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What Does Inclusion Really Mean?

I was invited by a colleague to listen to Anthony Abraham Jack’s Ted Talk and was reminded about access and inclusion. We toss these terms around like we know what they really mean. To add some perspective, here’s a short story.

Picture Southern Arizona, 1997 at the height of the AIDS pandemic, and people were wandering down the fine line of potential medical treatment versus death by treatment. I was asked to take an experimental idea of community inclusion and engage young people to learn how they thought the world needed to change to protect. I was floored when I heard them say that they were absolutely not welcomed anywhere. I asked how they knew this, and they were quite clear, “there are no photos of gay people. We never see a rainbow sticker or welcome. What we get is chastised for being sexual, harassed for putting ourselves at risk, and told we are sexual deviants that need to die.” While these young people had access to HIV counseling and testing, they did not have inclusion.

Together we created a rating program for all the HIV services in the city of Tucson at the time. Youth would rate the agency from the first phone call to the final visit and any follow-up. They made a note of the “absence” of welcoming messages, rainbow iconography, and the overall “feel” of the waiting room. They rated the receptionists for microaggressions and the clinicians for how they were treated. They did their observations anonymously and then made appointments with clinic leaders to have a conversation once their assessment was complete. They were fearless! They changed their community and increased access and inclusion for young LGBTQI folks in Southern Arizona. In a nutshell, these young people were given a few tools, support and guidance, and the opportunity to make a difference. It was that simple. And at the time, it was a monumental shift in how to do inclusion work well.

Fast forward twenty years, and there’s a TEDx talk about this new understanding. Mr. Jack’s entire point was the privilege of educational access. There are thousands of us on the ground who have been doing this work since we were conscious, and we remain unheard. Many of us have been shuttered, silenced, removed, canceled, and most especially avoided. We confront oppression at every turn, and we are told that we do not understand. When I started this work, we created the paradigms that are now considered foundational theories for deconstructing racism. My point is this. We don’t need to do 18 billion dollars in academic research to determine the best course of action. What we need is to recenter our frontline workers in this country as the voices of change. We need to ask academia to step aside and support us in our work and not the other way around. Where are you when we need you? I am called constantly to partner as a volunteer so that I can give my experience away. My “lived experience” is so valuable so that a box can be checked. However, what we really know is ignored. What we understand to be scientifically sound work is pushed aside for the next new theory.

In the end, I applaud Mr. Jack’s work. That’s hardly the point. The point is far simpler. It took almost 25 years for academia to research and document what has been happening in this country all along. Without inclusion, the thousands of us, who are over 50 years of age, have been professionals for at least 25 years and have been shepherding this work continue to be silenced. I was just told last week from two different sources, “you are too White” and “you don’t have a doctorate.”

I will make one final point. I spent most of 2020 coaching White women to confront their racism. These women have been fighting oppression all their lives. They have marched, voted, and worked alongside oppressed communities. Many of them have volunteered their time to support others in need. Over the past year, they have had been told to sit down and shut up. They had been told that their White skin equals misunderstanding and a lack of true empathy. I had nothing to teach them. They had nothing to learn from me. They were advocates of the most stalwart makeup. In fact, they were worried well taking every step to be personally responsible. They taught me everything I needed to understand about how twisted we have become. One of these teachers of mine (they hardly needed my coaching) chose to take a stand and directly confront oppression. She was removed from most of her leadership roles. She is happier than ever, and the systemic oppression of silencing the “loud, angry advocate” did not work. Regardless of her education, her lived experience is what is meaningful. Her voice and her commitment became her motivating force. She is my hero because she embodies inclusion. I say this to women all the time, “We live in a country where the GOP is actively fighting to legislate cisgender and transgender women’s bodies. We live in a world where it is culturally acceptable to discuss removing women’s human rights. We live in a country where White men are trying anything and everything to maintain legislative control over our lives. Now, let’s talk about inclusion!!!

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