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Why the path to diversity and inclusion is a personal journey

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A space to finally be heard

As a British born Indian, the spaces I navigate have always been predominately white centred. I had never been able to articulate that until recently. With the global social activism in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has propelled Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) work front and centre. What was seemingly a ‘nice-to-have’ business prerogative turned into a ‘must-have’ to support organisational development and brand. This last year has offered a space for open conversations where people are now listening for the first time.  

I have always been concerned with D&I issues when I saw that people like me were not afforded the same opportunities. From school, where you are told that looks do not matter (a denial of race and difference), to the workplace, where more subtle forms of discrimination are at play, there are very few role models. After numerous rejections from internal job applications, I could not put my finger on why I could not progress. I felt I had grown to the stage where I was ready to move forward in position (externally, I typically would have sufficient experience). However, the hiring managers said they saw my potential but always went with someone with more experience, where perhaps they felt I was too young and should take a step back.   

Taking the steps for change

I applied to the ‘Oxfam Gender Leadership Programme’ to develop myself further. Through the programme, I learned about intersectional feminism; it is a power and identity that I held and a way to express my experiences as a woman of colour, growing up as working-class, and diverse ability. Throughout my life I’d been told I was ‘very ambitious’, but I now realise this as a form of microaggression, that it signified that I did not belong, and wasn’t accepted in certain spaces. I found ways to challenge my internal narrative of not being good enough; a fire was lit. I started seeking opportunities elsewhere and took some lateral steps that supported my next move.   

I began by bringing forward conversations about race in the workplace after being hired to support the culture work at Oxfam International. Oxfam’s exposed state gave us space to take a deeper look at how we were showing up in spaces where we fall into the same societal traps of the status quo. Understanding what racism means must be redefined internally for Oxfam to become the anti-racist organisation that it aspires to be.  

I began by bringing forward conversations about race in the workplace after being hired to support the culture work at Oxfam International. Oxfam’s exposed state gave us space to take a deeper look at how we were showing up in spaces where we fall into the same societal traps of the status quo. Understanding what racism means must be redefined internally for Oxfam to become the anti-racist organisation that it aspires to be.  

Strengthening workplace equality

We started a Global Diversity and Inclusion working group at Oxfam in May 2019, where our former Head of Talent & Resourcing and our Culture Leads also saw the importance of bringing a D&I agenda to our internal work. As a charity, resources at Oxfam have always been tight, but we decided to start a network built through employee volunteers. These volunteers, who were time poor but full of passion, recognised that the call to action was individual. One person can make a difference, and collectively we could promote change. 

As a group, we supported the business case to advance workplace equality by meeting with the Executive Board. Together we have influenced resolutions that will take Oxfam to its next phase in the inclusion and equity journey.  

Our D&I group have developed a staff learning resource ‘Racial Education Challenge’ to support raising cultural competence, highlighting how we are all affected by racialised social constructs. It is being used widely across the Oxfam confederation to help us reflect and develop our consciousness on identity, race and ethnicity.

The ongoing journey for diversity and inclusion 

Oxfam’s journey continues to evolve and is on the pathway to change as it continues to challenge itself. My personal journey continues; to the individuals who have supported me in one way or another, even those who have said no, I would not have been able to be in the position I am today to champion D&I, and for that, I am grateful. It is why the personal moments have shaped my perspective of embracing empathy of difference and the celebration of defiance to help bring about change in an organisation as complex as Oxfam, so that everyone feels like they belong.  

Diversity is rooted in our identity; it is affected by our experiences and values. Inclusion is not an easy path, but when we become less transactional and more relational, we can define a culture that supports individual actions towards diversity and inclusion. This takes a humanist approach of looking at issues holistically rather than trying to meet targets and tick box exercises   My mission is personal; to those who are still saying no, through what I believe to be fear-based decisions, this is the fuel to my fire. To face the denial of difference, we need to change how we traditionally view diversity and inclusion, it is not just for the human resources department to champion, it is a challenge for everyone in the organisation. We need to be proactive rather than reactive, radical in our thinking and modify our behaviour chains to enable positive outcomes for racial and intersectional inclusion to be felt throughout the Oxfam confederation.  

Whatever your role in your organisation, my ask is that everyone stops to think: who is being left unheard in your institution or workplace? What personal actions can you take? And how are you challenging yourself to promote inclusion at work on a daily basis? 

Author
Bhavika Patel

Bhavika Patel

Bhavika Patel is a coach, human resource, and organisational development professional working in the international development sector. She is the Diversity and Inclusion Partner in the People & Culture Team at Oxfam International Secretariat, Bhav is passionate about culture, equity and inclusion. She is a change agent, specialising in organisational behaviours, learning, talent development and equality in the workplace.