The Work of Authentic Inclusion: Reflections from Our Director
We’ve reached the last official week of the CATLab this summer, but the work goes on. Many of our interns are continuing into the school year, and even for those of us finishing this week, we know that this summer is, in many ways, just the beginning. As we reflect on what we’ve learned and accomplished this summer, we asked our director, Zak, to share his thoughts on leading a team through this tumultuous time. In “both technical and thematic challenges,” in both coding and conversations, Zak sees himself as the facilitator rather than the focus, staying out of the spotlight and empowering others to take center stage.
Investing in Authenticity
From the outset, we knew our main technical challenge would be getting our work done remotely. Our other challenge, however, didn’t emerge until a few weeks into our program. As we collectively reeled from the tragedy of the killing of George Floyd, we struggled to figure out how to respond as a team. For Zak, authenticity emerged as the primary lens through which he viewed this issue. “If one of our core values is ‘bringing our authentic selves to our work’ and being truly committed and truly engaged,” he explained, “there was going to be no way for the team to stay committed and connected without addressing racial injustice in this country head-on.”
Zak recognized that this issue—on top of the uncertainty of the time and the unrest of the nation—was an intense burden to bear, particularly for those feeling isolated and lacking a reliable support system. Part of leading well, then, was “creating a space for people to process this together in a context of work but also a context of the Christian institution that we’re a part of.” His decision to commit time to the Justice in June curriculum and dedicate parts of our week to discussing these issues came not from a thought process but “intuitive, heartfelt need to keep the group together.”
This summer has been proof that authenticity doesn’t just happen; it’s a value that the whole group must commit to and invest in. Authenticity requires more than just mental assent from individuals; it requires work from a team.
Leading with Humility
In approaching the challenges of this summer, Zak said that he took on a similar philosophy of leadership in conversations as he did in coding:
“I see myself as someone who is meant to empower and direct in the sense of pointing people’s attention to the place where it will have the most impact.”
He continued, “I don’t need to be the person who writes the code; there are people smarter than me that will do that. In the same way, at the beginning of the conversations around racial injustice, I didn’t have the words or the wisdom or the lived experience on how to move that conversation forward. And so I reached for people who had been in that conversation longer to share their insight and then just committed to learning along with everybody.”
“As the director, I get to create this space and direct attention, but the solutions come from the people who are engaging with the topic—whether it’s technology or racial injustice. The creativity that comes out of deep thinking is, I think, what will then move us forward. In the end, I don’t profess to have the answers. I just see my role as creating a place for conversation and then picking the ideas that are achievable and enacting those.
“For Westmont, we talk about the liberal arts and we talk about our Christian faith. The motto of the school [is] ‘deeper thinking, wider impact.’ Well, we can’t have the wider impact if we’ve not thought deeply about things. So as a leader of a team, holding the space for people to think deeply and engage deeply with a topic will then allow the team to generate the ideas that can actually make change.”
Creating Inclusive Conversation
When asked about the essential elements of creating room for these conversations, Zak said that the only way these conversations will actually happen is if the team sets aside scheduled time to work through these things together. The way our team scheduled time was taking ten to twenty minutes right after morning prayer to disperse and read or watch that day’s resource from Justice in June, then reconvening at a designated time to share our thoughts.
Another piece of the puzzle, however, is making sure that everyone feels comfortable contributing. On page 70 of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (the book we chose to read as a team), Austin Channing Brown writes: “Numbers are only the beginning. Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn't want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn't want to hear a dissenting viewpoint.”
The mere presence of diversity isn’t enough to ensure equity, and the mere scheduling of conversations isn’t enough to ensure that everyone is heard. So when Zak voiced a commitment to “building a diverse group of students,” he also made it clear that efforts for inclusion won’t end with the hiring process; rather, these efforts are part of every key conversation:
“It’s like the rules of improv where you say ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘no.’ It’s validating a person’s experience and feelings that brings people together and lets people share their authentic selves—making sure everyone has the chance to speak up and share their experience.”
Zak went on to say that if the conversation is one that can be acted upon, it’s important to get input from the group not only during the brainstorming phase, but also during the “politics phase.” As the team makes the transition from ideas to action “you decide what you can actually achieve.” For Zak, the end goal is the team’s buy-in and the group feeling “that we will have done this together.”
Transforming Our Team
Out of deep thinking, authentic discussions, and the talents of our team can come the solutions we need to solve the problems we face. Much of our response to this summer has been, according to Zak “contextualizing what’s happening on a grand scale into the places where we have direct impact and influence and trying to take this tragedy and national awakening and make it something that we could do something about.” This response is important not just in the face of current crises, but for our team going forward. We want to continue to work towards a better environment for our team.
Additionally, our technical wins parallel the progress we’ve made philosophically. Zak said that one of the big improvements of this summer has been “operating more like a tech company” in terms of standardizing practices and documenting our work. In spite of being remote, we’ve been more of a team than ever. “We’re also getting better about sharing internally and saying ‘yes and’ to each other,” added Zak. We’re creating building blocks that will help us now as well as the developers who come after us.
This summer, he said, he has started “waking up to the missional element of CATLab.” He shared his hope that the CATLab wouldn’t just be a place for technological innovation, but also one for cultural innovation. The CATLab, as well as the Westmont education as a whole, he said, has the potential to be “an agent of transformation in our society.” The work that we’ve done on the topic of racial justice this summer is part of that transformation. “In some respects,” said Zak, “what this summer was about was inviting the students on the team to own the mission of Westmont for themselves.”
We’re only just getting started, but Zak says he hopes this “first foray” is the beginning of an “ongoing journey” in which we “keep inventing better ways of engaging this conversation and improving the climate both in our team and our campus and in our nation.” With echoes of Colossians 3:17-24, Zak encouraged us to “not just do the work that we have in our hands—the coding or the projects we’re working on—with excellence, but to think about our mission as an agent of change in our society that more fully expresses the kingdom of God.”
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