Lessons In Diversity & Inclusion From Dr. Maya Angelou

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Dr. Maya Angelou was truly a phenomenal woman person. As an undergraduate studying at Wake Forest University in the early 90’s, I had the privilege of being a student in her “Charismatic Leadership” class. It was an amazing experience. During that class, I learned a lot about leadership. But the greatest lessons I learned from Dr. Angelou are the very things that sit at the core of what it means to be diverse AND inclusive.

Throughout the course Dr. Angelou would recite Terence’s Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (“I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”). In that quote we’re reminded that despite our differences, we share the same human experiences. It is through these shared experiences that we can be inclusive of those who may look, sound, act, think, or work differently from us.

On paper, many organizations “value” diversity and inclusion but don’t always clearly define what that looks like or sounds like for the individual employee. Living our corporate values require that we make conscious decisions in what we think and how we act. Here are 3 deliberate workplace diversity and inclusion actions you can take now:

#1 – Learn people’s names. Learn how to pronounce it correctly and spell it correctly. It matters.

As part of her classes, Dr. Angelou had two “traditions” that I remember fondly. The first, being that we learn the names of all of our classmates so that we may address them properly:

“In class, Dr. Angelou made us learn each other’s names. She wanted us to understand how you feel when someone calls your name across the room. She wanted us to experience what it meant to have your chest swell with pride because someone remembered your name.” – Nicole Little, Class of 2013

In the workplace, how often do you address your colleagues by name? Be mindful that in that simple act of addressing someone by name you’re really saying, you matter as a person. It’s a starting place for building trust and fostering collaboration. Keep Dr. Angelou’s words in mind that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

#2 – Look around the table.

The second “tradition” of being in Dr. Angelou’s class was being invited to her house for a home-cooked meal. It was an honor to have been among the hundreds (thousands?) of diverse guests who have dined at her home. It’s been said that the diversity you value is reflected in the diversity of your dinner table.

The next time you take a seat at the table, be it dinner table or conference room table, take a look around and ask yourself, “does the diversity of this group accurately reflect what I/the organization value?” Challenge yourself to go deeper than what you can observe with your eyes.

#3 – Courageously Address Intolerance.

“Courage may be the most important of all the virtues, because without it you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” – Maya Angelou

Without courage you can’t practice diversity and inclusion consistently. Sometimes being courageous simply means being humble enough to challenge your own intolerances. And sometimes it means being outspoken enough to address the intolerance of others when it’s in our presence. But mostly, being courageous means being human. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

Watch HERE as a fellow classmate remembers Dr. Angelou’s courage inside and outside the classroom.

Photo credit:  news.wfu.edu
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