I have always loved reading. I read not only for knowledge but because learning is a form of entertainment for me. It is typical for me to consume a book a week, occasionally two. I love the crisp sound of a narrated audiobook just as much as the intoxicating scent of an old book store. Inhale.
My interest in reading has, in many ways, brought me to where I am. An organizational psychologist who focuses on racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. A person who is curious for the sake of simply being curious and someone who seeks opportunities to challenge my assumptions.
Whether your commitment to learning leads you to formal education, classes, readings, conversations, or even observations of people on the street, for many of us, the irony is that the more we learn, the more we realize we have to learn. Curiosity continuously births new understanding. That knowledge that we just see the tip of the iceberg can be both humbling and the push we need to help us become a better version of ourselves as we ask what we are missing.
An abundance of ideas, ways of thinking, being and demonstrating culture and values challenge our ability to become locked into one way of thinking. Or do they? Most people I encounter (assuming they are not experiencing a period of significant trauma) indicate that learning is a priority for them. But what does that mean when we live in an ever-changing world? Is learning for learning’s sake welcome when we encounter daily information overload? To what extent are we allowing ourselves to engage with various perspectives versus carefully cultivating a learning experience aimed at reinforcing our beliefs? Is intentionality built into our learning path, or are we just consuming what is made available?
This line of inquiry brings me back to my focus area. More than ever, our work environments are in constant flux and coupled with paradoxes. We ask that our teams understand cultural similarities and differences while acknowledging that culture is ever-changing. We ask that the dominant culture make space for voices that are underrepresented and also that they contribute their own thoughts to the conversation. So, what exactly are we supposed to focus on learning when the concepts of DEI can be hard to digest or, at times, outright exhausting, especially when the why behind these responses may look different for each individual?
Exhale. There isn’t one correct answer. Multiple things can be and are often true at once. So the opportunity is more, which will we attend to and when?
I am still working on striking the right balance for myself, but what is presently showing up is a focus on cultivating content knowledge coupled with the development of self. There are days when I can consume vast amounts of information like nobody’s business. Read a new book? “Sure.” Listen to a few podcast episodes? “No problem.” Contemplate the meaning of life. “Hey, what time do we start?” And, there are the days where the only information I can handle is that which uplifts. At those times, I turn to experiences that are in service of my nourishment and well-being. Those that allow me to reflect, dream, or just breathe.
When I emerge out of these respites, I’ve strengthened my ability to take on the task of advocating for the issues I care about anew.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a coaching client about cultural competencies. This person also happened to be a DEI practitioner. As we discussed their lens on the world and interactions with people from other cultures, they said matter of factly, “I don’t need to know about this group of people. I know enough.” Whoa! Pause for an uncomfortable sixty seconds! This framing might have been triggering to me on a good day coming from anyone, but hearing this messaging from someone who works on diversity, equity, and inclusion stung. To be clear, I am not making the case that DEI professionals have mastered cultural competencies. Instead, I would submit that we must consistently lean into our own growth and unacknowledged biases if we want to support others effectively. And there was something else there that kept me coming back to that conversation.
The experience may have temporarily caught me off guard, but it was a critical inflection point. As I reflected on the conversation, I had to urge my mind and body not to accept the first insight that came my way. Yes, I trust my instincts, and experience has taught me there are other truths in the world. So, with that in mind, I had to ask myself, what would it take to move from a state of shock (anger, frustration, etc.) to curiosity? What factors uplift or derail our self-awareness and focus on content when faced with new learning (i.e., “I don’t need to know”)? What was present in this interaction? To what extent are we able to effectively learn when there are limiting beliefs acting as gatekeepers to future knowledge?
I won’t expand upon the conversation because what followed is not my story to tell. Though I can say, it left me wondering what stands in the way of our learning when we think we know enough.
What is standing in our way of deepening cultural competencies? Why do many of us run from this conversation?
At times many of us will sense the proverbial curtain coming down. We might be physically present, but we have mentally checked out. We no longer have the capacity to attend to the topic at hand. Cue the comments, “Why are we always talking about race?”
As we commit to our learning, one strategy we can utilize is naming where we find ourselves getting stuck. There is an inherent power in being able to express what we are experiencing. This naming may be verbal. It might include the emotions and sensations that emerge within our bodies. Am I frustrated, worried, or distracted? Is this topic one that surfaces a past trauma or something I cannot deal with presently? What might be contributing to my hesitancy? As we name our experiences, we have an opportunity to explore further and consciously determine a course of action.
In your childhood, how often did you have an opportunity to explore why you were learning a particular topic? Subjects like reading or mathematics are taught daily as a part of the standard curriculum. Yet, when a child asks why they must focus on these subjects, the answers don’t always go deep enough. “Reading is important.” “Don’t you want to be able to count your change at the store?”
These are certainly answers, but they fail to get to the essence of the underlying question: why does this matter to me? When we find ourselves challenged by the idea of embracing new knowledge, we can pause and ask ourselves, what about this topic is important to me? How will my life look different if I focus my learning in this area? What will I stand to gain from this experience? What losses might I encounter if I choose not to engage?
What’s My Goal
What are your top priorities in work and life? Chances are, you can name at least a handful of related goals. What are they, securing your dream role, learning to play the guitar, maybe building generational wealth? There are as many goals as there are people.
When you find yourself pushing back against opportunities to engage differently, you might ask yourself how better understanding cultural competencies would support your ability to achieve your goal. What difference would achieving these goals make in your life? Where might these new learnings overlap with future plans? How willing are you to push through the barriers named to achieve your goals?
The reality is that at some point, we have all hidden behind feelings of discomfort, inadequacy, exhaustion, and so forth. We may have stepped up to the line but failed to crossover because (fill in your reason). While also failing to keep our eyes trained on our larger goals and values. So, when you feel that resistance bubbling up, do yourself a favor and look in the mirror; you might just find a new path forward.
If you are looking to engage in conversations and work that take you beyond your comfort zone and challenge you to do something differently, consider joining us at our upcoming Reimagining Racial Equity learning-intensive, launching on September 20th.