Buy-in is the most difficult component of the work that I do. I find that this is because there are a lot of inconsistent interpretations and narratives around inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) work, leadership development, and communication skills - let's call it culture work for the sake of simplicity. Rightfully, many people are hostile towards training, conversations, and changes related to these topics. I was too for a long time. I was regularly exposed to polarized opinions across social media platforms, the news, in my workplaces, and in conversation with friends and family. This has happened because culture work has become so much more than what it was when it started – or what it was intended to be. There are so many loud and extreme voices tied to culture work and that creates a damaging image of this critical work.
The way I see it, we have teetered for a long time between the "why" and "how" of culture work. We never really get to the "who," "what," "when," or "where." I would assume that this is because we never really agree on "why" and definitely don't agree on "how" in most spaces. Now, I should be clear that my interpretations might be a bit different than many of my readers because I am a Canadian doing culture work in Canada and the United States. While there are a lot of differences between Canada and the United States because of laws, population, history, etc., it is not enough to differentiate the two countries (or the rest of the world) from the occurrences of inequity, inequality, and injustice happening on a regular basis. These occurrences are in everything that we do. It’s inherent to who we are as humans because we are made to categorize things to protect us and make life easier. When we learn that something is unsafe or are exposed to the idea that something is unsafe, we make a mental note (sometimes unconsciously) that it is unsafe. The same is done for things that are safe, things that are sad, things that are funny, etc. This is the same function we use to build stereotypes. It’s what we learn to be typical and our brains are trained to do this, so we use less time making decisions each and every time we are exposed to something.
Social Media, the Pandemic, and Polarization
I have recently returned to social media because it has become such a significant part of our culture and communication. I was off social media/posting due to the impacts on my mental health, the tear between my experiences/identities, and the challenges that the "this or that" narratives places on the individual. Growing up in the United States and Canada, and with the privilege of travelling, I have experienced a lot of different points of view. But that is not the case for everyone. Sometimes people only engage with people who think like them and see the world the way they do. This might make them think that their view is right and true. But if that is true, then how can all 8+ billion people in the world be right and know the truth… especially since we know that we don’t all think the same or have the same values and beliefs.
We were hit by the perfect storm in 2020, with an unprecedented global change that forced people out of their regular social circles and into new daily routines. Before the pandemic we participated in “water cooler” talk – discussing sports, the weather, or what you got up to on the weekend. Rarely was it focused on whether you are pro- or anti-vax, if support Israel or Palestine, if you eat at Chik Fil-A, or attend political rallies. As we moved away from shop talk or shooting shit with our colleagues, we started to move more into the digital world where we found people that were “like us.” We found communities of people online who thought like us, experienced the world like us, and had the same values and beliefs. This allowed our opinions and views to grow stronger and we became more passionate. It also made people more polarized because they found more and more people that told them “you’re right.”
These newfound communities created a surge of awareness of people who were experiencing inequity. Not only were people’s experiences being validated, they were also now aware of and seeing the experiences of others. These new insights created trauma bonds that otherwise would not exist, resulting in heightened advocacy and allyship. Now advocacy and allyship are nothing new, but the influx of advocacy during the pandemic brought light to a lot of injustices that people were fighting against for a long time. Much of this occurred because of the accountability and transparency that social media has. If you didn’t post a black square on Instagram or add a supportive frame on your social media profile, then you were not considered an ally – you were the enemy. This was the start of the “this or that” cultures and really pushed people into political camps. There seemed to be no option for a middle ground anymore and people were judged wholly by their views on individual (and very complex) issues.
These were issues that some people may have never really given thought to before. In many cases, people also didn’t have all of the information that would have allowed them to make informed decisions. They were receiving information from all angles – family, friends, social media, and the news. Some of the information was surface level, some of it was inaccurate, some was (severely) biased, and some of it was way too complex for the average reader. Despite this, people were demanded to state their position and intensely defend it. How’s that working out for us?
More often, highly influential people are making statements that influence the “this or that” and this causes people in their political camps to dig their heels in. Recently, Elon Musk posted on X saying, “DEI must DIE. The point was to end discrimination, not replace it with different discrimination.” This is 100% accurate for a lot of the culture work being done.
As a culture work researcher, educator, and facilitator, I am regularly met with hostility and anger because people have been told that they are the problem, how they think is problematic, and how they engage with other people must change – or else. Ben Shapiro hit the nail on the head by describing some training environments as intimidating and silencing. People are essentially being “cancelled” if they don’t get on board with “reverse -isms.” It’s a “my way or the highway” approach and there are a lot of people pushing it in culture work.
Hot tip – it’s not working, and it never will. Culture work is supposed to look at intersectional needs and how we can support people who are being discriminated against. It’s about ending injustice. But that is not what is happening. It is becoming White vs everyone, men vs everyone, straight vs everyone, etc. A recent event that made headlines was the Boston “electeds of color holiday party.” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu was called out for having a City Council event that only allowed people of color to attend. When this hit the press, her response wasn’t filled with shame and self-reflection… she dug her heels in and said “it was truly an honest mistake that went out in typing the email field” because it was only intended to go to the six minority council members. If it was a “Whites only” party it would be quickly condemned and deemed wrong. But in this case the mayor apologized only because people found out that she was hosting an exclusive event that didn’t include White members.
A council member said that the event was “not at all divisive” because “it is creating spaces for people and communities and identities with shared experiences to come together.”
I understand that and the value of those types of events sometimes, but that’s not a holiday party. As well, creating “___ only” events can lead to increased segregation. How does anyone doing culture work expect people to understand if they are not included? It seems as though these spaces are becoming a place for venting and festering on the issues rather than working to overcome them. At least that is how I feel when I am in “___ only” conversations. In other avenues of work, mediation is encouraged to ensure that all parties involved are a part of the conversation. If culture work is not welcoming the accused perpetrators into the conversation, the work is just as problematic as the issues it is working to combat.
It's All About Support
How can we expect people to change if we don’t have conversations with them about the changes or support them during the process? So often I hear, “it’s their responsibility” or “they have to step up and learn themselves.” Sure, there is some work that can be done at the individual level but there is also a lot of work that needs to be guided by experts. It’s as if people think that culture work is like trying a new recipe or 5-minute craft. It’s not. The work is unravelling centuries of history and injustices, yet people are making demands with no support and have a deadline of right now.
These demands make it nearly impossible for people to do what they are expected. It’s expectation without capacity. We are at A and the demands for change are XYZ. People are expected to be at the end of the process when we really haven’t given any support to understand where we are at right now. A lot of controversial culture work overlooks people in their current state. It doesn’t afford people the opportunity to understand the labels that are being affixed to them, it doesn’t recognize or appreciate current diversities, and doesn’t work with people through the change process.
The Psychology of Change
People who aren’t seen, heard, or valued, often disassociate, and pull away from learning. Well, that’s what some extreme culture work is doing. It’s telling people that their diversity doesn’t matter and that we need more. It’s telling people that their voice doesn’t matter and we need to hear others. It’s telling people that they don’t have value and that we need to center someone else. But while all that is happening, they have to still be invested in the work… the work that is now dehumanizing them.
Candace Owens is right. There are a lot of subtle ways that conservatives are bullied into being silenced and while some of the terms used might not be slurs, they do hold the same intention.
If we really want to have productive conversations…If we really want to understand the different points of view… If we really want to work towards change that ends discrimination… we have to listen to people and the effect on them. In the case of Riley Gaines, it was quite apparent that she was not being seen, heard, or valued. Someone else was. Many conversations about her situation and transgender athletes were telling women that they weren’t as important as other people. To top it off, Riley was named “2023 problematic woman of the year” for sharing her voice and trying to be heard and valued. Whether you agree or disagree with her point of view, you should be able to agree that this isn’t the best approach from people who disagree with her. It also doesn’t create interest for people to understand alternative points of view when they are being shamed for having their own thoughts, values, and beliefs. You don’t have to agree with people, but if you want to be heard then you have to listen.
The challenge is that a lot of culture work is political, and some politics only serve immediate interests and not the long-term growth of humanity. Hot button issues are in the news until something else more controversial comes up. It’s all about click baiting and getting views – it’s not about doing the work. People nitpick and fight the political correctness of each and every term rather than looking at a larger cultural shift. People are trying to do too much for where society is at and then they are getting infuriated with the lack of progress.
Much of the work that I have engaged in over the past year has been with educators and police. These are two sectors that have been direct targets of culture change demands, which have resulted in inconsistent injections of culture work. In conversations about bad culture, I often read blanket statements… “teachers discriminate against Black students,” or “police are racist.” It’s just like the stereotypes that equity seeking (minority or marginalized) people are trying to break free from.
A quick search on X with the hashtag #defundthepolice will show the polarized opinions of police.
The statements are so absolute yet advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement question why police “don’t get it” or “don’t change.”
Demands without support. Even those who do support culture work with police are claimed to be the problem (which I guess means me). I am a confident and committed supporter of police and am invested in police. Apparently, that means I am trying to keep Black people away (including myself?). Make it make sense… do we want to help people change or are we just trying to attack them?
Through working with police in Canada and the United States my perspective not only changed, but I also developed a significant commitment to supporting and defending police in conversations about culture change. When I first started working with police, I was not allowing them to be seen, heard, or valued. I came in with that “my way or the highway” attitude. It perpetuated the “this or that” camps and I often left training sessions feeling defeated. But I soon realized that I was doing exactly what I was telling them not to do.
That seemed to be the case in a lot of spaces. I was telling teachers to not act a certain way and then I was acting that way. It was very much a “do as I say, not as I do” training model. This is why DEI must DIE according to Elon Musk, because when it is done incorrectly it is doing exactly what it’s trying to eradicate. But I have since changed. I have learned that culture work is complex and requires support for all people to be done effectively and sustainably. It’s also a global issue and is not only between identities (White vs Black). Really, it even happens within identities (Black vs Black).
What’s the Point?
Depending on where you are reading this from, you might be thinking, “well that’s not what is happening here.” Let me tell you, you’re wrong. The world is incredible interconnected, and influences are everywhere. Digital borders are much more lax than physical borders and we often retain values, beliefs, and perspectives from people in regions much different than ours. When I was teaching K-12, I saw students choosing their camps from media around the world. Culture work isn’t just about racism, sexism or other -isms, it’s about how we see the world and how the world sees us. It’s not a small piece of our interactions, it’s about all of who we are. Culture work is human work.
By now you’re probably wondering… why is someone who does culture work for a living talking about how problematic it is? Well, because it is. Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) work is only part of the work that needs to be done. Really, in some cases it’s not even the first part of the work that needs to be done. Before we have conversations about complex concepts, we need to learn how to communicate. I spend a lot of time working with people to learn about communication skills and conversation techniques. We are never really taught how to talk to each other or how to listen, yet we are expected to… with superb skill and in discussions of very controversial issues. We also need to have spaces where we can communicate, which is fostered through leadership development. Leadership development isn’t just about c-suite level training, it’s about the value that leadership skills have for interpersonal interactions. It’s how we are guided when working with others and supporting change. Then we must look at ourselves and understand our identities. If we don’t have a solid understanding of who we are, why we think the way we do, how we see the world, or what we value, we cannot really appreciate, listen to, or contemplate that of someone else.
I pride myself on going into spaces and doing culture work differently. My approach is atypical. I have moved away from the “my way or the highway” approach and I encourage others to do the same. Listen to people, hear what they think, try to understand their perspectives, and show them that they are seen, heard, and valued. I am firm in my approach to allow people to have their opinions (even if it’s different than mine), to ask questions (even of my teachings), and to bring their whole selves into the conversation. If people can’t ask questions or question what they are being taught, then they are not learning. If I didn’t maintain this approach (an approach I strongly recommend to others), I would only be contributing to the harm of others and that really defeats the purpose of it all together.
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