Last Wednesday, I went on an adventure. My destination was Des Moines, Iowa, a place that until last week I would not have been able to find on a map without some serious help. I was on a quest to meet a few hundred people who had very similar visions of progress in America, all coming together under the banner and organizational capacity of the New Leaders Council. This Council is a national non-profit whose mission is to train the next generation of leaders who are committed to progressive action and reform in America, and I was going there as a brand new graduate of the 2019 Detroit chapter cohort. Over the next 4 days there, the lessons I learned from the connections I made will have a permanent and unforgettable place in my heart. In this space, not only did I give a Spark! Talk about Making the Invisible Visible for Better Inclusion, but I also found my national tribe, connected with some powerfully inspiring leaders, and, truly belonged. My NLC family is a bunch of passionate geniuses that are going to change the world for the better, precisely because of their passion and vision for diversity, equity and inclusion. So, it is as a humble tribute to my NLC Family that I share some of these lessons on Inclusion in this post.
Lessons on Inclusion – Point #1: Inclusion is powerfully natural and nearly automatic when you create belongingness.
Over the past few weeks, I have emphasized the importance of the need to belong in my blog posts. I have highlighted this particular foundation of my LEGupward Framework in a myriad of ways. Then, I experienced its manifestation in its full glory at the NLC National Convention. I felt seen, heard, and, more importantly, I felt valued and cherished, because I finally found a community to belong to. I thrived in that environment as I created connections with others and networked into the wee hours of the night (or early morning, as it were). I ran on less than three hours of sleep every night, yet I was energized to keep connecting, and to keep adding my value to my new family. Moving forward, I know that I will be forever invested in them because of their part in empowering me to feel cherished, by actually cherishing me.
Lessons on Inclusion – Point #2: Profound growth and life-changing progress start with the simplest conversations.
I didn’t know any of the people at the NLC National Convention, other than the others who joined me from the Detroit chapter. But, I didn’t have any trouble connecting with them. Most of these connections started with just, “Hi! I haven’t met you yet. I’m AJ from the Detroit chapter.” From there, they slowly grew and transformed into the some of the most intimately challenging and inspiring conversations I have ever had in my life. As I interacted with these few hundred people, the scope and sheer numbers disappeared, and every single conversation turned into a one-on-one connection, with depth and appreciation for each other’s work and journey in life. We exchanged ideas and fostered an environment of collaboration, camaraderie and support, while never forgetting the mission that we are collectively aspiring toward. You will be seeing some of these ideas come into fruition, from my end, over the course of the next few months. I will also be highlighting the work of my other NLC Family members in a new section of my blog weekly so you can see how our conversations are bringing about change in our communities and society.
Lessons on Inclusion – Point #3: Everyone can work past the stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions that they bring to any situation, if they are willing to work on themselves with an open mind.
I talked about stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination in a previous post. I mentioned the universality of stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes, even while the specific stereotypes and prejudice are different for different people. In this NLC National Convention environment, I witnessed how people’s openness to change and learn can dispel our previous assumptions, rapidly and tangibly. For instance, in my opinion, one of the biggest stereotypes that the majority of us had was about the location – Des Moines, Iowa. Many of us had thoughts along the line of, “What in the world is in Iowa? How could it possibly be fun?” I was one of the people who thought this way, and I am beyond glad to have been proven wrong. The hospitality of the local chapter, their openness and efforts to introduce us to the beauty of their city, and, my willingness to explore the city with other participants was transformative in blowing all of our assumptions out of the water. We learned to see Des Moines through the eyes of our local brothers and sisters, and we came to have a much more meaningful appreciation for its nuances and shades. Moving forward, I know I have friends I can visit there, and it is a place that I will be taking my toddler to, so she can learn about its rich history and beauty. It was a teachable moment on the wonders of connecting with an open mind and a desire to learn and understand more than what you already think you know.
Lessons on Inclusion – Point #4: Microaggressions happen to everyone, and affect everyone involved.
Just as everyone has stereotypes and deals with internal prejudice, people also have micraggressions that are perpetuated by them or against them. Not a single one of us is immune to participating in microaggressions until we become intentional about being conscious and conscientious about our language, communication and behavior. The reason I bring this up as a lesson of inclusion is because of the particularly unique makeup of the focused and dedicated group of individuals at the NLC Convention. They helped me experience how to resolve awkwardness beautifully, tactfully, and immediately. I was in situations where microaggressions happened, and were immediately put in the spotlight, addressed, and, resolved successfully. They were not minimized, explained away or erased. They were dealt with. Period.
Lessons on Inclusion – Point #5: You need everyone’s buy in to make Inclusion intentional, sustainable and lasting.
There is not enough that can be said about the intentionality of inclusion for it to be sustainable. I talked about it in several previous posts. The NLC convention was a real life exemplification of it in practice, and, it was truly stunning to experience. With about 350 people at the Convention, there were plenty of extroverts, introverts, and everyone else along the spectrum of social interactivity. The convention had a space for all of us. It was glaringly obvious that it was created to allow this space for all of us. And, everyone respected this set up, bought into it, adhered to it, and respected its sanctity. I have not experienced this level of dedication to honoring every person there too many times before. So, for a newcomer to such a space, it was magnificent as much as it was magical.
Ultimately, this NLC Convention experience is one that I will cherish and love for a lifetime. It exposed me to perspectives I would not have known of otherwise, and, it taught me lessons in the simplest yet most profound ways that I could learn them. I met people that I hope will be friends, colleagues and co-visionaries for the rest of my life. I witnessed and experienced talks and conversations that expanded my horizons beyond anything I could have previously dreamt up. And, NLC gave me a space to thrive as it taught me about the experience of inclusion, almost exactly as I envisioned it in my framework. At the end of the three days, I came back home to my NLC Detroit Family. I formed deeper bonds with my local Detroit members: DeAndree, our Chapter Director, Nguvu, our Vice Director, Reda, DK, Esmat, and, most importantly, my sweet convention roommate and sister, Kayla. This is where I started my journey this year. For all this and more, I move forward as a better person and a stronger advocate for inclusion.