You have probably heard the quote stated that “Diversity is being asked to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance.” However, I really find it to be thought-provoking when some add “but belonging is having my music playing.” I’m currently writing this after I have just dropped my daughter off for her first dance. It seems my little girl is headed into her Middle School years, and regardless of whether or not my brain can catch up to reality, those are the facts. Things are changing, and this change is good. From the moment she set foot onto the grounds of this school that she started at only 3 and a half months ago, she has been included. That inclusion has felt very, very nice like a warm blanket or a soft, glowing fireplace on an icy night. This school that she is studying in is characterized by diversity. It is an international school here in Singapore with students and teachers from many countries. I am sitting in the lobby waiting to pick her up, staring at a row of flags from more countries than my tired brain can quickly count on a Friday night at 7pm. One of most surprising moments of inclusion this year was when she was chosen to be the only girl to join the boys tackle rugby team, a step beyond what other schools have ever been willing to facilitate for my sportsy girl. One of the most beautiful moments of inclusion this semesters was the soccer team she got to play on this season with mostly girls who are in 6thgrade, even though she is only in 5th. She was warmly embraced by this friendly team of girls who speak many different languages in their homes, but on the field, they all speak soccer. (They speak it quite well I might add as they just won the first place trophy this season. Proud mom moment shamelessly inserted here.)
It has felt like a home cooked meal to see my daughter be included in the midst of this diversity of students, especially in places where it took the open mindedness of a rugby coach to see her as an athlete first and a girl second. I do not know what kind of music they are playing at the dance tonight, but my daughter informed me on the ride over that she knew the DJ and was already planning to request a Marshmallow song. So, my motherly hope for her is that at this dance, which is intended to welcome 5thgraders who are leaving their primary years and entering the secondary years in 6thgrade soon, she will feel included.
Inclusion feels so nice, and it is both a good feeling on the receiving end as well as on the including end. We barely had gotten through the door into the school lobby earlier when racing across from the other side were 8 girls who are 6thgraders and played with my daughter on her soccer team ran up screaming her name with glee and hugging her one-by-one. The 6thgraders are eager to welcome in the new 5thgraders, but this was way more of a regal welcome than she had anticipated. I saw her smile, and I knew she was going to be ok tonight on her first dance. Inclusion. It is what makes schools, businesses, churches, societies, organizations and other social groups embrace the different ones, the new ones, the ones who do not yet belong, the ones we never pictured belonging. Belonging is the step forward and deeper where we not only ask newcomers to assimilate to our way, but we learn from their way and allow each of us to have an expression of ourselves in the group. There will be multiple songs to dance to up in the auditorium tonight where 11- 14 year-olds are showing off their moves and laughing and enjoying being young, but I do hope that as this school has shown my daughter and many other students around the world who have come here that each student can hear at least once tonight a song there is their music, and that it helps them know that they truly belong.
It’s World Autism Awareness Day as I write this, and our family has enjoyed wearing blue and seeing buildings in Singapore light up blue for years now. It is the one day there is a visible sign to those with Autism to say “we see you.” Some would say days like this do not do enough, and others say it is no longer needed. There are many who say it was never needed as it implies those with Autism need to be cured instead of being included just as they are. Wherever you stand on this issue, I will say that I have enjoyed listening to all those voices and opinions, especially those that I have the privilege of hearing in person. In reading the strikingly written perspectives of those on the Autism spectrum, such as the many books by the insightful Temple Grandin or hearing her brilliant Ted Talks, I have begun to understand the perspective of at least that one person. If you spend even a short amount of time listening in the Autism community, you will hear the commonly quoted phrase that when you meet “someone with Autism, you have just met one person with Autism.” There is such diversity even within those on similar positions on the spectrum itself. Autistics are certainly not a monolith. There is diversity where each individual is unique. It illustrates beautifully the truth that we still as human beings seem to struggle with grasping that we are all uniquely and beautifully different in more ways than just our fingerprints. However, we do so love to generalize, stereotype, and shove people into proverbial boxes. It is our brain trying to categorize and organize what should be left to fly on it’s on-free from the constraints we place on individuals. We often fear what we do not understand, and in our fear we exclude. What we should be afraid of, however, is the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out in case you “missed out” on that one) of not including those who are different from us. In not including others who are different from us, we miss the chance to grow, to expand our perspective, to be in awe of the struggle and triumph of others who seem to walk on a different plane from us all together. We miss the chance to learn how to love more deeply, to appreciate what we have or can do, or the opportunity to work together to help make our communities better places for all of us to enjoy a quality of life with mutual benefit.
Last Saturday, my husband and I went out to breakfast with a couple that lives in our neighborhood. Over some prata and curry with some Malay coffee at our local street stall, we shared stories about our kids and the joys and struggles of parenting. This couple has 4 children, and their 22-year-old has lived 19 of his years nonverbally. He is Autistic, and also a couple of years ago suffered from a seizure that led to him being rushed into brain surgery that resulted in memory loss and being wheel-chair bound ever since. The love that these parents who have sacrificed so much for him while working as a taxi driver and a supermarket cashier was deeply touching and eye-opening. The wife said that her world was so wrapped up in her son that if something ever happened to him, she was not sure if she would survive it. This was coming from a mom who did not even hear her own son say the Malay word for mom until he was 19-years-old! Instead of a 1-year-old saying “Mommy” for the first time, tears rolled down her face after waiting 19 years to hear her son say it, never knowing if he in fact ever would. The amount of love they had communicated between each other for all those years was completely without words, but clearly never devoid of fully expressing the depths of their familial love for each other. This couple was going to great lengths to provide the very best for their son who due to his wheel chair status was unable to attend school. They were paying out of their low income paycheck (in what is the most expensive city in the world for the past 5 years running) to send their son to a private school for students on the Autism spectrum.
This mother with great hope had recently walked into a community service program area in our neighborhood that provides elderly family members who are in wheelchairs some social interaction during the day while their caregivers are at work. This mom was quickly told that her son was not welcome there as they did not include those with Autism in this wheelchair friendly program. She was devasted, as she only wanted her son to be included in some social interaction while he cannot attend school. Her heartbreak broke my heart too, and from one mother to another, I wanted so much to comfort her. It did not seem like too much to ask, but there are many systems that still exclude those who seem “too different” or “too much.”
Now when I walk around my neighborhood, I see it all so differently. When I cross the street and stand in the median to wait for the city bus to pass before I fully cross to the other side, I am reminded that my friend pushing her son in the wheelchair cannot do that. She has to go further down and cross where there is a ramp, and allow extra time to do so since it takes quite a bit longer. If it is raining, and I am out and about with my umbrella, I am now aware of how challenging it must be for this mom and son. How do you hold an umbrella for yourself while pushing a wheelchair in the rain and puddles while also aiding the son in the wheelchair to hold his large umbrella to cover himself plus his wheelchair? Suddenly, I am cognizant of the challenges simple short jaunts to pick up milk at 7-11 must be like for them, and I am sad at the lack of inclusion for my friend and her son that she loves so much. It makes me want to do something about it, and help in any way I can. I would never have known about this strikingly different experience in my own neighborhood had I not listened and gotten to know this Malay couple in my neighborhood who live so near me and yet so far away from my experience. It makes me wonder how differently all of us are experiencing the exact same neighborhoods, and cities in our own ways. It makes me wonder how much we could do to help each other and how much we could learn to appreciate what works for us. I am now even more curious to find out how we can listen better to each other in ways that teach each of us about sacrifice, selflessness, loyalty and deep love as I was so blessed to learn about from this mother who cared so deeply for her son. Going out of our way to listen and include those around us that seem so different is a simple yet profound experience. If we could trade in fear and apprehension for a heart and an ear extended, I believe love will grow in our communities. It would mean that the blue lights that we shine would represent a desire to include those who are excluded and realize that by including them, we are also allowing them to include us.
Picture the following jobs in our societies for just a minute: policeman, nurse, teacher, President, librarian, farmer, pilot, and theologian. Now, imagine a person of the opposite gender than the one you originally pictured in each of those roles. Was it hard or easy to switch the gender you had pictured?
I led my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop in Cupertino, California last year in that activity as we learned about stereotypes for a badge requirement. Each girl drew a picture of the jobs listed. Then, they had to draw a person of the opposite gender as the librarian, farmer, etc. Even for 4th grade girls growing up in Silicon Valley, they had been socialized with stereotypes already. We cannot help it. We are a product of the cultures we grow up in, and we absolutely absorb what we observe and what we hear.
We all have stereotypes that we are fed by the societies in which we live. Without any choice of our own, they became a part of our way of seeing the world. We can control, however, whether we will make the choice to actively strive to discover what those stereotypes we inherently believe are, and we also have the power to reframe our own thinking that limits what we believe individuals are able to do in our societal circles. Stereotypes hurt all of us- both the one holding the stereotype and the one whom we interact with that we have put into an overly restrictive box.
What if some of the greatest world problems of our day are currently not being solved due largely to the stereotypes we hold about who can attempt to solve them and how? What if nuclear disarmament, the cure for cancer, public school dysfunction, how to colonize Mars, how to handle immigration, the abortion debate, international trade agreements, and protection from systemic church abuse could all be solved if we only brought people to the table that our stereotypes would otherwise not allow? You see, diversity of perspective gives us a more holistic view. Each of us is largely limited to the view that our gender and our culture allows us to see it through. We desperately need each other’s point of view if we are to find the solutions to the problems we collectively face.
In studying for my Sociology major in college, Dr. Penny Marler taught us that we all see the world through a specific set of lenses. In taking off those lenses and seeing the world through another set of lenses, we begin to see the same world we have always looked at in a completely different way. Suddenly, the world we thought we knew has become unfamiliar, but if we take the time to appreciate it, we can often find that our way was not the only way nor even the best way. Changing lenses gives us the chance to be enriched with the perspectives of others, but it may take a while with the new lenses on for things to really come into focus.
When my husband and I first lived in Sumatra, the local tourist book had a quote in it that made us laugh because it was such a culturally different way of approaching how to find out where one was going if one was lost. In the event of being lost, and trying to find one’s way, the book suggested to “ask a lot of different people to get an average direction.” For years, we would laugh out loud at this when we were ever in need of stopping to ask directions, as we in our Western thinking would have preferred to just ask only one person who would actually tell us the exact way to go. However, over my 20 years of living in Southeast Asia, I have begun to understand and appreciate the spirit behind this advice. Why ask only one person, when you could get the input and perspective of many different points of view? Maybe the scenic route will help you avoid traffic and give you a less stressful, more enjoyable drive with surprises of majestic views. Why ask only one person to help you solve this problem when you would get the chance to hear the perspective a whole group of different people from different age groups and walks of life to add a more well rounded point of view? Maybe you would even make some friends along the way. We have certainly taken some surprise alternate routes that led to some unplanned but seriously fun family memories along the way. Last year, we drove from Cupertino, California down to Los Angeles, and decided we would take Highway 1. We had all the kids in the car, gasping at the iconic views of the towering Northern California cliffs adjacent to the crashes of Pacific Ocean waves splashing foamy, white sprays up against the sides. We had not yet realized that a section of Highway 1 had been closed. So, we were forced to take a windy, mountain road close to the sunset hour that some of the locals advised against taking. It was one of those unforgettable family memories that have become legendary because of how long that trip took versus how long it should have taken. However, we all now can recall an image in our minds of standing out in a mountain-top field after sunset with an ebony sky so filled with stars that we all jumped out of the car to gaze upon it together. For our urbanite family used to high rise living, this was a rare sight. The scenic route, although way longer than it should have been, will remain one of our favorite family road trip memories.
In spite of all of this, I cannot say that when I stop to ask for directions, I do not still hope to find one person, whether a man or a woman, either young or old to give me the quickest, most efficient way to get from point A to point B. That is absolutely what I am going for unless I’m on vacation driving in the the South of France or the Irish countryside-in which case, give me the scenic route. However, I have learned to embrace this Sumatran wisdom of taking the extra time to listen to all kinds of people, from all different walks of life. Indeed, I have begun to seek that out, not because I am lost, but because it has indeed made the journey much sweeter along the way.
As I read the headlines of the abuse of power in Southern Baptist and Catholic churches, of how partisan politics, generations of racism, and unabashed sexism are ripping apart the fabric of American society, I am reminded that humanity can have a tendency to sabotage itself. When we think we have all the answers, or those who look or think or act like us are the only ones with the answers, we must take a hard look at discerning whether maybe we have inadvertently created systems that silence voices. We could go on walking the same path as always, or we could be brave enough to do the hard work of taking an alternate route or digging deep to carve out a new path to see what we find. Our introspection must ask whether we unknowingly take part in systems that oppress others to the degree that we sabotage not only those we are suppressing but also whether we are missing out on being a part of a system that if more voices were incorporated would achieve new levels of which we never even dared to consider that benefit all of us. This is a call to increase the diversity of voices we listen to and incorporate into the systems of which we are a part.
Diversity is one of the reasons I love cities, and in particular the city where I live, which happens to be the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Singapore is known for its harmony within diversity. It is one if the reasons it is a great nation, and many would say it is a main factor in its unprecedented speed and rise from a developing to a developed nation in a short period of time. Many Singaporeans would likely say that “in the uncertain, complex and often volatile global environment we live in, our diversity can be our greatest strength.”
Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area a couple of different times, I have acquired a respect and admiration for the giant redwood trees. My husband and I spent our first two years of marriage in Marin County, and used to take any chance we could to go walk among the majestic sequoias of Muir Woods, hiking through and marveling at these giants and recalling images of ewoks from Star Wars where those scenes were just so aptly chosen to be filmed. On our 2nd anniversary we drove from Mill Valley up to Eureka to stay in a bed and breakfast and hike in the Redwood Forest near the Oregon border. The otherworldly Avenue of the Giants made such an impression on us, that last year on our 21st anniversary, we returned to stay in a bed and breakfast in Eureka and hike among these beautiful towers of grandiose creation once again. One of the most shocking pieces of information I learned about these beauties is that even though the tallest among them is 379 feet and they can grow 2-3 feet annually, these trees have shallow root systems that spread over one hundred feet from the base, intertwining with the roots of other redwoods around them. This increases their stability during strong winds and floods. I believe that as human beings we can take a few lessons from these redwoods in terms of how they rely on each other for weathering life’s storms and rising up to the sun above them. Relying on others, and understanding that when we help each other rise, we all rise together to new heights that we would have otherwise never achieved.
Study after study shows that diversity in teams and in decision making produces better, more effective decisions that are more holistic, including this one that shows that diverse teams “make better business decisions 87 percent of the time.” Research has shown that diversity helps and the lack of it actually hurts organizations. This study by McKinsey and Company shows that the “companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median. Companies in the top quartile of racial/ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median. Companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnicity/race were statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns than the average companies in the dataset (that is, they were not just not leading, they were lagging).” Simply put, diversity helps us achieve more, and the lack of it puts us behind.
Companies that have realized that women in leadership help them be more successful are starting to have initiatives that actively seek out qualified women and recruit them for leadership positions. As the international company Accenture has discovered, “When she rises, we all rise.” Therefore, they have a goal of a gender balanced workplace by 2025 with goals such as “a diverse leadership team that sets, shares and measures equality targets openly.” They have also realized that raising awareness about not judging women by their looks, giving women flexible hours and respecting boundaries will help women rise. Also “when companies encourage parental leave — i.e., where men can also take leave — the negative impact on women’s career advancement is eliminated completely.” CEO’s are beginning to take notice that in order for innovation to push forward, diversity and inclusion must be sought after in their companies. F5’s CEO’s Action for Diversity & Inclusion says “Research shows that diversity increases creativity and innovation, promotes higher quality decisions, and enhances economic growth. Simply put, organizations with diverse teams perform better. Collective action on diversity from the business community matters more than ever.” In fact, many multinational companies have implemented goals and strategies to achieve greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace for women in particular.
I also appreciate the successful steps Singapore has taken to value the contribution and voice of women in the workplace and in politics. The current President Madam Halimah Yacob is grateful for her position, and also realizes there is room to grow. She is quoted as saying, “The danger is, because we’ve always been a harmonious society, we can become complacent, we don’t understand that there’s a lot of work that we need to do in order to generate that understanding.” For gender equality in work and society, Singapore is in the top tier of Asia Pacific as a whole. Although Singapore is already one of the most progressive countries on gender equality in Asia Pacific, “Singapore has started to address underrepresentation of women at the board level through initiatives such as BoardAgender, which seeks to increase the number of women serving at this level by raising awareness of the benefits of gender-balanced businesses and by encouraging more women to contribute their expertise in the boardroom.”
On a trip to Vancouver and Victoria last year to visit my aunt and cousin, I smiled as my cab driver described how as a Canadian, he welcomed immigrants to come to Vancouver because he relished the diversity of culture, cuisines, and other contributions that immigrants brought with them that is perpetually improving the quality of life in Vancouver. The diversity is what makes Vancouver the vibrant city that it is, and he is especially right about the food. My mom and I enjoyed a Thai meal that took us back to our days of eating meals in Chiang Mai together when my parents lived there for a few years. Diversity is a beautiful as it is delicious. It takes us to new heights, helps us appreciate new flavors, takes us on more adventures, and opens our minds to a beauty we would never have seen if we had stuck with mere meat and potatoes.
We can chose to live in a meat and potato world with structures that are white-washed and plain, boring, and feel like a white straight jacket, or we can be the kind of people who value a little Sriracha with a hint of lime, of which my youngest son is so fond. I, for one, know which kind of life I am striving for, which kind of community I am trying to build, which kind of systems I am trying to create and promote. There are too many beautiful perspectives out there for us to settle for just one. Let’s just say this life I am striving for tastes a lot more like fish tacos from a taco truck in Silicon Valley or maybe a good mutton curry from a Singaporean hawker stall. How are actively incorporating diverse voices into your life that maybe you previously silenced albeit unintentionally? I’d love to hear about it.