Our board has just finished the process of creating a vision statement for Leadership Pioneer Valley. I am proud of the inclusive and deliberative process that we undertook. At the end of the process, a board member commented that they couldn’t think of a single word that they would change. Our new vision is for a “vibrant Pioneer Valley with accessible, inclusive networks of inspired individuals who are leading and connecting the communities in which they live and work.” As we developed the statement we had a discussion about some of the key words and their meanings. Many of the small groups spent time on the words “accessible” and “inclusive.” There were some very powerful discussions on the differences between these two words. For some, it was not immediately apparent that they are different. As the daughter of a parent in a wheelchair, accessibility was always on our minds. Much of the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s was not accessible. There were places and activities that were simply not available to my dad. In some instances we were able access places if we were willing to carry my dad up a flight of stairs and endure the humiliation of the spectacle. In other instances, we would reserve a handicapped room and discover upon arrival that although we were able to enter the motel, the bathroom wasn’t accessible. I learned that there are degrees of accessibility. As the American’s with Disabilities Act came into effect, my dad began to have access to more establishments. But access did not equal inclusion. Many handicapped sections were in the back of the room or in the aisle. The majority of store clerks and wait staffs that we encountered did not include my father. They chose to speak to other members of the family instead of him. As a woman, I have also seen this first hand. There are several “men’s” leadership groups in the area that meet regularly–I and other women will never have access. Additionally, there is another group that is open to women but has never accepted one in its ranks. One board member remarked that there are opportunities she didn’t even know that exist. I know many other groups have similar experiences. The conversations of our board members as they navigated the importance of both accessibility and then inclusion underscored the responsibility of inclusion. Black history month reminds us that this country has made great strides towards accessibility. We have struck down laws that divide us and added others to increase accessibility for all. Yet inclusion is much harder to tackle. Women and folks of color are increasingly able to be at the table, yet are not always made to feel welcome. We may have built the handicapped ramps but still put the seats in the back of the room. I look forward to listening more for the voices of those that still don’t feel included and find ways to make our board rooms, offices, and communities more inclusive for those that we have invited to participate (that’s assuming that we are accessible). This is how we will make our vision a reality for the Valley.
Written by: Lora Wondolowski