#DialogueForPeace: The Value of Listening to Every Voice

By Archana Rao

A few years ago I had the immense privilege of meeting the folks at the National Equity Project. I was personally challenged to question my unconscious biases. Having lived a very diverse life, around the world, with a life long association with Initiatives of Change, an international organisation committed to bridging divides and melting divisions, I felt smug in my belief that I had no ‘unconscious’ biases.  I was perfectly aware of all the biases I held. However, deeper, authentic enquiry led to the uncomfortable confrontation of a plethora of deleterious biases I had not even begun to acknowledge. One example is my deep set judgement and bias against anyone who supports Donald Trump.

The organisation that I currently work with — Global Citizen Year — is a social enterprise based in the United States. It is committed to launching a generation of leaders with the insight, conviction and courage to move the world ahead. Each year, we recruit and train a diverse corps of  bright high school graduates — predominantly from the US but from around the world too — and support them through a school-year long immersion in communities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America during a ‘bridge year’ before college. We believe passionately that, through a mix of experiential learning and world-class training, our fellows build a set of values and behaviours that will inspire in them a desire to be the kind of empathetic leaders we need in our world.  I work with their India chapter.

Diversity is at our core. My meeting with the National Equity Project has informed much of the thinking behind how we work with our fellows. A fairly standard cohort of fellows would include a large diverse contingent — diverse in terms of race, economic background, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, and more.

Emma, a fellow of ours from Norway, was telling me how, whilst our programme is a ‘global’ programme, we had not really accounted for the fact that the non-American fellows faced a different kind of cultural shock. We speak of immersing in a different culture, how to learn, how to be brave to question, how to negotiate cultural norms and deeper held principles. However, I had not really accounted for this ‘other’ cultural shock.

Being a US-based NGO with a larger number of fellows from the US, the cohort internally experienced an ‘American’ culture shock. The conversation with Emma led me to think more about what it meant to be inclusive of diversity. How, so effortlessly and inconspicuously, a dominant culture can overshadow the minority even in an organisation like ours where we inherently seek to break those very barriers! How do we ensure that varied voices are acknowledged and heard?

Deep Democracy, a thought provoking methodology provides some interesting insights into how one might gain the most fruitful results through inclusive cultural diversity. The website of the Deep Democracy Institute mentions:

“Unlike ‘classical’ democracy, which focuses on majority rule, Deep Democracy suggests that all voices, states of awareness, and frameworks of reality are important. Deep Democracy also suggests that all the information carried within these voices, levels of awareness, and frameworks is  needed to understand the complete process of a system. Deep Democracy is an attitude that focuses on the awareness of voices that are both central and marginal.”

One of the things I struggle with is the lack of cultural diversity within decision-making bodies or thought leaders who represent a large diverse group. An organisation that I am associated with has an executive committee of men, mostly over the age of 50. A conference that I recently attended on and for tribal leaders had substantially fewer official ‘speakers’ from tribal communities than the not.  Whilst the intent is always very pure, we unconsciously suppress the emergence of diversity.

This idea of proactively seeking ‘diversity’ is widely acknowledged all over the world. I was on the ‘diversity committee’ at my publishing job in England. The diversity angle, when it comes to hiring staff or recruiting fellows, is the first question at my current organisation. We intend to work to ensure all the voices are present. However, how much are we mining for those voices?

The UK publishing industry is notoriously and ironically lacking in cultural diversity. The government and the Arts Council have invested heavily to combat that. However, those making the ‘decisions’ still remain the same. The audience we publish to still remains largely monocultural. The benefits of courageously and proactively seeking the views of all, regardless of number, far outweigh the effort.

My mother founded and leads an NGO named Grampari — a programme of Initiatives of Change — in the Western Ghats of India. Her philosophy is and has always been that ‘every voice is essential and is valued’.  The team has or had staff members with degrees from the US/UK, with Masters in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and those who have barely passed the 3rd grade. Every year, when the three-year plan is written or revised, every single person is expected to participate.  Everyone is expected to write/articulate their personal three-year plan as well as their three-year plan for the organisation as a whole. A long four to five-hour meeting is held, and everyone presents their thoughts.

Apart from the fact that every staff member feels deeply valued, there have been some spectacular ideas that have been generated which could not have happened if only a few ‘educated’ voices were consulted. It took time to create this behavioural shift. As a driver, there is an in-built socialization of not needing to/not wanting to/not believing you can. However, with work, coaching and close mentorship, every single staff member now feels empowered to make suggestions. The team together makes a decision and the whole team presents their plan to the funders. To me, this is cultural inclusivity in action.

Grampari also bases its philosophy on the idea of listening to your ‘inner voice’,  seeking deeper awareness. The team meets every morning to sit in silence to proactively look within. To me, this model is the best model I have seen of cutting-edge, impactful, authentic work. Through seeking inner wisdom and awareness, and working from a wellspring of cultural inclusivity, the impact on personal growth as well as on the villages they work in has been astounding.

Constantly striving towards deeper awareness of our own unconscious biases, and using that to inform how to deepen and widen our cultural inclusivity, is critical in our work and world today.

(The author is the Country Director for Global Citizen Year, and is based in India. She also volunteers with Initiatives of Change, an international NGO committed to the transformation of society through personal change.)


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