Approaching DEIB work from a healing-first perspective

John Land, General Manager, CIC St. Louis 

Growing up as a queer kid in Alabama, I spent a great deal of my life hiding or purposely blending in, fearing for my own safety at times. After college, I began my career in the field of education and spent time teaching English abroad in Japan, becoming professionally socialized in an environment of humility and community-first mentality – values I have carried with me into all of my roles.

When I moved to St. Louis nearly a decade ago for a job at Washington University, I made a personal commitment that I would not only bring all I had learned from both Southern and Japanese culture, but I would also exist as a fully out human being, professionally and personally. It was the first step in my healing journey.

That was the attitude with which I interviewed for a job at CIC six years ago, bringing my full self to the table. I am thrilled to have found success at this company, not because or in spite of my queer identity, but simply for who I am. My background and personal experience as an out, gay man – often on the margins of the business world – have given me particular interest in the human side of business, or how we treat each other at work. This interest is why working in the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) space is so important to me.

As we see a new national wave of legislation targeting queer and trans people, my heart aches. I also can’t help but think, from a business perspective, such exclusion, denial, and alienation is as short-sighted as it is morally bankrupt. Many company executives categorize DEIB as auxiliary work – a ‘nice to have’ thing when it benefits the business or offers a great photo opp. To me, doing business in a DEIB-aligned way – honoring and healing as we work alongside each other – has the potential to bring us out of the economic impact of Covid and catapult us to new levels of equitable economic growth.

Since I began at CIC St. Louis, we have worked to create a place where people of historically oppressed identities can feel psychologically safe and flourish both socially and professionally – crafting policies and cultivating an inclusive community where people don’t feel like they have to hide as I once did. My approach is grounded in the belief that liberation for the LGBTQIA+ community is tied to the liberation, celebration, and inclusion of all oppressed identities.

With that philosophy in mind, as I stepped into the GM role at CIC St. Louis and was asked to think about this site and this city from an economic perspective, one of the first conclusions I arrived at is that there is no economic progress until we address the racist, homophobic, and transphobic legacies of our city’s history. We must take a closer look at the anti-racist work being done in the city and examine how we are engaging communities of color in ways that are genuine and centered on their needs first. We must make sure our spaces are not just available, but welcoming to queer and trans people. From my perspective, doing so entails ceding control over our space and resources in some way – freely saying, ‘Take this, do what you need, build something here.’

We do so through programs like our Social Impact Cohort and institutions like Venture Café, which help eliminate the barriers to entry in our space and the greater entrepreneurial community. Moreover, when we look at our vendors, we take care to work with local, women- and POC-owned businesses wherever we can in order to make sure our economic impact is felt locally. Finally, we continue to form powerful partnerships with other organizations that are doing great work in the community so that their light may shine even brighter.

It’s important to note that there’s an introspective element to this work too. As CIC grew to include eight sites around the world, company leadership saw a need to learn from the DEIB work each community was doing on the ground and make those approaches centralized and standardized practice. A global DEIB Advisory Committee for CIC was formed to share best practices and facilitate company-wide policy. The opportunity called to me as I wanted to engage further in this work that has always resonated at a deep level with me. I interviewed for a position on the committee and was honored to be selected.

In this role, I am equally as interested in our own transformational journey as a company as I am in getting the right policies in place. As we strive, fail, and strive again to get it right, I’m interested in who we become along the way. I want us to examine how white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia show up in our company and then dismantle those patterns systematically. Make no mistake: Even the best organizations on the planet still deal with these issues; having the humility to know they are present rather than to deny them is the first step in effectively counteracting them. I’m proud to work at a company that is fearless enough to face our shortcomings and keep healing ourselves so that we can continue to create healing spaces for others.

Creating welcoming spaces, building platforms that enable access to resources, striving to walk alongside community partners rather than out in front, directing our own spend to local businesses, and being mindful of our own internal processes – these are ways in which CIC leads with healing in mind. This month, I invite other business leaders to join us in this approach and give hope to those who are being forced to hide. I think you’ll discover that it’s not only the right thing to do from a business perspective, but you may find your own path to healing in the process. Engaging in this work has opened up the world for this once-frightened, queer kid from Alabama.

John Land is General Manager of CIC St. Louis, one site in the global network of leading-edge innovation communities. In addition to his work with CIC, John is the LGBTQ+ Lead for the BioSTL entrepreneur support organization Voices, leading the affinity space for queer entrepreneurs and bringing them together to discuss issues that affect their work and personal lives. He has also been a long-time supporter of PROMO, a Missouri LGBTQ+ rights organization, assisting for many years with their annual fundraiser, Urbainaire, including facilitating the hosting of Urbanaire in the Cortex District – CIC’s St. Louis’s home – in 2019. 

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