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Harnessing the power of stories as a portal to a more inclusive world

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Harnessing the power of stories as a portal to a more inclusive world

Four of Victoria’s leaders and advocates for diversity have shared their personal experiences to give insight into the importance of inclusion and the price, often painful, that is paid for its absence.

The four were speaking on the topic “Realising the potential of the untapped, unsaid and unheard” at the Nous Group office in Melbourne on May 7. The event was the second instalment in Beyond 2020: Shaping Australia’s Future, a nationwide series of conversations to explore big ideas.

The event reflected the Nous view that cultivating inclusion and creating a whole that is bigger than the sum of the parts requires integrating diversity. Achieving this requires us to lean in, listen and understand the experiences of people who are different to us. Once we understand that not everyone has the same opportunities, nor do they feel equally valued or respected, we can act.

Inclusion is an embodied experience. We feel included, valued and respected – we don’t think our way into it. Nous recognises the power of stories as a portal into creating a more inclusive, equal world.

Opening the event, Nous Group founder and Managing Director Tim Orton told the public sector, business and non-profit leaders in the room that diversity was an issue that needed serious attention and action.

“How do we tap into the range of experiences, backgrounds and expertise that help us as organisations deliver better outcomes for our customers, but also make sure we’re creating opportunities for individuals?” Mr Orton asked.

Event MC Deborah May, a Nous principal, said in her 23 years as a diversity and inclusion specialist she had noticed increasing awareness of the issue, but that awareness had not yet led to more opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to move into positions of power.

Achieving the necessary step change required people who have enjoyed the benefits of privilege to step back and make space for everyone. This involved taking notice of which people are included in decision-making and supporting people outside that circle to get involved. “Tonight is an opportunity to lean in and listen and learn,” she said.

Panellist Kevin Stone talked about his experience as a teacher and principal at special development schools across Victoria, working with children with intellectual disabilities. He told heartbreaking stories about the social exclusion experienced by his son Damian, who has Down syndrome, at the hands of neighbours and teachers who were unaware of the hurt they were causing.

Mr Stone is now the CEO of the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability (VALID), which for 30 years has sought to empower adults with intellectual disabilities. He said Damian’s experience had taught him lots of lessons. “What’s the biggest lesson of all? Don’t judge people. Damian’s life has been full of people making judgements about what they think they know, without bothering to spend time to sit down and get to know him.”

Fellow panellist Ro Allen spoke about their experience as a queer gender non binary person working as a youth worker in Shepparton in regional Victoria while in their 20s. In that role Ro said they had been subject to homophobic taunts and violence, but also found a group of LGBTIQ young people who felt marginalised in their community.

Ro, who is now the Victorian Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality, said that while most organisations had made progress in including people of diverse sexualities, many transgendered people still experienced discrimination due to unconscious bias.

“We’ve got highly qualified trans people who are just unemployed because they don’t fit in, or pass in the binary of what we understand as feminine or masculine,” they said, noting that approximately only 10 percent of people undergoing gender transition remain in their current employment.

Ro encouraged people who enjoyed privilege to leverage their opportunities to mentor people who would otherwise be excluded, arguing this brought benefits to everyone involved. “You’re going to learn more from that two-way experience than you’re going to learn mentoring someone who’s just a younger version of you,” they told guests.

Justin Mohamed told stories of the casual racism he experienced growing up as an Aboriginal young man in Queensland. He and his siblings faced regular slights from classmates and teachers, including one teacher who told him he would never amount to anything more than a garbage collector.

Mr Mohamed, who is now the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, recalled the advice of his grandfather, who said racism meant Aboriginal people needed to work harder and perform better than their peers just to be accepted as equals.

In combatting discrimination, Mr Mohamed argued organisations needed to be honest with themselves and each other about differences. “If people say they can’t see colour, they are totally on the wrong track. Because you can’t make change if you can’t see difference. You just can’t. Some people have to be treated differently for the right reason,” he said.

The final panellist, Joumanah El Matrah, CEO of the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights, argued there was a fundamental imperative to embrace diversity. “Inclusion is not about a nice feel-good civilised society. Inclusion is really about maintaining our fundamental humanity, and that humanity is always about all of us,” she said.

Ms El Matrah went on to note that it was not enough for people to seek equality only for people in their own circumstances, but that they needed to support others in their quest for social acceptance. “You have to care about everyone’s equality – you’re in or you’re out on equality, in my view. There are no half-measures,” she said.

As MC, Ms May ended the event with a call to move the conversation beyond diversity and toward inclusion, which is about integration, understanding and recognising that other people experience their lives differently to us.

Nous has developed cultural inclusion diagnostic tools, processes and programs that bring to life the stories, voices and experiences of people in a workplace. Our service offerings illuminate blind spots and identify bias, who it impacts, and how to meaningfully address it.

We create an open, honest, and safe space to listen deeply and give voice to the unheard. We hear shared and distinctive experiences to identify linkages. We combine statistical and qualitative analysis to link data-driven insights with lived experience.

Once we understand we can identify the strategies, policies and practices to create a platform for sustainable change so you can leverage the diversity of your organisation.

This event was the second in a year-long series of influential conversations across Australia to mark Nous’ 20th anniversary.