Getting More Players on the All-Star Team

On Tuesday, I was invited to join a few others folks as a workshop presenter on The Future of Learning for a session at the 2012 ASAE Great Ideas Conference.  I didn't know who else was going to be involved, but I was honored to be asked and excited about the possibility.

On Wednesday, I learned the names of the four other presenters and could immediately understand why a colleague kindly described us as an All-Star Team.  It was most flattering, and ego aside, I think it's a pretty accurate assessment.  Each of us brings many years working on learning, associations, knowledge development, and strategy.  Each of us is well-known as a consistent and reliable professional and presenter.

And each of us white.

And I'm struggling with that.  A lot.

I'm struggling because while we are definitely qualified to talk about the future of learning, future learners (and truthfully, a significant percentage of those in the present) are not going to look like our team: four white guys and one white female.

I'm struggling because while it is tough to ensure significant diversity is represented when you only have one or two keynote speakers, panel or multiple-presenter sessions should be the place where we can truly model the way.

I'm struggling because I feel once again "it's hard" became "we can't."

Realizing our commitment to diversity and inclusion has been hard for some time.  Labeling it as difficult has not made it any easier, nor has it led to significant enough changes.

As my favorite freak-flag flyer, Joe Gerstandt, would say: Where's the evidence?

When I worked on the college campus, the phrase affirmative action was still used more frequently.  One of my mentors instilled in us that it wasn't at all about a quota, it was about being intentionally affirmative, taking significant action to ensure under-represented voices would be included and heard.  This affirmative commitment went far beyond traditional demographic characteristics.

I'm a 40-something, reasonably successful, gay white guy from the Midwest. I'm smart enough to know that when I initially got a seat at the proverbial table, it's because someone else pulled up some more chairs and/or helped me get an invite.  While I work hard for my professional success, I am 100% aware that some of what has accrued to me is undoubtedly due to white privilege I cannot begin to fully understand. 

But I'll tell you what I do understand.  If I am indeed an All-Star, the only way I got on this team is because somehow I got to play and demonstrate my capabilities. For whatever reason, I got called up from the bench or invited into the game.   And I got to learn from being on a team of people, any one of whom probably could hit it out of the park better than me on many a day.

I want to be on the All-Star team for the future, not playing the game for Living Legends.

Things have to change.  Now.  Too much rhetoric for far too long.  It's time for results.

Otherwise the players we've left on the bench will go create their own game.  And guess what?  We'll then be the ones wondering why no one asks us to play.

I'll be damned if I'm going to sit on the bench on this issue.

8/25 Update Below (note: the first four comments to this post appeared before this update was added)

As one of the comments already posted suggests, this issue will not be without passions from multiple perspectives.  I applaud that and hope that what we can collectively become most passionate about are demonstrated results.  We're not going to get an A for effort when it comes to diversity and inclusion.  My purpose with this post was not to suggest that the individuals developing this particular session aren't committed to diversity. I merely was reacting to the final result: five of the most visible people in our field assembled together and who are all white and whose opinions on the topic at-hand are well-published already.

So let's back out of this example and treat the issue as a bit of a general case study because I don't know all the specifics behind the formulation of the players in this session and this situation is by no means isolated or unique.  Let's say you want to pull together a diverse mix of voices for a conference session, but are wracking your brain trying to figure out who to include.  What do you naturally do?  You first think of folks you would normally turn to for recommendations, your immediate network of "go to" people.  We all have them. Maybe you post a message on a listserv or discussion board, an open call of sorts. You might also call people in your extended network and ask for their recommendations.  You're still not getting many new names, but the program deadline is looming. So you decide to assemble a list of great presenters you know will do a good job.  100% understandable, and I've done exactly that thing in the past.  But it doesn't move the ball forward on diversity and inclusion.

Trying to achieve it in the moment for any particular situation will probably always produce limited results.  We (myself included) need to be constantly expanding our awareness of the talent in our midst in an active, intentional, and methodical way, and holding ourselves accountable for how many new folks ( and the contributions and talents they can contribute) we learn about.  We can't be inclusive of people we don't know, and we won't know new people if we don't change the rhythms of who we hang out with and where we hang out.  This approach is already somewhat in place in social media as we friend 2nd-level connections on Facebook or LinkedIn.  If each of us expands the network of people we know of and can turn to, the aggregate effect could grow the community of visible talent over time. But we also have to be honest with ourselves when our own networks have become less diverse (not just in terms of traditional demographics) than what we might want.  Over the years we may spend more time reconnecting with people we already know and deepening those relationships than reaching out and cultivating new connections.  After all, the hours available to us are limited.

So we need some metrics..  We have to make visible to ourselves the progress (or lack of it) so that we really begin to see things change.   When recently retired Proctor and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley took the company's leadership helm, he instituted a requirement that a set percentage of future product innovations had to come from outside the company, a company notorious for its work from within culture.  Without a clear standard to judge actions, we're only left to reflect on our intentions.  Imagine a conference that commits to 25% of the speakers each year being new voices who have not previously presented.  You'd have to develop a different year-round strategy to meet that goal.  You know darn well that a conference like TED must have pretty sophisticated scouting systems in place to ensure a wow experience showcasing a significant number of fresh voices each year.

So we can start with ourselves.  I add 3-5 new people every month on Twitter outside my world of influence.  This limited number lets me really spend time reviewing what they tweet, learning about their interests, and connecting with them as I can. Others might cast a far wider net far more quickly.  When I attend a conference, I make a point to come back with 3 new colleagues.  When I am on a committee or council, I commit to spending the most time at our meeting with the people I've never heard of as opposed to the colleagues I already know and love.  And I still fall short of helping advance an issue I believe in deeply.  But I am trying to change my habits in meaningful, yet manageable ways.  Otherwise, my community of contacts ends up being a gated community in which I know everyone on the inside quite well, but vacancies in the neighborhood are infrequent.

For any community to achieve different results in diversity and inclusion will likely require that we change our habits, particularly if the current ones don't seem to be working.  We can't just try to do better at the current events level.  We have to engage in systemic change that ensures different results.

It's going to take a lot of work, personally and collectively.  And it's going to require us to be transparent and say, "What we're doing isn't working.  We need help.  We need new ideas." in more public forums in the hopes of bringing in fresh perspectives with different insights.  I'm trying to help move things along in the only ways I know how.  Those efforts will by no means be perfect just as my own individual commitments and efforts by no means have been (or will be) 100% successful.  I welcome the chance to learn from your example and your comments.