Why should businesses care about diversity and inclusion?

We are beyond excited to share an interview with the dynamic duo behind Just Collaboration, a Pittsburgh-based consulting group that specializes in fostering diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. In other words, they get paid to have really really difficult and life changing conversations with people. 

This topic is something that has been on our minds from the very beginnings of Propelle, in an effort to be a more inclusive organization ourselves. 

Being able to sit down and speak with Mary and Lizzie was eye opening, humbling, empowering, and exciting. And that was just in the first 15 minutes of our conversation. We are really looking forward to working with these two women in the future, so be on the lookout for some cool things to come in 2017.

When you're done, we'd love to know what this interview brings up for you. Where do you feel like you could do better when it comes to being more inclusive and welcoming? What are things you'd like to see Propelle doing to foster more conversations like this and to open our community up to a wider audience? 

Emily and Kate

Names: Mary C. Parker and Lizzie Anderson
Business: Just Collaboration
Job title: Co-Founders | Organizational Consultant | Coach (Mary) | Therapist (Lizzie)
Website: justcollaboration.org

Can you share a bit about how Just Collaboration came about for those that may not be familiar with you or what you do?

Just Collaboration was born out of a friendship that began in Lizzie’s backyard in Summer 2012. At the time, there were practice Salons that gathered groups of people to talk about race. After that first Salon, there was a mutual interest to collaborate on workshops about white supremacy in the workplace, which we’ve done in partnership with other people for the last 3 years.

Just Collaboration is an extension of these workshops and consulting work we’ve done with organizations in Pittsburgh to be more understanding of oppression and justice, to be more welcoming, and be able to sustain inclusivity. We use a justice-based approach to our work to educate and inform individuals and organizations.

Just Collaboration plans activities that allows participants to engage in dialogue that gets to the roots of what’s going on, so our individuals and organizations can begin to unlearn and construct new understandings. Our work is very tailored to the clients we are working with and we put great efforts to mold and shape with we do to meet needs and desires. We do not descend on individuals and organizations with solutions in mind. Instead we focus on building strong relationships with our clients and using the knowledge that is presented to us to work together to find resolution.

It is all a partnership, a collaboration.

How do your own personal experiences play into what you do? (Mary — you mention living in the South and being exposed to civil rights leaders like Senator John Lewis and Martin Luther King III. Lizzie — you have considerable experience working with the prison population and those impacted by homelessness.)

Mary: As a southern raised black woman my identity strongly influences and shapes the work we do based on my own personal experiences. I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a city known for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan on November 25, 1915. Annually the Klan would rally and burn 3 60-foot crosses until 1991 at Stone Mountain Park. These dates are significant for me because the rebirth of the Klan happened 70 years to the day prior to my birth and my family re-located to Stone Mountain one year after the KKK stopped rallying. While I was fortunate to have never witnessed a Klan rally, whispers of not being in Stone Mountain Park after dark were the warnings given to us when we first moved there.

Growing up in Stone Mountain afforded me an informal civil rights education because several civil rights leaders are still alive and involved in giving back to the community by engaging with youth about their experiences. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to hear Senator John Lewis speak a few times throughout my life in addition to Martin Luther King III. They shared about their own experiences growing up in the Confederate South and fighting for justice so we can all experience the freedoms and civil liberties we are all now privileged to. Their messages of collaboration and unity among difference stayed with me and inform my values of justice and community.

Both of these personal experiences with the Klan and civil rights leaders while quite different still existed in parallel to my formative years as a child. They inform my drive for leaving the world better than how I found it. This motivates me to do the type of work Just Collaboration exists to do, support individuals and organizations to be more inclusive. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be valued and treated fairly. I think that starts with a base level of understanding those that are different from you so you can begin to see them as human.

Humanity is what connects us all and if this is distorted for any individual it is often replaced with hate based on the fear of difference. That fear is the foundation for oppression and I believe can be unlearned through education and experiences that eradicate fear. We all deserve to be seen for who we are and not have that be colored through someone else’s fear.

Lizzie: As a white woman from a middle class background who has a chronic illness, my life has been impacted by social justice in every way. In fact, all of our lives have! I was born with and continue to have so much access to resources and power. I also have tangible experiences of not having that access. Having and finding personal connections to this work for me is a matter of really thinking about life, examining it and the institutional, systemic, political and interpersonal impacts of justice and oppression.

Additionally, I have a social work background and have had the honor and the struggle to work alongside people from many different situations — people who are homeless, in prison or jails, surviving domestic violence, kids in summer camps, people grieving, people giving birth, and more. Every interaction is a chance to be aware, to be ready to be changed for the better, and to find more understanding and create connection. That’s the personal piece that informs me participating in this work. 

I have a deep belief that it’s important for everyone to have access to not only the basics in life (food, water, work, shelter, etc), but also the things that help us thrive; understanding, intimacy, passion, pleasure, play, love and joy! And for this, much in our society needs to change to dismantle the oppression that prevents such open access - the racism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, etc. We need to see and treat ourselves and others as worthy, and we are worthy because we are human. That’s justice.

How does Pittsburgh stack up when it comes to diversity and accessibility?

Pittsburgh is an amazing city, with a beautifully complicated past and present. Pittsburgh as a European city was, like all cities in this country, built by immigrants on land that was brutally stolen from Native peoples. It is one of blue collar work, old industry union and class struggle. Pittsburgh contains racial and ethnic diversity that is lovely, important and separated by deep racism and segregation.

Pittsburgh is a place of old architecture, making it hard to physically access spaces for people with mobility impairments. Gentrification and development is rapidly changing our cityscape, transforming where people can live, work and play — along with that, people are being forcefully removed from their homes and neighborhoods. All with the backdrop of rolling hills, glistening (albeit polluted) rivers and cultural gems.

It is not simple: this world and this city are complex.

Pittsburgh is generally behind the curve. There are ideas that have fomented on the coasts that are slowly trickling their way here, years later. And there is positive change, there are movements being made. There has always been organizing in this city and the current day organizing for social justice based on the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice and police accountability; May Day marches where no one is illegal; Banning fracking from our city; and protesting hateful politicians and political oppression.

People are gathering in the streets.

Organizations are making changes, they’re thinking about these things like diversity and acting to be more inclusive.

These are all steps.

And there is a much longer distance to travel.

What's one thing an organization — big or small — can do right now to create a more welcoming and open workspace or service offering?

Being inclusive begins before the hiring process. Before the partnering with communities. Before the big, flashy announcement about change. It is not successful nor kind to hire or partner with people who are ‘different’ in any way before really discussing, learning and changing the ways that exclude people in every aspect of your organizational culture.

Start with where it is you and your organization sit.

First, have open, honest and responsible conversations: What informs the work you do (the joys and the realities)? Why are you where you are now? Where do you want to be? What the are resources you have to get there? What are potential barriers you’re facing? What support do you need in addition to what you already have? What are first steps? How will you sustain your work?

Then, do research. What already exists? What can you learn from? What can you reasonably and responsibly contribute?

And finally, be intentional and genuine about the language you use.

Underlying all of this is a deeper understanding of the systemic marginalization of people — being aware of this and working towards something different — towards all being valued.

We're huge fans of collaboration and building meaningful relationship at Propelle. Can you say more about how those two pieces bring about change when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

They’re everything! How we interact, understand, love and have conflict are all impacted by our collaboration and relationship. It has been shown, and felt personally in our lives, that the more we relate and partner with another human/group of humans the more we can really see them and have empathy with them and their struggles. The more we have that, the more they can share that goodness with us as well.

And that, that is what creates a happy, healthy world.

Creating lasting change often starts from the inside out. What questions can we be asking ourselves to unlearn the beliefs and prejudices we carry with us?

Bias is in us. Some of it is relevant and important, like not walking in front of a moving car for protection. But most is to separate ourselves, making others lesser than us, less trustworthy than us.

We cannot rid ourselves of many of the immediate judgements that pop into our heads and hearts. But we can act with love and humility, and not react with fear and hurt.

We can challenge our thoughts towards change.

We can ask ourselves:

  • What is this?
  • Where did it come from - both inside of me and within our society?
  • What do I really think?
  • What is really going on here?
  • What is a way to act in this moment that upholds my and the other person’s humanity?
  • What do I need as support to change the ways I think and feel?

We can and must change.

What's the bottom line here when it comes to business growth and sustainability? (In other words, why should businesses and solopreneurs care about this stuff?)

All of our cares and struggles are interwoven. If you are doing well, caring for yourself and succeeding, that impacts us — our mood, our lives, our business, our city. Additionally, if Pittsburgh is a place where small businesses thrive while providing great services, that really does make this city a better place for everyone to live and ends up creating more business.

If for no other reason: from an economic productivity standpoint, we know if there is promotion of diversity in people and thought, there is more success, more effectiveness within organizations. And that has the power to spread.

And again, our cares and struggles are interwoven. The challenges faced by a white, native Pittsburgh woman who opens a business is not the same as a person who is a refugee from Nepal that opens a business; and there is commonality, sharing and mutual growth that can occur with learning from and supporting each other.

Famous last words... What advice would you give to women who are looking to contribute to the greater tapestry of social change?

Know yourself. Educate and learn about history, about current day struggles, about organizational structures that support diversity of people and of mind. Build relationships and connect to others, especially those who feel really different than you. Be tender with yourself and those around you. Be bold in yourself and encourage bravery among those around you. Allow vulnerability to wash over you.