Updated: Apr 6, 2022
By Natalie Olembo, Director of Inclusivity and Accessibility
This article is inspired by my time spent as Director of Inclusivity and Accessibility at The Peterloo Institute. The Peterloo Institute is a student-led think tank that aims to provide a non-partisan platform for inclusive and diverse participation in policymaking. The Institute is driven forward by the innovative and creative ideas of its members, and can only survive if all members feel seen, heard and inspired. This is where my role comes in. In this article, I will aim to explain: what inclusivity is, how we have tried to embed it into the think tank’s operations and what lessons I have learnt from my year spent working as Director of Inclusivity and Accessibility, including the difficulties that I faced along the way.
Inclusivity is more than a buzzword Over the past few years, we have seen companies large and small promote projects that they hope will make their organisations more inclusive, or at least to project a semblance of diversity to the outer world. Last year saw the BBC unveil its plan to become the gold standard for inclusion within the workplace through overhauling its current recruitment process, increasing diversity at the top level and making the co-operation more accessible to those with disabilities. With the increased attention on organisations' inclusivity and diversity plans, think tanks such as The Peterloo Institute have a responsibility to ensure that it has its own initiatives in place to help foster as accommodating a climate as possible. As the Director of Inclusivity and Accessibility, the remit of ensuring this falls to me, and as a result I have the privilege of interacting with all members of the think tank. This access means that I am at the forefront of creating and promoting The Peterloo Institute’s Inclusivity policies. My aim is to make inclusivity more than just a buzzword, used merely as a means to fulfilling a box-ticking exercise. This means it should be an integral part of all the work that is produced and that its members are aware of their responsibilities to one another and the community it strives to represent.
What is Inclusivity? When I first started this role, my understanding of inclusivity was that it is ‘the quality of trying to include many different types of people and treating them all fairly and equally.’ However, the problem with this definition was that at its surface level it speaks more about diversity than inclusivity. This became an issue, as at The Peterloo Institute I had to address organisational inclusivity by itself. Whilst having members from various backgrounds is important, it doesn't necessarily follow from this that the organisation is inclusive. Consequently, when I talk of inclusivity within The Peterloo Institute, I use the definition found in the CIPD Building Inclusive Workplaces Report (2019). This definition divides inclusivity into individual and organisational:
"Individual Inclusion relates to feelings of belonging, having a voice and being valued for your unique and authentic individual skills and ability. Organisational Inclusion refers to valuing difference. By allowing all employees the opportunity to develop and participate, they can use their voices to effect change, irrespective of personal backgrounds." By distinguishing inclusivity in this way, I was able to acknowledge the role individuals play in creating, and sustaining, The Peterloo Institute.
Communication as a Starting Point As someone who was new to the role, the task of building an inclusive workplace was daunting. However, a resource that I found helpful was OnthinkTanks, a global platform dedicated to promoting better-informed, and crucially more diverse, policy. In 2020, it hosted its annual conference and one of the many panel talks was on the topic of discrimination within think tanks. For someone who had never worked in a think tank before, the panel opened my eyes to the elitism and discrimination inherent in the decision-making process of such organisations. The panel also highlighted the importance of communication in addressing these issues, because if you can’t talk about it, how can you think about it? With this in mind, my first act as Director of Inclusivity was to organise and host well-being check-ins with every think tank member, in order to help promote a more transparent culture. With the help of Eva, who is an inclusivity officer at theInstitute, these check-ins became a space where members could openly discuss how they are finding their time at the think tank so far, ask questions, raise concerns and most importantly talk about the topics that matter the most to them. The check-ins were also an informal, and thus crucially honest, resource for me to gauge how well inclusion was embedded into the think tank. It would raise areas of concern that I had to tackle and more often it served as a starting point to some of the projects we undertook in the inclusivity and accessibility team, a small group made up of two inclusivity officers and one well-being officer. What I learnt during these check-ins, and through the resources provided to me by OnThinkTanks, is that to truly address the inclusivity issues that plague think tanks, you have to speak on a personal level to those who are affected by them.
Culture Design As stated in the last paragraph, the check-ins were a resource used to determine which issues were necessary to tackle. Very early on, members expressed how alienating working for a think tank can be. Most of their time was spent operating within teams and as a consequence of this, they would have little idea about what was going on across other teams, or what was happening generally with the think tank. We sought to solve this issue by creating a slack channel called #fridayupdates, where members from each team posted a short summary on the work they completed each week. However, we recognised that many either forgot to update the channel, didn't read the channel, or still felt alienated. With this in mind, I reached out to Vimla Appadoo, Director of Culture design at HoneyBadgerClan (a company I’ve already mentioned in this article that aims to design and deliver measurable change through culture), and also a Board Member of the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership (GMLEP). Vimla was an immense help to me when I first started out as Director of Inclusivity and Accessibility. Her expertise and advice made her the perfect person to ask for advice on this complex problem.
The solution that she presented was to develop an environment that reflected the individuals of The Peterloo Institute. Culture is an integral part of any society, and may include all aspects of life; from language, cuisine and social habits to what our morals are. Using Vimla’s advice and her own work, I aimed to tackle the issue of alienation by engaging everyone in the process of creating the Institute’s workplace culture. It was important to get everyone involved in this process as it would make the think tank more personal to them, and would empower them to deliver better work because they were happy. The project was broken into three parts. Each part required the members to reflect on the things they value and how they would like to work in the think tank. The final part of the project also required members to decide on what values they would like the think tank to promote i.e equality, honesty, etc, and how these beliefs can be manifested within the working culture of The Peterloo Institute. For example, if members decided one of our values should be honesty, the members would vote on a suitable definition and how it would look like in the think tank, from the way we work to the way we interact with one another. Whilst I did not get the chance to fully complete the project itself, by involving each individual from the beginning, I aimed to tackle the issue of alienation. This approach did seem more successful than the short-lived #fridayupdates. From the feedback we received, many members expressed their excitement at personally working on a project that would help shape the think tank’s culture. It is important to stress that the project is not fully complete, but from initial responses, I can already see that by building the time for people to reflect and support one another, individuals will be able to better understand not only their own culture but also that of their peers. This essentially gets to the heart of what I believe inclusivity actually is: creating a space where everyone feels like they can belong.
In this blog, I have aimed to explain what inclusion is and how we have attempted to nurture and encourage an inclusive workplace at The Peterloo Institute. One thing that I want to stress is the difficulties that arose in the various initiatives and projects we aimed to implement. For example, the Culture Design Project is time consuming and requires every single member to participate in order for it to be successful. Similarly, during the course of the check-ins I was faced with various dilemmas that I had little experience of dealing with. What I have learnt from my time as Director of Inclusivity and Accessibility, is that to create an inclusive environment, I am required to constantly learn and evaluate my opinions. Not only was I a teacher, when it came to educating members of the think tank about various inclusivity issues, but I was also a student. When faced with new dilemmas, I had to go away and learn by reading articles, wathcing talks or engaging with resources produced by more knowledgeable student bodies such as the University of Manchester’s Disabled Student’s Societyand UoM QTIPOC (queer, transgender, intersex, people of colour) Society. The issue of Inclusion is ever-evolving, and what works today may not be appropriate tomorrow. I also had to acknowledge that people are unique individuals, possessing their own distinct thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it was crucial for me to get to know them before forcing certain values or initiatives on them. Finally, Inclusion is a two-way street. As much as I have to learn, listen and educate, members within the think tank also have to possess a willingness to learn and engage with the changes being implemented. You cannot achieve an inclusive workplace without mutual collaboration. That is why this blog is a doorway for members within the think tank and external individuals to get an insight into how we have strived to create a more inclusive organisation. It is also an invitation to send suggestions on how we could improve our approach or even question some of the decisions we have made. If you would like to carry on the conversation beyond this post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope this blog has educated and even inspired you to reflect on ways you could make your own workspace inclusive.
Further Related Resources That May Be Of Interest:
Gerry Soullion and Vimla Appadoo, hosts, ‘Diving deep into the world of culture design’ This is HCD - Human Centered Design Podcast (podcast), 18th August, 2020, https://www.thisishcd.com/episode/vimla-appadoo-diving-deep-into-the-world-of-culture-design
Smart Thinking (2020). Diversity in Think UK Think Tanks. https://smartthinking.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/SmartThinking_DiversityReport_2020.pdf