What does success look like?

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

Last week, I was asked by a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant: what does success look like to you? We were talking about how to assist the DEI Committee as it works to fulfill the charges in the resolutions adopted by WACD’s members.

And I stumbled. As I paused and thought about the depth behind that question, I realized that I had multiple layers of thoughts to process.

The first layer was: success is when everyone in our community aligns with a common set of values and we can proceed in ways that work for our entire community and the communities they serve. As I thought about this, I rejected it as being too “pie in the sky” — it felt too aspirational and not very realistic.

The second layer was: success is when those who wish to pursue DEI work receive the support needed to succeed. I tossed that out, too, because it felt a little too restrictive and it didn’t allow for much community uplift.

The third layer is where I landed, and this is what I shared with the consultant: Success is when all of our people — our board supervisors, our conservation district employees, and our partners — and members of the communities served by conservation districts feel safe, invited, welcomed, appreciated, and valued whenever they have contact with anyone in our conservation district community.

I’ve let that percolate in my heart and mind for the past several days. That statement of what success looks like to me feels right. It gets to the heart of some of the perceived issues around DEI without boxing us in with labels that some folks find very painful.

Do you and your people feel safe?

In my time in our community, I have known supervisors who did not feel safe or valued. In my various roles, I’ve encountered many conservation district employees who have not felt safe or appreciated. Sometimes our partners have also felt unsafe or unwelcome. Even if our core community is all that I am thinking about, seeking to provide a warm, safe experience for all seems to be a clear need.

When we consider stories that come from community members who have felt unsafe and unwelcome, it becomes clear that there may be an ingrained issue in how we interact with others within our community.

This doesn’t mean that we are all bad people. The opposite is true: most of our people are great humans who do appreciate and value the many people in their orbits. Part of what makes talking about this so difficult is those good people can still feel threatened by the idea that we can be better and do better.

As we begin a journey of self-examination through the work of the DEI Committee, there are questions that may be worth asking yourself. Do you feel safe, welcome, and valued in your conservation district work? What about your board members and staff? What about your partners?

The follow-up question to ask yourself is: what can I do to help people feel safe and valued?

That approach focuses on fundamental issues. It doesn’t put anyone down or judge them as being wrong. It doesn’t apply labels that can cause division and friction. Instead, it helps us focus on doing better in how we treat others.

How do we change our habits?

Each of us has ingrained habits that shape how we interact with other people. Most of the time, we’re not really aware of those habits so it can be very hard to examine them and to try to change them. When I try to look at my own conscious and unconscious habits, I would say that it is almost impossible to pull them into the light of day and keep them in the forefront of my mind so that I can concentrate on changing some of them.

Changing existing habits is just darn hard to do.

A slightly easier path is to work on creating new habits. It is simpler to put a sticky note where you can see it every day to help remind you to do one thing differently. It could be as simple as pausing three seconds before responding or a reminder to say thank you to others. Whatever it is, frequent and persistent repetition of that act is a simple way to create a new habit.

If you choose to try this, be prepared to fail! Nobody should expect perfection in themselves or in others. It is important to acknowledge that when we fail, and when others fail, we choose to be understanding and to forgive the momentary lapse.

I once gave a presentation titled “Forgiveness is the other F word” that was focused on the idea that rather than being quick to judge ourselves and others, that we instead be quick to forgive ourselves and others. When we do that, we acknowledge our own humanity and that of the people around us, and we give ourselves room to grow and to improve.

In summary, our future success is not only rooted in our past but is also about what we choose to do in the days, weeks, and years ahead. My belief is that the labels we sometimes use with each other often carry value judgments that can be hurtful. My suggestion is that we shift our mindset away from labels and toward improving ourselves, all without casting judgment on others.

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director