This past spring, I attended a conference that had a very high percentage of people with disabilities compared to the general population. In one of the first sessions, the presenters shared their names, titles, pronouns, and concluded with a “visual description” (e.g., “I am a curvy woman wearing a yellow dress with flowers. I am using a walker to move around the room.”). This practice of providing a visual description was a totally new practice to me; I had never witnessed it before. It took me a moment to connect the dots and figure out that this was being done to provide context for participants who were blind or visually impaired. Immediately, I felt a little anxious about what descriptors I would choose to share when I spoke. Do I mention my skin color? Do I mention my fabulous bowtie? What cues would be relevant to share? I found my mind racing because I wanted to do – and say – the right thing.
Leaning into a new cultural practice can be hard – even for people like me whose jobs are to create positive change and inclusive practices. If you have felt that anxiety, you are not alone. I have had a series of conversations on the grounds this season where Chautauquans have felt comfortable enough to come up to me and ask about cultural shifts happening in the wider society – shifts subsequently reflected at Chautauqua. One Chautauquan was unsure why someone shared their pronouns during a gathering. A Chautauquan stopped me to ask why some of our speakers are engaging in a “land acknowledgement statement” and why we are hearing more of these from our stages (more on this topic in a future column). Another asked why we would have visual printed signs advertising “Braille Menus Available” when people with visual impairments cannot see these signs. At my last job, someone once asked me why there was a baby changing station in the men’s room. The point being: New cultural practices can both pique our curiosity and desire to understand, but they can also stimulate our anxieties. Curiosity and anxiety can exist at the same time.
In my own experience, I have experienced cultural changes both in the media (more in an observational role) and in my work life (a more direct experience). A Chautauquan recently offered a reflection that is worth sharing here. She remembered the days when smoking was socially and legally accepted in the workplace – not just outdoors, but inside as well! And it was there that she experienced her first major cultural change – when the company banned smoking indoors. It was a shift in company policy, but it was also part of a much larger cultural shift. She reflected that when she retired in the mid-2000s, she was seeing other cultural changes happen around her, especially so in the workplace. Since her retirement, she shared, her community is limited to her time at Chautauqua and at her retirement community in a Southern state. Both of these places, she argued, are more homogenous than any workplace she had ever been in. In many ways, she felt that her connection to — and understanding of — cultural changes had become more constrained. She shared she felt less comfortable with change now because she had fallen out of the practice of adapting to change. Lastly, she shared her anxiety with change was overshadowing her curiosity and desire to understand. She concluded that “she was working on it!” I suspect this experience might be true for some members of the Chautauqua community, and I know it is sometimes true for me.
I decided to write about this because I want to acknowledge that change can be really hard, especially when we don’t understand the reasons behind it. It feels even harder when we disagree – based on our own assumptions and understanding – on the reasons for the change. Change can also be hard when we fall out of the practice of change and adaptation. Workplaces, I would argue, often create the conditions for change by policy and practice. At work, we have to – willingly or begrudgingly – adapt to change. Our muscle memory for adaptation and change is no different than physical muscles. If we don’t use it, we lose it.
I also offer this column with the hope that we can collectively do two things. First, we need to have empathy and understanding that change can be difficult, even when we want change to happen. Judging people who are questioning change does not lead to productive dialogue. Second, I believe we have a conscious choice to make: In the battle between our curiosity (or willingness to understand) and our anxieties, we have to choose which we will feed first. If we let our curiosity lead us into a posture of openness, we will ask different questions. We will seek more information before we make judgements. We will try harder to understand, and especially so when we disagree. We will remain in dialogue and do the hard work of seeking common ground. If we choose to feed our anxieties, we will start conversations with a defensive posture, participate in rumor mills or conspiracy theories, and end up in an “us” versus “them” construction of the problem. We have no shortages of the latter model in our society. In my own life, I’m working on balancing that tension – curiosity versus anxiety, dialogue versus debate, common ground versus a winning side. I’d love to sit with you on a Red Bench and learn how this is unfolding in your life.
Senior Vice President
Chief Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Accessibility Officer