Sen Zhan speaks with three DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) practitioners:
Agnieszka Bua, Margaret Amaka Ohia-Nowak, and Kevin Groen.
SEN ZHAN: We’ll start with New Visions collaborators Agnieszka Bua and Amaka Ohia-Nowak and how they each found their way to working as DEI practitioners.
Amaka is a critical linguist and a diversity consultant and antidiscrimination trainer. She conducted her doctoral research at The Department of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and completed her PhD at the University of Rzeszów in Poland.
AMAKA OHIA-NOWAK: I was born in Poland. I’m a daughter of a Polish mother and a Nigerian father who met at Medical University in Poland where my dad was pursuing his studies.
It was an experience of being on the one hand somebody who is exoticized, who is an attraction, who is being looked at because people like me still are not common in Polish society and not really realizing how internalized many of the systemic structures, and also those things that I experienced like microaggressions or verbal abuse from children coming from lack of experiences with people of color, how internalized these racists behaviors were in me.
SEN ZHAN: Agnieszka Bua is a creative facilitator and consultant with a broad history of working in culture, arts and education with a focus on wholistic antidiscrimination and critical global education. Her background is in cultural studies, photography and media and audiovisual communication. Agnieszka Bua who goes by Bua, cofounded New Visions in 2018 to strive for positive systemic change in communities and society at large on an everyday basis.
AGNIESZKA BUA: I was born in a little town in Southwestern Poland close to the border with Czech Republic. I think that my first deep reflection related to where I am sitting in the complex social structures of the world was going for an internship to Kenya and entering the space as a white Eastern European with a photo camera being paid by a German government and funding to make it possible for me to move there.
It was the first understanding of how I am entangled in this very system and how I am benefitting from white supremacist structures without fully understanding the impact then yet.
SEN ZHAN: Bua, you were mentioning one of the things that you’ve written about is how normativity contributes to human tragedy. How does normativity marginalize people? How does it create damage in society?
AGNIESZKA BUA: It’s extremely visible right now thinking about queer youth in Poland and the amount of self-harm, suicidal thoughts and actual suicides happening in the country because of queer youth not feeling safe. That’s one of the most visible topics right now in the country I come from. There are many others related to the treatment of black people who also fear for safety and who don’t leave home on Independence Day because of fearing for their lives.
AMAKA OHIA-NOWAK: You mentioned Independence Day in Poland, but for instance myself as a black woman, I cannot go out on the street. This is the experience that I share with every single black person I speak to here in this country because we fear that we won’t be safe because the Nationalists and the Neofascist march is being accepted by the government.
We are a tiny population here and we don’t fit into what it means to be a Polish person which is also illustrated by the Polish census. You can only register as a Pole, meaning that you’re a white person. Whiteness means Polishness. Normativity comes from institutions of power but at the same time it’s actually reproduced and redistributed by members of society and then it’s actually legitimized by the institutions of power.
SEN ZHAN: What is allyship in these situations?
AGNIESZKA BUA: What’s important for me when it comes to allyship is first doing my homework, learning, reading, listening, trusting, understanding without self-defenses or protecting my ego, but really listening. I think that the first skill is really listening and letting it sink into you however uncomfortable it may be.
SEN ZHAN: My experience has been also with myself is that this is where a lot of people stop because it is so uncomfortable because we don’t want to see our own responsibilities in these things.
AGNIESZKA BUA: When I listen to you, I’m thinking about how part of this process is just courageously feeling and sensing, feeling pain, feeling discomfort, feeling difficulty that is part of our human experience.
I can talk about our experiences as facilitators is let people know that they will feel that way, that they will feel shame, they will feel guilt and it will be uncomfortable, but they are safe and they are not in danger. Feeling shame and feeling guilt is part of the process. You cannot escape that. If you don’t live through that.
What helps also is just creating a safe atmosphere to feel that and hold each other. This is to nourish our collective liberation further on.
AMAKA OHIA-NOWAK: First of all, recognizing that your identity if you want to be an ally is intersectional and that your identity will lead to being exposed to privileges like unearned privileges.
In my case, being a black person and a black woman living in Poland makes me a member of a marginalized community, but at the same time, having earned a PhD, being educated in Poland, speaking Polish fluently, being of Polish citizenship, having a Polish passport gives me a lot of privileges. Being a person of color, being a non-queer person of color also gives me in this country and this system a lot of privileges that I can use to be an ally as well.
SEN ZHAN: I’m curious how you present this work to places or to people who may not understand why that’s so important to go through. How do we bring people into this conversation when they are very comfortable where they are?
AGNIESZKA BUA: Because of the emotional burden that this work carries with it being a facilitator who is a member of a marginalized community, I choose to also select ways in which I work.
Before every training we have a needs assessment, a listening session because we actually want to find out what are the difficulties, challenges, but also where are the places and obstacles in which people could resist and why are people resistant.
Sometimes it just means starting from basic concepts of what discrimination is, what inclusion is, what equity is and for some people, this cognitive work is really needed before they can enter the work of deeper processes and so on.
SEN ZHAN: So, meeting people at the stage in which they are able to engage in these concepts even if that might be simply on an abstract level at the moment.
AGNIESZKA BUA: No.
AMAKA OHIA-NOWAK: Yes.
AGNIESZKA BUA: I don’t have an interest in convincing people, so getting into the active opposition space, that’s not the space where I want to contribute to. I would rather work with the passive allies to activate some understanding and energy.
Also, the longer I do this work, the more I understand that it’s actually looking for a community to work with, how to do this work relational and not transactional, how to actually, at the core of this work, think about the relationships that we’re creating with each other and within the group.
SEN ZHAN: I would love to turn our conversation now to the role of language and the effect of words in this work.
AGNIESZKA BUA: Words are very powerful because it’s creating our reality. One of the examples is the way in which the language choices of politicians shape and influence the experience of refugees of color in Poland. So for instance, there would be those antimigrant rhetorical statements like, “A flood of migrants,” or “Invasion of migrants,” saying that migrants are floods means that they are not really human, that they are going to bring some danger, that they are bringing some kind of threat underneath the words there are many attitudes, prejudices, presumptions that also generate emotions. When we look at discriminatory language it tends to dehumanize people.
SEN ZHAN: And this activation of fear when there is talk of floods or invasions, it automatically comes with “We have to do something. We have to defend ourselves. We need to protect ourselves because this is making us unsafe.”
AGNIESZKA BUA: Using the expression such as “rainbow disease” as the queer community was called by people in power creates a climate that it’s okay to speak that way because these people do not face any consequences of using this kind of language.
AMAKA OHIA-NOWAK: On the topic of language, when you’re offering trainings, very often when there is a topic of racism, they will actually ask “How can I call people like you?” and it’s okay and it’s not offensive. They understand that when they choose a word that is correct then they won’t be racists.
On the one hand, there is a lack of understanding how language can be powerful and on the other hand, there is also a lack of understanding that language is not everything and changing language behaviors is not enough.
SEN ZHAN: How do you see things that have happened recently in the United States with the revocation of abortion rights in some places as influencing current stances in Poland and in Europe on topics of marginalization of people of color and LGBTQ status?
AMAKA OHIA-NOWAK: So, I can definitely speak to the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. Many people realized that this actually is a topic also in Europe and in Poland specifically. This was a moment of awakening for the black community to activate themselves. This was a moment where some kind of empowerment came in from what was happening in the States, so I would say that black activism was very much influenced by what had been happening and has been happening in the U.S. in the past few years.
AGNIESZKA BUA: I’m thinking also about how our movements are global and contextual at the same time and how abortion ban in Poland looks differently than in the U.S. and how we all want to have access to safe abortion, so I’m thinking about how certain strategies and tactics for example abortion activists we are also inspired from the U.S. That’s very present, how we can support each other and share strategies and tactics while being aware that we are in different contexts.
SEN ZHAN: Thank you so much for your time, for your heart, for you experiences. I am in deep admiration and humility at the work that you do and the way that you show up.
AMAKA OHIA-NOWAK: Thank you. Thank you both. It was very inspiring talking to you both. I learned something again. My body learned something and I’m grateful.
AGNIESZKA BUA: Thank you. I am also honored to share this virtual circle with you.
SEN ZHAN: Kevin Groen is a DEI practitioner by day and spoken word artist by night. What makes Kevin’s perspective on the topic of allyship even more unique is that he is an adoptee, born in Korea and raised in The Netherlands in a Dutch family. His multilayered experience of life informs and infuses both his DEI work and his poetry with passion and precision. Kevin speaks about the importance of taking an inside out perspective when it comes to acknowledging our own privilege. Listen on to find out what this means.
KEVIN GROEN: In the earlier years, I think the way I wrote about feminism was more from an outside in perspective, but the problem if I as a man write about feminism from an outside in perspective is that I’m saying that I’m not part of the problem because I’m looking at it not from within.
SEN ZHAN: I’m just commenting on it as an observer.
KEVIN GROEN: But I am not an observer when it comes to gender inequality. As a man, I am at the heart of the problem, the common denominator around the world of gender inequality not advancing at the pace that we want is men not women.
If I write about feminism, if I write about rape culture, if I write about toxic masculinity, I can’t do that from an outside in perspective, I have to do it from an inside out perspective where I center myself in a way where I explore my own responsibility and my own relationship to these topics rather than from an outside in.
What is my culpability? What is my complicity in the problem of the refugee crises? When I speak about racism, I can do it in whatever way I want as a person of color because I’m the oppressed, but in any other situation where I am the oppressor, essentially where I have privilege, I have to learn to write from an inside out perspective.
If I go onstage and say “Sexism is bad,” that statement is true, but what does that fundamentally change in the mindset of the people? If every person in the room is a liberal progress open minded individual, every person would agree with that statement, it doesn’t change anything. Everyone will nod their heads yes.
Now there are a couple of problems with that. One, women have been saying that forever. I’m basically just reiterating what women have been saying. If I’m doing that, then rather than me saying it, give space to women.
Two, it doesn’t change the narrative in the audience, specifically men in the audience of what everyday sexism looks like. That’s an outside in perspective. I’m talking about the problem, but I’m not addressing unconscious biases. I’m not addressing my own privilege. I’m not addressing power dynamics.
If I go onstage and say, “Here’s what I’ve learned about toxic masculinity, I’ve never seen my dad cry and as a result, I grew up believing that crying is a bad thing.” Now I’m allowing men in the room to take a moment to reflect on their history with their own dad. “How often have I seen my dad cry? What does that actually mean? How often have I seen my mom cry? What’s my relationship to crying myself? What do I think of when I see someone crying? What do I feel when I am crying myself?” That could start changing the narrative about one specific element of toxic masculinity.
The inside out perspective also takes the perspective of I am part of the system therefore I am always part of the problem in case I am the one with privilege. Doing nothing would uphold the current system, so what does doing nothing look like? What does doing something look like? If you can then change the narrative of what allyship looks like, change the narrative of what action looks like, that gives the audience an opportunity to reflect on themselves and their own relationship to each of those different topics.
When you go into the details, that gives people an opportunity to say, “Oh, I do that too.” “Oh, I’m ask these questions to people of color never realizing that those questions are actually oppressive.” I never understood actually that making a joke about women is part of rape culture. Does that make me a rapist? No. Does that make you a bad person? Not necessarily, but now you know and if you continue, yes, that would make you a sexist, a racist.
SEN ZHAN: I can really imagine that is a challenging thing to consider for some people if it’s the first time that they are encountering this and there is someone onstage saying, “This is what toxic masculinity looks like” and they suddenly recognize themselves in the things that you’re describing even though you’re describing it about yourself, they could feel in that moment attacked.
KEVIN GROEN: Yes.
SEN ZHAN: I am not condoning it but can understand the reaction to that. That’s been a question that I’ve been navigating a lot; how to invite people into the conversation knowing that they’re going to feel challenged, especially people who have an unconscious privilege. Sometimes ignorance is their bliss and becoming more aware creates more of a burden for them. How do we get people to basically take more burden?
KEVIN GROEN: My day job is in the field of behavioral change. For me, especially the inclusion part is all about behavioral change. You can’t become more inclusive without changing your behavior. If the work environment is not inclusive, it’s because of specific behaviors that are making it non-inclusive.
SEN ZHAN: I want to pause there because when I was growing up I invited everyone to the party, “come, come, come!” as long as you’re here with me, I’ve included you. How is that different from changing your behavior? What’s missing there?
KEVIN GROEN: Because I don’t address my unconscious biases, if I don’t look at my own behavior and the impact of my behavior, I might be inviting more diversity into the room, but my behavior and my language might still be oppressive. Just inviting more diversity into the room might actually mean to invite more marginalized people into an unsafe space, into a hostile space, actually more specifically into an oppressive space and then, very likely, you’ll also get a very high dropout rate. There is no point in inviting more diversity into the room when we’re talking about for example marginalized groups of people if the behavior of the people in the room doesn’t fundamentally change.
SEN ZHAN: What kind of behavioral change is needed to truly be inclusive?
KEVIN GROEN: I have a client that I’ve been working with for many years and they proudly say that they’re taking a lot of action to stimulate binary gender equality, so we’re talking about men and women specifically. They were having lots of initiatives to stimulate and promote women in leadership for example. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Here is the problem; for the last couple of years, when they’ve started doing block posts about women in leadership, fireside chats with female leaders and role models, etc., support groups for women by women, not a single initiative has been targeting men and educating men about male biases, male gays, toxic masculinity, unconscious biases, the role of men in advancing gender equality.
Recently, I had a female leader that I was coaching come to me and say, “I got feedback from both my male boss and some male colleagues that I have to be more assertive so that people listen to my ideas.” I said, “Okay, hold on. Before we get into that, tell me actually more about your work environment.” She’s like, “I’m the only woman.”
SEN ZHAN: So you have to be more like a man to be successful.
KEVIN GROEN: She explained to me more about her work situation and what that feedback meant. We got to the conclusion that the problem isn’t that she has to be more assertive so that she is listened to, the problem is that men aren’t actually listening to her. It’s not that she has to be more assertive, men have to realize that they’re not giving women the same generosity, the same patience, the same respect, the same empathy as they give other men. If she gets interrupted all the time, which was the situation, but male colleagues do not get interrupted, then the problem isn’t her assertiveness, the problem is the men in the room.
SEN ZHAN: The question for me is people who occupy privilege, unless they really truly believe in changing their behavior to make it better for other people, what would be their incentive to say, “Okay, I guess I’m the problem.” It’s so much easier to be unaware. It’s so much easier to say it’s someone else’s problem. Why should they start to look at their own role in that?
KEVIN GROEN: I believe there are two fundamental answers to that.
One, every organization has a moral obligation in my opinion to do everything in their power to contribute to an inclusive workspace regardless of whether you can monetize it. If a company only wants to do diversity, equity and inclusion to improve their financial situation –
SEN ZHAN: Why would that improve their financial situation?
KEVIN GROEN: Because you basically allow every person’s talent to flourish. At the moment, if the workplace is not inclusive, you’re not getting the best talent expressed, you’re not getting people to be at their best. You only getting some people to be at their best. You are likely to be more sensitive to the needs of the market.
Artificial intelligence has already been shown to be bias because it’s fed by people. If your artificial intelligence is biased towards white heterosexual men, you’re missing out on a huge market essentially because your data will only be biased towards that particular group and leave out a vast audience essentially.
Those are reasons why it could be profitable to invest in diversity, equity and inclusion.
ssnother reason that I believe that it’s important for people to take responsibility is because the relationship that you can form with other people, especially people from marginalized groups will become so much richer, so much more connecting, so much more powerful, so much more meaningful once you start realizing that you are disconnecting from them because of your unaware oppressive behaviors.
My relationships with women can be so much more meaningful when I start realizing that my behaviors are biased, oppressive and disconnecting. Your life will become richer if you maintain better relationships with people from marginalized groups.
SEN ZHAN: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about this. I have not considered that when you do have that privilege, you’re disconnected from people who don’t have that privilege. You cannot connect with the people who you might want to connect with and it’s lonely.
KEVIN GROEN: It is lonely. Let me just jump on that loneliness. I said that as a man I can develop healthier, richer relationships with women if I address my male biases and unconscious biased suppressive behaviors towards women. Just imagine how much richer and healthier my relationship can be towards other men if we collectively as men start addressing toxic masculinity and healing.
How many men can genuinely say that they’ve said to another man, not romantically, but just to a male friend, “I love you.” When was the last time you either texted or verbally said to another man not romantically, “I love you”? The fact that we don’t dare to say that to other men is homophobic and is oppressive, sad, leads to loneliness. If I can say to another man, “I love you,” genuinely, my relationship to that other man can be so much healthier, so much richer. It’s not just me having healthier relationships to women, but it’s also me having healthier relationships to men and having healthier relationships to nonbinary people.
SEN ZHAN: How would you respond to people who when they hear stories of your hardships they say, “You know, everybody’s got hardships.” Some people have hardships with racism. Some people have hardships with political status. Some people have hardships with abuse. Everyone’s got hardships equating that no one’s got it easy basically.
KEVIN GROEN: Yes, let’s listen to those experiences. Let’s acknowledge the hardships. Let’s not compete because trauma works different for people. You can’t say this is traumatic and that isn’t. There is no universal scale for pain. If I say that racism hurts me on the scale of one to ten is ten, no one has the right to say, “No, it’s a six.” There is no universal scale for pain. Pain is subjective. Something can cause tremendous pain for person and not for another. Let’s learn to have the capacity to develop relationships with people who have gone through very different experiences than ourselves.
If I for example would sit with somebody who has been raped and I have not been raped, I have to learn to hold space for that person. I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that my ability to hold space for that person to listen to their pain to not define them the way I want but to listen to where they’re at right now depends on my ability to explore my relationship with discomfort, my relationship with all the things that I don’t yet know, don’t yet understand, which is often uncertainty, discomfort, chaos, lots of unknown and my ability to sit with that will determine very much the quality of the relationship that I can build with the other person.
SEN ZHAN: And the fact that the person has been raped but I can’t deal with it, so I’ll deal with everything else but not that part means that part of that person is left out of our relationship.
Have you ever had experiences where you’re like wow, the intensity of this person’s experience might destabilize me, might change my understanding of who I am so much that I don’t know how to be anymore?
KEVIN GROEN: If I think about situations where I felt overwhelmed, if I’m very honest, the reason why I felt overwhelmed is because I felt that I needed to do something.
SEN ZHAN: To make it better?
KEVIN GROEN: Yes, but to make it better for the other person is not empathy. The other person never asked me to fix them. To make it better means I can’t sit with the discomfort so I want to fix it straight away.
SEN ZHAN: You want to fix it for yourself.
KEVIN GROEN: Yes, in those moments, I wanted to fix it for me because I wanted to escape the discomfort. The biggest service we can do to ourselves, to the other person and to the relationship with the other person, the moment we feel overwhelmed is to look really deep within ourselves and figure out what is so hard for me about this. What is this teaching me about myself rather than the other person? The discomfort isn’t about the other person most of the time, it’s about our inability to sit with it. If I feel the need to fix it, why am I feeling the need to fix it? If we are willing to sit with those kinds of questions to explore our inner world, inside out perspective, we have an opportunity to gain incredible insight and wisdom that will help us to develop better relationships in the future.