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Steps Toward Creating an Inclusive Environment – Part II

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tia Sherèe Gaynor
December 2, 2016


My previous column focused on two strategies that can be used to create an inclusive environment in both professional and private settings. After its publication, I received a comment suggesting that I was attempting to convert individuals with my “false diversity propaganda mindset” and arguing that “multiculturalism as a philosophy has failed.” Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that there were 437 incidents of intimidation targeted at people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and those of the Islamic faith between Nov. 8 through Nov. 14. Such comments, perspectives and behaviors are illustrative of why it is critically important to continue discussing ways in which individuals and/or an organization’s culture can work toward creating spaces that are inclusive.

Building upon the strategies offered in my previous column, I offer two additional approaches that can work in helping environments be safer places for those in traditionally marginalized populations.

Step 3. Affirm commonalities and differences

Political scientist, Iris Young, argued for a politics that affirms difference. Her theory suggests that a politics of difference is an avenue to re-conceptualize equity through liberation and empowerment. According to Young, assimilation is a form of oppression as it ignores the existing privilege that shapes norms, allows the norms created by privilege to appear neutral and value free, and therefore, forces those outside the norm to fit mainstream expectations that are not representative of them. By doing so, those in dominant groups are allowed to remain blind to the difference (as they create and are defined by the norm) and thus reinforce cultural imperialism.
For example, norms of gender identity and expression are binary and defined almost exclusively by man and woman. There have recently been social and political movements that strive to move beyond binary conceptions of gender. Complementary, there have been social and political movements that double down on binary conceptions of gender and criminalize those outside of these norms. Regardless of individual beliefs, there is a critical need to recognize that binary conceptions of gender are not representative of all individuals. By continuing to disregard individuals (and their needs) outside normative gender conceptions, the perpetuation of marginalization and oppression occurs. These considerations are important, particularly in public administration, where organizations are meant to benefit all and public servants are not to engage in discriminatory and oppressive behavior.

Affirming differences within and amongst individuals and not assuming that everyone is like me is at the core of cultural competence. As individuals, we each have our own set of experiences, cultures, and ways of seeing. Without an affirmation of these differences, public institutions and the individuals that manage within them serve injustice.

Step 4. Understand and consider intersectionality

Kimberlee Crenshaw, critical race scholar, introduced intersectionality as an identity framework that recognizes the impact multiple marginalizing identities has on the structural, political and representational experiences of disadvantaged groups. Each identity, taken alone, reveals a subordinate position within a normative society. However, when combined they unveil multiple manifestations of oppression. Intersectionality acknowledges that examining issues from a single-axis framework is a distortion for people that have multiple identities. Hear Crenshaw explain the concept and its importance in her Ted Talk.

When developing policies and practices and having interactions with others, it is important to be able to examine issues through an intersectional lens. For instance, when considering experiences of a black lesbian one must examine areas of discrimination across at least three identities (race, gender and sexual identity), in order for authentic analysis to underscore the multiple burdens this person may face. An evaluation that ignores the burdens stemming from multiple identities is incomplete and solutions created to address sources of injustice may be ineffective as the initial assessment was not holistic.

Intersectional subjection occurs when people who have intersecting identities are marginalized because they do not fit into prescribed normative expectations. The affirmation of difference and understanding the presence and impacts of multiple identities helps to prevent intersectional subjection. Understanding how intersectionality (or ignoring the impacts from intersectionality) leads to oppression and marginalization can help foster environments that are inclusive for all segments of the U.S. population.

As public agencies and servants make decisions that directly impact individuals’ lives, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which the multiple axes of identity impact oppression and how the affirmation of difference can work to counteract these impacts. At a time in which 437 incidents of intimidation occurred in a one week period, working to create environments that are welcoming and inclusive – rather than exclusionary and oppressive – seem to be needed more now than at any other point in the 21st century.

Author: Tia Sherèe Gaynor is an assistant professor in the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration at Marist College. Dr. Gaynor’s research examines issues of social justice and equity within a U.S. and global context. Her scholarship can be categorized as follows: resident participation and engagement; public and social policy analysis and implementation; and pedagogy, learning and instruction. Email: [email protected].

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