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Laura Smith: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

To create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society, we’ll need to work together, not just for the issues of today, but for the norms of tomorrow — inclusive norms created through actions and advocacy across years. Beyond singular donations or hashtag declarations, we need individuals and organizations willing to stand for more than just the […]

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To create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society, we’ll need to work together, not just for the issues of today, but for the norms of tomorrow — inclusive norms created through actions and advocacy across years. Beyond singular donations or hashtag declarations, we need individuals and organizations willing to stand for more than just the moment. We need them to stand firm for the future, as well.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Laura Smith.

Laura Smith is an organizational researcher and communications consultant based in Helsinki, Finland. She uses research and strategic message design to shape inclusive companies and advocate for a more inclusive world.

Her background as a Detroiter, an educator, and entrepreneur guides her pragmatic approach to changing minds and behavior.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

My grandmother had 19 grandchildren, and most of us would spend the summers in and outside her two-bedroom bungalow — melding to the plastic of permanently covered couches, vying for the power that was a gray remote to access undiscovered worlds via a magical portal called Cable TV.

For those not big enough to rule the living room, there was the kitchen, in all its linoleum & wood-veneered glory. With two barstools that would functionally accommodate four, some of us would squeeze into this beige and brown oasis which held such luxuries as Creamsicles and name-brand cereals that none of us had at home.

Upstairs, in my uncle’s attic hideaway, there were other luxuries — instruments of all kinds. My grandparents were musicians and music teachers, even after my grandfather took a “real job” working for Ford. But, if you listened long enough — if you stayed up late enough — you’d hear the piano come to life and the saxophone wailing, or a clarinet crying or a flute whispering some story of what-ifs and could-have-beens from way back when.

And me? I wasn’t found in the living room or in the kitchen. I wasn’t hiding in the attic or banished to the back yard with the crab apples and angry bees. I was tucked away in my grandmother’s bedroom, watching Sesame Street or reading books about places that my cousins may never have even heard of. And out of those 19 cousins, my grandmother chose me, helped pay for me to go to private schools out in the suburbs, to be the Black child in White schools in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in America.

I grew up in Detroit in the ’80s and ’90s. I grew up “special” and odd and othered, privileged, although always extra-monetarily. But I grew up — a reality not all my cousins shared and a fact I don’t take for granted.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When I was a lost person who had somehow found her way to Brazil, I was given a book — or more specifically, a poem from a book — that touched me: “I Give you Back” in “She had some Horses,” a collection by the poet laureate and Native author Joy Harjo.

The poem deals with the self-liberation of a woman from a lifetime and a legacy of fear. And while reading it, it became apparent how much fear I had lived with and inherited myself.

Growing up Black in America, I believe one does inherit a certain set of emotions — generations of hope, generations of hurt, fear and longing, love and loss all encoded in epigenetic experiences and emotional legacies. And part of life is unpacking the chest of feelings and perspectives passed down to us, seeing what fits for the context and reality of today, as well as what’s needed to survive and thrive in tomorrow.

There’s been a lot of fear I’ve had to unpack, to realize no longer fits me where I am. There’s a lot of fear, however, I still wear.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Before I disappeared and reinvented myself, I was a struggling doctoral student at Stanford University. The work and pace were rigorous, but the hurdle I couldn’t clear was my own psyche. I had arrived where I was pushed to be, but I had arrived in such a broken state, in daily life, it was hard to function.

For most of my life, I’d had the expectation of perfection — the idea that when you work, you do a good job — always. My father, the minister, would say, you “work as unto God.” I now know that God-like levels of productivity are unsustainable for mortals like myself, but it was a crisis realizing that I was not omnipotent, that I lacked the strength to carry my past and to forge a future out of sheer applied will.

Dealing with the past and present of myself, I lacked the bandwidth to perform well — to read every article, complete every assignment, to attend every symposium or seminar my peers could. And I found myself fading away — slipping away from contexts I didn’t feel I belonged in, classes where I wasn’t fully caught up, meetings I wasn’t fully prepared for. And my advisor reached out to me — Prof. Rickford, a person whom I deeply respect — and he gave me the best advice which I, regrettably, did not take at the time — to “just show up.”

If you’re late. If you’re unprepared. If you’re imperfect. If you’re human. Just show up. You never know exactly how much is needed until you’re in the space you’re avoiding — it may be (and quite often is) that what you have and who you are will be exactly enough.

So, show up, try, do. Give yourself the option of succeeding — and if you fail, give yourself the option of growing to be better. Imperfection is progress.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the skill and practice of allowing others to be the best of themselves, individually and collectively. It guides others to reach common goals through inspiring or enabling individual achievement.

To clarify, I don’t believe leaders are necessarily the people you see. They don’t have to be the people at the podium, the folks in the pulpit, the visible faces leading the vanguard in the charge for change. I think they’re more likely to be quiet, influential forces that change minds, the soothing voices that alleviate fears, and the people asking questions that spark answers to redirect actions.

Framed in that way, leaders in my life have been teachers — like Dr. Rickford, who told me I had a right to get better. My leaders have been family — like my grandparents, who inspired me, or the many aunties and uncles who’ve always been in my corner. They’ve been people I don’t know, like so many writers, musicians, and content creators who’ve improved me with their output. In my life, leaders have been therapists, social workers, lovers, exes, strangers, friends. They’ve all made differences in my life and have led me to the position and person I am today. That’s collective leadership, applied.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

In a nutshell: perspective, practice, and push-ups.

Perspective: I had a daughter two years ago, and as I’ve cared for this tiny person, I’ve realized that the stress and struggle of work… don’t mean nearly as much and will never give me anything remotely as significant as the human life I’ve held in my hands. She brought perspective, an awareness that my life and value are not determined by my paycheck, the success of a project, or the adoration of peers. Those are beneficial, all of them, but a more therapeutic perspective has been realizing that work is only work. It’s not life, it’s not meaning, and it should never occupy my mind or emotions as if it were.

Practice: I acknowledge not everyone can or will produce a small human, so, more universal advice would be to practice one’s craft — rehearse, grow, become comfortable with your output and satisfied with your progress — no matter what it gets you or how much further you have to go. In moments of stress, remember what you’ve built in yourself and in your work; be confident in who you are and what you know.

Push-ups: Even more tangibly, do calisthenics — jumping jacks and push-ups, if you can. Burn off the nerves and a few calories while you’re at it.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

If you remember back in elementary school, they taught us how boiling points are reached when too much heat and pressure are applied over time — when there’s an excess of energy, and suddenly there are millions of molecules pushing upwards, escaping outwards, forcing themselves into a freer state. Well, societies follow the same science, don’t they?

America is not a melting pot; it’s a pressure cooker. Sure, the stress and struggle bring out something in us all, but the thing is, the pressure applied differs for different groups: we’re not all cooked at the same temperature or for the same time.

Currently, many groups of American minorities — here for centuries under pressure, taking heat — are seething. The American system is a stovetop, with tensions intensifying with higher degrees of inequality and exploitation, of continual disrespect and disregard of even basic human life.

And periodically, the lid pops open, and the contents explode. Through this, the pressure subsides somewhat, and we all breathe a bit better in the release of the moment. But… historically, the cork is generally reapplied and the pressure rebuilds, because America has found no better recipe for making a society.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

I live in Finland now, and diversity & inclusion are only nascent areas of interest in its corporate milieu. Finland is rightfully known for its comprehensive social support, but the country’s progressive national narrative can at times permit inequality and a lack of diversity to grow unchecked.

A strong value of interpersonal trust in Finland has fostered a closed-network society (where professional opportunities and references are recursively circulated amongst friends and those with similar backgrounds), and in many cases, xenophobia can creep into hiring practices and create non-inclusive professional experiences. As an organizational researcher and communications consultant, my work has allowed me to shine a light on these practices, creating actionable awareness.

In a recent research project, a structural exploration of a scaling games company, I was able to expose how informal hierarchy can creep into interactions, systematically decreasing inclusion and empowerment for women and, to a lesser degree, employees of international origin. Addressing these realities, the organization created new, inclusive cross-company committees to provide standards and accountability for their internal communication, collaboration, and culture. Through this, invisible barriers could be, if not removed, then sidestepped, and the company’s first game projects that were creatively guided by women were finally supported.

Change happens only when individuals challenge what’s commonly accepted. My role as a researcher is to be that change agent, the constructive and critical agitator identifying areas and ways for inclusion to be applied and improved.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Vernā Myers has a popular phrase, where she likens diversity to being invited to a party and inclusion to being invited to dance once there. It’s a great quote, really, but I like to think of organizations and teams as having a bit more equality with regard to participants — even when there’s an executive team present.

Let’s consider that a company is not a party that people are invited to: employees are not guests, nor should a select few be elevated as hosts. A company that values all its people is more like a picnic potluck. No one group or demographic should own the venue; no one group or ethnicity is seated by default at the head of the table. Everyone is, in fact, on the ground together — and it’s everyone’s collective presence that makes the happening happen.

Like a picnic potluck, an organization is an open invitation to co-ownership. Everyone is expected and encouraged to bring their very best, and every attendee or group has a right to expect a full and satisfying share. Inclusion and equity in a picnic potluck mean that members of any group are welcome and equally likely to not only participate, but to bring a featured dish — to have their talents, expertise, and output valued and praised by others.

As applied to an executive team, then, diversity is not only desirable but expected. Members of any sociodemographic group should be welcome to bring their talents to the circle, diversifying and improving the group’s overall offerings and output with their participation. Having only one or a few groups represented in an executive team is akin to having participants only bring potato salad to your potluck. Sure, it’s an important dish — a staple of any collaborative eating event — but a potluck needs far more than potato salad to be a success.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

As a Black consultant in a predominantly White country, I was approached by a number of acquaintances and clients to explain the recent outcry in my country. Where was this racial unrest coming from? How had it bubbled up (seemingly) from nowhere? What was the best way to address this situation in their communication or PR for their North American markets?

My answer to them is the same as for American businesses and for society as a whole: focus less on the verbal positioning and more on the meaningful stands you can take to create lasting change. Five such stands are outlined below.

  1. Understand

It’s impossible to tackle a problem without first taking time to understand it. Thus, our first step towards an inclusive society is that we educate ourselves — and, just as importantly, that we learn to empathize with the reality and the struggles that others currently live with.

I acknowledge, that’s a steeper first step than one might imagine. It takes a lot to listen when you don’t want to, to care when you don’t have to. Simply put, it requires radical empathy and a commitment to trying to understand others — even in knowing that such attempts will be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and will, at best, yield only an incomplete understanding. But I’m not encouraging you to strive for perfect knowledge — perfection is unattainable. I’m asking you to aim for empathetic progress — to listen and learn and never quit doing either.

If you know and/or work with minorities, listen to them. If you don’t — or even if you do — read and take in content from people with similar experiences to the minorities you don’t understand. Create safe forums and processes in your workplace and communities where diverse thoughts can be heard and addressed — always. In a work context, that means requiring acknowledgment and timely responses to any related feedback or input received — and ensuring that everyone who responds can explain or justify how each response comes from a place of empathy and attempted understanding.

As a first step, then, we must listen, we must care, and we must learn.

  1. Stand behind

Secondly, we have to actively support minorities and marginalized groups. Support can take many forms. Within the office, it can mean giving employees time, space, and tools to process the external stresses that impact them. Externally, it can mean contributing real financial, technical, or social resources to organizations catering to the communities you’d like to impact. As an individual, support can take the form of sharing your platforms or influence to amplify minority voices; as a company, that can mean donating time and personnel hours to allow employees to vote, protest, or meaningfully stand for change.

However you stand, recognize that supporting minorities means supporting real people. Standing behind minorities, then, requires you to encourage their victories and champion their successes, yes, while also allowing them the humanity and growth of failure. Allow minorities to be comprehensive people — with full ranges of emotions, experiences, and expertise. In your company, hire minorities as experts in more than their own potentially marginalized experiences. In your life, know them as more than externalized examples of your own open-mindedness.

Stand behind complicated people negotiating complicated realities. Welcome not only minority opinions and presence, but whole humans — capable of excellence, yes, but also errors. Stand behind minorities as people, supporting and championing real individuals, not merely one-dimensional ideals.

2. Stand up

I encourage you to stand behind minorities because, for them, the world is not often forgiving. I encourage you to stand up for minorities — and against the prejudice and discrimination they live through — because, for them, the world is not always fair.

The world needs people to stand against the actions, discourse, and systems that oppress minorities. In your organization and in your personal life, the world needs you to stand up to people and processes that reinforce prejudice and discrimination. Call them out — and in so doing, change the norm: make it more uncomfortable to say or do something discriminatory or non-inclusive than it is to call out those same utterances or actions publicly. Make it more uncomfortable to perpetuate systems of inequality than it is to be subject to them.

At a societal level, I’m asking you to be the annoying reminder, to be the biting fly that chases the herd away from a culture of complacent oppression. At a corporate level, be the zero-tolerance organization that clearly defines the inclusion and equitable goals you want to attain so you can constantly assess, identify, and address all shortcomings in those areas.

Standing up requires you to commit to not sitting out the small battles, to not letting the minor remarks and microaggressions slide. Standing up means consistently standing against — pushing against systems of inequality until they break.

3. Stand back

In the fight for an inclusive and equitable society, everyone has a role — but know that not everyone’s role is always front-and-center.

Last month, I was in talks with a Finnish organization that was founded to promote diversity and inclusion. They asked me, concretely, what they could do to support the BLM movement in Finland and to increase their impact in the area of D&I more generally. Representatives of their board and leadership — exclusively consisting of able-bodied White or White-passing, heterosexual native-born Finns — were surprised to hear my suggestion that they hire and include more minorities in their organization and management. It’s not just enough to speak out on behalf of minorities; sometimes the bigger stand to make is to stand back, making room for minorities to represent themselves.

It is impossible to listen to the voices you drown out or to stand behind the people you’re eclipsing — and no matter how well-intentioned you are, you cannot lift up minorities you’ve never included. So make sure your D&I efforts have space — meaningful and prominent space — for those who are commonly unaccommodated. Ensure (but don’t demand) that the people most directly impacted by prejudice and discrimination can share their experiences and shape solutions. Ensure that your advocacy is informed by and actively involves those whom you’re advocating for.

4. Stand firm

Now that the black squares on social media have lightened up and the rainbow logos of June have dulled back to their defaults, it’s time to talk about standing firm.

The prejudices and discrimination minorities experience is not merely a product of today; it’s the legacy of centuries, a construction built over time. A change toward equality, too, will require time to construct, and it’ll take commitments from organizations and individuals alike to build a more inclusive reality.

As a positive example, Futurice, a Helsinki-based consultancy, has defined and added diversity and inclusion objectives and key results to their company’s bi-annual performance outcomes. Not only does this make inclusion a reporting requirement across all departments, locations, and levels — universalizing D&I accountability — it allows D&I progress to be tracked over time. This is essential, as D&I is an area that is not instantly improved.

To create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society, we’ll need to work together, not just for the issues of today, but for the norms of tomorrow — inclusive norms created through actions and advocacy across years. Beyond singular donations or hashtag declarations, we need individuals and organizations willing to stand for more than just the moment. We need them to stand firm for the future, as well.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Solved or resolved? I think it’s more likely the problem will be resolved — with tensions dying down, simmering on the back burner, after the current emotional spill-over is wiped away.

I believe that, in America, some laws will be passed, some social media posts made, and, in companies, new D&I initiatives begun. The cork in the societal pressure cooker has come out, and, for a while, people will breathe a bit more freely in the release. I don’t, however, believe the underlying societal problem will be solved, truly, until we scrap the social recipe our country is following.

You see, as Americans we believe that pressure makes us great — that the struggle and the stress of our reality is a prerequisite for excellence — when, clearly, most examples of financial excellence in America are not born out of the extreme struggle and insecurity that others must endure.

We believe that desperation is close to inspiration — that exceptional rags-to-riches stories justify a system that keeps people in rags. That is a foul premise. It’s a recipe for sustained and systemic exploitation, and we use exceptions — aromatic spoonfuls skimmed from the top of the pot — to represent and justify the experiences of those who sink to the bottom. The recipe is wrong, and I believe there is no solution for a bad recipe except to change the recipe itself somehow.

America needs to be stirred. Safety, quality education, opportunity, power, and hope need to be distributed more evenly across demographics and regions. Stress — the temperature of the nation — needs to be turned down by providing legitimate, irrevocable health and financial security for all its people. Fear and ignorance — the main ingredients for American prejudice and violence — are decreased through people actively attempting to understand each other, through empathizing and respecting one another in ways that can only come through familiarity, interpersonal exposure, and inclusive encounters.

Organizations, then, play a significant role in bringing down the national temperature. Providing safer spaces — places where employees can mix and learn and improve — is key to improving not only themselves, but their ecosystems and communities, as well. Fair compensation, intentional communication, network building, and equitable opportunities to own, lead, and challenge organizations can change professional outcomes and financial realities. What’s more, positive organizational examples may serve as prototypes for new-and-improved recipes of inclusive American success.

So, what do I believe the future holds regarding our societal issues? Remember: I grew up an ocean away from where I am now, in a very small house with very big dreams. I know that change — that even unlikely personal growth — is possible. I have hope for individuals — and thus also for the organizations and societies they construct — that they can manifest positive possibilities as reality. I know it’ll take listening. I know it’ll take standing. It’ll take showing up, trying, failing, and trying again. But I have hope that it’s possible — that our issues can be solved — because I have hope in you. Through your reading this far and taking the time to care, you’ve already taken an essential first step toward empathy and striving to understand. I hope you’ll continue from here and that I’ll hear of the meaningful change you’ll create wherever you are.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I grew up a Black female in America. It’s almost unethical to make me choose between Oprah and Michelle Obama. Could I propose a joint lunch, perhaps? 😉

Alternately, if you know a good publisher or agent looking for bedtime stories for woke families, let me know — that’s a lunch date I’d love to have any time.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauraelizabethsmith/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnNwuefc6Ou_GfFg3Qs41tQ

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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