Overlooked Aspects of Inclusion in Ecosystem Building, Part 2

This article is the second in a three-part series covering sometimes overlooked aspects of inclusion in entrepreneurial ecosystem building. Conversations about inclusion in ecosystem building can be difficult because they bring up issues that may become contentious and polarizing. Part one of the series considers age inclusion.

Talking about Diversity and Inclusion: How to Have Difficult Conversations, with Meg Bolger

Facilitation is foundational to CO.STARTERS programs, which aim to help starters thrive as people and in their businesses. 

“To experience this kind of personal and professional growth, excellent educational content, access to information, and innovative ideas are not enough,” according to CO.STARTERS founder and CEO Enoch Elwell. “A facilitated experience that provides an environment of trust, openness, and collaboration opens up a world of possibilities and creates strong peer support networks that accelerate connection, collaboration, and a culture of contribution that is truly transformative.”

Each cohort of people going through the CO.STARTERS program has a facilitator (or two) who works hard at making this happen—not just helping starters learn business principles, but helping them form meaningful connections that will shape how they create and sustain their relationships, their businesses, and their engagement in their communities.

“This focus on the importance of facilitation is what originally led us to Meg Bolger’s work,” said Elwell. “Meg has great ideas and practices around making facilitation effective and successful. We sent her book, Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation, to every CO.STARTERS facilitator a few years back.” Meg is also the cofounder of The Safe Zone Project, which focuses on free tools to learn and teach about LGBTQ+ inclusion. 

“Inclusion is a big topic for ecosystem builders as we try to be sure our efforts reach and invite all kinds of entrepreneurs, and yet the constant fear is that conversations about how to accomplish that could become difficult or contentious,” said Enoch. Recently he talked with Meg Bolger about how the art of facilitation can offer insights into how to more confidently approach these conversations around inclusion, making them more effective and productive. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Meg Bolger with Safe Zone Project

• • •

Meg: I’ve been doing social justice education in workshops and training settings for ten years, and this is what I think about all day. How do we create a more beautiful world? How do we create a world where unnecessary suffering isn’t happening? How do we create a world where we all get to be more human and more connected. This conversation is starting to expand into every little crevice of our world, which I’m really excited about. And it means a lot of us are having new conversations for the first time, or stepping into new places to have those conversations. And that can be really intimidating and scary. And I think a lot of us feel like we are in a deeper pool and only learning just how to swim.

• • •

Enoch: What kind of problems or issues have you been seeing in inclusion or diversity conversations.

Meg: In the last few years as more and more people have been having these conversations about diversity, I think there’s a baseline assumption that everybody’s personally excited about this, and I do think a lot of people are excited, but I also think it is socially frowned upon in some circles to not be onboard. I don’t think there’s a lot of space for people to earnestly ask, “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are we having this conversation now?” without that person being labeled a troll, a bigot, or a problem. Some of us aren’t able to articulate why these conversations are important to us other than to say, “Of course. Of course we should care about this.”

• • •

Enoch: You mentioned earlier that specificity is often missing from these conversations. What is the value of being more specific?

Meg: We are not good at articulating the problem we are trying to address. We don’t name what the current state is or what we want the future state to be with any specificity. We say things like we want more diversity, inclusion, equity, but a lot of people saying these things, when it comes to defining what they mean by those terms, they can’t.

• • •

Enoch: Why should people define diversity better? How does that help?

Meg: I think it allows us to have a more honest conversation. Like, if someone says, “I think my company needs more diversity,” someone might come back and say, “We have lots of diversity here, parents/non-parents, straight/gay, people from all over the U.S., different religions” and they’d be right. But perhaps what the first person is actually saying is, “I think that it is troubling that our organization is 95 percent white, when the population we serve is 60 percent people of color.” When you get specific, then we can have a specific conversation, and we can come up with strategies that are much more productive.

• • •

Enoch: So, once you move from generalities to some tangible issues or concerns or opportunities, you’re able to get some traction because it gives the conversation a focus?

Meg: Yeah. I think you get to more specific strategies by being more specific about the thing you’re trying to address. We get to the point much faster. 

Another thing that I have found really helpful, is to move away from jargon. Not only does it lend more clarity to the conversation but it stops us from just repeating familiar party-line talking points. When we have to use different words to say what we mean, we can sometimes step outside the talking points and really start talking to each other. 

• • •

Enoch:  How does the extreme polarization of groups affect diversity conversations?

Meg: Well, I think it’s a challenge that all of us are facing, being able to look at someone and assume you know their story. I think, unfortunately, we are all getting increasingly good at that. We think, “If you voted for Trump, then I know all these things about you.” Or “If you are part of the queer community, then you probably… fill in the blank.”

• • •

Enoch: In your work, you reference “common enemy intimacy.” Can you explain how that relates?

Meg: One of the people who has transformed the way I relate to other humans is Brené Brown. She’s a shame and vulnerability researcher. Connection and belonging is a basic human need. And we shortcut to that through something she calls “common enemy intimacy.” Basically, you and I hate the same people, so we’re solid. But if one of us starts feeling empathy with someone in the group we both hate, then our connection starts depleting.

• • •

Enoch: So how do we move conversations past polarization and toward empathy? What have you discovered through your work—great models, tools, first steps—to help someone dive into a conversation that may feel difficult or scary?

Meg: Moving past polarization and towards empathy is something that I think about a lot. And there are a few things that come to mind. Empathy is about perspective taking and the willingness to feel with another person. Brene Brown is my go to on this one as well, I’d recommend checking out her video on Empathy. 

When it comes to moving past polarization, I think we have to both want and retrain ourselves to see each other as people. One of the most powerful questions I have been given towards this goal is, “What is it like to be you?” I find that question helps transform my feeling of “I would never do/believe/think/say such a thing,” into “what happened to you to make you do/believe/say/think such a thing?” There is a powerful short video series from Charles Eisenstein that gave me this question..

And I think sometimes we are waiting to feel confident and comfortable going into this hard conversation. Well, you might be waiting a long time. I’m still waiting to feel comfortable in these conversations. They are by nature uncomfortable. 

Maybe your goal is to not offend anybody, so you’re waiting until you feel like you know how to avoid that. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to that place, so we end up avoiding the conversation altogether. 

Not feeling confident or comfortable is actually part of the work. It is part of the nature of having these conversations. And a willingness to do that is actually going to be a necessary skill to get us out of this mess. 

It took hundreds of years to get us to this level of inequality, and we’re not going to undo it with a single conversation, or even a couple years of conversation—I think that’s something we all need to consider. In our current world, we get a lot of instant gratification, and these conversations aren’t that kind of thing. It’s not something that’s instantly gratifying, but I think it is humanizing, and I think it does have the potential to start impacting us in real time.

An image that I’ve been working with for undoing these deeply dehumanizing systems is that it’s a process of thawing out. If your hand gets frostbitten enough, it will go completely numb. It won’t hurt, but you also won’t have any functioning in your hand. When it starts thawing out, it’ll be incredibly painful, but at the end, you get your hand back and you get to be a more fully functioning person. That is a little bit of how I see this process we are in, a process, I hope, of thawing out. That’s not to say it will be entirely painful. I think there will actually be a lot of really beautiful and expansive ways that we will feel—more able to connect with people, more able to connect with ourselves, our own emotions, our own dignity and humanity. At the end, we’ll get our humanity back. It’s not gonna be a necessarily fun process, but it is a very productive and necessary and good one.

• • •

Enoch: How might we reframe thinking “Since it’s such a long, drawn-out conversation, there’s nothing I can do that’s helpful?” Or maybe thinking, “I’m not the right person to have this conversation, because I’m a young white guy here who just needs to stand back and listen.” Is there a first step forward that is actually valuable and productive?

Meg: Charles Eisenstein who I mentioned above has another nugget of wisdom to offer here. He recently did a video on the destruction that is happening in the Amazon rainforest right now. And he said something to the effect of any act of healing contributes to a larger movement of healing the planet right now. I think that any step towards increasing empathy, dignity, connection, relationship is reparative things, and  perhaps even more reparative when intentionally done.  

Another thing to do is to investigate your worldview, I would highly recommend investigating or being curious about the things that are so normal to you that you don’t even know they are part of your belief system, especially if they’re things that bother you. Those are maybe the easier ones to identify. Some of us grow up knowing that we have a worldview, a particular way of seeing the world. I definitely didn’t know I had a worldview. I just thought I was normal, and everything I believed was normal to believe. That’s something that I think is highly unhelpful. 

One of the best ways I’ve done that is to read books about people who grow up being socialized in different ways within the U.S.—people of color, people with disabilities, queer kids, trans kids—a really different identity that shapes who they are and what they’re being told. One book like that is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. That book, to me, describes a particular type of experience that rattles my worldview. Or books by Native American people who grow up with a fundamentally different worldview than I have. I think that’s a really useful thing to be able to understand that what you believe is your perspective, not a fundamental thought that everybody shares. 

Also read people who do share your identity but who have spent time unpacking things that you haven’t unpacked. Tim Wise is a white, anti-racist advocate, and he wrote a book, White Like Me, which basically unpacks things that I have realized are white experiences and white assumptions that I never realized that everybody didn’t share. Books like these are great because you don’t have to do all that work. You don’t have to go through every single one of those ideas and experiences and unpack all of them. You can just grab a bunch of their learning and really expedite your understanding.

• • •

Enoch: In recruiting for diversity in programs, what creative approaches have you seen in the process of moving from awareness to engagement and, eventually, trust?

Meg: I often advise people to look at the current decisions that they are making, and know that they have specific impacts and outcomes. Any action that you take has a specific consequence, even if it seems neutral to you.

For example, I was working with a camp. And they were recognizing that they wanted to have more low-income families and more families of color represented at their camp. They provide their camp completely free, but a lot of people who need financial aid the most weren’t accessing the program. They do their application for camp on a first come, first served basis. First come, first served feels like it’s unbiased. But the problem is not everybody does have the same opportunity, because some people have internet and computers at home. Some people had done the application before, so they knew all the paperwork they needed to have. Some people can read English and were able to navigate the website easier. So first come, first served unintentionally prioritized some people, and it created unintentional barriers for the people who couldn’t.

We have to be humble and ask questions that we are not asking right now, like asking those populations that are not being reached, “How can we make our systems better, because we don’t want to create any unintentional barriers? For us to reach your community, how can we do that?” I think one of the reasons we’re not asking is because a lot of us believe that saying anyone can come is an equal invitation to everyone, but it can unintentionally overlook barriers. 

Unfortunately, because of the current circumstances of the world, in order to get the results we want, we actually have to be a lot more intentional and even biased in our decisions. The world is already setting some people up for ease of access and success, and  if we want to get a different result, there are things we have to do on purpose. 

• • •

Enoch: Any closing thoughts you want to share, Meg, as we wrap this conversation up?

Meg: Something that I think happens for all of us is exasperated questions. Like “Why do people believe that? Why are people supporting that? Why are X people not coming to our organization when we’re so inclusive?” Questions that we ask in exasperation and in frustration, I think, can be really powerful when we start asking them with real, genuine curiosity and actually look for some understanding with each other. Not trying to fix things, but just trying to learn more. I think when we start increasing understanding, we start increasing connection in really unexpected ways. And we stop fighting, even with the people that we most fundamentally disagree with. I find that I am surprised how many people I ultimately agree with when I’m willing to listen a little further.

• • •

Learn more about Meg’s work and find resources on facilitation, social justice, and inclusion at MegBolger.com