‘Open’ and ‘Inclusive’: what the heck are they?

Jess Mitchell
Jul 3 · 5 min read

(how we misuse both) (Part 1 of 2)

Open, open source, open education, open data, open science, open access, open open open. Are you open? How will you know? What is Open? Is there nuance in Open?

Inclusive spaces, inclusive conversation, inclusive language, inclusive design, inclusive culture. Are you inclusive? How will you know? What is Inclusive?

The good news is that we know what questions to ask. The bad news (I’d argue opportunity for deeper inquiry) is that there are no fixed or absolute answers.

An image of a number of doors to choose from. https://pxhere.com/en/photo/386895


The Cambridge Dictionary defines open as any number of the following:

  • not closed or fastened
  • ready to be used or ready to provide a service
  • not closed in or covered
  • available, not limited
  • not secret; honest and not trying to keep things secret
  • not decided or certain


At the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto Ontario we define ‘inclusive design’ as:

design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.

Designing inclusively results in better experiences for everyone.

While definitions help, they seem like a starting point, devoid of nuance, divorced from context.

Yield sign that says “Tough Decisions Ahead” https://tinyurl.com/yxdq2xks

When being Open is a bad idea

To be open in certain contexts is to make yourself vulnerable beyond the Brene Brown measure of vulnerability. Do not share your passwords openly, for example. Do not share your SSN or SIN openly. Openness without self-preservation makes us all vulnerable to call-out-culture (a real deterrent to open).

In a time when many struggle to ‘pack it in’ and most err on the side of oversharing, I’m left to wonder if this is because of a misunderstanding of open… “And by expressing what you’re feeling, not only do you pass some of your emotion to others, but you also have to deal with the aftermath of that disclosure.” Sometimes you shouldn’t share, you shouldn’t be open about everything. It’s a bit of a straw person— being open about everything is NOT desirable.

Knowing when to be open and when not to feels a lot like understanding your impact on others… the impact of your openness beyond you and conversely the impact of others upon you (the kind of damage, the degree of damage they can do). Critique of ideas NEED NOT manifest as call-out culture. Expression of identity NEED NOT lead to identity attack or appropriation or theft. You can see where this straw person is marching.

When Inclusion is misused

To understand inclusion in certain contexts can also be confusing or even hostile. This article outlines the use of the word ‘queer’ as an inclusive challenge to the use of the word ‘lesbian.’ For those who self-identify as lesbian, there is no need to be inclusive. Most lesbians are attracted to and want to be with people of the same sex. That they are excluding men is a-ok.

People defining limits and expressing preferences is what the Feminist Movement fought for decades to make possible. To privilege inclusion over individual voice is a direct threat to feminism, no? Managers-only meetings, training, events. This depends, but in-and-of itself, it is a-ok, I think. Why is it just for managers? Is there a reason? All-staff meetings, a-ok to just include staff, excluding stakeholders, etc.

Who Draws the Line then?

So, how do we do these two things meaningfully? We know how important they are to:

  • productivity
  • success
  • innovation
  • community

How can we know or describe when it is appropriate and at what level to be open and inclusive? How can we preserve choice and preference AND be open and inclusive? We have some difficult choices to make and some conversations to start having. The misuses and misapplications of both ‘open’ and ‘inclusive’ ought not sway us away from either. Instead we must continually wonder, critique (self and others (productively, not call-out)), calibrate, and re-calibrate both.

As is the case with most nuanced qualities, I’d argue we should beware of feeling comfy about it. When we feel comfy we should ask what we are missing? Who we are missing? Where is the capital? Why?

Choice https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2017/08/29/08/40/choice-2692466_960_720.jpg

Read another take on ‘inclusive’ that I wrote: https://medium.com/@jesshmitchell/inclusive-what-is-it-55acfd8094dd

Here is what we know:

Open and Inclusive are both aware of power, dynamics, cycles of exclusion, privilege. Open and inclusive both must be understood as relational, situated, embedded in socio-economic, cultural phenomena. If being open puts you at great risk, you might draw the line differently. If bringing your full self shuts someone else down, then it might be too much.

We need to do the following, and not as a task, but as a value:

  • Build in checks-n-balances
  • Build in mechanism for change
  • Build in reflection
  • Build in Codes of Conduct and ask what else do I need to do to make this space inclusive and also challenging
  • Build in diversity, equity and inclusion in everything you do, not just the DEI spaces.


Do you grant the other person is deserving of all rights that are (or ought) be available to a person? Do you recognize their personhood? If yes, then…

  • Start with curiosity — begin by asking
  • Then care — give a damn what the other person thinks (especially if they disagree with you)
  • Then listen — which means yielding space
  • Then hear — work to understand
  • Then change — adapt & adjust
  • Then invest in — see the value in diversity and invest.

Open and Inclusive are Never Complete

  • it’s like bathing, you gotta keep doing it: “Florence Kennedy’s, ‘Freedom is like taking a bath: You got to keep doing it every day.’”
  • it’s a value, never a checklist
  • measure its value to you by seeing how inextricable it is in everything you do

Keep reading…. Part 2 https://medium.com/@jesshmitchell/open-and-inclusive-how-we-get-both-wrong-1f908a9517c7

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