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Belonging & Unity: Steps Towards Cultivating a Healthy Democracy and Social Cohesion

It’s December 2020, and we are at a critical inflection point. We hold in our hands both a sacred opportunity and the promise of our nation to become something more than we are today. There is an invitation and a calling to honor all the people and parts of our democracy in ways that we have not done before despite persistent and dedicated intention and effort. A paradigm shift of how we think about and do things is knocking on our collective front door. It’s time to take a holistic and integrated approach to the practice and embodiment of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) to bring about social cohesion desired and deserved by our citizenry.

In optics, an aperture is an opening through which light travels. In these critical times, we need to broaden this aperture to shine more light on persistent societal challenges and collectively co-create new opportunities for improved social cohesion. When we consider what it means to create social cohesion – as described in the work of Ichiro Kawachi and Lisa F. Berkman, “the strength of relationships and the sense of solidarity among members of a community” – belonging and unity come to mind. As congressional and civil service leaders, we have strong desires for belonging and unity that connect our constituents and colleagues across similarities and differences. However, our human nature often propels us to the end of the equation: fix the process, statute, law, system. Rather than starting at the end, we must begin at the source. After all, each of us is the system, process, statute, and law that we seek to transform. We are exactly who we’ve been waiting for, and all of us together, regardless of race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability, socioeconomic status, education, or political affiliation, are part of the solution.

The time is now to co-create a reimagined and national DEIB strategy that will bring cohesion, belonging, and unity across our nation, workplaces, and constituent communities. This deep human, equity, and belonging work is simple but not easy. How do we do this? Below are three first steps to begin this important journey.

1. Building an Inner Compass: Service Begins with Me

We know from scientific research that each one of us holds trauma in our bodies. Further, there’s evidence that trauma can be intergenerational. We are impacted by the seven generations that came before us, and we impact the seven generations after us. Whether good, bad, or indifferent, how we show up and how we do what we do matters. It has a cascading ripple effect on the ecosystems we touch.

With this in mind, it’s not a far leap to understand that our nation, as a collective body, has trauma. It has been accompanied by beliefs, perceptions, practices, and behaviors leveraged over time for the simultaneous benefit of some and to the detriment of others. It has stymied our ability to create belonging and unity across the national diaspora of American communities. Without doing our personal work to discover these tendencies, belief systems, and behaviors within ourselves, we’re left unable to effectively disrupt or mitigate the impact of our individual and collective trauma or transform the systems associated with them. In a previous Brain Trust post, Katherine Archuleta talks about the importance of personal efforts to eliminate the bias existing in all of us and seeking “to stretch beyond (a) place of comfort and privilege.” To serve others, we first must cultivate personal awareness of our own states of thinking, being, and leading as well as our impact.

2. Yes-And: Moving Beyond Binary Thinking

Our brains like to categorize, putting people and things into neat, little boxes to help us make decisions and have quicker response times. However, there’s risk of getting stuck in binary thinking, believing that everything is: good-bad, up-down, right-wrong, black-white, either-or, me-you, us-them, and so on. Working in a congressional office, as we know, is much more complex than that. Life and people are full of color and shades of gray.

While the brain is a remarkable organic machine, this way of moving through our places of work can be limiting, fuel misperceptions, perpetuate bias, and create missed opportunities to see what else might be possible. Instead, it’s important to adopt non-binary thinking that embraces a “yes-and” approach to conflict, challenge, and change as well as community- and infrastructure-building. “Yes-and” thinking encourages us to move beyond the “way we’ve always done things” to promote the inclusion of voices, ideas, and actions previously unheard, unseen, or undervalued. In this way, we further enable our capacity to shift from standing in judgment and certainty to using discernment and curiosity as the lens for inclusive hiring, promotion, collaboration, and decision-making within our governing institutions.

3. Infrastructure & Integration: Being the Bridge While Building the Bridge

We can’t change what we don’t see. Taking the first steps to strengthen our inner compass and move beyond binary thinking allows us to become more aware of our blind spots so that we can more skillfully operate. It helps us avoid the common mistake of hiring for diversity but onboarding and training for culture, clinging to rigid processes or structures that may leave little room for diversity of thought and experience. Infusing infrastructure with a DEIB lens is a top-down, bottom-up job that includes staff, chiefs of staff, and more. It necessarily includes a threading across all office functions and processes – ranging from hiring, training, promotion, legislative drafting, cross-office interactions, and more.

Creating Our Future from the Inside-Out

In early Latin, the word competere meant to seek or strive for an outcome together. In its very nature, it carried a sense of unity and collaboratively working toward a common goal. In later Latin and in more modern times, the meaning devolved into signifying working against one another to win an advantage or victory. Today, its use suggests division and othering of people who aren’t like us rather than leaning into a posture of inclusion where we seek, invite, and act upon contributions from our inner and outer circles. Ancient Rome gave the founding fathers a blueprint of a representative democracy. One where we are called upon to embrace the concept that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. In this vein, we should honor and practice the original meaning of competere as we seek to rebuild a more equitable country with diverse voices and perspectives that edge us ever closer to a more perfect union.

Please visit the Representative Democracy website for DEIB-focused content, leadership development opportunities, and workplace guides for everyday application of DEIB best practices.

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