The topic I want to talk to you about today is inclusive. It’s an adjective, so it has to describe the qualities of something, some noun, right? In school I always remembered adjectives as those things that answer:

  • How many?
  • What kind?
  • Which one?

I had to double check that adjectives still did this same work. They do, I was relieved to re-learn. Sometimes the rules change — EVEN IN GRAMMAR!

Back to the adjective at hand:

• How many?

For example, how many do I need to include for it to be inclusive?

• What kind?

For example, what kind of company culture do you want to foster?

- oh, an inclusive one

• Which one?

For example, which choice do you want to make?

- oh, the inclusive one

Like other adjectives, inclusive requires some interpretation. Successful, atrocious, attractive, substantial, thankful, mysterious…They don’t mean anything alone — they have to be describing a noun. Even then they still require some reason, some experience, some explanation. So, let’s dive into ways we use the word inclusive.

One way to approach this is to represent INCLUSIVE in the form of representations of diverse groups of people:

In this case, this wonderful image enumerates certain human differences (race, ability, size, shape, preferences, uniquenesses) and tries to do that visually. This is a really cool image with a lot going on. Everyone is happy and holding hands in a circle. Is this inclusive? You can imagine the designer thinking of how to visually represent inclusive… Did she get it right? Who will know? judge? determine? Who benefits from this beautiful image? Who does not?

Can we sniff out inclusive? Does it trigger something in your gut? Does it trigger something in your algorithms? How do we know if it’s here? How do we measure it?

On the Web, one way we measure what is Inclusive is to look at the code, at things like alt-text. This is what someone who uses a screen reader will learn about this inclusive image: that’s it… just the word ‘inclusive’.

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Screen capture of the code for the image used to represent ‘inclusive.’

We should all be asking and wondering, is there a more inclusive way to describe that image? How might you describe it?


There are a few common tropes that we often hear when talking about how inclusive a space, an event, or a meeting are — we often ask who isn’t here.

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Image that simply says, “Who isn’t here?”

What we mean when we say that is who is not represented here. For whom did coming to this table, to this conversation prove insurmountable?

Hidden in that question, just below the very thin surface is:

  • Who has been excluded from this space historically — each place has a history. We are standing on Anishinabewaki / Huron-Wendat territory right now. What has happened here since then?
  • Who felt uninvited? This is Creatives and this is Morning! I might not self-identify with either of those. I might not be a morning person or describe myself as a ‘creative’ — how many of you write short articles (blogs, Medium)? Do you call yourself a writer? Who might not call themselves creative, but is very much someone we’d like to feel welcome here?
  • Were there some that felt excluded because of the words we used to describe this event? My bio is a little silly — I got frustrated with it so I rewrote it before sending it off. Language matters. How many of you have started calling your ‘hackathons’ ‘makeathons’ to try to shed the impression that it’s just for developers?
  • Is the space set up in ways that subtly tell some of us ‘you belong here’ and yet others of us, ‘this isn’t for you?’

In diversity equity and inclusion circles you often hear people talk about “bringing your full self.”

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Image that simply says, “your ‘full self’”

But that’s not what any of us should do; especially in some contexts:

When your full self takes up all the space, it’s too much.

When your full self shuts someone else up, it’s too much.

When your full self talks ALL THE TIME, it’s too much.

When your full self creates a toxic situation, tone, environment… it’s too much.

We have to, instead of bringing our full selves, learn how to learn from others how we are affecting them. How the words we say land or don’t. How we are making them comfortable or not. We have to first grant each person the right to exist — say, you deserve space. We have to give a damn what they think

So, we create codes of conduct to draw some ethical lines about behaviour — to create spaces that are more inclusive. But we know a CoC alone can not do this.

We are a bit in conflict.

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An image that shows the keywords of the text below — false binaries of thinking.

We want to create safe spaces, but we also know we want to push ourselves and others out of our comfort zones — how do we reconcile this?

We know mono cultures are often not diverse or inclusive, but we are drawn to them and largely occupy them.

We like stability, but we know to innovate, to grow, we need to change.

We want to be the best, but we also speak about the value of collaboration.

We want to win, but we also want to cooperate.

We create an ‘us’ (Creatives) to build a community, but our community also defines a ‘them’ in the negative space.

We want to be positive, inspirational, exciting, but we know that so many of us learn more from the negative experiences if we allow ourselves to have them.

How do we reconcile these? There are no black or white answers here and these binaries are false… we need both, and. One way to confront these false binaries is to ask yourself, are you comfy? Then ask the opposite… Is comfy desirable? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive?

If you feel comfy, I argue that it’s time to push and find the discomfort.

Inclusive isn’t easy. It’s often not comfy. And we know that we avoid uncomfy. Culturally we are taught to avoid it: take a pill, walk away, avoid. When you feel comfy, ask, for whom is this comfy feeling impossible? When do you find yourself among “your people” or “among like-minded folks” or “in a safe space”?

When you go out for beers with the boss after work and you talk about work — ask, for whom is this impossible? Who does this work for and why? And who does this leave out and why? And are we comfy with the answers to that?

Inclusive is aware of power, dynamics, cycles of exclusion, privilege. Beware comfy. And when you question and feel uncomfy, examine why.

Many of us attempt to absolve ourselves of hard things like inclusion by deferring to a higher power — the higher power we appeal to is data. We collect a bunch of data and then we make data-driven decisions. Which sounds really good, right?

And when we do that, we need to ask, ‘how do data-driven decisions do harm?’ First of all, if you’re a member of a marginalized community, a minority, you will never be represented in BIG DATA if we focus on the majority, the bang-for-your buck. And collectively, the 20% (not the 80%) represent a large, diverse, untapped market — one that is harder to solve for, one that benefits the 80%. Text messaging, curb cuts, electric toothbrushes — all innovations that were created for the 20% (those on the edges) that benefit us all.

But how do you make good decisions without making data-driven decisions? What about triangulation where we value the quantitative, the qualitative, AND the anecdotal equally? Or at least at all.

When information is more important than knowledge, and certainty and measurability are more important than thoughtfulness, risk, wonder, exploration and discovery, what do we lose? What are we relinquishing? If to value something we have to be able to measure it and vice versa, what are we overlooking and missing?

When measurability is success, it becomes an end in itself. We begin asking questions that lead us to measurable answers. We begin measuring those things that are easily measured. And those are not neutral acts. We act on our measurements — data becomes the tea leaves for decision-making, the map for change, the path toward enlightenment. And we feel a sense of comfort having followed the directions given to us from the disembodied data.

I want to argue that we’re in a post-comfort world. How do we do this? How can we stretch outside the comfort zone. You can’t put blinders on anymore.

At the Inclusive Design Research Centre, 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. Nothing is neutral, we are all designers, and we are all part of the revolution… or else the status quo

With each decision we make, we’re declaring this one thing and nothing else. That is not neutral — how we arrive at that one thing. Especially those of us creating the interfaces and systems that are inextricable from our everyday lives. 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.

As Barbara Chow told us at a Hewlett Foundation Grantee meeting a number of years ago:

  • Diversity is a number: I can see diversity or easily glean it from demographic data
  • Inclusion is a process: whose voice and whose ideas are heard or amplified?
  • Equity is an outcome: it is the work of diversity and inclusion that leads to a more equitable <noun here>.
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The above text in image form with ‘said by Barbara Chow at a Hewlett Grantees meeting in King, Ontario 2017.

There are ways to do all of this. That’s what we practice at the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University.

One way we are often told to begin the work of DEI is to start with building empathy. I worry that’s too big an ask for many. I think we need to begin with acknowledging personhood and build from there

  • 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.
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Street art that says, “BROWN & PROUD IM THE NEXT GENERATION” photo by Jess Mitchell CC-BY

The Future is Design Justice and that future is a Colourful, Feminist, global + intersectional one…

  • it isn’t ever 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 it by seeing how inextricable it is in everything you do

And I do mean everything:

  • How your job descriptions are written
  • Hiring practices
  • Procurement policies
  • How you roll from ideation to sketching
  • How you make info architecture decisions
  • How you write, edit, document, pair, or not on your code

It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person

— James Baldwin “A Talk To Teachers”

When the bumper sticker came out that said QUESTION EVERYTHING it sounded really good. I wanted to do it, but didn’t know how.

Now I feel as though I know at least one way to do this — Question everything and ask, Is it Inclusive?

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Image of a dark corner with a light illuminating graffiti text that says “QUESTION EVERYTHING” Photo by Dunk

Most of this was delivered as a talk at the Toronto Creative Mornings meeting in April, 2019.

I'm just Jess.

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