“Who’s Missing From This Table?” NEA Reflections on the Process of Inclusion

Here is a great example of the important undertakings by regional organizations, and I hope will encourage others to also share significant initiatives in their regions through this blog.

The following post is from Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator (2015-2017) New England Archivists

As New England Archivists’ inaugural Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator, I have been asked to write a few words on how New England Archivists (NEA) reached this point in the process of becoming a fully representative and welcoming professional organization, and sketch out some big-picture ideas regarding what I hope to accomplish during my three-year term.

In the NEA’s 2010 Strategic Plan, NEA formally recognized the importance of diversity and inclusion for our viability as a professional organization seeking to represent and support all of New England’s archivists. To act upon this commitment, NEA established a two-year Diversity Task Force to examine the issue. This task force of six worked with NEA leadership between 2011-2013 to explore the history of diversity efforts within NEA, to engage in conversations around diversity with the membership, and ultimately to recommend some next steps.

In their final report to the Board in June 2013, the task force made a number of recommendations, among them to “institutionalize NEA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by creating a permanent body devoted to assessing and promoting the organization’s progress in this area.” It is this recommendation that led to the creation of the Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator position on the Board.

NEA has also recently adopted an Inclusion and Diversity Statement, explicitly affirming its organizational commitment to the project of building and maintaining an environment where all of New England’s archivists feel welcomed, supported, and represented.

As scholar Sara Ahmed (see On Becoming Included) has observed, the project of working toward diversity and inclusion is an aspirational goal, a project which by its very existence indicates that the organization or institution seeking such a state is working toward rather than having already arrived at that goal. Too often, institutional culture fosters an environment whereby statements and policies become substitutes for the continuing action of being welcoming, of looking outside of our comfortable community and asking, “Who is missing from this table?” It is particularly important to ask not only who is lacking representation within our profession, but what structural and historical forces have kept them away.

As NEA’s first Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator, I have identified four overarching goals for my tenure as I develop this position to continue the work which our Diversity Task Force began.

My first goal is to establish that the work of being a radically welcoming space will always be an ongoing, aspirational process. NEA can and should always be looking outward and asking, “Who needs to be welcomed to this table; whose voices need to be heard?” We cannot expect to become fully inclusive overnight, and our efforts and attention should be calibrated accordingly.

My second goal is to engage in active listening. The process of including diverse voices is, by definition, a group process and to that end I plan to invite a lot of one-to-one and one-to-small-group conversations in which I listen on behalf of NEA to those who have felt alienated by the organization and solicit ideas for how to make our community a more inclusive and relevant space.

We cannot understand or increase inclusion and diversity without understanding and working against structural inequality and the way it privileges some voices while erasing or marginalizing, discounting others. My third goal will therefore be to assert the ethical imperative of resisting structural inequality. I will approach my work on the assumption that we must center social justice and equity in our efforts, and that to do otherwise might increase nominal diversity, but fail to become a truly inclusive organization or profession.

Finally, I am a writer and scholar who believes in the power of speech as a form of action. That NEA is discussing what diversity means to us as a community, and that we have codified the importance of inclusive action in words, are both steps in a more welcoming direction. However, I also know from personal experience that conversation and ideas can get stuck at the concept stage. We can be overwhelmed by the desire for perfection or paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake — particularly when engaged in dismantling structures of oppression. We will not be perfect, and we will make mistakes. My fourth goal is therefore to get us acting in small, daily ways that make build up our collective confidence that change is possible.

That’s it. I see the labor of diversity and inclusion as an ongoing process that involves a lot of active listening to the alienated, that asserts the centrality of combating structural inequality, and prioritizes constructive action as a necessary parallel to policy statements. I’m rolling up my sleeves and looking forward to getting this work started as we enter 2015!

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