When leaders commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they must start with deep self-reflection. It is not uncommon for someone to disavow racism or reject gender discrimination. It is less common to understand what it takes to follow through on a commitment to building a fully equitable and inclusive organization.
My origin story—the background that made me who I am—taught me that being a woman was something I needed to overcome; that if I worked hard enough, I might be able to move beyond the inherent flaws I was born with and navigate a system that was not designed for me. Growing up, I understood my best bet was to stand back, to observe, and to play by rules that were never quite articulated. I prided myself in knowing better than others how to navigate successfully. I knew where to subordinate, where to subject, where to fall in line, so that quietly – when nobody was watching – I could take small steps forward, subtle, undetected, with cover from others.
As I learned how to navigate it, I came to love the order of the system. I thought it served me well – my father told me it would serve me well – being equipped with tools that let me find my way “in a man’s world.” For a while, it might have: I got my seat at the table. My work to preserve the status quo had benefited me.
In 2017, when I started speaking up for gender equality, I labeled myself an accidental feminist. Until then, there was no point in my life where I thought my journey was leading me to advocate for greater equality in the workplace. While I passionately advocated for financial inclusion from the early days of my credit union career, I had not connected the dots of how diversity, equity, and inclusion in leadership was a prerequisite to delivering on our value proposition.
It was unintentional when I first discovered a thread of inequality. Much like that string on the bottom of a sweater, with the first tug, I had no idea how much I might expose. Pulling that thread is what led me to self-discovery, inadvertently baring more of myself than I would have consciously been comfortable with, facing down a background and behaviors that I am ashamed of today in order to move toward authentic inclusion. I was clearly a white moderate, saying I supported equity, but with a first priority, always, of supporting order.*
I have spent a lifetime looking disdainfully at disruptors and wondering how they think they will possibly get ahead if they do not play by “the rules.” I remember a heated note-passing with my best friend in 7th grade, warning that if she got the Doc Marten combat boots, teachers would not think she had good character and would not induct her into the National Honor Society and then what would that do to her chance of future success? (I was from a very small, conservative town, ok? And spoiler alert: She got the boots. Today, she is a university professor in nursing who has fought on the front lines of Covid. She’s doing just fine.)
Years later, I held my breath, eyes wide with disbelief, when Brent Dixon told me he was just going to show up in Washington D.C. and invite people from CUNA’s GAC to meet up with him at a nearby Irish bar and see how things went. Not so many years later, that move I was sure would lead to alienation won Brent and the rest of the Cooperative Trust a Herb Wegner award. Arguably, it has done more to spark a movement for the future of the credit union system than anything since the Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE) program.
Despite the evidence I have seen that suggests there is good that comes from stepping outside of the system, I hold a bias that says otherwise. For me, fitting in required that I respect and trust the order of things, that I follow the rules and not cause a disruption. This led to a first instinct to preserve order and shun those who threaten it. When I reflect on the values this instilled in me, I see what a disservice this has done to advocating for anyone who finds themselves on the outside. If I only support change that does not make anyone uncomfortable, how can I follow through on my commitment to building a fully inclusive credit union system?
Thankfully, when they are understood, biases can be managed. Today, I can allow myself to consider a reality that might exist outside of my first impressions. Personal awareness is where the journey to inclusion begins. If you are on the journey to become an inclusive leader, start with self-reflection, a curiosity about what is informing your first instincts, and a commitment to exploring what else might be true about what you observe. You might be surprised what you learn about yourself, and you might be inspired by what you can do with it.
*Many readers likely recognize the term white moderate from this Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that inspired my contemplation for this writing. I share it here for others’ reflection. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his strike toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”