My first exposure to broad religious and cultural calendrical sensitivity occurred during my first career as a clergyperson and college chaplain. While serving on the board of the Harvard Chaplains, an interfaith and secular umbrella organization of campus chaplains, we were tasked with creating campus events throughout the year. It had occurred to me prior to that role to take into consideration Jewish and Christian calendars. After all, in the United States, those are almost included by default in most calendar planning applications, but our job was a lot more expansive at that point.
Around the table sat representatives of the Zoroastrian, different Hindu, Buddhist, Secular Humanist, Muslim, and other traditions. There were also a multiplicity of Christian denominations represented, each with their own set of traditions and practices.
When you look at the combined calendar of nearly 30 different cultural and religious calendars, it can be daunting to try to find a date for an event. How do you choose one date without excluding someone?
This question not only surfaces around explicitly cultural and/or religious events. It is an essential question of inclusivity, regardless of the topic of the event. Do you want all people to feel included? Do you desire a broad spectrum of attendance? Do you want to be intentional about grounding your event in openness and diversity? If you do, then you must consider the calendrical sensitivity of an array of religious, cultural and ethnic communities.
(For the purposes of this blog post. I have defined as separate entities "religious", "cultural" and "ethnic" for simplicity sake. Yet, be aware, that for many people, these terms are intertwined and interconnected.)
Recently, this came up as a Twitter conversation when I posted my disappointment that, at least for the second year, a prominent Ruby conference has scheduled its conference to coincide with Passover, thereby making it inaccessible to people like me. I received many thoughtful (and some not so thoughtful) responses to my post. Primary amongst the challenging responses to me was the same overriding concern:
How do you possibly schedule a conference mindful of calendrical diversity without offending someone? Isn't it better to just ignore cultural diversity in the calendar and thereby offend everyone equally?
We are going to cover the following principles and actions that I believe, in my experience, go a long way in fostering cultural and religious calendrical sensitivity in event planning:
- Who's at the table?
- Open the windows
- Embrace failure
The notion that companies, organizations, conference panels and more should be representative of its people is not a new idea. However, for some reason and for many people, that inclusion ends at the door of religious and cultural diversity. There is still so much work to do in gender and racial inclusivity. We are so far from achieving true diversity in those areas. Yet, when it comes to inclusivity of religious and cultural diversity, many people do not even see religion and culture as points to consider, at all.
This perspective I have experienced is most prevalent amongst Europeans, where I have been told numerous times, that culture and religion are "only personal choices," and as such are not deserving of consideration during event planning. Even if we agree that religious and/or cultural affiliation is a choice, so what? Is personal autonomy not a value? Should people not be welcomed or considered as full members of a community because they choose to affiliate with a religious and/or cultural tradition?
There is way too much bias to unpack in this predominantly European perspective within the constraints of this article, but at the very least, what a person views as "choice" is heavily influenced by one's cultural and socio-economic background. To diminish one person's life, beliefs and traditions as "only a choice" is in itself an act of cultural violence and supremacy.
All of this is by way of saying, that the first step to calendrical sensitivity is to make sure you have the right people around the table influencing the decision making. How many products were unveiled only to cause great embarrassment to their companies once a major oversight was discovered because no women or people of color were in the product design meetings?
One person tried to rebut my disappointment that, yet again, a major conference schedules itself during a major holiday season, by copy and pasting the list of religious holidays from a Wikipedia article. His point was there are so many holidays, it's impossible to plan around them.
This is true if you are the only one planning. What would it look like if you intentionally crafted an advisory committee of people representing the cultures and traditions that interact with your conference? How do you find out who interacts with your conference? Ask them! I guarantee that if an email came out from conference organizers announcing a new committee for religious and cultural sensitivity and asking for participation, that would be overwhelmingly well received.
You can only do your best to plan for calendrical sensitivity for cultures and religions that are not around the table. But, if you make a great effort to provide a space for people to show up, take a seat around the organizing table, and offer their voices, then you can plan with confidence with those who are present.
The person who copied and pasted an untold number of holiday names into a Twitter response to me did not know enough to articulate the different prioritizations for each holiday within each tradition. Neither do I. However, in regards to the Jewish holidays he pasted, I immediately knew which ones were more flexible and which were less so. That is because it is my community and my people. Let's create the opportunity and space for others to accurately represent their communities and their peoples in the planning of our conferences and gatherings.
Once you have a more representative group of people advising the calendrical decisions from across a spectrum of religious and cultural diversity, your next step is to open the windows. A bit of fresh air can go a long way.
What does it mean to open the windows in this context? What I mean is be transparent about your calendar decision. Now that you have a group of people who can help offer advice in setting the date, inevitably a decision will be made. An essential aspect to remember is that even with a cross-cultural and cross-religious advisory group, you still may have a date conflict. The difference lies entirely in the process of how you got there.
At this point, you are empowered to speak with confidence for why that date had to be chosen. You can discuss the factors that went into it. You can acknowledge the difficulties in choosing it. Chances are that if you have a truly representative group of people helping you, you won't be caught off guard by a calendrical consideration you had not thought of.
Opening the windows and being transparent about your process and the reasons for the decision helps people feel less excluded by a decision, even when the actual decision is exclusionary. In other words, the date choice may exclude me, but if I know the process that went behind it, the awareness from the organizers of that exclusion, and can see that people like me are a part of the structure, it can go a long way in mitigating the feelings of exclusion.
This last point can be counter-intuitive. How can embracing failure possibly be a positive thing? We live in a society that takes failure, stuffs it under the carpet, steps on it repeatedly and hopes that no one ever notices that lump under their feet when they come in.
Failure, though, can be our greatest teacher. What was the first thing we learn as developers? Embrace the error message. Perhaps, the difference between the novice developer and the more experienced is the reaction to error messages. Do they cause you to pull your hair out or do they cause you to grow and adapt (and maybe sometimes pull your hair out also)?
In the quest to be sensitive to cultural and religious calendars, you will make a mistake. In fact, it is inevitable. You will fail at it. This is not easy work. It is not easy to be truly inclusive. An all-male panel will happen. An inappropriate comment will be said. A date will be picked on a major holiday without any process.
In those moments, embrace the mistake. Don't double down in the failure because of pride or ego. Own it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. Your attendees will see it and deeply appreciate it.
There is a lot more to be said on this topic, but in short, following these three practices can help go a long way:
- Who's at the table (or Nothing about us without us)
- Open the windows
- Embrace Failure
This is not a magic formula. You won't get it right the first time, and you might not get it right the tenth time. However, the more intentional you are about it, the more thought you give it, the better the outcome will be.