Lessons from DEI Changemakers: Inclusion as a Verb

Below, Mary Coleman reflects on inclusion in the workplace after another influential week of participating in the DEI Changemakers program.

I hate public speaking. And for me, any more than two people in a meeting is public speaking. A few years ago, I decided to face this head-on. I was ready to conquer a fear that kept me rooted for far too long.

So, I joined a local Toastmasters group, a public speaking club. I could not believe such a thing existed when I first heard of it. People who got together to give speeches for fun? I figured if anyone could help me achieve my aim, I would find them here.

I was so nervous to arrive at the first meeting. Just being in a space where public speaking existed made me anxious and nauseous.

The group I decided to try first met on Friday mornings at 7:30 a.m. That is why I chose it. Anyone would who voluntarily meet that early on a Friday seemed harmless. I did not trust that fully, though, and came to the meeting full of nerves.

Yet, those worries faded quicker than I imagined as the meeting started. From the moment I entered the room, I could feel the warmth and acceptance of everyone. I could not tell what it was exactly, but I felt sincerity in the idle chatter and friendly faces. I felt a sense of belonging.

During this week’s DEI Changemakers meeting, we heard from Bernardo Ferdman about inclusion in the workplace. In setting the stage, he shared his perspective on defining inclusion as being able to both genuinely know one’s team members and be comfortable with challenging one another. When this is balanced, he expressed, people can be truly authentic. There is a sense of belonging.

Bernardo framed diversity, equity, and inclusion as so: diversity is counting group differences; equity is offering fairness in recognizing and rewarding those differences; and inclusion is making them matter.

I thought about that Toastmasters group in this moment. If you are not familiar with the format of Toastmasters, I will give a brief outline. Each meeting has a host to keep things moving that rotates among the membership. Prior to the meeting, the group assigns roles needed during the meeting, again rotating each time. The roles include someone to count the filler words used and note grammar errors, to name a few.

Image Description: A hand on the right holding a pen to write: “We welcome: all ages, all races, all religions, all countries, all languages, all genders, all sexual orientation, all sizes, all abilities, all people.

 Source: Dmitry Demidovich.

During each meeting, three members give a prepared speech on a topic of their choice, and then three members give an evaluation of that speech. After these, there is a Table Topics round, where someone calls on unknowing members to answer brief prompts, to practice speaking without time to prepare. At the end of the meeting, winners for best speech, evaluation, and Table Topic presentation are picked by the group before the role report outs.

I was so intimidated once I understood the structure. Winners!?! What pressure to be good. What pressure to make sure no ums or likes came from your mouth to add to the tally lists. Those butterflies in my stomach came roaring back to life.

Yet again, though, they subsided once everything got underway, once I saw how aligned the meeting operated with what I sought. A nurturing place to practice without fear or humiliation. I could tell a couple of speakers were nervous, but they did not go stagnant when they stumbled or shy from holding eye contact. Those evaluating the speeches provided caring, constructive feedback centered on a speaker’s strengths, calling out things for the speaker to notice next time without shame or blame.

It was obvious that most of these folks had been in this group for a while. Often, the evaluators would reference how a speaker improved specific or recurring negative speech patterns. I could tell they wanted to share what resonated in each speech while also offering gentle suggestions for how to make the resonation that much deeper.

Even the choosing of winners was joyful and came from a place of acknowledging a job well done. A recognition that each speaker had advanced on their journey of being a more astute, compelling public speaker.

It is hard to describe where this belongingness drew its energy. Maybe it was the unifying bond of all of us there to better ourselves a little, to challenge ourselves just because, that allowed folks to show up with such honesty and authenticity in giving speeches and providing feedback that I had never seen before.

Bernado reminded me of how essential this feeling is to manifest an inclusive space. How we interact with one another matters just as much as why. I saw firsthand how interactions rooted in respect and empathy for our collective purpose and experiences foster a place where distinct perspectives are not just honored but cherished.

After that first meeting, I returned as a full member. While those butterflies remained active during my first speeches, they never fluttered freely like in the past. These Toastmasters made me feel so appreciated, I was volunteering to give speeches after a few months, able to control the butterflies more and more. I still feel them flapping before any presentation, but I also feel that room’s calming presence and they instantly settle.

Being in a group of people who care about you as much as the mission to encourage your success; to push you because they know you can be better; to mark your progress; to reflect on and embed lessons so the mistakes smooth out; to see and trust in your full potential even when you cannot; to see how your triumph is tied to their triumph. That is inclusion in action.

Interested in reading more reflections inspired by Mary’s participation in the DEI changemakers program? Check out part one and part two of the series.