was being left out, told I didn't belong, not represented, etc. That led to the internalization of dehumanization and a plethora of additional symptoms.

Let's pause for a second and talk about dehumanization.

Humans like to categorize things, it's in our nature. We use it to understand relationships between things, make predictions, and for decision making. Sometimes we categorize things (or people) without even knowing it and that can affect the way we think about them, interact with them, or treat them. People we relate to are our in-group they get it. People we are different from or don't relate to are our out-group  they just don't get it.

When we don't acknowledge our in- and out-groups, we can unintentionally harm people. We are more likely to associate positive qualities with our in-group, we believe them more often, we trust them, and think that they are more intelligent, skilled and special. For our out-groups, that means we are more likely to associate negative qualities, feel they are a threat, not trust them, or believe they are less intelligent, less skilled, and not so special. This can lead to a lack of physical or psychological safety for our out-groups, which can lead to dehumanization.

After this happens over and over, it becomes internalized. The attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of others become a part of someone's identity or sense of self.

Okay, back to our why...

My experiences started to change because I started to understand what was happening to me and what had happened to me... I started to become able to alleviate it. I understood the circumstances for these environments to be created and could actively contribute to the change of them. I could also change the situation for others by creating opportunities for them to be a part of my in-group and to develop in-groups with each other.

First, I started to change my classroom. As a grade 9-12 teacher I revised my lessons, assignments, and the way I approached teaching. I wanted to show my students that they mattered. Two students come to mind as I write this.

The first was in a grade 10 Civics and Careers class. He said, "Mrs., why can't we learn things we will actually use in our lives." I remember this piercing my veil of qualifications because he was so right. The Civics course "explores rights and responsibilities associated with being an active citizen in a democratic society" and the Careers component "gives students the opportunity to develop the skills, knowledge, and habits that will support them in their education and career/life planning." But it is quite surface level and outdated compared to student needs in today's post-pandemic world. I was teaching what I was told to teach, not teaching to the humans in front of me.

The second was in a grade 12 English class. A student was absent for the first time all year. Upon her return the next day I said, "we missed you yesterday." The student replied with apparent emotion, "no one has ever said that to me before." I noticed a change in her attitude towards the class and towards learning after this day.

These two situations reminded me that I wasn't just teaching content, I was teaching values. I was teaching students to think whether they were valued, that their lives were important, and that they mattered. These, and many other interactions, shaped the way I saw the purpose of education.

After changing my own classroom practices...

I thought it would be a logical next step to share my insights with other teachers, so they could change their classroom practices. This led to me engaging in professional development (PD) within my own school and then at the pre-service level (teaching teacher candidates). 

But I knew that my lived experience and understanding would only go so far, so I registered for the Master of Education program where I double specialized in Indigenous Education  and Social Justice Education. After, I registered for the Joint PhD program to support my work in spaces outside of education.

Outside of education I now examine and support workplace culture, leadership (because leaders are like teachers), communication, and mental health and wellbeing. I look at recruitment and retention practices, culture development practices, policies to support inclusion and accessibility, employee engagement, professional development, and more. All of these have stemmed from the interest in understanding how organizations and leaders can better support all stakeholders for innovative and sustainable growth.

So what's my why? To make spaces better for people like me.

But my why is only a piece of what we do at Diverse Solutions. My why is what led to the creation of this network of professionals and their why's are what keep us going. Last week I asked a few of my colleagues what their "why" is and their responses reflect the reasons that many people do this work... because we experienced inequity or witnessed inequity that we don't want to stand by and allow happen.

Anthony Jeethan: "Organizations aren't typically built for people who look like me to thrive. I do this work to help ensure everyone can be successful at work. Effective leadership not only provides guidance but also ensures that diverse perspectives are valued and heard, while cultivating an inclusive culture nurtures a sense of belonging, empowering individuals to contribute their unique strengths. This approach not only drives organizational success but also embodies a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, creating spaces where everyone feels respected and empowered to be their best."

April King: "My entire life I have witnessed the impact that "othering" has on those who have had their voices silenced. As a PhD Candidate my research works to amplify those voices, as I focus on sharing the educational experiences of incarcerated men and developing an understanding of the gaps in educational supports surrounding our in-risk male teens."

Nick Goy: "I engage in leadership and culture work because I want people to be able to perform at their best and be the best version of themselves in the workplace. If I create a culture of safety, collaboration, and autonomy, then the foundations are there for people to thrive. In the workplace, leadership and culture development allow for awareness of the individual and how important it is for them to be able to bring their whole selves to work."

Saleha Khan: "One afternoon in June of 1993, a scene playing on CNN shook me to the core of my being. In witnessing what I later realized was footage of mothers and babies being killed systematically by very young, machete wielding boys in Rwanda, my whole self ran through a gamut of emotions – from anger and rage at the mothers... absolute shock at the lack of mercy.... to this immense sense of abject futility. What could I ever do to stop what I was seeing? Throughout my life and now, I immerse myself in work that supports equity and human rights for all and supports creating inclusion and belonging for folx in the places where their identities get questions for taking some space. I want to do that "something" which will in some way shape or form stop people from harming others and strengthen the folx who, for reasons out of their control, are being marginalized and minoritized for being who they are."

What I've learned is that our why is a mirror of us. We are working to alleviate issues, bad experiences, inequities, and other impacting circumstances that affected our lives and our journey. It is what we turn to when we feel pressures, when we are overcoming barriers, and when we are pushing that last little bit to get to a finish line. When we engage with clients it is so important to find out their why or help them to uncover it because your why is the fuel that keeps you going, that creates bigger impacts, that fosters innovation, and that makes the work you do sustainable.

What's your why?

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Janelle Abela

Janelle is the Founder and CEO of Diverse Solutions Strategy Firm. She is a former K-12 educator and found value in nurturing identity for student success. She has since expanded her approaches by working with various industry sectors. She believes it is imperative that a realistic means of change is created outside of the progressive education system and that guides the work that she do. Janelle hold a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Education, and Master of Education degrees, while currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Windsor. She is currently researching barriers to application of professional development content.