There are a lot of conversations out there about being yourself. Countless catchphrases about being authentic and true – but can you really be your whole self, all the time, everywhere?
What does that look like, what do you need to make it happen?
And what do you need to do, to make it happen for others?
Ellen Swavley believes the answer to the first question is a resounding yes.
And when it comes to the subsequent questions, the Diversity Specialist at the University of Canberra believes that the answers for individuals and community alike lie along a path of discovery – towards belonging, inclusivity and a genuine revelling in diversity.
Those are three key tenets to the invitation Ellen and the team at People and Diversity have issued to the UC community – Let’s Dance.
It’s the title of UC’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Plan 2020-2022, and it starts with conversation and consideration.
“You know how, often, at the start of a relationship, you learn to dance with someone else?” Ellen says. It’s that moment that you learn to move in sync with another person, to appreciate their nuanced steps.
“It’s really easy to dance with a good lead, especially one with awareness and clarity,” says Ellen.
“That’s where we need to start on this journey towards belonging – by being sensitive to another person, and valuing another life.
“Don’t be afraid to start small – when you learn to dance, you rarely start with the tango! Possibly, you’d start with something more comfortable. Like line dancing … like the Nutbush!
“The journey towards belonging can, and should, begin with a conversation.”
Ellen says that there is a plethora of evidence that organisations with greater diversity also enjoy comparatively greater success.
“When people feel free to bring their whole selves to work, that’s when they also feel free to do their best work,” she says.
Let’s Dance moves away from diversity as a goal however, shifting towards belonging being the ultimate focus – even as diversity is celebrated.
It’s an exciting, ambitious roadmap – and there’s no one better to issue an invitation to the journey than Ellen, born with a “strong justice bone”, a passion for equity and a deep liking for her fellow human beings.
Ellen moved to Australia from the United States when she was just eight.
“When I was in high school in Canberra, I worked at a residential facility for people with intellectual disabilities,” she says. “I got involved with their social club – we went to the movies, went bowling etc. It was such a joy to work with them – I like people, knowing their stories, learning about what drives them.”
It was a natural fit then that she embarked on various roles in Human Resources when she began her career. In 2010, she was offered the role of Director of the Centre for Diversity Expertise with the Department of Defence.
One of the first landmark changes she worked towards after becoming Director, was the removal of the policy that effectively banned transgender personnel, replacing it with a set of guidelines to support transitioning service members.
She also engineered the Defence Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2012-2017, improved the standing in the Australian Workplace Equality Index, implemented more inclusive workplace practices across Defence and supported participation at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade and Fair Day.
“I find that the most important question to ask myself about something is: is it fair, right and just?” she says.
Another important one is: does it make sense?
Quotas don’t always, when they are predicated without real meaning. And homogeneity is a myth.
“If you have a meeting and invite a woman to attend – just to tick some boxes – but don’t actually allow her to speak or to be heard, then what is the point of that? Or if the opinion she puts forward is not what is expected from her because she is a woman, it is often negated.
“It should be remembered that one woman is not representative of all women,” Ellen adds.
There are other things going on in a woman’s life that aren’t about her gender – and besides, we are all much more than the sum of our parts.
“To value a person, it’s important to recognise and appreciate them, rather than just reducing them to an attribute or a set of attributes,” Ellen says.
“You are more likely to find commonality with someone if you look beyond the one aspect you stereotypically identify them by.
“In the 80s, we were often told we should ‘tolerate’ people’s differences. I don’t agree with that – I think we should tap into that diversity and those differences wherever we can, to influence what we do, to make what we do the best.
“This kind of thinking challenges the status quo, and we need that mental and emotional shift, that breakdown in the silos of power.
“Let’s Dance is designed to be about individuals engaging with other individuals, about everyone engaging at their own pace and flourishing together.”
Words and photo by Suzanne Lazaroo.