the Equality Academy – The Next Decade

There is just one home planet. A green-blue jewel of a globe, like all more or less spherical shapes it has just one side. But this one is special: a thin skin of water, rock, mineral and soil sustaining the most intricate web of sentient life anywhere within a several billion mile radius, and possibly anywhere in the known universe. There’s quite nothing like it. But it is fragile. And at no other time in history – except perhaps in the depth of the cold war with the threat of nuclear winter – has its fragility been more poignantly or urgently apparent.

The Equality Academy is ten years old this year. In the last decade we have established ourselves as a highly regarded micro business supporting organisations across sectors to develop conscious leadership in a diverse world. We have gone from being known predominantly for our work in the training room to being a trusted provider of a wide range of services – from coaching to leadership learning labs, from confidante to action inquiry, from large group cultural interventions to mentor training, from workshops to audits, from inspirational speaking to quiet complex consultancy, from conference chairing to though provoking publications. The next decade is about co-creating with our partners, clients, colleagues and networks a new vision for inclusive leadership – one which holds at its heart an understanding of the whole as a conscious living system. And one which understands that true inclusion involves the ability to promote healing and regeneration through wise disruption.  

All living systems thrive on diversity – it is a facet of and an asset to their health and regenerative capacity. Increasing homogeneity is one of the most obvious symptoms of a sick system. This is as true of plant and animal life as it is of human societies. Homogeneity in our places of power is evident. Wealthy white heterosexual non-disabled males from the global north are hugely over-represented in the places of power in our world. And where they are not, those who are in power emulate their style and culture. This cognitive and cultural homogeneity is the result of – and in turn promotes – systemic barriers and inequities arising from the deep historical divisions (patriarchy, colonialism, state-sponsored and corporate greed) which are responsible not only for the greater part of human misery, but for the laying waste of large parts of the biosphere. Just take the human population explosion, which is unsustainable for the healthy future of the biosphere. We know that birth rates drop to sustainable levels when people are enabled to have their basic needs met – when they have access to clean water, shelter, food, education (particularly for girls), work, community and safety. And yet as a species, with all our knowledge, wealth and ingenuity, we have not worked out a way to ensure this basic provision to all. The results are plain before us.

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People of colour, LGBTQI+ and disabled and poor people – and many more women than men – are the main losers in this state of affairs. They are also the vast majority of the human population.

We are all wholes within wholes, with – highly porous – skins in between. And each whole is, when you look closely, a complex vibrant system – a universe in itself. The individual is. So is the team or family or group. So too the community or department or organisation… the institution, the sector, the neighbourhood the region; so too the nation, the country, the mega corporation, the continent; the international community of corporations and nations. And, of course, the planet itself. Each level of reality is immersed in, and in affects, the next.

Consciousness, however, adds an important dimension to this wholeness, and to its fragmentation. We may be whole, but we do not perceive the whole all the time. When I resolve to give up carbs and I believe all of me is on board for this decision, I will often neglect to take into account the beast in the basement – who, when I am passing a bakery whilst speaking to my friend on the phone, will pick up the smell of freshly baked croissants and have me in and out of there in a flash, nibbling on a warm crusty morsel before I have even finished my conversation! With consciousness comes its shadow – what is frequently called the subconscious or unconscious. We use the word shadow because what is called ‘unconscious’ is not really unconscious. It is sensing and sending us signals all the time – but it does so through a range of body sensations and changes in our breathing and emotional state.

When there is a sickness in one part of the system, it affects every other part. Your little toe may be very small compared with the whole of your body, but just think of how overwhelming the pain is when you stub it! More seriously, though fires rage in far away places – Brazil, California, Australia – the air we breathe, and the waters of the world’s oceans, register the change. Emotionally, the more sensitive among us are aware of being affected to the core of our being. Humans may have erected nations and national boundaries. Whether we are aware of feeling something happening in another part of our wider system (or even inside us) depends upon how conscious we are.

Diversity and inclusion simply cannot be understood without due attention to every level of magnification – from the intra-psychic to the global – and a method of inquiry which is fitting for each. Truly speaking, a diversity ‘expert’ is someone who can move seamlessly between psychological, relational, legalistic, socioeconomic, historical and eco-systemic realities and paradigms – and see the dances of diversity at every level and how they inter-relate.

Yet, while having an intellectual command of the disciplines of psychology, sociology, law, history and economics, and a mountain of knowledge about the ‘protected’ or other characteristics certainly helps, it will not make you a wise, conscious and inclusive leader. To achieve this requires a different kind of knowledge – awareness through experiential means of self, relationship, system and the shadow of consciousness (including unconscious bias and stereotype threat) which. No amount of reading, debating and commentating, and no disaggregated statistical analysis or survey data, can substitute for direct embodied experience, lived with awareness.

This lived, embodied awareness must extend not only to the ways in which we or others are excluded, marginalised and discriminated against. It must also take into account the factors behind homogeneity in the places of power – most importantly, privilege and how it comes about. This means confronting our own privilege and the places of comfort and unconscious influence it has created in us and in our relationships. Privilege is not a sin. It is a gift. Before we share it, we have to know that we have it, how we got it, and how to use it. Intersectionality means that there are very few people on the planet who have no privilege at all. Privilege being the absence of barriers, it is our habituation to privilege, its ability to afford us comfort zones that we don’t want to disrupt, that is possibly the main obstacle to truly inspired inclusive leadership – individually and institutionally.

Every one of us is both a transmitter and receiver of messages and signals, internal and external. Some of those messages and signals are obvious, intentional and verbal. Most of them are not. They have to be sensed, observed, intuited. Conscious, inclusive leaders are those who transmit and receive with awareness, and use their power, influence and creativity transformatively in the service of equity, healing and regeneration. This means they have to understand their own shadow, and that of others, and the shadow dances which are the dynamics of diversity and power within their system. It also means they have to be willing to disrupt what they find – because it is precisely the shadow dances of diversity – well worn ‘grooves’ (in both senses of the word 😊) which keep us reproducing inequity and exclusion at every level of the system – from the personal to the institutional and beyond. For that disruption to be wise, rather than simply destructive, the leader has to have access to something beyond reason. Reason is by nature based upon our past experiences and accumulated stocks of knowledge. The future that calls us is unknown. For it to be different from the past in a good way, we need to rely upon reason for an understanding of the present and past, but work intuitively to reach for inspiration – which is in a sense only the ‘unconscious’ dreaming through us – to create a better possible future.

Whatever happens in me, or between us, happens in the whole system because we are immersed in the system. For the same reason, whatever happens in the system happens at some level in us. Therefore, through their agency, the wise, conscious, inclusive leader impacts the system in a wholesome direction from the finest grain of their interactions with others to the boldest strategic initiative, and at every level in between. Such leaders know and trust their own perceptions and instincts enough to have the courage to disrupt and changes the well-worn grooves which characterise interpersonal and organisational dynamics. They need to do so with a good understanding both of the history of their system and how diversity is interwoven in it, and of the its present constellation of forces and demands. They also need both commitment and humility – the one to see them through the challenges and hurdles, the other to prevent the unavoidable human weakness of egoism from dominating their efforts.

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It is doubtful that the model of leadership promoted by some of our most prominent global leaders at present is one that will help resolve either the climate crisis, or the deep divisions among humans – or between humans and other species and humans and the earth that feeds us – which have brought it about. The solution will have to grow organically, from the soil of our longing for a world which is just, equitable, creative, joyful, inclusive. It will spring up here and there in unexpected places – in unplanned bus stop, supermarket queue and workplace encounters; in humour that uplifts instead of putting down; in the willingness of people accustomed to huge privilege (as well as the more lowly among us) to use their position to speak out against abuse and wrongdoing; in an inspired idea from not  the usual suspect that someone with decision making power is willing to take seriously; in an overstretched manager who engages in self care – meeting her own needs so she can cultivate a ‘soil’ capable of respond to the diverse needs of team members and work with them to look after the performance of the team as a whole.

In the coming decade, the Equality Academy seeks to be part of the wave of consciousness sweeping the planet, which calls for a ‘new’ kind of leadership – one which recognises our intimate entanglement with the earth, all her species and each other. Indigenous wisdoms which have survived the ravages of civilisation are evidence that this wise, conscious, inclusive idea of leadership is as old as the hills. Right now it is in need of renewal and revisioning. From the smallest unfunded community organisation to transnational corporations, the Equality Academy seeks to support inspired leadership in this time-honoured tradition. It does not matter whether in comes in the form of a 1-2-1 executive coaching relationship, an unconscious bias workshop, a world café on ending bullying and harassment or (as we prefer) a blended culture change programme over the medium to long term. In each case, our commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion and the health and regeneration of the whole system is at the heart of our work. And the love and creativity we bring is our own wisest most conscious, heartfelt offer to our clients and partners.

 

Razia Aziz

31st January 2020