Two staff members from the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering successfully completed the 2020 Inclusive Leaders Academy (ILA) program offered by Georgia Tech’s Office of Staff Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement. Joscelyn Cooper-Rodriguez, program and operations manager for the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems, and Nancy Sandlin, director of development, along with nearly 100 other participants, have been designated as Culture Champions. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a celebration of this year’s Culture Champions will be held in February 2021.
The ILA is designed to provide personal and professional development of self-awareness, social intelligence, and courage for Institute employees who hold a supervisory position. Participants complete a series of self-guided trainings and group workshops – 27 hours in total, as well as write a personal reflection that becomes part of the Institute’s digital story library, known as Transformative Narratives.
In this interview, Cooper-Rodriguez and Sandlin reflect on their experience with the ILA.
What motivated you to apply to participate in the Inclusive Leaders Academy?
JC-R: I’ve been interested in diversity and inclusion since I was young, even when I didn’t have those words for it. As a young Black woman, I remember thinking in high school that I wished my white counterparts could understand my experience. So when I saw the call for applications with ILA, I realized it was another opportunity to explore diversity and inclusion – what it means and how to incorporate it at work, especially since I work with an international group of people.
NS: I had been reading quite a bit about Georgia Tech’s vision and commitment toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, and with each article that came out about this, I became more and more interested in the Institute’s initiatives and in being a part of the progress of this important mission. When I saw the call for applications for the 2020 ILA, I was excited to apply.
How do you personally define diversity and inclusion?
JC-R: It means having conversations with people whom we call friends and colleagues and learning about their experiences and their hopes for the future. It means confronting the racist past of the U.S and how that past is affecting our present-day systems. It means looking at the daily micro-aggressions that happen to people who are considered “minorities” or “other.”
How would you characterize the focus of the Inclusive Leaders Academy?
JC-R: ILA helps you examine and understand how childhood traumas can affect how, as adults, we think about ourselves and also relate to our professional peers – how they can keep you from being an effective leader. It’s about learning your core identity – your values and why you have them.
NS: : The program is designed to build a leadership community that will transform and enhance the culture at Georgia Tech through practicing and modeling inclusive excellence. It focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion while examining unconscious biases that can adversely affect how we interact and make decisions.
What was it like doing the ILA coursework, as well as your job – especially during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic?
JC-R: It was actually perfect timing. Although the program wasn’t planned with Covid-19 in mind, one of the first sessions was on resilience. We discussed whether we were thriving or surviving. At that point in the spring, I was merely coping with my circumstances. And the resilience workshop enabled me to slow down, acknowledge my feelings and where they were coming from, and then learn techniques to manage those feelings.
NS: I found it to be really comforting to have a focus and a goal in the middle of all this. The program leaders were able to modify the format, which is usually a combination of online and in-person meetings, as well as individual and group work. They seamlessly moved everything to an online format, and I enjoyed every session. Everything I learned I intend to continue practicing.
What was your favorite learning experience, and why?
JC-R: One assignment we had to complete was writing an “I Am” poem. We were given a list of questions to respond to that helped us describe ourselves, and I found the words flowing out of me while writing this poem. It really got to the heart of how I feel about myself, which is something a lot of us don’t take the time to discover. The exercise helped me see how I need to be more compassionate toward myself. I even called my sister right after I wrote it and said, “You have to hear this. I can’t believe I just wrote this!”
NS: A good portion of the program is centered around Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead. One of my favorite sessions involved a deep dive into self-awareness and vulnerability as the book talks about them, and how these qualities take courage. That courage paves the way to helping to identify and develop the potential of people and processes – which is the heart of leadership.
What was a particularly challenging moment for you in the program?
NS: The most challenging and eye-opening experience I had was a workshop called “Disarming Saboteurs.” We completed exercises designed to help us personally discover the two areas that most work against our becoming our best selves. It was an exercise designed to help you analyze the voice in your head – the one that tells you, “You’re not good enough.” And then once you identify these areas, you can learn how to silence that destructive internal voice.
Describe what your Transformative Narrative is about, and how the process of creating it was the capstone of the Inclusive Leaders Academy.
JC-R: My narrative, titled “You Speak So Well,” is a closer look at the Black experience beyond what is seen trending in the media. This is my personal experience of the more subtle, daily interactions that impact our identities, self-esteem, and will to succeed. My time with the ILA helped me to identify who I am at my core, which brought me back to a time in my childhood that has affected the person I am today. I thank ILA for drawing this out of me and teaching me the tools to confront that little girl whose self-esteem was fractured. I hope this narrative that helped me grow into a more self-aware leader also helps others become more aware of the experiences of their peers.
NS: My story is about the journey of learning to set boundaries, live in my authenticity, and not be defined or scripted by others. The process of writing, re-writing, fine-tuning, re-fine-tuning, reading, and re-reading (multiple times) was a challenging but rewarding experience. It is my hope that my story might help others.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering