Inclusion is the tough part of the work, making sure people feel welcome after you've invited them in.
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By Ellen McGirt
Updated: September 27, 2018 4:40 PM ET

Years ago, I interviewed a woman named Joanne Bland, then the founder of a small voting rights museum in Selma, Alabama. She was eleven years old in 1965 when she marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the march for voting rights that became known as Bloody Sunday. “I remember the first time I drank at a white water fountain. I was disappointed,” she told me. Is this what they were trying to keep from us? “I believed that it must have been sugar water coming from it.”

I was reminded of that conversation this morning when I watched Molly Ford, a senior director of global equality programs at Salesforce, bring a blue folding chair with her on stage for her short Dreamforce presentation about her own leadership journey.

Behind her was a slide with a quote from Shirley Chisolm, the first African–American Congresswoman, and first black woman to run for president. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Ford plopped the chair down like a prop pro and said, “let me tell you about some of the people who pulled up a chair for me.”

One example was simple, and something everyone can do. When a more senior employee named Leyla Seka championed an idea of Ford’s, she made sure to keep her name firmly attached. You know it’s real “when they don’t erase you,” said Ford.

She also talked about how she had been able to pay it forward when the organization decided to recruit Marcus Stevenson, an extraordinary young man who had been discovered by her boss, Tony Prophet, at a workforce development initiative called YearUp. Stevenson was a key interview in a Fortune story last year on how employers are finding “diverse” talent by identifying non-traditional markers of strength and potential.

Stevenson had felt disconnected in high school but had earned an associate’s degree. He wanted more, so jumped at the chance when a techie pal introduced him to YearUp:

“It was one of the greatest, hardest experiences of my life,” he says. His performance earned him an invitation to a Salesforce networking event, where, amid canapés and chitchat, he “got [his] smile on” and introduced himself to Prophet, the equality officer. Stevenson’s story of disappointment and determination won Prophet over—the 23-year-old was a case study in life complexity, with strengths a résumé would only hint at. “He put himself on a different path and wanted to be a role model,” says Prophet.

Salesforce pulled up a chair for him, and he’s still here.

Inclusion, when it happens, can be disorienting. There may not be sugar water waiting for you on the other side, but it’s easy to underestimate, or miss entirely, the unique barriers that people continue to face once they’re in the room.

One raceAhead reader shared that she was mocked by her new boss at her first business lunch when she didn’t know to press the beans out of the unfamiliar edamame pods. “I ate the whole thing,” she said, still feeling the sting. Others have fretted about navigating casual Friday attire or side eye directed at their natural hair; others worry about business travel, when to speak up in meetings, or the pressure of being “the only one” in the room. And yesterday, I met a young Muslim woman who had become so worried about being judged or scrutinized for taking her daily prayers at work, that she needed to find a “prayer guard” to watch the door so she wouldn’t be observed. I’ll have more about her story in another dispatch.

All of this is a long way of saying that the human component of inclusion, understanding what people need to feel welcome, is nuanced and hard. I admire all of you who are doing the work of pulling up chairs for others, even if it’s not part of your job description, and even if you didn’t mean to – like the millions of chairs Dr. Christine Blasey Ford pulled up for so many of us with her extraordinary testimony today.

It’s always a gift. I appreciate you.

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