Party in progress. Photo credit Arlene Amitirigala. All rights reserved.

This is part of the series Lessons from the Backseat…I was getting impatient with my daughter, Lauren. We were a month away from her 9th birthday and I had made a simple request – pick a maximum of seven friends to invite to your party, but it seemed a herculean task.

“What do you mean Mommy?”

“Just pick seven girls. No more than seven.”

“And what about the others? What about everyone else?”

“Well, you just won’t invite them.”

“But I don’t know how to do that Mommy. I don’t know how to not invite them.”

I glanced at Lauren in the rearview mirror. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.

Each year she had invited a host of kids to her birthday party. This year, I had imagined a lovely little spa party for a maximum of eight girls because the expense and the space limitations would make it impractical to have any more than that. So, here I was, forcing her to choose, to cull the list, to decide who could make the cut.

Lauren’s struggle got me thinking on a wider plane. What if we design with the purpose of including as many as possible instead of creating something with the deliberate intention to exclude … What would be different? How would our approach change? What possibilities would we open for ourselves and for others?

I recall a story that a colleague from South Africa shared with me last year. In her village, when a couple was getting married, they did not issue wedding invitations. By virtue of deciding whom to invite and include, they would also be choosing to exclude others and that did not sit right with their culture. In her world, the whole village would attend a wedding, and everyone would celebrate and lend a hand.

Back to my world…instead of a spa party, we contemplated our backyard.

Initially I balked at the idea. I did not think our humble abode could accommodate 20+ kids. How would the children entertain themselves? I would have to make the budget stretch to cover entertainment AND feed them. We didn’t have a fancy backyard with a pool and swing set.

What we had, however, was the intention.

On the morning of the party, a parent called with a challenge – in addition to her twins, who were both Lauren’s friends, she was hosting three of their cousins. Unfortunately, she could not leave them behind so no-one would attend. I said, bring them all.

That day, we grilled countless hotdogs and opened many bags of chips and Capri Sun. We tossed balls on the lawn, had an easel for painting, hula hoops and balloons. We watched the kids play for hours – tag, mini-soccer etc. Nothing got destroyed. And Lauren said her friends loved the party because they had fun just playing outside. There was no loudspeaker telling them it was time to go party room 5. There was no time pressure to be hustled out of a room in 90 minutes. They simply played and it worked for everyone. A few parents jumped in at the end and helped to clean up.

It was a big lesson for me. I had started with the desire to create an exclusive event. I had believed that to make it special we would have to exclude and limit the numbers. It turned out that making it inclusive made it even more memorable.

Think for a moment. Are there opportunities you can identify to change your thinking or your approach on something to make it more inclusive? Can you reflect on who you are not designing for, why not and whether you should be considering them? How and where will you show up as an advocate to include others?

In a world gripped by a global pandemic and the turmoil caused by systemic oppression and inequality, I believe that cooperation, collaboration, and inclusion are more necessary than ever. All of us can play a role in designing workplaces, communities, and classrooms that embrace all forms of diversity and create a deeper sense of belonging. We simply need to start with the intention and lean into it every day.

Begin by telling yourself you do not know how not to invite and let the possibilities flow from there.

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© Arlene Amitirigala 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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