Author Anna Eliatamby: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and…

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Author Anna Eliatamby: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

Foremost, we need to recognise that leaders are part of an incoming world where people want more equality, considerateness, and decency. They are tired of how things are in our world — selfish, sometimes amoral, etc. Listening to this is vital and letting it steer you even when the road is not obvious. Recently, I have been part of many such discussions about the need to be more, do more and in very different arenas across sectors.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Anna Eliatamby.

Anna is an author, executive coach, facilitator and a clinical psychologist. She worked in the human services sectors (healthcare, UN and Red Cross and Red Crescent) at practical and strategic levels to help organisations create a better approach to employee’s well-being and mental health. Anna focuses on working with decency and respect through collaboration — everyone has an expertise that can make a difference.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in three countries, Sri Lanka, Ghana and England. Each had its influence on my upbringing and helped me learn the importance of being aware of your surroundings, those in your life and how to adjust to new circumstances and situations. My father taught us to honour our home background and traditions and appreciate the country in which we lived. My parents allowed us to be liberal and work out things for ourselves with gentle guidance. The house rules were democratic and fair. During the summer holidays, each child (including my brother) cooked a family meal each week. My parents expected us to choose the recipe, buy the items and then cook. We learned to share. They did not punish us unnecessarily, instead choosing to teach us even when we misbehaved. Once, in Ghana, there had been a shortage of bread. My parents learned that bread was available at a bakery in Sekondi where we lived. They bundled the children into the car, went, bought fresh bread and put it in the back with us. Of course, we ate the bread but only the insides. There was no admonishment, just an acknowledgement that it may have been better to have stored the bread elsewhere.

I am part of a large extended family across different continents. Through this, I recognise the importance of family history, stories and endeavour. We remember those from earlier generations, and they still have an influence. My great grandfather, Reverend Samuel Eliatamby, was a priest in the north of Sri Lanka who worked to improve his communities by, for example, helping to set up a local hospital. He was part of the American Ceylon Mission and died in 1921. I was in a Sri Lankan restaurant in London, England in December 2022. The proprietor recognised my last name and mentioned my great grandfather. A source of pride for me and a reminder of my obligation to contribute to his legacy.

This freedom, legacy and care shaped my upbringing and ability to interact with people and the world. I have not planned my career, but it has taken me to many jobs and places where I tried to make a difference.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The one that comes to mind is “He had a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement” by Flip Schulke. He was a photojournalist, trusted by Dr. King, and the book captures many aspects of Dr. King’s work and of the civil rights movement in the US.

However you advocate for decency, ethics and rights, it is important to know that it can be a long journey with many stops and starts. Above all, it is key to work with others who motivate and inspire and to do this with kindness. And take risks. The photos in the book show the human face of the struggle from all sides and make you appreciate the strength and community that is needed to work for rights for all.

My first attempt to bring about change was in deinstitutionalisation for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours. The book and all the elements described above are an obvious reminder to me of what was vital when working for ethical change and decency for people with learning disabilities. These are still important to me.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I learn best by understanding how others have lived. My quote is from a plaque for my great grandmother, Mary Eliatamby, Reverend Eliatamby’s wife. It is in Uduvil church near Jaffna in Sri Lanka. The inscription, which I am sure he wrote, says, “By instinct of a spirit true, noble, loving, silent, gentle. She had peace and strength. She stood beautiful before God and in concord with all men.’

It matters to me because these are the qualities and ways that I do my best to live and work by. It is a high standard, and I don’t always get there, but I try.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

We have sometimes reduced leadership to a set of qualities, competences and skills which are often about the ability to fit and do the job of leadership. While it is important to know about these, leadership is so much more than this. To me, it is a set of indefinable qualities that places a person at the front of or part of a sea-wave of change. They sense it, feel it and understand their place in the change that is often yet to come. And they work from their values and appreciation of what is right, trust in the future, and are courageous even in the darkest of times. They influence others, often by their presence, knowing that their time is limited and think of those yet to come for the next part of the journey.

The Netflix series, Live to Lead (Archewell with The Nelson Mandela Foundation) includes examples of some stellar people from whom we can learn: Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Albie Sachs and Siya Kolisi.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?

Justice and injustice are ever present in our societies. And sometimes an event sparks the next phase of the journey to equality and inclusion. The awful murder of George Floyd was just that. It was the injustice that the last minutes of his life ended as they did. That Darnella Frazier filmed and shared it helped to highlight what was wrong and what happened. This was an example of how fast we can learn about events, that we can also feel the awfulness and want to do something.

What made this different was social media and that there had already been a global upsurge in advocacy and speaking up through the rise of the #Metoo movement. People’s consciences, you could say, were open and ready for this awakening, sadly. And so the response became global because injustice is not country specific.

The filming of what happened was a symbol that such awfulness could be seen and spoken about rather than endured. Many diverse people have had, until then and since, to endure in silence.

There has been some restitution since, but not enough. Sadly, there are still examples of similar injustices. We have begun and we should continue, knowing that some want the old status quo, but it is important to keep advocating for rights for all.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Most of my work has involved in working for inclusion in small and large ways. I have always tried to factor in the need for diversity and inclusion into whatever I have done.

When I was part of teams working to move people with learning disabilities, mental health issues and challenges into the community, we tried to build the plan around the needs of the person. For example, one person did not want doors in their apartment, so we removed them and the whole place became open plan.

I worked at the strategic level in the humanitarian sector (revision of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Asia Pacific Tsunami Strategy, IOM (UN Migration) Mental Health Strategy). Almost, by default, we thought of the many disparate needs that staff, and those the agencies served, had and tried to factor this into the design and implementation. We created objectives and principles so that implementers could adjust them to honour the national and local cultures. For a global project, we recruited team members so that they could offer the widest support, were multilingual and multi-cultural in their work and approach. The team also taught each other and enabled rather than instructed. I also encouraged them to be open and try something different, knowing that I would be there to support them and not criticise if things did not work out.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Our world is, by default, diverse. It is just that, sometimes, a dominant few or group take charge and recruit and operate in their image. So, some feel excluded, and others learn to hide their differences. This stance leads to a monochromatic approach and is not reflective of our society. It has negative effects on productivity, effectiveness, collaboration, creativity, and trust.

If the executive does not reflect diversity, then the chances of others in the organisation being different and working for inclusion are minimal. There is a growing obligation to be respectful of all and to be decent, as well as the fact that diversity leads to better business. Therefore, it is important to recruit and keep a diverse executive team.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Foremost, we need to recognise that leaders are part of an incoming world where people want more equality, considerateness, and decency. They are tired of how things are in our world — selfish, sometimes amoral, etc. Listening to this is vital and letting it steer you even when the road is not obvious. Recently, I have been part of many such discussions about the need to be more, do more and in very different arenas across sectors.

Second, it is important to know yourself and explore your readiness for this change and your positives and biases. To remain open and know that you are fallible. I use exercises to explore my golden and shadow sides, as I sometimes lapse. Having people around you who have similar intentions and will challenge is necessary for growth.

Third, look around you and how you lead. Are you repeating history or allowing the freedom to let in the future? Often, we repeat. Give permission for people to talk about the incoming future, acknowledge that we have a shared purpose which can conflict with an institution’s purpose and vision. Be honest about this and become comfortable letting people get on with their interpretation of the work. They will surprise you. A healthcare organisation tasked me with creating a local resettlement strategy. My manager said, ‘Imagine you have a blank page. What will you do?’ In fact, she backed this up because we sat around a large empty flip chart. It was so scary, but she taught me that this is how we should approach work.

Fourth, provide support and guidance for the day to day, and when things go wrong. This is inevitable as we are fallible. After a supervision session, one team member walked back into the room and said, “I’ve done something.’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh no’” but I asked her to sit down and tell me what had happened. We then discussed the issue so that she could learn.

Fifth, remind yourself and others of the importance of working for a better world for all. Human beings can become complacent, especially if something takes energy and emotions. It is hard to be driven and motivated all the time. However, build in some fun along the way. After a deep retreat about the meaning of work, values and service to all, we went to the local fun fair and enjoyed ourselves. We needed a balance without detracting from the seriousness of our work.

We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?

That quiet decency seems to have returned even in the face of some recent decisions. The old guard is continuing. Rather than governing for the people, they seem to promote their own perspectives. However, they have not realised that enough people now know that their message is not of the time or sensible or fair.

That there are enough people with hope and care who can guide. We need citizens to work together to bring about more justice, decency and equality because they have judged what they are being told and have learned what is best for themselves and the world rather than blindly following the loudest voices.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Even though he is no longer on the world stage, I would like to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to learn about how he remained ethical and governed India with intelligence and heart, alongside President Abdul Kalam.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you for the opportunity

Author Anna Eliatamby: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.