“Where are we lacking in inclusion and accessibility? ” With Dr. Lusharon Wiley

Ask yourself and your teammates, with honesty and respect, and without judgment: Where are we lacking in inclusion and accessibility? Look at who makes up your leadership team and commit to making changes if most of the members are of the same race or gender. Name it, claim it, change it. As part of our […]

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Ask yourself and your teammates, with honesty and respect, and without judgment: Where are we lacking in inclusion and accessibility? Look at who makes up your leadership team and commit to making changes if most of the members are of the same race or gender. Name it, claim it, change it.

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 Dr. Lusharon Wiley.

As director of culture at Innisfree Hotels, Florida-based hotel management, marketing and development company, Dr. Wiley is responsible for managing the company’s culture practices and providing expertise and support in the areas of employee engagement and retention, diversity and inclusion, culture training and navigating difference.

Hailing from Valdosta, Georgia, Lusharon Wiley joined the Innisfree team as Director of Culture in 2017. Lusharon holds an undergraduate degree from Tuskegee University, a master’s degree from the University of Illinois Chicago, and a doctorate from the University of West Florida in Diversity Studies. She also is a graduate of the Social Justice Training Institute, the Leadership Challenge, the Donald Gehring Institute, and Leadership Pensacola.

Lusharon worked in both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs at the University of West Florida, eventually ascending to the role of senior associate dean’. She founded and participated in multiple inclusion and diversity groups and committees during her long and successful career with the University of West Florida. She founded the Military Connections program in recognition of the service of veterans and their families, and the Inclusion Spotlight, a program highlighting the accomplishments of diverse people in the community. Lusharon was also the founder of the Argo Pantry, a program that focuses on making sure University of West Florida students always have access to food and personal care items.

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?

Thank you for providing the opportunity. I grew up in a large family in South Georgia and attended public schools during the time of segregation. Education and family were two mainstays of my upbringing. Family relationships and respect for our elders were important values. Learning and education were always encouraged; to be able to go to school was a privilege that we did not take lightly.

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?

Rather than a particular book, different authors made an impact on me at a very young age. My mother loved reading to us. We were privileged to sit at her knee and learn of Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, and Robert Frost, among other poets. As my mother read to us, I would imagine what the writers’ lives were like and wonder what the poems meant. I could imagine myself taking the road less traveled.

It was when I read a quote in elementary school that was written by Henry David Thoreau, that I began to see myself as different. He wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” My oldest brother would sometimes say to me, “Sharon, you are so smart, but you don’t have any common sense.” Now, I had the right response: I responded, “I simply walk to a different drummer.” I was learning, even as a pre-teen, that it was okay to be different. I didn’t have to be like everyone else.

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

Wow! I’m a person of a thousand quotes, so it’s hard to narrow it to only one. Here’s my best attempt. This quote is by Maya Angelou: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” I must remind myself to believe what people are showing me rather than getting caught up in their words. Too often, I let my emotions and love for the other person cloud both how I see them as well as how I respond. As a result, I find myself recoiling after the fact, licking my wounds yet again.

Perhaps the biggest related lesson I have learned happened after a major life event I experienced. I needed to rely on people to help me get through the rough period. I assumed one particular friend would be there for me — just as I had been for her on so many occasions. I was wrong. To make matters even worse, a colleague at work, whom I considered to be a friend, used the time I was away from work to take advantage and advocate for herself. These two events and “friends” helped me to see life, and people, more clearly. Since then, I am much more intentional in choosing my friends and now take the time to reflect on my relationships. I find that when I look for friendships with intentionality, I find that my friends are more likely to “show me the very best of themselves.”

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

Leadership is the ability to inspire others toward a specific vision while building trust and inclusiveness. It’s clearly articulating the desired outcomes through transparency and ongoing engagement, then taking action to ensure the goals are met.

The most effective supervisor I learned from regularly performed certain actions, or exhibited particular traits, which I have come to realize are critical for the exemplary leader:

Clearly articulating goals and objectives

Providing the opportunity for all team members to share in the vision (hearing their thoughts and opinions)

Willingness to be challenged (understanding that leadership does not imply that the leader has all the answers)

Creating an inclusive environment (since every voice matters)

Ongoing engagement and willingness to change strategies if needed

Learning from failures or setbacks to create new ways of doing and being

Having tough, honest conversations when needed

Speaking honestly and forthrightly

When disagreements occur, inviting all parties to discuss and resolve the issues

Celebrating successes

Giving credit to others for their ideas and innovative thinking

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 am often asked to speak to various organizations or groups. While I enjoy speaking, I also understand the importance of preparation. To prepare I may do one or more of the following:

Read articles related to the topic at hand.

Speak with someone I consider to be knowledgeable on the subject simply to get their view of the decision, presentation, etc.

Utilize diverse mentors. By this, I mean individuals who are younger, older, in different fields, or have viewpoints that I know will not align with my own.

Do research. What is the decision or presentation about? How have others handled a similar situation? What do I need to learn? What do I already know?

Ask “Is there an angle that others may not have considered?” How can I use this angle to my advantage?

A few years ago, I was asked to do a presentation for Mother’s Day on the topic “Women of Many Hats.” Rather than go the traditional route, I considered what would make my presentation different. After all, we all know that mothers are long-suffering, caring, and kind; the salt of the earth. My question was, what things do mothers do that they could perhaps do better or, better yet, get rid of? My presentation focused on the “complainers” (a hat too many women wear); the “blamers” (it’s always someone else’s fault); and the woman who “fixes another woman’s crown, then tells everyone else she did so.” This approach caught the attention of the audience and the presentation became highly interactive. Being innovative and open to a different way of being and doing can bring unexpected results.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the 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?

My answer echoes those of others. The United States is built on a system of institutionalized racism and inequity that has been present from its beginning. The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 determined the worth or value of slaves. Remember, enslaved people could not vote. Those states with large slave populations would have greater representation in the House of Representatives by including a proportionate number of slaves. Slaves were simply property — not viewed as humans but as chattel. Something to be owned.

Over time, with the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved people were freed. But what did freedom mean? Were there jobs available? Did the freed people receive remuneration for their enslavement? Were these “freed” people recognized as equals in America? Quite the contrary. New ways to exclude African Americans emerged. There were Jim Crow laws, lynchings, sharecropping (the Negro never earned enough to pay off his or her debt), unequal employment, separate and unequal schools, the “good old boy” network. Less pay for the same work. Inability to attend institutions of higher education especially in the south. An unjust “justice” system. High incarceration rates. Unfair media coverage. The list is exhaustive.

And African Americans are exhausted too. Exhausted at having to defend that we, too, sing America. Tired of having to explain to our sons and daughters how they have “to be” to navigate living in America. Exhausted with the double standards. Implicit in the historical systems of institutionalized racism is the belief that African Americans are inferior. It is the “taken-for-grantedness” of our place in society. The laws and systems of oppression have reached a boiling point. We live with the fear that one of our children, grandchildren, sons, or daughters could be the next tragic story. Now is the time to look for different endings to our stories.

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?

Prior to working in corporate America, I worked in higher education. There, I started several programs that promoted inclusion and diversity. Primary among the programs I started was the Inclusion Spotlight Series which focused on various people in the neighborhood. The “spotlight” was shone on persons with disabilities, a Holocaust survivor, and a female mortician, to name a few. The purpose was to embrace and celebrate difference.

Another program I started was “Common Ground,” a group whose purpose was to find shared values and experiences among diverse members of the campus and local community. Common Ground included students, faculty, staff, and community members who provided training on diversity and inclusion. Our audience included both campus and community groups.

Perhaps the most intriguing program I started was “Discussing the Undiscussable.” This program grew out of a brief sidewalk encounter with a student which took place the day after the murders of black churchgoers in South Carolina. I saw a young man whose countenance was downcast. I asked whether he was okay. He responded: “I am scared.” I was surprised by the response and asked why. He stated that the shooting at the church had made him afraid.

I thought about how many things we simply don’t talk about even though we might be feeling afraid or simply would like to know more. I decided to start a lunchtime discussion where no topics were off-limits. Everyone was invited to attend — and to suggest topics for discussion. The idea was well-received. Faculty, students, and staff could lead the discussion and did not have to be an expert on the subject at hand.

Can you tell our readers a bit about what measures Innisfree Hotels is taking to manage an inclusive company culture?

Innisfree Hotels is committed to fostering an inclusive work environment where employees feel valued and their voices are heard. Employees are trained on how to interact with others through our Genesis program (which is a fitting name). Innisfree employees begin by building trust. Team members are given the tools to navigate difficult conversations, provide authentic feedback, and offer innovative ideas in a safe, inclusive environment. They learn that their needs and desires are not less than the needs of others — everyone’s needs matter regardless of the individual’s role in the organization.

Because all team members matter, “check-ins” are performed daily. A check-in is a process where we stop to ask how a team member is doing and wait for an authentic response. The purpose of check-ins is to create more intimate, caring relationships. The team member realizes that their needs really do matter and that Innisfree is there to help. Rather than asking a team member to leave their cares at home, Innisfree invites them to bring their cares to work. We recognize that people must be approached holistically. While team members are expected to do their work, it is good to know that other team members care and will be there to assist or simply to listen.

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?

Diverse work teams include a variety of experiences and perspectives which can be incredibly helpful in problem solving and digging deeply into “uncomfortable topics.” Such discussions can result in new ways of thinking and responding.

Innovation and creativity are enhanced by the shared experiences of diverse groups.

Actions speak louder than words. Employees looking to expand their experiences are likely to be drawn to organizations that are inclusive and represent a diversity of employees.

Different worldviews can be helpful in decision making. An older employee might have a different view. An employee from a different part of the world has yet another perspective. A southerner sees something one way; but a person from Oregon has yet another viewpoint.

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.

Identify remedial steps: where to start, what has or hasn’t been done.

Example: what is the makeup of the board or organization? Do all the members have a lot in common? How are they different? For instance, I have been working with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters on ways to make their board more diverse. Currently, the board is comprised of the same race group.

Be intentional about acknowledging that challenges exist. Explore the history and examine how the current situation came to be. Example: Take the first step by providing Implicit Bias Training for current leaders. I did so for Innisfree Hotels.

Ask yourself and your teammates, with honesty and respect, and without judgment: Where are we lacking in inclusion and accessibility? Look at who makes up your leadership team and commit to making changes if most of the members are of the same race or gender. Name it, claim it, change it.

Example: During a recent meeting of the Innisfree executive team, we discussed whether Innisfree’s leadership teams are diverse. The discussion included who the leaders are at the corporate level and at the property level. We honestly explored who is missing. Our discussion led to an examination of what the steps should be to address the lack of diversity in leadership. While this is a work in progress, we are committed to making changes and to being more intentional in the selection process going forward.

Re-evaluate words and images.

Example: are our words inclusive? What are the images that are being portrayed? Begin to use inclusive words. For example, Innisfree changed from using the word housekeepers to room attendants.

Integrate diversity into the structure, mission and bottom line.

Example: be intentional about including diversity in every sector of the organization. Be willing to have tough conversations. Commit to making changes in printed materials. Innisfree is currently rewriting and expanding our print materials to be more inclusive.

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

The fact that we are not running away from the issues but are meeting the challenges head-on makes me optimistic. Groups and organizations are springing up in response to the hate that we are seeing. For example, Innisfree’s owner and founder, Julian MacQueen, wrote an open letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking white business owners to join him in looking for real solutions to problems in our local community. The group of seventeen local individuals has been meeting for several weeks to discuss issues, look for solutions, and learn. The goals, which are still being tweaked and revised, are to implement solutions, aid identified entrepreneurs and serve as a resource for others. Conversations are taking place. Communities are re-evaluating how things have been managed and are asking for a look at how to do things better or differently. Young people are getting involved.

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. 🙂

Arthur Blank (Home Depot & Atlanta Falcons) because of his commitment to making a difference. He writes, “I am more committed than ever to making a difference through philanthropy. The needs of our society are more profound than at any point in my lifetime. The gap between rich and poor in America is growing. Philanthropy alone cannot repair all of the social injustice in our country or the world. It can, however, inspire goodwill, provide inspiration and invoke thought leadership.”

How can our readers follow you online?

I can be found on Facebook or via email at [email protected]. To follow Innisfree Hotels on social media:

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

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