Image courtesy of Amphone Design.
So you want to make your community more inclusive. Commendable! There’s no how-to guide for how to do this - or, if there is, it’s buried under piles of paperwork somewhere - but this article might serve as a good jumping off point. We’re going to be examining three main principles for making a community inclusive, namely:
You can’t be inclusive without first acknowledging who you are and who you’re including
First off, you need to figure out the place from which you’re coming to this project, and I don’t mean the physical place. Are you an underprivileged person trying to fix your community from the inside out? Or are you a person with substantially more privilege trying to make sure that the opportunities bestowed to you by your identity and experience are available to everyone? Are you something in between? The answer to this is going to affect how you go about making your community more inclusive. Because if you’re in a place of privilege, you need to be able to draw the line between a helping hand and a hero complex.
For example: I am a queer, neurodivergent Jew who was raised female for the majority of my childhood. By virtue of my experiences, I have a certain amount of qualification to form insightful opinions on sexuality, mental health, religion, and gender. But I am also white, upper-middle class, able-bodied, and highly privileged. If I were to assert authority over matters of race, class, or disability, I would be speaking from a place of ignorance. No matter how much research I might have done or how many people I might have talked to, I would still not be able to completely understand experiences I had never had.
So if you are trying to make your community more inclusive for people with experiences similar to your own, your first step should be identifying the issues and figuring out what may cause them. But to make a community inclusive toward absolutely anyone, you cannot work alone. It is frighteningly easy to fall into the trap of congratulating yourself for a job well done when the job isn’t actually done. If you want genuine inclusivity instead of halfhearted diversity, you need to make sure to include people from marginalized communities into the conversation. Otherwise, you end up with situations like the gay best friend trope, where diversity is thrown in as an accessory and inclusivity is a buzzword, not a way of life.
You don’t need to know everything, and you don’t need to be the hero. Bring underprivileged people into the process, educate yourself, and be willing to listen and learn.
How do you shape yourself and your community to be more inclusive?
A community is molded by the people who form it, so an inclusive community needs to start with an inclusive mentality. Examine the language and prejudice of your community to figure out how community attitude may need to be shifted.
How much you can affect the language of your community is going to depend on what sort of community we’re talking about here. Is this a school club, or an entire neighborhood? How much social sway do you have? In an ideal world world, you’d be able to affect the behavior of the entire community, but in an ideal world, inclusivity would be a non-issue. If you can’t think big just yet, focus on adjusting your own language to be more inclusive.
Making your language more inclusive means being conscious of how your words may be perceived or may affect others’ mentality. Nehemiah Green, writing for Diversity Together, highlights a number of ways that common vernacular can be detrimental to an inclusive environment. (Note: some of the phrases Green claims are founded in bigotry have since been further researched, but on the whole his article is excellently comprehensive. As always, it is important to educate yourself from more than one source.) For example, be wary of slang based in slurs (things like “gypped” or “Jewed”) and unnecessarily gendered terms (e.g. fireman rather than firefighter). In her fascinating TED Talk How Language Shapes The Way We Think, Lera Boroditsky explains how our mentality is shaped by the language we speak. If we want to change the way we think, we need to pay attention to the language we use.
Once you’re examined how your word choice affects your thoughts, you need to examine the thoughts themselves, and how they affect your actions. This is where a willingness to learn and grow becomes absolutely vital. One of the worst traps we can fall into is being unwilling to admit when we have biases and prejudices, even going so far as to explain why we can’t have those prejudices without actually examining our thought processes.
So if these prejudices are so ingrained into our thoughts that we might not even admit they’re there, then how do we find and address them? Basically, we need to learn how to recognize our implicits biases as they’re going through our mind. Think: do you find yourself surprised when certain types of people fill certain types of positions? Do you habitually forget that others do not have the same social advantages as you? Learn to be aware of the prejudices you have to unlearn, and help others in your community to do the same.
Your goal is to better your community as you better yourself. Talk to the people in your community, and help each other to reevaluate thought processes. As with all things, communication is a powerful tool.
It is also incredibly important to remember that you cannot solve a problem by ignoring it. Attitudes like color blindness do not work - they merely serve to make the person sporting the attitude feel better about themselves without actually taking the time to examine the way they interact with their community. It’s the same reason that responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” is an awful thing to do. Equality and equity are not the same thing, and forming an inclusive environment necessitates acknowledging that; but for a truly inclusive community, you have to address the things that are necessitating equity in the first place.
Actions speak louder than words, and you’ll need them to make an inclusive community happen.
It does wonders, but adjusting mentalities doesn’t automatically solve everything. Certain aspects of infrastructure may need to be adjusted to accommodate more than a small group of people. In order to figure out what those changes need to look like, you need to figure out how everyday life is being made more difficult than it needs to be for certain groups of people, and how that can be averted.
The way you conduct these conversations is also vital to inclusion. While it is important for you to include marginalized people in conversations about inclusivity, it is also important to remember that it is not people’s job to educate you. You must be willing to research things you didn’t know about without asking people to recount past traumas and injustices for your personal education. You also have to find a balance between doing your own research and not speaking over marginalized voices.
Some first steps toward encouraging an inclusive community include:
I’ve included links to some resources for various marginalized groups including women and trans or non-binary people, the LGBTQ+ community, neurodivergent people, disabled people, and non-white people.