Inclusion Is a Bad Word - It's Time to Throw It Away

Or, why the way most people do inclusive is lazy

Earlier this month I was in Chattanooga at the Startup Champions Network bi-annual summit. On day one of the summit, Paulo Harris, co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, got up to explain they were changing the name of the committee to shed the word inclusion. He said something along these lines, “Inclusion is the act of being included, but this means someone owns the table and they are granting you access.” These words shook me to my core.

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My first thought was where did this word come from? (Thanks to an amazing English professor in college) Language changes over time – this is why Merriam Webster added 1000 words to the dictionary this year. Understanding the evolution of a word is necessary to uncover some of the bias that trickles through language over time. So, I started with the etymology of the word.

c. 1600, "act of making a part of," from Latin inclusionem (nominative inclusio) "a shutting up, confinement," noun of action from past participle stem of includere (see include). Meaning "that which is included" is from 1839. From Etymology Online

And now today’s definition, from the Oxford Dictionary - the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

Read those lines with me, “within a group or structure.”

“Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.”

In our work we coach clients in building a process of change and growth that is rooted in the voice of the community. We most often find an appetite for this version of inclusion – “Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.” We are going to be pushing for a more radical view of community engagement that leans into the lens of lived experience and listens more than it talks and gathers feedback in constant loops.

So here’s the thing, I don’t have an answer for a new word – but I am making a commitment to stop using inclusion. It isn’t right and here’s why:

Inclusion is often used as a placeholder for all kinds of minority representation. Inclusion done wrong looks like, see we invited a woman to the table – we are inclusive. Inclusion done wrong looks an awful lot like the tokenism my co-worker Mariah wrote about in her blog a couple of weeks ago. This kind of inclusion results in systemic discrimination and problems.

Thinking back to inclusion in start-up ecosystems, odds are entrepreneur eco-systems around the country are patting themselves on the back for having a handful of women at their tables.  But that gets uneven results for a reason and there is data to back it up. According to Fortune Magazine, Female Founders Got 2% of Venture Capital Dollars in 2017. This isn’t because women don’t launch great businesses. This is because the funding tables and the ecosystem tables and the networking tables are all owned by men.

In Richmond this looks like inviting people of color to participate in focus groups and fill out surveys and thinking that you are being inclusive, or being fine that you have that one black board member. True community engagement that can create moments of respectful and appropriate change and growth doesn't mean this version of inclusivity. 

So what do you do?

  1. Look at your table. Is everyone the same color or gender or from the same town? Or worse, do you have token representatives of each?
  2. Build a new table, collaboratively, with a diverse audience of mentors and end users (clients or customers).

  3. Let the new table draft the agenda and create the questions to be solved for.

  4. Take a deep breath and listen and then restate and then ask for feedback, over and over and over. 

In my work, I am making the commitment to push clients not to give into the temptation to be inclusive and call it a done day and pat themselves on the back.