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When Diversity Is A Given And Not The Goal: Inclusive Interactions Among A Culturally Diverse Group

Aasha Abdill wrote “When Diversity Is A Given And Not The Goal: Inclusive Interactions Among A Culturally Diverse Group” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Current attention to the value of diversity has been spurred by research highlighting new benefits such as increased innovation and more effective problem solving. Such benefits have made diversity valuable beyond its social justice framing from earlier decades that focused primarily on social equity and mobility. Still, diversity, as a tool to redress a legacy of social exclusion of marginalized groups, remains an important mandate for many sectors including higher education, international development, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations, foreign policy, and human rights organizations.

Recruiting a diverse group, however, frequently presents a tremendous challenge for many organizations. Diversity often moves from being one objective toward equity to the only objective, while inclusion remains overlooked. Whereas diversity focuses on making sure a group of people is representative of the larger population, inclusion ensures that the experiences and opportunities of all constituents are fair and equitable. Inclusion, although secondary to diversity in its attainment, is the more valuable goal. Without inclusion, benefits such as increased empathy and open-mindedness for individuals, improved innovation and problem solving for groups, and restorative justice to society as a whole, cannot be realized.

Research generally finds that true inclusion takes time and is difficult to measure and operationalize. Major gaps in knowledge on how to practically create environments of equal status stem, in part, from the common chasm between research and practice. Additionally, applications to foreign policy and international education programs are greatly limited. Much of the literature on diversity and inclusion focuses on workplaces. In essence, both education and work aim for innovation and effective problem solving. While the former typically seeks it through concept sharing and intellectual stimulation, the latter seeks innovation through idea generation and consensus building for decision-making.

Interestingly, diversity literature is particularly shaped by institutional experiences in the United States (US), which is due, in part, to its unique multicultural population and a palpable legacy of social exclusion of minority groups. Still, the know-how on shaping inclusive cultures appears as stunted as ever in the US, particularly when it comes to race. Minority groups face explicit and implicit biases, discrimination, and intolerance. Individuals, both minority and majority, grapple with interactions influenced by deep-seated, bigoted traditions that infuse life, work, and education.

For instance, the news and social media have recently zeroed in on racial tensions at colleges across the US. For example, a Halloween incident at Yale University started as a soft request for students to be aware of the cultural implications of their costumes, yet swiftly turned into a tense political standoff between students, faculty, and administrators. Also at Princeton University, calls for changes to the names of buildings honoring historic figures known to have advocated for racist policies created oppositional protests, leaving administrators caught in the middle. University administrators, however, can no longer take neutral or middle-of-the-road stances, as exemplified by the forced resignations of the President and Chancellor of the University of Missouri, when racist incidences were met with muted and ambiguous responses.

Many of these incidences begin as sparks. Yet as they sit atop the everyday racial tensions pervading campus social life that serve as kindling, one event can quickly lead to an explosion of frustration and anger. The undercurrent of racial tension on campuses is further fueled by a general misunderstanding on both sides of the argument about the relationship between inclusion and scholarly discourse.

At one extreme are those who seek to dismiss or downplay the role academic institutions have in redressing or perpetuating social inequality. At the core of this argument is an appeal to absolute free speech, where political correctness and any constraint of words or actions due to sociopolitical awareness are attacks on scholarly growth. At the other extreme are those who demand a safe space, defining such a space in narrow terms, guided by a personal and subjective barometer of the negative feelings a particular topic brings them. Yet in between these two extremes lies a space where both scholarly discourse and inclusion are not pitted against each other.

This article will discuss preliminary insights on finding this space, particularly in an international educational context. In 2015, as a Humanity in Action (HIA) Fellow, (1) I had the opportunity to discuss human rights and diplomatic strategies with a diverse set of minds over the course of four weeks in daily dialogue sessions. My insights are informed by observations from this experience supplemented with interviews of HIA Fellows and staff as well as key informants from international agencies committed to diversity and inclusion such as the US Civil and Foreign Service, a top US philanthropic institution, a top US international service organization, and a US graduate program on international policy. (2)

Forging (3) Inclusive Spaces

While many organizations try to create cultures of inclusion, shaping inclusive environments is more achievable when applied to moments or spaces, rather than places. Often, inclusion is used to describe an environmental setting such as an inclusive workplace, inclusive college campus, or inclusive organizational cultures. Yet it isn’t the place or environment that facilitates inclusion, but rather the interpersonal interactions occurring within the place or setting. Inclusion is advanced through contact and communication between individuals. (4) Therefore, describing, defining, and assessing inclusion using a place-based framework is not ideal. Instead, reframing inclusion on a more micro-level, such as the dialogue occurring between individuals in a particular moment, permits us to refocus on a micro-process at the core of inclusion.

So what do lessons from HIA mean for forging inclusive spaces in general? First, a definition of what an inclusive space is, and is not, is central. In order to answer what an inclusive space is, we must consider why inclusive spaces are needed.

The world we live in is not equitable. Furthermore, the marginalized voices necessary to spark change are often ignored or stifled. Many individuals of marginalized groups quickly learn to veil their perspective in a world that does not seem to value it. Institutionalized discrimination and internalized “isms” often make it difficult for members of minority and majority groups to engage openly and honestly together (albeit for different reasons). (5) Thus, many often elect to interact within exclusive spaces, where they feel comfortable because of a shared perspective or common experience. Such spaces are ubiquitous and enduring. The homogeneous social networks which surround us start first with the families we are born into and intensify with the isolated communities we live in and the segregated schools we attend. Inclusive spaces need to exist because an inclusive world is yet to, and individuals must learn how to engage with different perspectives and viewpoints shaped by power, social position, and culture. So, first and foremost, an inclusive space starts with a diverse space.

Now that I have answered the what and why of inclusive spaces, I will offer four broad strategies to forge inclusive spaces for intellectual dialogue based on lessons learned from HIA.

Fight Fire with Fire: Tackle the Consequences of Diversity with More Diversity

A difficult lesson, learned very early on in HIA’s 18 years was: a little diversity is as good as none. In a group where the overwhelming majority of participants are white and middle class, a couple of “Ohers” is not at all adequate for neutralizing power dynamics. In its early years, HIA struggled, like many organizations, with the dilemma of tapping into the right networks to recruit participants from minority backgrounds. Inadequate diversity impeded any effective undertaking of forging inclusive spaces for equitable dialogue. Indeed, it got so bad that one respondent referenced a group of “HIA Haters” who left their programs extremely discontented by experiences that felt like trivial tokenism masquerading as diversity. HIA felt the pressure to reach its goals of diversity at a much quicker pace, reaching an optimal level of representation about five to eight years ago, as estimated by an employee. “Still,” she was careful to emphasize, “we are improving.” They are now focused on inclusion, the step beyond diversity that many organizations find beyond their reach. In reference to the US Civil and Foreign Service, one senior government employee commented that attaining diversity is such a challenge that matters of inclusion “aren’t even on the radar.”

Even at an adequate level, diversity brings challenges to forging inclusive spaces. Nonetheless, the stratagem of fighting challenges of diversity with more diversity applies. One Fellow commented, “Even if you are white and privileged, you are different or you wouldn’t be in the program.” HIA recruits globally-minded individuals who care about human rights. This shared focus leads many to assume that all Fellows are aligned with liberal views on major political, economic, and social standpoints. But, in truth, the cultural, national, racial, and ethnic, as well as religious diversity of the Fellows in tandem with individual characteristics and personal experiences lead to numerous opinions on the approaches and priorities for attaining human rights. Even Fellows mistake a unifying shared passion for human rights with the perception of everyone being of one mind. When I inquired about one Fellow’s quietness in sessions, she admitted she did not feel comfortable sharing her view, because it would not be shared by the group. The group’s passion for human rights creates an impetus for some Fellows to hide or mask their opinion if they feel it will be a minority opinion.

How does Humanity in Action create a space where minority opinions feel welcomed? First, they use facilitators familiar with the organization to guide discussions with presenters. Second, they present topics from both scholarly and lived-experience perspectives. For example, in Paris, a Roma organizer presented on challenges to the International Roma Organization, or in Berlin, a black German presented on structural racism in his country. When academic and lived experience are not embodied in the same person, the presenter with lived experienced is often asked to start, so terms are initially defined from the insider’s perspective. An additional strategy would be to have facilitators bring up dissenting opinions, signaling an environment where alternative views are welcomed. All of these strategies thwart groupthink, especially for a group where bonds are formed, because of a shared passion to create a just global society.

In forging an inclusive space, visible forms of diversity are essential. However, as time unfolds, uncovering diversity of all kinds becomes critical. An inclusive space allows for less visible stigmas to become apparent and for multiple identities to be claimed. Recognizing nuanced identities is important for individuals to make connections across social groupings. It also challenges individuals to see the variation within a social group, which is important in forcing individuals to challenge their own reliance on heuristics and move past unspoken stereotypes. It is important to note that this nuanced diversity does not replace cultural diversity. Rather, it deepens it by showcasing the myriad identities nestled within cultural groupings.

Don’t Just Lift Up, Also Take Down: Addressing the Privileged

Beliefs regarding superiority and inferiority, both conscious and subconscious, play a significant role in how we interact with others, especially when we first meet. Stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype associated with a social group, is a major obstacle to the active participation of minorities in a dialogue with majority individuals.

One successful strategy in alleviating fears of confirming intellectual inferiority is to increase the intimate knowledge participants have of each other. My first introduction to my HIA cohort was through shared written analyses of assigned books via email and a “blue book,” which presented a short biography of each Fellow. I recall immediately feeling insecure due to my limited knowledge of European politics. Consequently, I did not fully participate in discussions, until my perceived intellectual inferiority gradually dissipated. I soon discovered that the blue book had intimidated other participants as well. A strategy that HIA has begun to use to combat initial feelings of intellectual inferiority, and the corresponding delay in group participation, is an activity to increase the personal knowledge of others, so that Fellows feel seen as individuals aside from the groups they represent. Fellows bring an object that shows their personal connection to the program’s theme, helping them see beyond picture perfect biographies and feel more at ease with each other and themselves.

While managing my own fears of being seen as an uninformed, black American, a European Fellow shared with me his own insecurity at the end of the program. My blue book biography with elite US alma maters made him question whether he belonged. Stereotype boost and stereotype lift act as privileged counterparts to stereotype theory. Whereas some are burdened by fears of confirming a negative stereotype, others benefit from the positive stereotypes of their own groupings or the negative stereotypes of others. Internalizing these stereotypes can lead to feelings of superiority. HIA nurtures individual connections to alleviate stereotype threat, using strategies such as the object activity, off-hours camaraderie, and purposeful free time in the daily schedule for informal interaction. Yet there is little observable effort on evening the playing field from the other direction. Addressing the benefits of those in privileged groups seems absent from program strategy. This is not surprising. What organization wants to spend time thinking about how to take someone down a notch? As “gangsta” as a takedown may sound, it is just as important for forging inclusive spaces as the first strategy. Nobody should benefit, consciously or subconsciously, from the pigeonholes of minority stereotypes. An explicit conversation about all the implicit ways that a certain group may be privileged within a space is essential for an active mitigation of intrinsic advantages.

Forging inclusive learning spaces requires a discussion of the values people have regarding what makes discourse “intelligent” with an explicit acknowledgement of how one’s educational and linguistic experiences and skill sets may align more with the primary mode of discourse. HIA takes on a primarily academic format. Fellows embracing academic orientations, as opposed to community activist, artist, or other non-academic orientations, may feel more comfortable theorizing and critiquing ideas. Ideas expressed using the American educational format are also often seen as more valuable than ideas presented in other formats. For example, in Paris, after a series of presenters lectured for extended periods of time, a charming presenter with an organized PowerPoint presentation kept to a fifteen-minute time frame. Afterwards, some Americans quickly expressed their appreciation, with one exclaiming, “Finally, a coherent presentation.” I also observed the impatience of a few Fellows when non-native English speakers struggled with finding the right word. One Fellow stated that when the conversation was not centered on the US or Western Europe, no one really cared.

What does the structure of a space that fosters genuine respect and inclusion in scholarly discourse look like? An inclusive space challenges the notion of intellectual dialogue and the cultural biases that lie behind it. Can anecdotal stories be told and valued? Can participants share a poem or sing to get a point across? Can participants speak in their native language? Such behaviors may appear contrary to a “scholarly” dialogue and there aren’t any correct answers. The point is that an inclusive space considers the potentially biased construction of its design as well as those who may and may not be favored by it.

Not Quite A Safe Space

Now, the hard part: having effective, tough conversations. Deep discussions of human rights in a diverse group are a massive emotional undertaking. Participants struggle with the implications of inequality, injustice, and dehumanization with those still identified as Other. This can make for very sensitive exchanges with easily triggered emotions.

A direct response to overt signs of disengagement or behavior violating inclusive spaces is essential to maintaining the delicate balance of positive group dynamics. A talk is usually sufficient; Fellows simply may not have noticed that their behaviors are being felt by others as exclusive. One employee expressed that it was especially difficult to deal with threats to inclusive spaces when offending individuals believe that they are protecting their “safe space.” As a beginning exercise, Fellows agree upon guidelines to provide a safe space for discussions. If group dynamics become stressed, employees use the safe space guidelines to remind everyone of their commitments. More clarity is needed on the definition of a safe space in a program meant for intellectual growth and scholarly debate.

An inclusive space with a goal of intellectual growth, innovation, tolerance, personal development, or shared decision-making is not always a comfortable space. The blessing and curse of engaging in discussion with those from different cultures is being forced to come to terms with your cultural doxa in addition to overcoming your personal and cultural biases. However, while an inclusive space is not necessarily a comfortable space, it isn’t a combative one either. An inclusive space is a challenging space, where all actors accept the necessity and the responsibility for confronting others and being confronted by others. It isn’t an easy tightrope to walk and most will falter. Forgers of inclusive spaces must recognize that many participants are engaging in an inclusive space for the first time.

Redefine Superstar and Take Chances on Wildcards

“It is a waste of time to predict group dynamics,” advises an employee during our interview. Yet, each year as HIA’s programs carefully select participants, group dynamics are in the forefront of everyone’s mind. Factors such as cultural diversity, academic discipline, age, profession, personal background, geography, and type and status of school, all figure into shaping the right cohort. Employees are determined to get it right, although they accept they never quite will. This collective stance drives the organization to consistent improvement, which is easily exemplified by the sheer amount of evaluation. Over a few months, Fellows completed four written evaluation reports, were solicited by two external evaluators for interviews, participated in two feedback sessions about the program, and wrote a letter to board members to share recommendations.

While this felt like evaluation overload, staff value and use the feedback year to year. In fact, one employee credits evaluations for the incorporation of self-categorizing gender introductions into program orientations.

HIA’s recruitment and selection process once favored ivy-educated do-gooders boasting stints of service work abroad. Now the process aims to find passion, empathy, and genius from a variety of sources. Who is a “superstar” is no longer constrained to conventional factors. My favorite discovery regarding the HIA selection process is the novel use of a “wildcard” classification. Application reviewers may label a personal statement that they feel distinguishes an applicant with a wildcard, even if there is a broader mismatch with more formal eligibility criteria. Wildcards sometimes work out beautifully and other times they do not. Nevertheless, the method opens up the incredible opportunity to become a HIA Fellow based primarily on one’s ability to communicate distinction. A wildcard is another tool in HIA’s shed to equitably locate and develop leaders in social justice and human rights. (6)

Beyond Inclusion

An inclusive space is a realm where diverse individuals can learn to interact with each other on equal footing. Labels of majority and minority, privileged and marginalized, oppressor and oppressed are stripped from individuals, yet these labels are not cast aside. An inclusive space acknowledges that individuals come to a space with internalized privileges and stigmas. It does not seek a false “wiping the slate clean” by temporarily dismissing or ignoring existing power structures and roles and forcing participants to interact in a feigned utopia. Rather, an inclusive space aims for a rebalancing of power by insisting that the context of inequality and marginalization be ever present and that dialogue remain grounded in its context. Therefore, an inclusive space will prioritize the lived experience of minorities, by ensuring there is adequate diversity in the group and by encouraging the sharing of alternative perspectives. The rebalancing of the scales helps majority members recognize the ways they benefit from and contribute to the social exclusion of others. A less apparent point is that it also compels minority members to acknowledge the ways they unwittingly contribute to their own exclusion.

We currently exist in an inequitable world. It may thus take a bit of time for all of us to learn how to interact in an inclusive space. It isn’t reasonable to expect that a temporary space, no matter how inclusive, can undo years of internalized societal hierarchies. Still, if each inclusive space can get all its participants a little closer to learning how to share, receive, and challenge diverse perspectives with honesty, empathy, and compassionate curiosity, then we can begin to reap the reward of all the hard work it takes to move the needle from exclusion to diversity and onward to inclusion. And what is the reward? For a workplace, it may be innovation. For a university, it may be excellence in scholarship. For foreign policy, it may be relevant and effective interventions. For humanity, the reward of inclusion is paramount: a just and equitable world. 

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Aasha M. Abdill is a research and evaluation consultant, currently piloting an initiative with The Annie E. Casey Foundation to increase the diversity of evaluators providing skills, insights and scholarship to philanthropy, policy, and non-profit practice. A Spelman College alumna, Abdill holds an MA in Quantitative Methodology from Columbia University and a PhD in Sociology from Princeton University with a concentration in organizational theory and race & ethnicity. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Abdill is working on her first book, in contract with Columbia University Press, on Black fathers and family life in Bed-Stuy in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.


Abdill, Aasha. “When Diversity Is A Given And Not The Goal: Inclusive Interactions Among A Culturally Diverse Group" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 78-87. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.


The views expressed herein are those of the author alone. Humanity in Action accepted the author’s request for interviews, but in no way influenced neither the choice to use the organization as a case study nor the conclusions reached in the above article.


1. Humanity in Action is an international organization that educates, inspires, and connects a global network of emerging leaders committed to promoting human rights, diversity, and active citizenship. Diverse groups of scholars are placed in programs in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United States.

2. Formal interviews with Humanity in Action informants took place over Skype during the first two weeks of Sept. 2015. Interviews with my four external key informants occurred in-person in the Baltimore/ Washington, D.C. region on Aug. 6, Oct. 4, and Oct. 6, 2015 and over the phone on Sept. 8, 2015.

3. The word forging here was purposely selected as opposed to the words “facilitate” or “create.” Forging is a process used to shape metal that often involves hammering and beating. Metal manufacturing also employs the use of a die which, like a mold, is shapes metal using a press. Since the art and science of creating an inclusive space demands attention, forethought, purpose and pressure, I found it to be highly applicable.

4. Contact theory states that interpersonal contact under appropriate conditions is one of the most effective ways for members of diverse groups to facilitate understanding, increase appreciation of different viewpoints, and generally reduce stereotyping and discrimination.

5. Such as guilt of privilege, fear of offense, or not respecting the “other” enough to truly engage.

6. After 18 years of learning lessons and developing program design, Humanity in Action holds in its coffers a wealth of knowledge that can help many agencies move the needle from diversity to inclusion. Humanity in Action is both a wildcard and a superstar in the realm of international education. There’s nothing quite like it, yet they have learned to do it quite well.

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