Author Talks: It’s not about me, is it?

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with David Moinina Sengeh, minister of basic and senior secondary education and chief innovation officer of Sierra Leone, about his new book, Radical Inclusion: Seven Simple Steps to Help You Create a More Just Workplace, Home, and World (Flatiron Books, May 2, 2023). Sengeh provides a framework for defining exclusion and introduces a multistep plan for proactively expanding the ever-evolving boundaries of inclusion. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Is there a need for another book on inclusion?

Radical Inclusion really is about seven simple steps to make the world more just—our homes, our workplaces, society—through tangible actions that we can take, that you can take, that I can take. And they are essential to any fight that we need to have to make the world slightly better, to make the world more just.

The problem around how we think about inclusion or exclusion and how to address it primarily lies in the fact that most people think it’s not about them; it’s about other people. You think, “Oh, racism,” maybe you are affected by racism directly. Or if you are not a racist, you think, “Oh, that’s not a problem that I have to experience, right? It’s not about me.”

If you think about disability, disabled rights, disability in education, “It’s not about me; it’s about other people.” The problem with that is if you think about inclusion/exclusion as being about other people and not you or only about you, it means that the ways and the tools with which we solve the problem are limited. This also means that the solution does not include everybody. The fundamental truth—and there’s research to this—is that inclusion is better for everyone.

When we develop those solutions from our frame of reference that it is about us, we come to a better and different solution than when we think it’s about other people.

Related to that is if you ask somebody, “When was the last time you were excluded?” Maybe instead of being defensive, you can think about it. For example, perhaps in my swimming club, the people who I hang out with, who I swim with, might look a certain type of way. The assumptions that I have about who can swim limits who I invite to join the swimming club; who I sit with at the lunch meeting in our workplace; who I go to church with or to mosque with, or who I interact with. The people who show up to my children’s birthday party: What are they missing? What are we missing? What’s our family missing?

So, exclusion affects all of us, and the missing piece is that, generally, people do not understand how inclusion/exclusion conversations are about you. Until you are able to pause and reflect on that, you might not have a good solution to it, and we’ll keep having these injustices in the world.

When we develop those solutions from our frame of reference that it is about us, we come to a better and different solution than when we think it’s about other people . That’s one difference between what we do in this book and what exists generally in the conversations around inclusion and how to make the world a little bit more inclusive.

Why call it ‘radical’ inclusion?

If we say inclusion, people think, “I guess we’re all trying to be inclusive every time.” But when we say radical inclusion, it means we have to do things that are extraordinary. We have to take actions and steps. We have to remove all barriers to ensure that we are fighting for inclusion.

This means historical injustices, this means infrastructural challenges, this means legislation, and this means our mindsets. Systems have to shift for us to not just put a bandage over really deep problems. We have to be able to change systems, laws, buildings, and how buildings look. We have to change our mindsets and what happens, who’s in the room—how we bring those people to the room to have truly sustainable, inclusive environments and communities, workplaces, homes, and worlds.

We have to be able to change systems, laws, buildings, and how buildings look. We have to change our mindsets and what happens, who’s in the room—how we bring those people to the room to have truly sustainable, inclusive environments and communities, workplaces, homes, and worlds.

It’s important that we don’t address the exclusionary practices with the same methods that we’re used to. We have to use radically new approaches. We have to stop at nothing until every child can access school, until all women receive the same pay for the same work as men, until everybody with a disability—seen and unseen—is valued for who they are and for their ideas.

For that to happen, we have to do things differently. It’s also radical because it doesn’t stop once you solve an inclusion/exclusion problem. You have to keep expanding, because if you don’t, those walls will shrink.

Think about women’s rights in the US, for example. We made lots of advances in women’s rights. Perhaps many people thought that they were done. But because we did not keep fighting for more inclusion and keep expanding that circle, we see that it began to shrink again. You saw that regarding abortion rights, for example. You see that happening in different forms, where it might seem like we’re regressing in terms of gender rights, and that’s because we did not keep expanding. So, it’s radical because we have to keep expanding. We don’t stop once we’ve been able to achieve our first set of goals.

Why did you write this book?

In my life, I’ve always fought for inclusion, even if I never realized it. My PhD was on developing prosthetic interfaces that were more comfortable for people, so it was about physical inclusion. How do you get people who have lost their limbs to be active members of society? I did my private-sector work at IBM as a research scientist. Some of the activities that we did there was looking at how to build AI systems that are more inclusive. How do you broaden the data set from which our models were being trained?

How do you get more people of color, more women, more Africans writing the code so that they can ask questions and implement solutions that already reflect us and that take in our data in the stats, and not just wait until the end? So, inclusion and fighting for justice has been really at the core of what I’ve always done, both in academia and in the private sector.

When I joined government and I was made chief innovation officer and then minister of basic education, one of the things that was really attractive to me was President [Julius Maada] Bio’s vision on free quality school education, which called for every child having the opportunity to go to school. Whether they can afford it or not, the government will provide you teaching and learning materials, it will pay for your examination fees, it will give [free] schooling in the poorest communities. All of these efforts were designed to remove barriers. Then it so happens that the government was not only keeping its ban on pregnant girls on going to school, but it also restated its intention to keep the ban on pregnant girls attending school in place.

For me, that really was a trigger. It was a trigger that got me to go back to the president, to sit down and say, “President Bio, this is not aligning with our vision. Your vision is inclusive education. Your vision is that everybody should come to school. You’ve removed the barriers to education. We cannot, at the same time, exclude certain sets of people when they themselves are victims.” It was not fair, it was not right, it was not appropriate that we believe in gender inclusion and gender equity [but then exclude others]. We say, “Girls, many of whom have been raped—because until age 18 you can’t give informed consent to have sex—you’re a victim.” We say, “OK, you’re a victim, and we’re going to double punish you and your children and the rest of your future generations by saying you can’t go to school.” It wasn’t right. And I wasn’t going to sit back and be part of the team. It was my sole responsibility to fix this injustice, and I couldn’t do that. And that really was the genesis to say, “We have to act. We have to get pregnant girls—and, ultimately, all of those people who are excluded from education, historically, systematically, infrastructurally, socioeconomically—we have to intentionally get them to be part of the school system.”

Step 1: Why start with a precise definition of exclusion?

The first of those is really defining the exclusion. If you don’t define the exclusion, then you don’t understand who is and who is not in the room. You don’t understand who’s at the table but doesn’t have the same voice as you. You don’t understand why you are part of a system that’s excluding others. If you don’t understand the root of that exclusion—whether it’s law, whether it’s infrastructure—then you can’t solve the problem.

It is really important that, if we want to make the world more inclusive across any spectrum of challenges and issues, we have to first sit down and understand who’s excluded and who’s doing the excluding. Who are they? Why are they doing it? Are they even aware that this is happening? And there are tools and ways in which we can do that.

Step 2: Why is listening to those who disagree so critical early in the process?

Once you have identified a problem, the next step is to listen to everybody: all of the stakeholders, those who are excluding, those who are excluded, those who agree with your approach to addressing this problem, those who disagree with your approach.

It is important that we’re able to have this conversation, this listening, this understanding. Because if we don’t, we might just be addressing the wrong problem. We might be tackling a subcomponent of the true problem. We might be approaching the problem from a scale that is not the most effective, from an angle that is not the most effective, and we might cause more harm, right? We might leave more people excluded through our intervention. We might think that we have a solution, but our solution is not inclusive enough, and it doesn’t address how to lead to that inclusion.

But listening is not just sitting down and letting perpetrators cause more harm. It’s important that people understand that role of active listening—listening and engaging in a way that does not cause further damage and harm.

Step 3: Why is it important to answer the ‘why me, why now’ question?

Once you’ve listened and you’ve understood, then you’ve scoped out the problem. You understand the problem; you’ve listened to all of the different stakeholders. It’s important that you understand why it’s [up to] you to solve the problem. That also means why it’s not you.

We can be passionate about something, but we might be the wrong people to get results. It really takes self-evaluation and self-introspection to understand your role, the role of other people, and the timing. We can really want to do something. We might be the best person or people to do it, but the timing can be wrong. If you did those things at the wrong time, then you will not be able to achieve your goal. So, it’s important that we understand our individual roles, our collective roles, and when to have these interventions. If those do not align, it makes it very difficult for you to progress in your fight for a more inclusive society.

Step 4: How do you create a coalition?

It’s critical that once you understand your role, other people’s roles, and the timing, then you bring those people together by building a coalition. It’s not just all of your friends and those who agree with you. A coalition will include your allies, people who agree with you, your family and friends. But it can also include people who disagree with you and those with whom you disagree. A coalition is essential to achieve bigger and lasting change, and lasting effect.

When we are speaking about these systemic changes in society, about justice, about inclusion, they are not just about what we do in small scale; they have to be done at scale. They have to be done in a way that it is sustainable and in a way that changes the outlook. You’re changing the status quo.

And for that to happen, it will have to include people who you agree with, who you disagree with, who come from other stakeholder groups that you don’t usually interface with. It means you have to listen and trade, and exchange, and trust that in spite of your individual differences and your individual goals and peculiarities, as a coalition you have a shared ambition together.

Step 5: Why are silent advocacy and allyship not enough?

To drive social change, the path of least resistance is often not the best option. We have to be radical. We have to act. You can do things that are inappropriate, you might not be the best person to do those things, and in that case, you don’t do them.

There are other things that you can do. But once you have understood your role—your singular and collective role within a coalition—there are things you have to do. We can’t address injustices that transcend time, geography, and our humanity by being silent, by not acting, by pursuing the path of least resistance. These walls are there. You break the walls. You might be able to scale the wall today because you get a ladder, and you’re strong, and you learn acrobatics. You can flip around the wall, but not everybody can go through.

We can’t address injustices that transcend time, geography, and our humanity by being silent, by not acting, by pursuing the path of least resistance. These walls are there. You break the walls.

If a wall is preventing anybody or all people from accessing a school, you have to break the wall so that people who crawl and those who use a wheelchair can access it. It’s important that all the planning, engagement, understanding, and goodwill that you are developing does not stop until you are able to take the actions that change the system, that remove the laws that need to be removed, that change the infrastructure that needs to be changed, that build the ramps that you need to build. These actions ensure that the table height is such that people who previously were not able to participate in meetings can participate in meetings, and can ensure that those who speak and represent themselves and their ideas in different ways, languages, and formats are able to participate fully in their own ways.

Your goal is to run 100 meters. You run all the way to 99 meters, and just before you cross the 100-meter line, you stop. You have to act to get to the end of the 100-meter race. That’s what it means.

Step 6: Why is it important to have a plan B and a plan for winning the battle?

The hardest step in the fight for inclusion is after you have taken action and succeeded. The most important thing in making sure that the work that you do transcends you, transcends time, transcends geography is to now accept the success and make it the new normal.

The reason that this is difficult is because there are people who were actively invested in excluding others. There are those who have been excluded for such a long time. You break this wall, and how do they do? Do they fight? Do they forgive each other? Do they engage? One day you were not allowed to sit at the table, and then they tell you that you can sit at the table. You still have a choice. You may not want to. How do you sit at that table? What are the rules?

The hardest step in the fight for inclusion is after you have taken action and succeeded. The most important thing in making sure that the work that you do transcends you, transcends time, transcends geography is to now accept the success and make it the new normal.

For me, the new normal after you’ve taken action and succeeded is the most important and difficult step in fighting for inclusion and justice. Because if you don’t do that, if you don’t do it well, or if you don’t do it with the same attention and determination, you will undo most of the work that will have happened. I saw this happen in Sierra Leone. Often, people who are fighting for social change are fixated on solving the problem. And rightly so; that’s our target, that’s our goal.

We have to cross the 100-meter line, and we have to reach our destination. But there is so much that needs to happen after that. That new normal has to include those who were excluded before, those who were doing the excluding, those who were silent about the exclusion that was happening, those who did not even know that it was there. What are our new roles? Our roles will have changed and evolved. Now that you’ve won, the most difficult thing is: What’s next?

Step 7: What does it mean to go beyond inclusion?

The premise is that we always have to keep working toward a more just ecosystem and society. In Sierra Leone, even after extending education privileges to pregnant girls, kids with disabilities, those who are in poor regions, and those who are in remote areas, we have to do more.

There are still people who are excluded. Until we’re able to remove all of these barriers, the inclusion gap will not shrink. We started the fight for pregnant girls, to help girls who are pregnant go back to school. We understood that that had to include kids with disabilities. We understood that the fight had to include kids who are poor. We understood that it had to include kids who are in remote areas. We know that there are still people today within and outside of those groups in Sierra Leone who are excluded from school. It is important that if we are going to achieve our goal and vision of universal quality education, which ultimately leads to national development, we have to keep fighting for kids who are out of school, for adults who were removed from school.

We have to ensure that we think about teachers. We have to ensure that we include parents and community members. We have to keep working every day to create a more just workplace, to create a more just home, to create a more just world and society.

So, going beyond inclusion here really means going beyond the specific inclusion that you worked for. You have to keep expanding and find a new problem that keeps expanding the inclusion boundaries, until, ultimately, there are no boundaries. We just have to keep working harder every day and including more and more people.

This book is also deeply personal for you.

It’s important that we’re able to continue these conversations and keep advocating for more inclusion. I share a story in the book about the police interacting with Black students at Harvard. This is an experience I went through when I was at Harvard. This is an experience that students are going through in 2023 at Harvard. It is important because the stories that I share—and the stories that we highlight about our experiences—never end, whether it is about being Black at Harvard, whether it is my colleagues at MIT thinking that I wasn’t a student at MIT and closing the door in front of me, whether it’s my colleagues at work who might think that I’m not who I was because they are not used to seeing somebody who looks like me in those positions.

As a minister, I have been the chair in meetings at UNESCO in Paris. As I go into the room, I still get stopped and people say, “Oh, you can’t go in. Where’s your badge?” Yet, other people can go in. Other people who I’m with, who didn’t have badges, can go in. I say, “I’m the chair.” They say, “Oh, sorry, what?” I reply, “Yeah, I’m the chair. I have to go in. I don’t have a badge because I’m not wearing a badge. Those are the privileges of a chair.”

I think the challenges that I speak about in the book are personal, but they are challenges that are the realities of millions, and tens of millions, and hundreds of millions of people. They are my stories of exclusion. They are other people’s stories of exclusion that I share.

But we all have been or will be or could be excluded against. We all have the potential to exclude other people. And it is important that when people read this book, they understand that we are not that special. We all have contributed to exclusion. We all have a role to play in bringing more inclusion in society, and the tools are readily available to us. We just have to implement them.

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