Belonging and elephants - what inclusion means to me

Written by Liz Purbrick, England Athletics Inclusion Manager.

Inclusion is one of our core values at England Athletics and one of the guiding principles of RunTogether.

But how comfortable are we with talking about inclusion in the world of athletics and running? Well, what if we all got comfortable with being uncomfortable talking about inclusion? I think this could be where some magic might happen, and when I say magic I mean learning, I mean self-reflection and I mean change.

When I talk about inclusion, I prefer to talk about belonging because really that’s what inclusion is. Real genuine inclusion makes people feel like they belong. When I speak to the athletics and running community about belonging and ask them what it means to them, and what it looks and feels like, they talk about being welcomed and valued, about being themselves and about feeling happy.

This is how we want people in athletics and running to feel, whatever their role. Fortunately, belonging is exactly what athletics and running brings to millions of people across England. It gives them a space to connect with others, it gives them happiness and it becomes part of their identity. But not for everybody.

So why don’t people always feel like they belong?

This is where the elephants come in! In her book ‘The Loudest Duck’ Laura Liswood talks about the elephant and mouse syndrome. This is a great way for us to think about power. Generally, people don’t like the word power. But it is important, and can be quite profound, to accept that sometimes we have it and to take the time to really understand our own power and its effect on others. If you think about the elephant and the mouse, the elephant is big and heavy, it doesn’t need to know much about the mouse to survive and has a lot of power. Now the mouse on the other hand is small and needs to know everything about the elephant to survive and has less power. The elephant can represent a dominant group and the mouse can represent a non-dominant group.

Dominant groups have more power. Fact. And a person from a dominant group can assume that the world operates for everyone the way it does for them. The key thing here is that a lot of the time the person from the dominant group is not aware they are an elephant, and they don’t appreciate the power they have and that is an opportunity lost to include others.

Determining our power

Gender, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic group and many other factors all intersect to determine our power. So does our position or role in the sport- club leader, coach, official etc. So, it’s important for us to consider when we are an elephant and when we are a mouse. Depending on your situation your power will change. If you think about different scenarios, you’ll realise that sometimes you are an elephant and sometimes you are a mouse. Depending on those different factors some people will be an elephant more often than they are a mouse and vice versa.

What can we do about it?

So now we know about the elephant what can we do about it? By recognising and acknowledging any advantage and power we have we can use it to help others belong. By taking the time to consider whose voices are not represented, and actively listening and validating the experiences of others, we can understand why they are not included and make changes. Inclusion is summed up nicely in a great video by Accenture called #InclusionStartsWithI. Today though I really do hope it starts with U!

If you want to support your club/group to be more inclusive check out the ClubMatters training ‘A Club for Everyone’.