Transforming the Challenges of Creating Inclusive Organizations

by Kathy Germann

Adapted from my article, Transforming the Challenges to Creating Inclusive Schools. Published in The Fourth R, The Newsletter of the National Association for Mediation in Education, Vol. 54, Dec. 1994/Jan. 1995.

An inclusive organization is one in which members of diverse social and cultural groups are actively included and where the dignity of all of its members and potential members is respected so everyone can thrive and reach their fullest potential. Inclusive organizations fully value different perspectives and reflect the interests of diverse members throughout all levels and aspects of the organization starting with its mission. Finally, inclusive, multicultural organizations actively strive to eliminate all forms of oppression. (Jackson & Hardiman, 1981)

In this article I discuss twelve beliefs which, when held strongly, can be major obstacles to change. When these barriers are acknowledged and worked with, we can begin creating safe, inclusive, multicultural organizations.

1. A belief that change can be imposed.

State and federal laws and organizational rules may change some behaviors. However, laws and rules do not necessarily change attitudes. Deeply ingrained attitudes and beliefs often prevail. People can and do find ways to get around laws and rules, thus subverting intended changes.

We don’t tend to change our attitudes because somebody told us to do so. And just because we may think our ideas are correct doesn’t mean we will be able to persuade others to think so as well. Rather, our behaviors and attitudes begin to shift when we are directly engaged with the issues in an atmosphere that is non-judgmental and that fosters trust.

2. Use of blame and guilt to motivate change.

Blame and guilt only serve to put people on the defensive or paralyze them into not acting at all. We began to learn misinformation about others as children. It is not our fault that we were taught these things. Blaming us for believing misinformation is not useful. Understanding how we’ve all been hurt by this misinformation and learning the truth about ourselves and others can be a powerful personal motivation to make change.

3. A belief that there are quick, easy solutions.

Creating an inclusive organization is an evolutionary process. What we’re “undoing” didn’t happen overnight—these systems and ways of thinking have been deeply embedded in our societal psyche for a long time. Seeing this larger picture can prevent us from getting caught up in frustration and despair over lack of quick changes.

Rather than getting caught up in the notion of a quick fix, we need to reframe this work as a process and prepare ourselves for hanging in there for the long haul. Part of the essence of creating an inclusive organization is an awareness that the very process of how we relate to one another is what makes an organization inclusive and allows all its members to succeed to their fullest.

4. The mission of the organization doesn’t embrace diversity.

If the organization’s mission is driving it’s activities and decisions then it is critical that it address the issues of diversity. If it doesn’t, it will be too easy to avoid expending the time, money, and other resources necessary to institute meaningful and lasting efforts toward creating an inclusive organization. Having diversity in the mission statement provides an imperative to address it.

5. A belief that being “non-discriminatory” is enough.

Many organizations fall short of being truly inclusive by resting on the laurels of their affirmative action efforts and anti-harassment policies. For example, having white women and people of color on staff does not in and of itself create an inclusive organization. A non-discriminatory stance can still maintain the status quo if there is failure to address more than numbers of personnel. Additional efforts are necessary to be inclusive of diversity on all levels and aspects of the organization, including the mission, personnel, operations, and product or service delivery.

6. A failure to understand and address the institutional nature of oppression.

Oppression is more than individual acts of prejudice. It is systematic, routine mistreatment of whole groups of people. This mistreatment is seen in the policies, procedures and norms that educational, business, medical, governmental and other institutions carry out on a daily basis. As a result of the routine and insidious nature of this mistreatment it often becomes “invisible” and is perceived as “the way we do things” to those who are not the target of it. The more we can understand how the system affects all of us the greater chance we’ll have of dismantling it and creating new, inclusive ways of being.

7. Lack of awareness of privilege and the fear of giving up exclusivity of privilege.

Privilege is an unearned right or resource that one group has access to that other groups are denied. Because it is unearned we are often unaware of the privileges we might have, since we’ve always seemed to have them it’s “normal”. Some examples of privilege are as an ablebodied person being assumed to be intelligent until proven otherwise, as a white skinned person not having your difference of opinion being attributed to your race, as a male, not being perceived as overly emotional. The scarcity mentality has taught us to fear sharing privileges. There is a difference between giving up a privilege and giving up the exclusivity of a privilege so that it can become accessible to everyone.

8. Lack of action is not harmful.

Collusion is consciously or unconsciously reinforcing and perpetuating misinformation, attitudes, behaviors and norms that lead to the systemic mistreatment of people. Silence is the loudest voice of collusion. Our lack of action when we witness an act of prejudice or mistreatment can be interpreted as support. This can range from laughing at a sexist joke to not speaking out about patterns of promotion that leave people of color behind. In order to create systemic change we must keep paying attention and naming the obvious.

9. The attitude that we’re doing this for “those poor oppressed people.”

This attitude continues to perpetuate a form of one-upmanship - “I’ve got it better so I’m going to fix it for you.” This is not only patronizing, but it also fails to acknowledge the negative affects of oppression on all of us. Doing diversity work requires a partnership approach, a view of others as equals and a recognition that we all have something to gain from this. Since we are all now or all will be members of some target group, we all need each other as allies. With this understanding we will be more motivated to hang in there for the long haul and sustain positive change for and with each other.

10. If “they” would just change everything would be better.

A variation on this theme is, “I’m not ___ist (racist, sexist, etc. ) but I know somebody who is.” It is virtually impossible to grow up in this culture and escape being infected by the virus of oppression. This virus creates dis-ease that is manifested in many ways, one of which is the ability to see problems in other people’s behaviors/attitudes and the failure to see one’s own. Of course this serves to continue the divisive notion of “us vs. them.”

Most of us perceive ourselves as good intentioned human beings, one’s who would never purposefully hurt anyone. Yet as we discovered with the notion of collusion, our silence and inaction does hurt—not only others but ourselves as well. We have a tendency to go “dumb-up,” i.e., we fail to examine our own power and privilege and the ways that we may unwittingly act (or fail to act) that serve to maintain institutionalized oppression. (Terry, 1983) It is crucial for us to do our own work and to recognize that our behavior is a powerful example.

11. This is all too overwhelming.

Yes, it’s true, this can feel overwhelming and yet we can’t let this stop us from taking action. What are our alternatives? We’ve already acknowledged that inaction perpetuates the status quo. There is no such thing as being passively anti-oppressive; we are either part of the solution, or part of the problem. This is where we are strengthened by working in collaboration with others. Through this approach we can sustain and support one another as we live our visions of inclusive organizations and communities.

A slightly different version of this is the idea that we can only choose to work on one area at a time, i.e., we’ll work on classism this year and next year we’ll focus on ablebodism. This fails to recognize the intricate web of relationships between the many forms of oppression. Because they are so interconnected, it is essential to work on them all.

12. The belief that we can just think our way through this.

We’ve all been hurt and learned to fear and distrust others who may be different than us. These hurts, as well as deeply conditioned attitudes, have become held in place with the glue of emotions. We need to be able to acknowledge and work through these feelings with other people in a safe environment for there to be lasting change. It takes our brilliant minds and our compassionate hearts to do this work.


Creating inclusive organizations is not easy work. Recently I asked a group of 130 participants at a Diversity in the Workplace Conference how many of them would like to see all forms of oppression end tomorrow. The response was unanimous—everyone agreed that would be great. Then I asked, if there was so much good intention in the room, why did the “isms” continue. Their response—lots of thoughtful, puzzled looks.

Creating inclusive organizations isn’t about good intentions. It requires that our actions, both individual and institutional, be grounded in a thorough understanding of the nature of oppression. Does this mean we shouldn’t start until we “get it”? No, it means getting clear about what “it” is and being willing to do some deep examination of our current behaviors and institutional structures. This requires being open to diverse perspectives, as well as a willingness to take risks, make “mistakes,” and walk through our fear and doubts. It also means creating safe space for this kind of exploration and dialogue to take place. Only when we join our allies with open hearts and curious minds will we be able to continue to strive forward in building new ways that embrace the common differences in us all.


Jackson, B. & Hardiman, R. Organizational Stages of Multi-cultural Awareness. Amherst, MA: New Perspectives, Inc.

Terry, R.W. (1983). Beyond the White Male Club. Videotape produced by University Media Resources, Continuing Education and Extension, Univ. of Minnesota.

© 2002 Kathy Germann Consulting.