April 26, 2016
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In the 1940s, leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves against the oppressive laws of Jim Crow, my grandfathers volunteered for a life-and-death struggle in opposition to fascism and for inclusion. Each returned from World War II a proud liberator of Europe, yet continued to be denied the basic freedoms granted to Jews and other European refugees arriving to the States. It took three decades from the end of World War II before my grandparents had their first opportunity to vote and thus shape their communities, albeit under the constant bombardment of systemic racism.
In their struggle against a segregated America, my parents were concerned for the future of their children. My mother was particularly worried about me—an African-American male. She would say often, “You must do 110 percent in this world in order to be credited for 75.” The world she spoke of was at that moment just beginning to contemplate integration, a consideration that came only through bloody protest.
Given the circumstances, my parents believed I would be seen first as an African American, which to many stands in opposition to brilliant, gentle or valuable. And in many ways, my parents’ fears have been proven correct. There is not space enough here to share the many times my image was met with negative assumptions. Over the years, I’m still struck by how racially polarized and segregated the country remains, in large part due to a resistance to inclusion.
While working within the field of animal welfare, I often have a persistent and ironic thought: My forebears came to personally know the burden of the ox, the sting of the whip, fear of the hunt, inhumane legislation, forced breeding and the grotesque selling of offspring. It is in this context that I find my unique perspective, as well as inspiration and sensitivity for my firm's animal welfare work. Ultimately, “cage free” has a deeper meaning for me, and “inherently dangerous” is a brand that I rail against with all my gifts and talents.
In 2008, The Humane Society of the United States hired my communications firm, illume, to conceive and execute in two states a low-cost spay/neuter project known as the Gulf Coast Spay/Neuter Campaign. An enormous amount of work went into researching the target audience and designing a campaign that encouraged the audience to spay/neuter and identified where they could find spay/neuter clinics. The lessons learned from the campaign were leveraged into the formation of Pets for Life, a program illume played an integral role in designing and implementing. Together, The HSUS and illume have changed the lives of people and pets all over the country. Many Pets for Life clients are underserved African Americans—a group I am bound to by society’s backwardness and love. I’m sure my non-minority comrades could have done the work we did without me, but I believe by including me at the program’s inception, the messaging and soul of the program is richer because the team creating it was diverse.
Minorities of every culture carry a burden different, and I think heavier, than their majority counterparts. Women, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and others considered “non-white” have all suffered, and continue to suffer because of the exclusionary practices deeply rooted in the founding of our country. Whether or not an industry, company or neighborhood is diverse is not simply a question of how many minorities live within. Being authentically diverse only comes when we include and leverage as many under-told stories and experiences as possible. True diversity is based in the valuing of minority perspectives...perspectives too often ignored by majority groups.
Because minorities have been so aggressively excluded from the mainstream, particularly from leadership positions, all minorities view the world from a less privileged perspective. Those who use that lack of privilege as fuel for pushing forward, do so with a creative strength, resourcefulness and confidence that feed by defeating the odds daily.
Any industry hoping to solve complex, systemic social problems should push itself to seek out team members and partners who defy the odds and define courage. It’s the three-legged dog’s agility that humbles us. It is the zebra who kicks and fights his way from the lion’s jaw that inspires us to push harder, and it’s the once-abused animals who now lie by our sides who remind us that forgiveness and peace are possible.
So, do I think the animal welfare field is diverse? No. I consistently hear animal welfare supporters express stereotypes and assumptions regarding people and pets. I rarely see people of color in staff or leadership positions, or providing content during large conferences. I don’t believe this is a sign of racism or evidence of deliberate exclusion. It is simply a lack, a void and a missing piece of the American experience for which animal welfare efforts suffer.
Can the animal welfare field be more diverse? Absolutely—this blog and the home my firm found at The HSUS is evidence of what’s possible.
I believe being more open and inclusive requires the following:
A willingness to change perspective.
If inclusion is to be taken seriously by those within the dominant group—the group to which many reading this blog belong—you must be willing to temporarily surrender your views and look through the lens of the minority. It is from this view that we’ll find commonality and kinship.
An understanding of history.
Becoming more inclusive demands an understanding of the minority party’s history. The minority party is almost always required to learn yours. If we fail to learn and identify with the struggles and successes of others, we’ll have no opportunity to swap analogies. When we fail to share our stories, we fail to socialize and ultimately fail to be diverse.
A capacity for humility.
If your organization, group or culture is failing to solve a long-lasting corrosive problem, it is more than likely because the wrong people have been working at it. Actively seeking the voices of minorities is not a charitable engagement, but rather an investment in a new, creative way of solving problems.
Being social is part of who we are, but in our pursuit of collective safety we tend to seek the company of our perceived “tribe members”—people who look like us, share our language and passions. I don't think commonality is overtly problematic per se, but unfortunately, like-minded groups tend to build walls. That said, if we intend to make life better for all animals, all people must be included toward that end.
Does your organization include all people? In what ways? How might your organization be more inclusive?