Marissa McClenton is the author of this blog and a student at University of Delaware as well as the Clean Water Team’s Grassroots Organizer. Stay tuned for more insights and resources from the DEIJ Corner and Marissa in the future!

If I had to pick out one part of environmental justice and other DEIJ issues, it would be the concept of meaningful involvement. Diversity and representation are assets that add value and legitimacy to the ideas and initiatives that they create. The search for meaningful involvement is hard, though, and for good reason. For us to have meaningful involvement and to reach the people who have historically been overlooked, we need to create an environment that is safe for them and an environment where they can bring their authentic and whole selves without fear of rejection.

I stumbled across this concept on either Twitter or Instagram and it pains me that I didn’t catch the source but as I frantically researched keywords with the hopes of running into the original concept I found a quote by Vernā Myers. She said that “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance,” and the fireworks went off inside my brain because YES! The distinction between diversity and inclusion is important and sort of fuzzy because they are so often grouped together. In order to have meaningful involvement you need diversity, but not as a foundation. First, you need an inclusive environment so that, when you add diversity, you’re not forcing people to enter hostile spaces where they can’t dance their way and comfortably ask dance partners for what they need.

This is an empathetic guide because I think many people ask themselves what they can personally do to create an inclusive environment and I think it’s time we talk about it. It is also called an empathetic guide because, while I am not a DEIJ expert, I have learned how to make people feel involved as a result of being born with what I see as two steps down from the hyperempathy that Lauren Olamina has in Parable of the Sower. I believe that empathy should be the first step we take when engaging with people, especially when we are asking for their help and intellectual labor.

The first step in my Empathetic Guide to Meaningful Involvement is to look outside of yourself and see how others experience the world. Read books from authors who live completely different lives from you. Engage with art from people who create things that challenge your ideas of what art is. Watch movies in different languages than the ones that you speak. Familiarize yourself with how other people interpret their world so that when the time comes, they don’t have to explain every single cultural difference when they enter a space with others. I’m in no way equating research to lived experience but Black girls in college shouldn’t have to explain why we wear bonnets.

The next thing to do is audit your space. Look at both your physical and virtual spaces, would somebody needing accommodations have to ask for them and do the work to create them? If you see this, start working to fix it. Start thinking about your unspoken rules and think about why you didn’t need them spelled out to you. These can be huge barriers to involvement because time spent participating can sometimes be spent trying to find where you fit in the current dynamic when the dynamic should be fluid enough to account for what people need. Audit your space, but more importantly, be willing to change your space to make it more inclusive even if it meets the needs of those currently there, because more will always come.

The last part of this guide is to be patient and compassionate in the moments that make you want to give up and do it yourself. Everybody starts from a different spot and took a different path to get where they are today. Consider that your impatience might be you expecting a system or structure that worked for you, to work for somebody who has different needs from your own. These are the moments when we need compassion and empathy the most. When you see someone struggling, ask how you can help them and truly listen when they tell you. You don’t have to be perfect, but empathy is the first step in bridging the gap between honest imperfection and the growing pains you feel in the beginning of any meaningful journey.