Diversity and inclusion are hot topics. Cognitive diversity is the latest buzz. When I think of diversity and inclusion, I think of a bell curve. The diverse live on the edge of the bell and the rest of us live uniformly under the bell.
Inclusion means bringing those on the edge back underneath the bell. We are seeking to make them more uniform. We are working to “include” them in our world.
I think we have it backward. Maybe inclusion should not be about bringing them back in, but rather allowing them to help us see things differently. And I say this as a white male who had been living comfortably under the bell.
Four years ago, our family was catapulted to experience life on the edge. A rocket ship arrived to transport us to a new reality when our daughter was driven away in an ambulance due to mental illness. She has since been to almost every emergency room in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, been in and out of treatment programs, and twice lived away at residential facilities. Our lives have been turned upside down in ways words can’t describe.
My wife and I have been repeatedly blamed by therapists, child protective services twice pulled our other kids from school, and we are often looked at with disdain as we arrive at the hospital. We are viewed skeptically based not on facts, but rather on assumptions and preconceived notions. That pattern has played out so often that I have found myself repeatedly asking: “What did we do to deserve this? People are judging us based on assumptions rather than facts. People don’t even bother to get the facts. At every turn, we have to prove ourselves. It’s guilty until proven innocent.”
Then I realized something Barak Obama said to the effect, “White folks have no idea of the world in which we live where we constantly have to prove ourselves – We are guilty until proven innocent. We are not given the benefit of doubt. But rather decisions and judgments are based on assumptions and preconceived notions.” It hit me, “This new universe is the one in which they live. It is the universe on the edge of the bell curve. A universe where you are looked at skeptically not because of who you are but because of what others assume you to be.”
As we spent years living in this new reality, I often asked: “Where is everyone? We are so alone?” The response was consistently the same: “We don’t know what to do or say. And we don’t want to say the wrong thing.” I then made it my mission to share how others could help. I thought we are not the only ones going through this. And no one seems to know what to do or say. But I was stuck. What could others do or say to help? How can you help someone when they are no longer like you? How can you help someone when there is no apparent solution?
What finally answered my questions and woke me up was my daughter’s friend. My daughter met this friend at a residential facility, and she was now living in foster care. She was at our house one day, and I asked her how she liked her foster family. She said something that forever changed me: “They’re nice. But they want to fix me. Everyone wants to fix me. I’m not broken. I don’t want to be fixed.”
I sat with that statement for a long time. I’m a fixer. Most of us are fixers. We all want to fix it. We don’t like it when people’s journeys change. We want to bring them back under the bell. But maybe in the end it’s not about fixing. Maybe it’s about accepting and appreciating.
And that’s when it occurred to me. Mental illness is often not like physical illness. There is often no fixing. Just a change in journey. A journey to a new universe of perspective. A new perspective that is hard and scary. But one that brings tremendous benefits for those who value growth. In the 7% of my life that I have been on this journey, my growth has been exponential compared with the previous 93% of my life comfortably underneath the bell. I have been given an opportunity to experience life from a different set of eyes. I get the best of both worlds. I get to experience life from two very different “universes.”
And that’s where I think we have diversity and inclusion backwards. With our inclusion programs, success is often based on melding “them” into “our” world. But when we do that, it’s a lose-lose proposition. To those on the edge we inadvertently send a message – “You need to be fixed. You have little value to society just as you are. To be useful you need to be like us.” And to those under the bell, by seeking to bring “them” into “our” world we lose the unique opportunity to see life through their eyes. When we seek “inclusion” of those on the edge, we condense the bell and the intensity of the uniformity increases.
But when we value those on the edge simply for being who they are, we expand the bell by moving out to their world. And it becomes a win-win proposition. Those on the edge feel validated/appreciated simply for being who they are. And we underneath the bell (if we are open to change and receptive to growth) have the opportunity to experience life in new ways through sharing in their unique perspective. When we seek “expansion” of our world out to theirs, we grow the bell, and uniformity evolves to variety.
Instead of seeking “inclusion” maybe we should be seeking “expansion.” That shifts the message of “how can we fix you” to “how can we learn from you.” And what greater message can we give to those living the difficult life on the edge than to say: “I have changed and grown because of you.”
Special thank you to Susan Flood, CFMA’s Director of Art and Design, for the graphics and below pictorial. Susan and her husband, Joe, have a 14.5-year-old son with Down syndrome. His name is Leo, he is the light of their lives, and he has expanded their world.
The author would also like to thank Cal Beyer for helping to facilitate the sharing of this personal story of mental health. I was introduced to Cal through a mutual industry colleague and we’ve begun collaborating. Beyer is Vice President, Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing for CSDZ, a Holmes Murphy company, and the peer coordinator for this monthly column in CFMA BP Content Hub.