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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Praxis Group helps business professionals go beyond inclusion
by Liz Baudler
2018-06-13

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An emerging Chicago consulting firm composed primarily of activists within the LGBTQ community has the goal of getting workplaces to think "beyond inclusion." It's a phrase that those who have encountered Praxis Group have wondered about, and the founders are very open to explaining the unique work they do.

"Our goal is to provide employers and organizations with the tools to move beyond the checkboxes of "diversity and inclusion" and into ongoing institutional practices that support justice and allyship," said Director of Training and Curriculum Kate Harrington-Rosen.

"For us, 'beyond inclusion' means a lot of things," said Director of Operations and Outreach Jes Scheinpflug. "I think that these buzzwords of 'diversity' and 'inclusion' are used so often that they sort of stopped having meaning. Those are values and goals, but what's underneath all that? We're doing innovative work around creating spaces that bring authentic people to the table."

Praxis Group's focus is on the LGBQTIA community, with a particular emphasis on trans and gender-nonconforming individuals, said Scheinpflug, who has found that workshops focused on trans identity are among the most needed in workplaces and businesses. An important question for Scheinpflug in anti-oppression frameworks is the idea of "who's not in the room."

"A lot of groups are guilty of being, like, 'Oh, look at how diverse it was'— racially and gender-wise and sometimes socioeconomic status-wise," Scheinpflug said. "But very rarely do I find people who are asking, 'Who wasn't there?'"

Another guiding principle for Praxis is the idea of cultural humility instead of cultural competency. "As a nonbinary queer person, I'm learning things every day," Scheinpflug explained. "I make mistakes in the language I use sometimes, and cultural humility is recognizing that and committing to constantly being open to learning more and doing better. Whereas cultural competency is, checking that box, done. The work is never done."

"I know that I've felt unsafe or unwelcome with providers or in businesses who think they are "competent" but don't do the vulnerable work of approaching me from a place of seeking to learn or understand me more deeply," said Harrington-Rosen, a queer woman who describes herself as "straight-passing", and who says servers and medical workers often assume the gender of her nonbinary partner.

"What humility would look like in those moments is people taking the time to recognize and acknowledge that they've made an assumption ( or 5 or 10 ) about me, and instead of acting on that assumption, to either wait until they learn more about me in the course of the interaction, or to ask me respectfully about how I identify," Harrington-Rosen said over email.

The members of Praxis have done work along these lines for more than 25 combined years. Scheinpflug, who has a social work background, and Harrington-Rosen were colleagues in the same non-profit and always had a strong working relationship. Praxis also includes K. Rodriguez and JT Turner, who come with their own skillsets.

"In starting to think about what it would look like to try to build a business that was actually rooted in ( social ) justice, we knew we needed to have leadership, input, and representation from folks with different identities and backgrounds from ours, in particular folks who aren't white," Harrington-Rosen said. "We are also both lucky enough to have worked and played alongside such an incredible number of brilliant queers that I think as soon as we started to conceptualize working together more formally, we were already thinking about and excited about bringing other folks in."

Praxis had run workshops prior to their official launch, and most previous business came through word of mouth. "People have reached out being, like, 'We have the knowledge, we understand the theory, we get the vocab, but we're struggling to implement it. What do we do?,' Scheinpflug said. "In going public and being an official business, our audience hasn't really changed, it's been whoever's dedicated to doing this work. Our ideal people are folks who recognize that it's an ongoing process. People want to see results right away, and cultural humility doesn't work that way, it's not like, 'Here's our start date and here's our end date and we're done.' We're really looking to work with people who recognize that and who will commit to the long haul."

"I think a fair number of folks are aware that there is a lack of cultural humility, or justice, or allyship, on their team, but not really sure what that means or how to name it," said Harrington-Rosen. "So folks will call and say, 'I'm not really sure what we need, but here's the problem,' and the problem is: our manager called a trans person by their dead name at a staff meeting, and everybody froze. Or, I heard my colleague say something racist and I didn't know what to do about it. Or, our clients have told us that our space doesn't feel welcoming to them, but we don't understand why.' And those are exactly the calls that we want to be getting, because what we hear in those moments are people being willing to be vulnerable and ask for help about something they don't know how to handle, and that vulnerability is key to being able to build the awareness and skill needed to address the issue."

Workshops are done with co-facilitators of differing identities who set group agreements upfront and can cover a variety of content. Even with request for more targeted guidance, the group likes to go over what Scheinpflug called "the 101 stuff" to make sure everyone's on the same page.

"I think people and institutions really enjoy working with us because we have a balance of information-sharing, collaboration, and accountability," Scheinpflug said. "In all of our trainings, we model how people can call out misgendering, or call out comments that are offensive, and how to bring that person into that moment, acknowledge what happened, and move past it. We have those teachable moments and we do the uncomfortable and difficult work in front of people, and they're like, oh, it can be done, it's not this elusive thing that I just read about on Facebook. "

In the spirit of being both teachers and learners, facilitators also find it helpful to share personal experiences. "When you have these personal stories and these human beings in front of you, that's different from reading about it or learning about it in higher education," Scheinpflug said. "I talk a lot about how I get called ma'am and, as a person who navigates the world with a lot of confidence and [who] knows how to advocate for myself, [there are] times where I end up in positions where I am extremely uncomfortable, sometimes unsafe, not feeling valued. It's things that are so simple, like this idea of microaggressions. Something that seems so insignificant can really shift an entire culture."

Praxis' workshops operate on sliding-scale fees, and a portion of all profits go toward people of color/trans life organizations. "Any social-justice work that doesn't explicitly recognize how oppressive capitalism is is missing the mark in a big way," said Harrington-Rosen. "We are seeking to find the balance of being paid fairly for our labor ( the labor of educating people about how to engage with us respectfully, which so often goes unpaid and unvalued ) with making our services accessible for groups who want to commit to this work. We know that small nonprofits or locally owned businesses may not have the same budget as, say, a corporate client, but it's no less crucial for them to engage in this work."

"Often, the places that don't have the budget for it are the places that need it the most," Scheinpflug added. Praxis hopes to make trainings and consultation more accessible by having larger clients sponsor services and partner with a nonprofit or small business of their choosing. More future plans for the Group include fellowships for young trans and gnc people of color to become facilitators, and collaborations with groups that share values.

The cost of ignoring or marginalizing issues of identity can be sobering. "When we talk about almost half of trans folks attempt suicide, versus one to six percent of cis folks, we look at other stats like homelessness and unemployment and lack of access or no access to healthcare and medical resources," Scheinpflug said. "People can get that, but that suicide statistic, [it's] the culmination of it."

But for a business or organization, furthering one's understanding and commitment to being "beyond inclusive" can pay dividends. "When people have these skills and create these inclusive and beyond inclusive places that are actually celebrating folks, productivity goes up for everybody, they make more money, employees stay longer, they get promoted, win win win," said Scheinpflug. "It's the right thing to do, and it's going to help you. "

Scheinpflug will co-facilitate an interactive master class from the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, "Inclusive Hiring and Building Safe Spaces," on Thursday, June 21, 9-10 a.m, at 5153 N. Clark St. The event is free, but pre-registration is required. More information—and the ability to donate to further the Group's future goals—is at PraxisChi.com .


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