I learned a two important lessons about inclusive leadership this past week; the first obvious, the second less so.
Last Thursday, I hosted a spirited panel discussion about Free Speech and Content Moderation on Social Media as part of the Dent Forum I organize twice a week on Clubhouse. There were three panelists: a rockstar assembly I was proud of — the technologist with contrarian views, the activist with a heart even bigger than his brain, and a fiery scholar deeply steeped in the legal landscape. I knew we’d have a great conversation exploring opposing points of view.
Two other people in Dent’s community have valuable perspective on content moderation, so I brought them into the conversation after the four of us got it started. A journalist who writes about social media and democracy and an extraordinarily thoughtful technologist who thinks deeply about the epistemic crisis.
The discussion was spirited, to say the least. Six strong personalities with varying views on a hugely important topic.
I always open it up to Q&A for the last half hour. Early on someone from our community raised his hand to speak. I brought him on stage, and as often happens on Clubhouse, the conversation took twists and turns before he had a chance to speak. Eventually he realized his point wasn’t really relevant to the current discussion, so he moved back to the audience.
I immediately emailed him and asked him to come back. I told him that it was just a heated conversation and I was waiting for the moment of pause to have him ask his question. He wrote a sweet response saying that it’s all good, he’s really enjoying the conversation, and that the moment had moved on from what inspired his comment. He didn’t want to ruin the flow, he said.
And it was all good. But I didn’t fully appreciate until later that I missed a chance to fully embody our value of inclusiveness, and it was eye opening when I realized why.
In Dent’s conversations we are collectively building a sense of the society we want to transition to. What are its values? How does its economy work? How does government serve its people? These are the questions we explore. I’ve codified Dent’s shared values with a few dozen core members of our community. Inclusiveness is one of them; obviously traditionally marginalized voices should be heard when imagining a better future for us all. I’ve been extraordinarily grateful that Clubhouse has brought more diversity to Dent’s community than my personal networks initially afforded.
As I lay awake in bed last weekend, I imagined that Dent itself — our community and how it relates to the organization — could be a prototype for that imagined future.
And then I remembered what happened last Thursday.
A brilliant black entrepreneur was on stage with six white people. He didn’t get a chance to speak and eventually he just left the stage. How many times has a scenario like that played out across history?
I take responsibility as Dent’s leader and the conversation’s moderator for missing the opportunity to bring his perspective into the conversation. I should have realized the dynamics of the stage and made sure it wasn’t just white voices talking.
But there is more to the story. I remember vividly the moments after he joined us on the stage. As I was waiting for my chance to ask him to speak, I remember feeling worried. I remember looking repeatedly at the little image with his name below.
I was worried I’d mispronounce his name. We’d just met in the last month on Clubhouse, and he’s been participating in Dent’s first book club experience so we’ve had a chance to interact a handful of times. But I’ve probably only heard him pronounce his name once, and I was afraid I’d get it wrong. I felt bad that we’d interacted as much as we had and I didn’t have the pronunciation of his name down yet. It gave me pause for long enough that the opportunity to bring him into the discussion was lost.
His is not the only incredible black voice that Clubhouse has brought to the Dent community. What’s more, there are at least three other names I’ve struggled to get right due to their lack of familiarity to me. Three other voices I’ve hesitated to bring into the conversation (another one that very morning no less!), not because I don’t think they matter or because of unconsciously bias, but because I’d feel bad if I mispronounced their names. By letting that social discomfort outweigh drawing them into the discussion, I unwittingly contribute to marginalizing their voices.
As the world struggles earnestly to unwind the racial biases embedded in our institutions, I can now see how such small frictions can have profound consequences.
Having an awareness of who and who is not speaking, and making an effort to draw out more voices, is probably obvious for most leaders. The realization that unfamiliar names can have ripple effects on marginalization is a more nuanced lesson. I’m grateful for them both.
Moving forward, I’ll endeavor to be more aware of the dynamic of the conversation. Who is taking up disproportionate airtime? Whose voice have we yet to hear? When someone raises their hand, I’ll bias towards being a little more forceful to make room for their contribution to the discussion. I’ll draw up a more diverse set of voices and tell them I’d love to hear their thoughts. And perhaps most importantly, I’ll make sure I learn how to pronounce everyone’s name — even if it puts me in an uncomfortable spot — so that the rest of our community does the same.