Fighting Bias, Building Inclusion And Chopping Firewood

I spent much of the weekend chainsawing dead trees, then splitting the logs with axes and wedges, and stacking it for firewood. We’ve tapped a few maple trees around our house, and used much of the wood on a fire to boil down a sap to make maple syrup. But much of the wood will sit to dry out over the next several months – maybe even years – before it will make good fuel. I didn’t quite make it to my personal goal of “Steve Rogers ripping a log in half“, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

Why am I telling you this? Physical work often brings forth connections that I otherwise might not think of. With the background of last week’s killings of eight people in Georgia, most of whom were Asian-American women, I thought a lot about the tools and methods we use to combat racism and bias, and what it takes to create the good fuel to build inclusion.

Complex Tools: A chainsaw is a complicated machine – it can be confusing to understand, and no matter how good someone’s intentions, it can be incredibly dangerous if not used with great care and appropriate preparation. The same can be said for systematic policies, procedures, trainings, and laws – on a national level and within organizations. These complex tools are important and can make a huge difference towards justice and equity. Sometimes, though, what they’re cutting through might only be ‘soft wood’ – giving the impression of working well, resulting in a ‘feel good’ sensation for the wielder, while leaving others unserved, or worse off. Those same complex tools might not work well on the more meaningful ‘hard wood,’ causing friction and smoke, and damage both to the ‘wood’ and ultimately to people’s faith in the system itself.

Nuanced Tools: A complicated system like a chainsaw won’t work well to do the more ‘personalized’ work of splitting wood. A chainsaw simply flips a log over – potentially causing injury to those around it. Each log has unique grains and different stress points and cracks, so a slower-paced, more nuanced tool is required; a large axe, a small axe, a wedge, or some combination – again, all needing a great deal of preparation and care to avoid injury. (Of course, there is also a well-known business parable about taking time to sharpen your axe, which is pertinent here.) Similarly, while a large system may introduce changes in policy, procedure, and laws, these in themselves won’t change people’s hearts and minds. Personal change will only come through more tailored means – one conversation and personal experience at a time.

Knowing when to pause: Once the wood is split to create fuel, then the tools go away; no chainsaws or axes will help in stacking the wood or waiting for it to dry. Similarly, people need time to reflect on the conversations and experiences they had; continuing to pile on more conversations, more trainings, and more policy changes can lead to overwhelm, shutting down, and disengagement. And there are different philosophies on how to stack wood (bark-up, bark-down, circular piles etc.) – much of which comes down to the environmental factors surrounding the people voicing those philosophies. Similarly, wise people can disagree on the best methods to help people engage in meaningful change for inclusion. There is no singular right answer; each situation and each person is unique.

So how can this wood-stacking analogy be useful for you this week?

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Consider your tools. What resources do you have when addressing issues related to combating racism and bias, and building a community of inclusion? Which tools are the complicated mechanized power tools, and which are the more personalized nuanced tools? Reflect back on how you might have used those tools in the past – both well and poorly.
  2. Ask yourself which tools might be useful for your team. When wanting to address blind spots and issues of bias, it may be tempting to schedule a workshop or training. Building Bridges Leadership would be happy to help! But depending on your situation, you may find that making time for more personal conversations makes the biggest difference.
  3. Sharpen your axe. Take time to engage in topics you’re unfamiliar with, research different perspectives, and uncover your own blind spots. Join us for our Masking & Code-Switching webinar on April 14.
  4. Pace yourself and have patience. Meaningful change rarely happens overnight. Just as wood can take a long time to dry out to make good fuel, building a community of inclusion takes time. 
  5. Notice and take joy in the rewards. Meaningful change may seem small and almost imperceptible. It takes 40 gallons of sap and a long boil-down using a LOT of wood to create one gallon of maple syrup. But that syrup tastes delicious. Be on the lookout for your own sweet reward, even if it seems small. And if appropriate share and celebrate these with your team. Inclusion is not something you can do to people; you are building this culture together. Take the time to highlight and celebrate even small wins.

If you try this week’s tips, let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear your experiences.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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