Bourgeois: Actions, not just words, key to overcoming inequality

CBJ symposium speaker urges attendees to ‘get into the game’

It’s important to recognize the need for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and in society, but without concrete and visible action, simple acknowledgment of racism and intolerance will have little true impact, the morning keynote speaker told attendees at the Corridor Business Journal’s inaugural Diversity, Inclusion and Impact Symposium Aug. 18.

Trudy Bourgeois, founder and CEO of the Center for Workforce Excellence and a nationally-recognized author on equality and inclusion issues, recounted her own life experiences with diversity — born in Mobile, Alabama in 1959, when “Jim Crow” laws were still in full force; growing up Creole, with a mix of African, Spanish, Caucasian and French lineage; and being taught in a Catholic school system that reinforced archaic belief structures regarding issues such as race and sexual orientation.

“We all make assumptions based on what we see,” Ms. Bourgeois said. “We are all biased. We have been taught, and not taught correctly. So if you don’t make this personal, it’s going to be somebody else’s responsibility (to change). You’re never going to come out of the cocoon because it’s safe in the cocoon. But if you have the desire in your heart, you can overcome your biases, and you can interrupt them and adopt new philosophies.”

Life experiences usually shape one’s world view, Ms. Bourgeois noted, and without experiencing exclusion based on race, ethnicity or other inherent factors, it can be challenging to truly understand the oppression others have faced — and to accept the need to actively push for change.

“What is the reason you’re going to fight?” she asked. “Because if you don’t think about it yourself, then you’re not going to … get a little uncomfortable. This is messy work. That’s why people don’t want to have the conversation, and why it’s so difficult for Caucasians to have to wrestle with this. It’s because of what they were taught by people that they love.”

Ms. Bourgeois asked attendees to examine their own life experiences, and to find instances when they may have felt excluded or marginalized — being passed over for an athletic captaincy, for example, or rejected for a high school date.

“We all know the feeling of rejection,” she noted. “Something happened where you experienced a moment where you were made to feel less. I want you to get in touch with that feeling, because it’s that feeling that we’re fighting to eradicate. People that are in marginalized groups wake up (with that feeling) every single day. And that feeling of rejection, no matter how hard we try, cannot be erased, because of bias and racism.”

As Ms. Bourgeois pointed out, one of the key tenets many American children were taught was that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and “discovered” America — even though the land he “discovered” had been occupied by indigenous tribes long before he arrived.

“America was brown long before it was Caucasian,” she noted, “and it’s going to be brown again. “You don’t want, and I don’t want, anyone to have to go through the inequities that people of color have. Maybe it’s your heart’s desire that our children have a different experience. If you take that from the head to the heart, you’ll be motivated to do something … Silence is endorsement. And when you’re silent, you’re a part of the problem instead of being a part of the solution.”

Ms. Bourgeois asked attendees to consider three key insights. The first, she said, is that definitions matter. “People don’t tend to say they’re part of the equation,” she said. “But this isn’t a zero-sum game. You don’t have to lose for me to win, and I don’t have to lose for you to win. Diversity is about the uniqueness of every individual. You can have two white men in a room, or two Asian women, or two of any (ethnic group), and you have diversity, because it’s about the uniqueness of each of our life experiences. We have diversity. What we don’t have is leaders who are intentionally proctoring a culture where people feel valued and respected for their differences.

“People want to be valued for who they are,” she added. “That’s the only way we can drive equity. And equity is different than equality. Equity recognizes that there are specific barriers to equality. So before we’re going to get to equality, we have to give equal access to all people.”

Second, she said, global forces of imperialization and colonization have created the “core elements of systemic inequity that relate to power, privilege and oppression” — conditions that have manifested themselves worldwide.

“They all relate to a belief system that someone wants to be superior,” she said. “And that’s rooted in bias. Our brains are hard-wired to be biased. Today, we take in millions of bits of information, so we have to compartmentalize. And that means we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. This bias causes us to do things we don’t want to do, and if we don’t intentionally interrupt, we will continue to become a part of the problem.”

And third, Ms. Bourgeois invited attendees to be intentional about making change happen. “I’m asking you to get into the game,” she said. “Recognize that you are a leader. It doesn’t mean that you have to be the CEO. All of you have the power to impact another person’s life. All our careers are going to come to an end. People are not going to remember how many loans, how many widgets or gadgets (you created). But they will remember how you treated them. So let us embrace the opportunity to be a part of driving inclusion. Let us not talk about the work. Let us talk about doing the work, so when we’re written about as leaders, under our watch, we demonstrated courage.”

The symposium was sponsored by GreenState Credit Union, with additional support provided by Wellmark, Grinnell Mutual, ACT, UFG Insurance, the City of Iowa CIty and Collins Aerospace. CBJ