A stretched out hand cannot pick up an object, but a hand and fingers working together with a desire to pick up an object can.
Inclusion works the same way — working together with a desire for a common goal — Columbus Air Force Base Equal Opportunity Program Manager Jackson Akwaowo told Columbus Rotarians at Lion Hills Center on Tuesday.
“If you want to pick up that knife, that fork, that glass, you have to tell your brain that’s exactly what you’re going to do, form your fingers and pick up whatever it is,” Akwaowo said. “In order for us to get to inclusion, to include everybody, you have to want it. If you don’t want it, it’s not going to happen.”
Akwaowo, an Army veteran, has worked as a civilian at CAFB to provide strategic direction for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for nearly two years, and he spoke about how Rotary can best represent Columbus.
He pointed out that of the roughly 20 people gathered for the meeting, only five of whom were women, which was not representative of Columbus.
“Here in Columbus there are more women than men according to the 2020 Census data,” Akwaowo said. “… How do we get to that point of getting people who are underrepresented in this group? What efforts are we doing to make them understand what we’re trying to do? You’re about service. That’s what this organization is about — serving the community we live in.” Akwaowo said the best way to ensure everyone is seen and heard is by talking about things that are uncomfortable and talking about things head on if there is a problem.
When Akwaowo accepted the position on base, many people he knew reached out to him about the racism he might face moving to Mississippi as a Black man. However he said he hasn’t faced racism in Columbus, but rather on base, where he didn’t expect it — specifically when he asked another civilian worker to leave his office during the COVID-19 pandemic because he wanted an exemption to wearing a mask when he didn’t qualify for any.
“He called me the ‘n-word,’” Akwaowo said. “To use his exact words, ‘You uppity N will not tell me what to do.’ The last time anyone called me that was in basic training in South Carolina in 2003. … I didn’t press for anything (against the person). When I had my calm-down, I thought about it and that he came from a position of anger because he didn’t get what he wanted.”
He said someone’s own viewpoints can make people scared to talk to someone, which doesn’t allow for all voices to be heard.
“In some cases we’ll go, ‘Oh, had I known he or she had said something we would’ve done XYZ,’ but how easy did we make it for that person to come to our table?” Akwaowo asked. “When they try to speak to us, do we listen? When they want to be seen, do we see them or do we do everything possible to make sure we don’t see them? We need to start paying attention. We say we’re trying to get them (to be a part of Rotary) but they don’t want to be a part of it. Like Michael Jackson said in the song, if you want to make a change you have to start where? With the man in the mirror. So we have to start with ourselves and see where we’re creating a problem.”
One Rotarian asked how the club can begin to branch out to be diverse, and Akwaowo said to create a forum where people can come in and talk and create other avenues for service like trash pick up and invite non-club members to take part.
“If you make it open to everyone and treat people the way you want to be treated, they will come and they will serve, and that’s how you can slowly bridge that gap,” Akwaowo said. “If you see me, you don’t know me, you and I will treat each other with some kind of suspicion, be wary of one another. When you get to know me, you get to try to figure out what we have in common. You’ll be surprised at what you have in common, because you have a whole lot more in common than not. It’s just getting close together, and it can all start with a simple project.”
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