The Power of &

ampersand_shirtThe “&” is a logogram that was created as a result of an accidental merging of the letters “et” meaning AND in French. It was once the 27th letter of the English language alphabet, but was eventually rejected (much like our rejected former planet Pluto) because it didn’t meet the identified objective of the other letters – to make one distinct sound.  To read more about the rise and fall of the letter ampersand, including why it is called an ampersand, see here: http://blog.dictionary.com/ampersand/

For over 30 years, my favorite symbol has been the peace sign. I’m obsessed with it.  I collect them – on shirts, shoes, paintings, jewelry, magnets, pillows, stuffed animals, and stickers – anything I can find. It came as a surprise to no one that my first tattoo was of a peace sign. Peace is a powerful idea, like Nirvana or Utopia or the mythical Kubla Khan.  I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was old enough to enjoy music (never mind that my first album was Kiss Destroyer). I still love to hear John Lennon sing “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance”. The concept of peace doesn’t seem that complicated to me – yet it seems impossible to achieve.  So what about &?

About 18 months ago, I left the only job I ever had as an adult to embark on a new career path (albeit with the same office). I became the Diversity Coordinator.  Diversity & Inclusion is not a new notion per se, but recently there have been many more studies on the topic, a lot more discussion on the topic. Nearly every day there’s an article in my local newspaper about how few Hispanics are featured in positive roles in the movies or the low number of Native Americans who go to law school. However, Diversity is more than just race and ethnicity as demonstrated by Diversity icebergs. Scientists have proven that only 1/9 of an average iceberg is visible to an observer. The rest lies beneath the surface. The same is true of Diversity. There are often some visible indications of what makes people diverse: age, gender, and race, maybe even ethnicity, religion or disability. But there are many more characteristics to each person that are not known through observation.  These invisible traits include things like education level, culture, sexual orientation, family status, talents, and political views. Likewise, there are Diversity wheels, layers, dimensions, and puzzles, each showing another aspect of Diversity.

A few weeks ago, I started thinking about the ampersand. What does AND mean? And…. And what? To me, “and” is the epitome of inclusion. Why choose “or” when you can choose “and”? I’m pretty sure this is the reason my family’s annual Halloween Party routinely has over 125 attendees!  “And” has ramifications beyond just Halloween party guests, of course. How about the colleague who routinely eats by herself in her office? Why not invite her to join you one day? I’m sure it’s not completely a result of my extroverted nature that I’m able to find a connection with anybody. Isn’t it better to make people feel included? Employees who are engaged in the office community will be happier employees, more productive employees and more likely to stay.

Employee retention is important for business for a variety of reasons. The obvious reason is accomplishing the work of the office,  but there’s also not having to spend resources to advertise a position, review resumes, interview, check references, make an offer (negotiate salary), perform a background check (those are expensive in both money and time), and train a new employee. That’s a lot of lost time and resources when sometimes employee retention can be guaranteed by ensuring engagement and inclusion.  CIO.com reports the following: “[f]ull-time employees spend a large part of their day and the majority of their lives in the workplace, and how they feel about their work is important to them. In a recent Gallup survey, 63 percent of American workers are not engaged in their work, while another 24 percent are “actively disengaged.” Disengaged workers are more likely to look for other opportunities, or worse, drag down the productivity of the rest of your team. Gallup estimates that the cost of disengaged workers lies somewhere between $450-$550 billion each year in lost productivity.” Isn’t creating an inclusive work environment cheaper?

My 8 year old daughter told me that a new student joined her 2nd grade class one day last school year. I asked if she spoke with him. She said “I didn’t talk to him because he only spoke Spanish and my classmate, Bobby, was laughing at him because he couldn’t speak English.” I told her that the new student probably didn’t feel very welcome if the other students weren’t trying to include him. As for Bobby, I said “you know what? In a couple of months, the new student will be able to speak both English AND Spanish, so Bobby has nothing to laugh at. The new student will be bilingual!” She said, “Mom, Bobby’s first language is Spanish, too.” Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. Bobby knew what it was like to start school unable to speak English and still rejected another student who was experiencing the same confusion on his first day. Generally, I think kids are more inclusive (particularly at elementary school age before the difference between the “haves” and “have-nots” becomes evident and other differences appear that cause students to self-segregate).  Because my daughter is open to discussing situations, we brainstormed ways to make the new student feel more included. She tried a few of them – asking him to sit near her at lunch and play with her on the playground. Even with a language barrier, kids are willing to engage other kids in activities. I’d like to think that she helped him fit in and feel like a part of his new school community.

Besides work and school, there are other places that it is important to feel included, the most obvious being your community, your neighborhood. In the last year, my neighborhood has had two different recurring events to allow neighbors to get to know each other. One neighbor hosted several gatherings on her driveway inviting others to bring a snack and share a drink. There’s no need to invite strangers inside your house. How clever is it to have a neighborhood party on the driveway?!  I was able to meet some neighbors who live very close to me that I never knew. All of the neighborhood kids of varying ages congregated in their backyard to play on their swing set and run through their huge yard chasing each other and giggling. The other neighbor also hosted a driveway party, but it was to watch movies projected on a large sheet attached to her house. I didn’t know the people hosting the party, but it seemed like a great way to meet neighbors. This neighbor hand-delivered invitation fliers to each house within a block of hers and invited them over on a specific date and time. At that party, I met a retired couple who walk at a very fast pace every morning past my house. I’ve seen them for years and never met them, only referring to them as the Germans because they appear to enjoy a brisk hike through our hilly neighborhood. It turns out they are from Finland and we had an informative chat about their native land. How nice it is to be able to greet them by their actual names now.

Do you know the people who run by your house or walk their dogs every day? Neighborhoods are diverse communities. They are people who work and people who stay home, young families and retirees, the runners and bikers (even recumbent bikers!) and skateboarders, healthy people and those who might need extra help because of sickness or age. We have neighbors who were born and raised in Virginia, some in our own neighborhood, as well as some from far-away places like Iran, England, and Australia, Maine and California. We have people with MDs, PhDs, JDs and high school diplomas. We have people who were raised in households with single mothers and with parents still married for over 50 years. We are all different, but feel included.

It is important to feel included. It is the power of the ampersand.

There is one more reason why I think it is so important to feel as though as everyone is part of a community. According to Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, and one of the leading researchers on mental health and violence informs us, “[a] 2001 study looked specifically at 34 adolescent mass murderers, all male. 70 percent were described as a loner. 61.5 percent had problems with substance abuse. 48 percent had preoccupations with weapons; 43.5 percent had been victims of bullying. Only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history of any kind―which means three out of four did not.”

SEVENTY percent were loners! SEVENTY percent didn’t feel as though they were part of a community.  I am not dismissing the fact that over 43% had been bullied.  Most national studies indicate that school-related bullying has decreased in the last several years as a result of a nation-wide effort to teach students about the negative impact of bullying. However, I will suggest that creating a more inclusive environment will reduce bullying in addition to creating a feeling of community both inside schools and neighborhoods.

With the latest instances of gun violence occurring in our country, in our schools, movie theaters, churches, and even on our streets, it’s time to make people feel included and connected. People are less likely to hurt people they feel connected to.

So instead of creating a neighborhood watch, why not create a neighborhood potluck? Initiate an event where people can get together and meet each other and talk to each other.  It’s time to know the jogger, the dog-walker, the skateboarder, the stay-at-home mom, the retiree, the teenagers who dribble their basketballs at all hours.  No one wants to feel left out.

Be inclusive.

Be the ampersand.

&


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