3 DEI Lessons from my travels
I love to travel. As professionals, we often frame travel around self-care. As important as wellness is, I have always felt that the opportunity to see the world -- the different ways in which people live, and the ways in which they make sense of their environment – allows us to be expansive in our perspective, and bring new and fresh ideas to our lives and our work.
Recently, I got the chance to travel to the Middle East and East Africa. I started in Dubai, continued to Nairobi, Kenya, drove south across the border to Tanzania, and flew from the mainland to the islands of Zanzibar. It was an incredible experience! Lots of time for rest, relaxation and reflection. But as an inclusion professional, it’s difficult to turn your mind off completely when there are so many fascinating things to observe about diversity, equity and inclusion.
0.1 Culture is key. Zanzibar is an island region in Tanzania. It has a history, religious and “big-C” cultural make-up that is distinct from the mainland. Indigenous people have lived on these islands for 20,000 years, and in recent centuries, it has been a key trade route between Africa, the Middle East and South Asia; a major slave trade port; a British protectorate; and independent republic; and finally, a semi-autonomous region. It is not surprising that present-day Zanzibar would reflect this rich history.
In a time when those of us in the West, are considering the best strategies to embrace and leverage our differences, Zanzibar has evolved and interesting approach. Inclusion is deeply embedded in its culture. Children grow up learning that difference exists, but they are encouraged to celebrate differences together as one. This way, no one is seen as better or worse, greater or lesser. An example can be seen in religious observances. Although Zanzibari’s are primarily Muslim in faith, everyone takes part in Christmas festivities. Similarly, during Ramadan, everyone fasts and breaks fast together. Women of all faiths and denominations dress in gorgeous abayas and hijabs. While some do this for religious practice, others do so for fashion. In Zanzibar, inclusion is not simply about representation or acknowledging difference, it is about fostering a culture where you can celebrate your differences together and equally.
Now, I realize that I am speaking from the perspective of a tourist with only the briefest insight into the lives of Zanzibaris (that likely does not take into account the complexities of power and privilege) but there is something to be learned about how culture can contribute to, or break down, feelings of inclusion among people. Food for thought!
0.2 Simple ideas can lead to change. One of my most fascinating observations was with respect to the Dubai Metro’s light rail service. Each day, during rush hour, women and children carriages were implemented. These carriages were denoted by colourful signage on the platform and upon entry.
This is not a new idea, but it certainly is controversial. A number of countries worldwide are following this practice for various reasons, ranging from a sense of safety, to ensuring the comfort of women travellers. While critics feel this is a form of segregation and that it overlooks deeper social issues, supporters report seeing and experiencing the benefits of having a dedicated space. It is also acknowledged that the approach is imperfect. For instance, men who are visually-impaired have ventured onto the carriages, and although there is scant coverage in this area, one wonders about the experiences of trans women.
Although the context is complex, this simple idea has led to change on the Metro, judging from the ways in which men react to the practice. On several occasions, I have seen men inadvertently run into the carriage only to realize their mistake, exit back onto the platform, and re-enter through another door, thereby risking missing their train. Even with the threat of a small fine if caught, the rapid response of these men suggests awareness and internalization of this norm. This in turn, can foster a sense of personal accountability and a long-term behaviour change. Sometimes in order to promote a sense of inclusion, it can be the simple measures and provisions can spark change and hopefully meaningful transformation.
0.3 Equity = Exposure. As a Black African woman, I was struck by how often I was the only person of colour on this journey. Others noted this too. I would feel the gaze of inquiry from white vacationers; while the staff I encountered at the various tourist lodges and sites were both, warm in embracing me and open about how rarely one sees someone who looks like them travelling through. In those moments, I recognized my privilege.
It is not everyone who has the financial flexibility, time, and ability to embark on such a trip. Those facing social and systemic barriers -- particularly young people, people living on low incomes, people of colour, and people with disabilities – would find these obstacles to be insurmountable. As I reflect on and share my learnings, I realize that the exposure I received leads me to different ways of thinking about issues and solutions. To learn in this way is indeed a privilege.
This brings me to re-examine my thoughts about equity. Typically in our workplaces, we see equity in terms of the policies and practices that bring people into an organization. I would like to present equity as a lens for how we develop and retain our people, and expose them to ideas and potential outside of their everyday realm. Consider the measures you are taking to expose Generation Z staff to opportunities to learn about and craft their own brands of leadership. How are people of colour encouraged to think about their career trajectories, and championed in their work? In this sense, equity means decentering the norm and exposing new and different ways of doing.
This is only the beginning of the conversation, but I would love to hear your ideas! What transformational thoughts have you had in your travels? How did they impact your ideas about diversity, equity and inclusion? As a tourist, is it possible to see the big picture? What does this imply about the inclusion stories we tell ourselves and share with others?
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