Inclusion Riders for the Rest of Us

A few weeks ago at the Academy Awards, Best Actress in a Motion Picture winner Frances McDormand set Google afire with the phrase “inclusion rider.” The idea was not hers; rather, it was the brainchild of USC Annenberg School of Communication professor Stacy L. Smith. First proposed in 2014, it is a contract clause that

A-list actors can incorporate a clause in their contracts that stipulates that inclusion — both on camera and behind the scenes for crew members — be reflected in films. The rider states that women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of LGBT and marginalized communities who are traditionally underrepresented be depicted on screen in proportion to their representation in the population.

Most of us will likely never be in the position to create such a clause for our own contracts. But the purpose that they aim to serve is one we all have the power to explore in the environments we create- and the culture developed by the people populating these environments.

This is far greater than a matter of aesthetics. Valuing and abiding by the principles these inclusion riders espouse contributes meaningfully to a team’s ability to thrive in a constantly changing marketplace. I write in Cultivating Creativity about how those in positions of power (like those who can ask for these rider provisions in negotiations) have a tremendous opportunity to disrupt a power differential in this area:

Those with like experiences and perspectives coming together will result in either relatively few clashes for the sake of harmony, or the same old clashes fueled by existing factions fortifying their ranks. But by seeking to elevate the potential and impact of those who don’t typically have a seat at the table (or an audible voice once they arrive), the work that we seek to do can yield new perspectives, reach new people, solve problems that we previously haven’t had the resources or insight to solve.

This shifting take on allyship, advocacy, and activatorship might challenge those who typically inhabit these roles. By choosing to support those who differ from you, you are making yourself vulnerable. There are aspects of these relationships where you will not be the sage, expert, or most experienced party. And for those who typically sit in the majority, this is an unfamiliar stead. Embrace it. Listen through it, honoring and affirming the difficult truths you may hear about, even  (especially!) if they’re not your own. Learn through it. Use the knowledge gained in these moments to bolster your own work, to fuel your own creativity.

Creating space for underrepresented voices isn’t just “the right thing to do” to make people feel good. It affects an organization’s ability to serve its marketplace, to meaningfully shape the society in which it operates, and the lives of the people affiliated with the organization – both inside and out.

This is presently not easy work. An exchange I found on Instagram late last week dismayingly addressed this concern with an actress and comedian about whom I’d been wondering: Amy Schumer. When asked by a commenter why the three “Amy Schumer Presents” specials had highlighted the comedy of one white woman and two white males, Schumer responded meaningfully:

Thank you. You’re right. But what you don’t know is that I’ve tried and worked hard to produce specials for other women including women of color and been rejected. You’ve seen the ones they agreed to buy. I’m doing my best. I will keep trying. @miacomedy (Black female comedian Mia Jackson) will have a killer special very soon if the people in positions of power wise up.

Admittedly, Schumer’s approach was one I had previously questioned; while the talent she has lifted up (Rachel Feinstein, Mark Normand, and Sam Morril) are all deserving of her support, I wonder what could be done if that capital was used to lift up the talent of those who may not otherwise get the opportunity. Director Ava DuVernay put it another way, when she talked about addressing inclusion practices, questioning the very language that we use to describe it (as Dr. D-L Stewart has previously):

I think the very words diversity and inclusion are unfortunate because it’s really just reality. The world is not as we depict on film and television – that is not real. Unfortunately, it’s the case for the people who are controlling film, television and theater, but it is not a real space. So the idea that inclusion and diversity is some kind of allowance being made to open our arms to more people — no. It is a correction of an error. It is a righting of a wrong. And it is going to be done.

Academy Awards red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

And yet, in all these discussions, I see hope. I see people like Jessica Chastain tying their own compensation to that of Octavia Spencer, resulting in a fivefold raise for the latter. I see the launch of sites like People of Craft (a directory of artistic creatives of color developed by Amélie Lamont and Timothy Goodman) and Akuarel (a directory of television and film creatives launched by #oscarssowhite creator April Reign). And I have to hope that these mechanisms in media will create a world that other industries can see and emulate in their practices.

For most of us are not in roles where we can include this type of stipulation in our employment contracts. Most of us are left to our own devices and judgment when advocating for these changes in our workplaces. Whose perspective isn’t being heard? Where does your organization have gaps? And who needs to be not just present, but heard and empowered in your organization to change its face?

A few suggestions:

  • If in a hiring capacity, look meaningfully at the job descriptions and locations of postings. If paywalls are associated to access sites, consider how that could keep out segments of the qualified applicant pool. What words could be turning off female applicants, or applicants of color, or applicants with disabilities?
  • Seek to acknowledge, and then change, elements of your organizational culture that are actively challenging or demoralizing underrepresented populations. Asking in earnest, with an eye toward improvement, can reveal inequities and injustices that actively hinder success or comfort for employees.
  • Closely related to the last point: when confronted with evidence of these challenging or demoralizing circumstances, stop. Listen. Acknowledge the experience of the person who is sharing. And incorporate said testimony into your present view of the organization- even if it isn’t your experience. To reiterate the advice from Cultivating Creativity above: “honor and affirm the difficult truths you may hear about, even  (especially!) if it’s not your own. Learn through it.”
  • If serving as a mentor or sponsor, consider not just advising those under your watchful eye, but actively putting them forward for opportunities. Don’t tell them how to do things, let them do things and encourage others to do the same.