To Promote Diversity and Inclusion, Know Yourself First

Mensa April 10, 2020 By: Trevor S. Mitchell, CAE

Self-awareness is the first step toward understanding what perspectives you lack, appreciating other experiences and viewpoints, and building more diverse and inclusive organizations.

As I strive to educate myself to better understand and promote diversity and inclusion (D+I) in my organization, a specific theme resonates with me: Our motivation and the effort we put forth will determine how successful we are in advancing the goals of our D+I initiatives.

The people leading these efforts must bring personal passion and drive to the work. These leaders focus on making a positive change that has a lasting impact on all, rather than just a few. They demonstrate a strong self-awareness—not only of what they bring to the conversation, but also of what they don’t bring. They speak up when a perspective is missing and seek it out from others. Leading at this level is no easy task.

For me, the best first step—and where I encourage everyone to begin—is to look within. How do you see yourself? Who do you say you are?

It’s easy to identify with demographics like race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and age. For example, I would describe myself as a white, non-Hispanic, cisgender, 40-year-old gay man. We are often asked to describe ourselves this way, and answering such questions has become almost as natural as stating our name. But we need to go deeper to gain a better understanding of our own perspective before we can appreciate and include others.

An additional dimension, for example, is economic status. I would best describe the family I grew up in as lower-middle class. My mother was a home childcare provider and my father a mechanic. The rural farm town in southeast Missouri where we lived had a population of 150, with a high school graduating class of 22. I am the older of two kids and the first in my family to graduate from college.

These are just a few elements from my life that provide a context of the various experiences and perspectives I bring to discussions and my work. Recognizing this, I can identify what I don’t bring, which gives me direction in engaging others to advance my knowledge and understanding of D+I.

Understanding our privilege and biases is essential to our D+I journey. When we understand them, we can make changes in our thinking and behavior.

Through self-reflection, I begin to understand my privilege and my biases and how these differ from others. I know, for example, that the pigment of my skin means I will have different experiences than someone with different pigmentation. Even if we have other characteristics in common, such as educational background or sexual orientation, this doesn’t mean that we have had a similar experience. Understanding our privilege and biases is essential to our D+I journey. When we understand them, we can make changes in our thinking and behavior that will shape our interactions with others. In other words, we put knowledge into action.

We can apply this knowledge in conversations to ensure all perspectives are represented. We can become advocates and allies for those not represented, and we have an opportunity to change the outcome. We can encourage others to find their own voice and give them an opportunity to speak, rather than speak for them.

I cannot expect others to take up this effort on my behalf. I have to be willing to put in the work myself.

As association leaders, we must remember the D+I journey is full of hills and valleys, twists and turns. We’re going to make mistakes and experience both success and failure as we strive to build more diverse and inclusive organizations. But keep in mind the destination: a place and time where we can respect each other’s differences to make the world better for everyone.

Getting to that diverse and inclusive future starts with me—and you. 

Trevor S. Mitchell, CAE

Trevor S. Mitchell, MBA, CAE, is executive director/CEO of American Mensa and the Mensa Foundation.