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“Meet people where they are.” with Ann Ayers

Meet people where they are. We aren’t actually born with a light switch that turns on and off biases, nor can we clear out the effect of systems of oppression and power overnight. Seeing inequity and behaving inclusively is more like learning to walk. Let’s look at folks who benefit from privilege. They can get pretty […]

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Meet people where they are. We aren’t actually born with a light switch that turns on and off biases, nor can we clear out the effect of systems of oppression and power overnight. Seeing inequity and behaving inclusively is more like learning to walk. Let’s look at folks who benefit from privilege. They can get pretty far along in their lives and never be educated about privilege. (Of course, some do see it and refuse to share power, but that’s another issue.) You wouldn’t believe the number of people who will ask me in a quiet moment to explain patriarchy. To explain White supremacy. To explain privilege. To meet people where they are and not shame them for what they do or do not know or believe is to be a changemaker.

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 Ann Ayers.

Ann has spent over 20 years re-imagining the possibilities available to organizations in legal, corporate, non-profit, and academic arenas. Today, Ann is the Dean of Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver, where she is leading the launch of an entirely new initiative reinventing what it means to be a College within a University (today’s challenges won’t be solved with yesterday’s approaches, after all). The Colorado Women’s College focuses on three areas where assumptions and expectations about gender grind the gears of equity progress: Self, Work, and Home. The college calls these initiatives Equity Labs, and they will comprise the next chapter in the College’s 130-year legacy of fueling women’s education and success.

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?

Iam a Colorado native from a big family. My mom was one of 10 kids, and we spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm, “Junglewood.” If there weren’t 12–15 at the dinner table when I was growing up, it felt like a non-event. My dad is an outfitter. He takes people to hunt for big game and birds. We spent most of my childhood in Dubois, WY, a town so small the population sign was changed when my little sister was born. We lived on the Wind River, and I fished almost every day after school. I’ve picked up fly fishing again recently with my four boys and am loving it.

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?

This is always an impossible question for me! I read incessantly. I don’t know what I’d do without Audible, either! I guess I am a “leader — listener+reader.) Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier, is the book that made me fall in love with reading. I realized books could be a refuge, a spark for my imagination, a reward for a long day of work, like a warm blanket. Today you can find me with 3 books going at all times. I like to have a biography, a fiction, and a personal or professional development book on my nightstand. That way, no matter what mood I’m in, I have something to turn to.

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

My dad was a bit of a cowboy. Sometimes he would say, “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.” I suppose the meaning of that is pretty obvious! But another one that I think about all of the time is when he would say, “Annie, if the cows are all headed in the right general direction, don’t go up alongside hootin’ and hollerin’.” This always reminds me of two things. First, leaders don’t always need to be at the front to move things in the right direction. Second, it helps me back off of my perfectionist tendencies because it reminds me that precision can get in the way of progress.

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

To me, leadership is about picking a destination, often with the input of others, and then finding the right people to help you get there. But, the leader’s position is not at the front of the pack. It’s at the back. When I was little, my dad used to take us out hiking and walking along the river near our house. He would always walk behind me, and I never knew why. He had bigger feet. Didn’t he want to pick the path? Then, one morning, before dawn, we got up to go for a walk. He had this hard hat with a flashlight duct-taped to the side. He turned on the light, and it shone over the top of my head, lighting a path so I could see. I think about that all of the time. If as leaders we can have the vision to pick a goal and the humility to stay in the back, and then use that position to shine a light so that the people in front of us can find their way, that’s the best gift we can give them and the world.

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?

I breathe, and I wiggle my toes. I find that most often, when I’m feeling anxious, it’s because I’m less than fully present. I’m worried about a situation that could happen, or that has happened, ignoring the situation right in front of me. As soon as I can be fully present, the anxiety melts away. I think I first noticed it because I am pretty darn good in a crisis. When the stakes are high and the time is often short, it requires a laser focus. One day, I was thinking about my strengths and realized that if I could bring that laser focus to times that are not crises, I’d be even more successful in all situations.

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?

That’s a hard question to answer, but let me try. As a woman, #MeToo wasn’t an awakening for me. It was like, ‘Oh — now finally men are seeing what women (most women) have experienced as a fact of life.’ It wasn’t news to me. So, in talking in the past months with my colleagues who are People of Color (I’m White), I hear a similar reaction. It’s not like, “Oh, this is the boiling point.” It’s more like, “Welcome to the boiling point. It’s hot in here, right?” I don’t want to say that it’s evolved to a boiling point because that disregards the legacy of experiences People of Color and, in particular, our Black friends, family, and neighbors, have been experiencing for centuries.

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?

When I was interviewing for Dean of the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver, I was asked what was missing from the College’s strategy. “Men,” I answered definitively. I could see by the looks on their faces; it was not the answer they expected, so I explained. “The women in our programs don’t just need college courses on leadership; they need a world that will let them lead. And if we want to create that world for them, by definition, men must be at the table, too.” I guess they agreed because I got the position, and we’ve brought that idea to life through a DEI training program for corporate teams. Equity Labs is a perspective-shifting program where participants engage in imagining more inclusive systems and structures and then practice working in ways that bring out the best in people of all genders, ethnic and racial origins, abilities, ages, backgrounds, and lived experiences. In DEI, we often focus on who is not at the table, but it’s equally important to remember who is already at the table and include them in the conversation as well.

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?

All kinds of statistics point to the relative increase in ROI of diverse teams, but for me, there’s one study that really drives the point home. In 2009, professors from Columbia, Brigham Young, and Columbia collaborated on a study with fraternities and sororities. Keeping in mind that “birds of a feather flock together,” we know that these groups often attract similar identity and interest folks. In the study, teams of three from the same Greek house were given 20 minutes to discuss and solve a murder mystery. Five minutes into the discussion, the teams were joined by a fourth person. The teams joined by someone from their same fraternity or sorority were half as likely to arrive at a correct solution as those joined by an outsider. Half as likely! Even more interesting, those joined by insiders judged their interactions to be more effective and felt more confident in their answers than the teams joined by outsiders! So yes, as we might imagine, or even fear, working on diverse teams can be harder, but it’s worth it. (And, in my experience, the “hard” part is usually gratifying personally. Being with people who are not like me stretches me, which I love.)

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. 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.

  • Be curious. Act curious. Curiosity is the secret sauce when it comes to personal growth and community bundling. I have learned to position myself not as a DEI expert but as an appreciator of human experience and a practitioner of inclusive living. Because of my title, Dean of a Women’s College, it’s not uncommon for folks to try and be on their best DEI behavior around me. To prove that they support women. To prove they are not racist. To prove they are not anti-gay. So, I always try to ask a few questions. To share a mistake I made or a book I’m reading. (I have plenty of mistakes and gaffes to share.) And that helps folks know that I am a person who is interested in progress, not perfection. It makes for better conversations and more learning every time. Last week I was hosting a webinar, and one of our panelists said, “Leaders have a responsibility to know about systems of power and privilege.” I understood where he was going with his point. Still, it would be totally different and more inviting if he said, “Leaders have a responsibility to learn about systems of power and privilege.” If you say it the second way, you are less likely to have leaders who nod “yes” and pretend to know, and instead, you create a safe space for exchange and progress.
  • Meet people where they are. We aren’t actually born with a light switch that turns on and off biases, nor can we clear out the effect of systems of oppression and power overnight. Seeing inequity and behaving inclusively is more like learning to walk. Let’s look at folks who benefit from privilege. They can get pretty far along in their lives and never be educated about privilege. (Of course, some do see it and refuse to share power, but that’s another issue.) You wouldn’t believe the number of people who will ask me in a quiet moment to explain patriarchy. To explain White supremacy. To explain privilege. To meet people where they are and not shame them for what they do or do not know or believe is to be a changemaker.
  • Play the systems of privilege and power game. In our offices, we have a poster where we record the systems of power and oppression we notice and record how we challenge them. Often it’s in the smallest of ways. We might change the seating order in a meeting. We might invite different people to meetings. We might research and publish on a new policy that’s being proposed on pay equity or minimum wage. We might use language differently — for example, using “partner” rather than “husband” or “wife.” Recently, I was in a meeting where we were talking about misconduct, and someone said, “Some people just have really dark sides.” I saw the eyes of a black colleague fall — normal, but hurtful choice of words. So, I gently suggested that maybe we could say, “Some people do things they shouldn’t.” And change requires standing up and speaking out when you see opportunities for growth. On one project I was asked to participate in, I attended the first two meetings and noticed the invitees were all White people — these were big meetings, where folks were given the mandate to create a plan to build community ((University Community? Can we elaborate?)). After the second meeting, I said to the organizer, “Please let me know when you will have a more diverse group. I’m finished with all White meetings.” She was so excited to have been given that directive by a leader in the organization that we went on to create the most diverse and representative group the organization had ever seen! Also, working in higher education, I have asked why it is a bachelor’s degree? Why not something more inclusive? I won’t ever hear “That’s a Black and White issue” or think of my own Bachelor of Arts degree in the same way.
  • Celebrate all progress. As a leader, I am fascinated by WHY people do what they do. I’m always looking for the best ways to get the people on my team to work to the fullest of their capacities. Folks contribute to the creation of an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable society for various reasons. Some are motivated to be inclusive because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Some because they’ve been excluded and don’t want others to experience it. Some because they believe in the power of diverse teams and equitable systems. But no matter what, everyone is motivated by being recognized and appreciated for the work they do. We’ve recently expanded a very simple YouRock! program where anyone in the community can recognize someone else for hard work, for an accomplishment, for overcoming something. The good work feeds on itself and is contagious. It’s the easiest and one of the most powerful things we can do to keep momentum in equity work because challenging an inequitable status quo is risky and hard. If you reward people for taking those risks and doing the hard work, they will keep it up.
  • Take breaks in a safe space! Those who work in equity, who fight for inclusion, and are brave enough to challenge the status quo, we know it’s exhausting work. I had a board member tell me recently to be sure and give myself a break once in a while. You don’t have to be a champion and be “on” all of the time, putting yourself into uncomfortable situations and advocating for yourself and others. She permitted me to take breaks, and I’d like to extend that permission to your readers. There are many of us in the world who are working to make it more equitable and inclusive. We can share shifts.

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

The fundamental belief that drives me is this: Equity is in reach. I am not a patient person. I don’t want to think that this can’t get dramatically better in my lifetime. If we can get to the moon in a generation, we can certainly give equity and inclusion a better run right here on Earth. What it takes is people realizing it’s not about the people; it’s about the problem. If we can stop pointing fingers at one another and begin making room for people to learn and grow, we will move mountains and realize dreams. Take my friend who posted, “If you are not against white supremacy, then you are a white supremacist” — while line-in-the-stand statements like this may feel good to say, I challenge you to consider how they’re productive. Bold proclamations set boundaries. You’re saying, “Decide who you are so I can decide whether or not I can be friends with you, even family with you.” That doesn’t get us anywhere — like nowhere. It is a way of calling people out. I prefer to call people in. Into a conversation. Into a dialogue. Into learning. Claude Steele at Harvard does great work on stereotype threat. We have a lot of educating to do, and we need to do it with wisdom, fervor, and a standing invitation for people to make mistakes and learn.

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. 🙂

Bill and Melinda Gates! The work they are doing is challenging the status quo on so many fronts. And they do it with humility, curiosity, and generosity. I’ve listened to them both on podcasts, and they have terrific senses of humor to boot.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on TwitterLinkedIn, the DU Community + Values page and Colorado Women’s College website and Facebook page.

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

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