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Life lessons apply to business

Diversity and inclusion are buzzwords that are often thrown around. For me they are values that I hold dear, and this summer I had a special opportunity to put them into action. You may remember a few months ago, Courage Connection, our local domestic violence shelter, was in danger of having to close their doors due to funding issues. My friend Molly McLay and I were talking about what we could do to help them out. We came up with the idea to put on a benefit production of “The Vagina Monologues” here in our community. We knew that if we did this, we wanted to live up to our values of diversity and inclusion through the production.

The lessons that we learned are applicable to many different settings.

First of all, we needed to recruit the cast.  We made a gigantic list of everyone we knew in town that would be in our dream cast. We thought of people we know, but we also branched out to people we just knew of. We knew if we were going to have a truly diverse cast we would have to make the effort to reach outside of our circles and invite people to auditions we didn’t already know.

Once the auditions took place we were blown away by the talent of everyone who auditioned.  It wasn’t just that though.  It was so beautiful to have people who were black, white, Asian-American, indigenous, Latina, cisgender, non-binary, native English speakers and people from around the world all coming together to give their time, energy and talent for the same cause.  It made me think that all things would be better if they were a little more like those auditions nights. Everyone was welcome and included and able to be themselves.

When we had to make the decisions about who would be cast in each part it was important to us to make sure that we were not only putting the people we knew in the prominent parts.  We knew that to make the show the best it could be we had to feature the diversity of the cast in every way possible. We knew that our strength came in letting everyone shine in their own way.  Our cast ended up being 65 extremely different people. Often times, I think that that people are afraid of difference, but when difference is honored, it makes all things better.

Throughout the process of rehearsals and preparing for the show, there were times it was pointed out, that we were missing the mark in honoring all groups. Instead of getting defensive, which is often times the natural reaction to being told that you are wrong, we listened and adjusted. I think this is important to emphasize. If you recruit diverse people but choose not to listen to them you will drive them away.

The night of the show, person after person both in the cast and in the audience, kept coming up to me and describing the show as very special in all sorts of different ways, but it always came back to the diversity of the cast. I have strongly believed for a long time that diversity makes all things better.  Being able to facilitate something like the show this summer was the most magical way to prove that is true.

Usually in life, you don’t get to start a team, group or cast from scratch like we did with our show, but I still think that we can do the things we did to create our diverse cast. When you are recruiting staff members or people to be in your organizations make sure to reach out beyond the people you already know. Once you have diverse candidates give them a true chance. Be the person in the room that advocates for giving people a chance who aren’t like the people you already are working with. Don’t rely on criteria such as whether they will fit in with your current group. Instead, once you recruit, select and hire diverse staff members listen to them. Ask what they need to make your organization a good fit for them and then do those things. We live in a diverse world. No matter what industry we work in, we will be serving diverse clients and in order to do that well we need diverse teams. In order to keep diverse teams we need to listen and adapt to the changes that need to be made to be inclusive.

January Boten is an assistant dean at the University of Illinois in the office for student conflict resolution and also serves on the board of directors of the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana.

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