Behind the scenes of our DEI initiative 'Open Space To Talk'
Fatimah Malik, (pictured above) shares another post on her experience working at Circl as Future Leaders Intern. This month, she interviews Tech and Wellbeing Lead, Luxsiya Sivakumar, to talk about one of Circl’s DEI initiatives ‘Open Space To Talk’.
TW: talk of the effects of murder, racism, and discrimination
Hey everyone! Back with another blog for you all :)
Upon my first few weeks of settling in at Circl, I was able to experience Open Space To Talk: an honest, open, judgement-free space for the Circl team to discuss a topic of importance. It’s one of our DEI initiatives that centres around having very vulnerable conversations in a psychologically safe space to learn others’ perspectives as well as the ways we can contribute toward a fairer world, both individually and collectively.
My first Open Space To Talk experience was on May 19th: almost two years since the murder of George Floyd. The topic of discussion was racial injustice and discrimination that haunts and destroys the little semblance of peace that our world tries to cling onto. This discussion was sensitive, raw, and informative, and made me realise just how important it is to have these conversations with those around us.
To understand more, I had a chat with Luxsiya, our Tech and Wellbeing Lead (pictured below) but also the facilitator of these Open Space to Talk's:
How did Open Space To Talk come about?
Four months into my role at Circl, the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd and it shook people to the core. At the time, we were a small team of four: we were all processing what happened individually, yet we didn’t come together to discuss it as a group. Instead, business seemed to continue as usual at Circl. It appears that it is ingrained within society that anything personal or political should not be spoken about and kept separate from the professional environment. But when a situation has occurred that is so triggering to the point it consumes you, why shouldn’t you talk about it?
It was until someone mentioned his murder in a team meeting that our similar, overwhelming emotions of grief, anger, and frustration were unveiled. George Floyd’s murder was a wake-up call for us at Circl and made us reflect on what Circl stands for. Our message is to make the world a fairer and more inclusive place. But how could we do this if we felt we had to bottle these emotions instead of openly speaking to each other about them?
That led to the birth of Open Space To Talk: a safe space to facilitate these difficult conversations that personally affect us and on important topics around the inequalities taking place in the world we live in. It was our way to channel the feelings of anger into action and strive towards creating positive change in the world.
Tell us a bit more about the nature of Open Space to Talk. What was the first session like? How did it evolve?
Initially, our CEO, Charlie was the facilitator of Open Space to Talk. Having a leader who leaned into his vulnerabilities and leading these discussions with empathy was significant in allowing others to do the same. Being able to have these kinds of conversations with your team is a key attribute of an inclusive leader, making us very proud that we are able to live and breathe our mission towards inclusive leadership. Eventually, as I moved into the wellbeing and DEI space, I took on the role of the facilitator and it is hands down, one of the favourite parts of my role.
Open Space takes place every month for 2 hours. In the first 5 minutes, we would reflect quietly, sharing things that were affecting us emotionally, politically and essentially, what our main sources of frustrations with Circl or the world were. We would then determine which of the topics shared we wanted to focus on and what would follow would be a free-flowing discussion.
People can show up to the space in whatever way they want: if you want to speak, or stay silent and listen, you can! We encourage the space to be non-judgemental, comfortable, and inviting as possible. Topics we’ve discussed in the past include mental health in the workplace, gender inequality, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, civil unrest in Sri Lanka and LGBTQ+ rights.
In this space, we also encourage everyone to ask the uncomfortable questions that they may hesitate in asking, from fear of judgement. We are all from different backgrounds and perspectives and so we have a lot to learn and understand from each other. Sometimes the conversation can become heated, but that is why it is so important to have contracting which happens right at the beginning of the session. By collectively establishing our contract, we create a safe space for all those involved and thus creating a psychological safety net for people to be vulnerable.
The discussions can be heavy so we have built-in decompressing and reflecting time after the session to allow everyone to process their emotions. Sometimes you will leave feeling angry, surprised, or even energised, but there is always the reminder that these conversations are significant to us all.
Although Open Space to Talk is part of our DEI strategy, during the COVID-19 pandemic when people were struggling to connect through virtual means, this space surpassed the barriers associated with virtual connection and brought us much closer together as a team.
How do you think the Open Space To Talk has impacted the Circl team from when you started to where you are now?
Open Space has allowed us to have our voices heard and has encouraged us to hold each other accountable for our agreed actions towards positive change. We consider questions like, ‘What conversations do we choose to be part of in terms of current affairs?’ or ‘What do we need to get better at in terms of inclusion at Circl.?’ At one of our recent Open Spaces, we were discussing the underrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community within our Circl Network and the ways we can address this.
Open Space has shaped our working culture in a very unique way, creating a space for us to hold ourselves accountable. Because we are so driven by wanting to make the world better, everything happening makes us feel angrier, more emotional, and more affected. So it’s really important we have this space for us to share our voices and thoughts.
Why do you think it is so important to have such spaces in a professional environment like ours?
It creates a sense of vulnerability: the way you show up to work will be inevitably impacted by many external factors. Having a space like this enhances awareness of different things that may be affecting those we are working with and is an opportunity to improve emotional intelligence. By creating a deeper relationship with your team, you’re able to work more collaboratively but, more importantly, with more empathy. At Circl, we believe empathy and emotional intelligence are pertinent for inclusive leadership.
These spaces are important, but you should feel prepared to enter such a space: it shouldn’t happen every day, and there must be adequate aftercare available after such discussions. This is why we have the 2 hours blocked off in our calendars so we have the last 30 mins for time to decompress which stops people from booking over the downtime.
Sessions like Open Space to Talk are also a great way to move DEI work forward and have your employees contribute towards it which can be incredibly powerful in driving inclusion at work. We are collectively building an environment for us all to feel a sense of belonging. Ultimately, DEI initiatives don't fit in a box and should be tailored to the communities involved. Only then, will we see true progress and hopefully, a fairer world where everyone feels like they belong.
My Experience of Open Space to Talk
The Open Space I experienced began with the team being split into small groups organised by Luxsiya. In these groups, we all felt comfortable enough to speak about our personal experiences and perspectives regarding discrimination, racism, and identity. For me, I spoke of the impact of Islamophobia and general racism toward South Asians.
I shared how I cannot escape this lingering feeling of fear that someone’s going to rip the scarf off my head as I sit on the train or bus, call me a racist slur, or tell me to go back to where I came from. I shared how I feel like I’m stranded in this endless void of uncertainty when it comes to identifying who I am.
I also shared how if someone was to say to me “go back to where you came from!” I would just stare at them, confused, because where am I supposed to go? I mean, I have a British passport, my parents and I were born and raised in the UK and so we fluently speak English, and my grandparents went through a lot to get us all settled and comfortable in the UK. And yet, they want us to go back to the country their ancestors colonised, destroyed, and divided, the country whose language I’m not fluent in and am looked down upon because of it.
It felt quite therapeutic to share these personal, conflicting feelings with the group. I felt that having such a space to do so helped me feel heard and understood by them, which I appreciated.
Following these small groups was a wider discussion with the whole of the Circl team. Here, I found myself listening to what the team had to say. I remember feeling comforted by the way I wasn’t pressured to share what I had previously shared in the small group with everyone.
After, we all went bowling as a way to decompress and had a great time! Sadly, I was a terrible bowler and my team lost, which resulted in each of us having to take a selfie with Charlie as our punishment :)
But, overall, I felt the need to share this experience with you all because this is a side to Circl that is personal, raw, and inspiring for us, and a side unknown to you all. I realised just how safe and comfortable the Circl team are through this space, and that this experience is unique. I hope other companies can enforce such a space in their work environments as it is an effective way to feel connected and heard by your team members.
Overall, I hope you enjoyed this blog as much as I did writing it :) If you have any further questions don’t hesitate to give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Luxsiya at email@example.com to talk about how you can implement such spaces in your workplace!