For most people around the country and the world, the past year has been one of forced social isolation, and the results have been severe. Locally, we’ve seen a rise in domestic violence and road rage, according to CMPD, while staff at Pat’s Place Child Advocacy Center have sounded the alarm bells about unreported child abuse cases.
While these recent matters are certainly troubling, Charlotte-based social entrepreneur, researcher and writer Justin Jones-Fosu points out that social isolation has been affecting the way Americans interact since long before the pandemic.
In Jones-Fosu’s new book, The Inclusive Mindset, he talks at length about how social isolation leads to further inequity within our society, as he’s seen in his work around diversity and inclusion in the corporate world.
Queen City Nerve recently spoke with Jones-Fosu about what social isolation means, how one can be purposeful in pushing back against it, and how he views a new right-wing movement against the type of diversity and inclusion trainings that he’s made his life’s work.
Queen City Nerve: How long have you been living in Charlotte?
Justin Jones-Fosu: I made my way to Charlotte in 2017. I have had my eye on Charlotte for a while just because of the racial and ethnic diversity and the beauty of the nearby mountains. I am originally from Ghana through the way of Michigan. I was born in Michigan, but one of the unique aspects of Ghanian culture — western culture is very individualistic, so when people want to know where you’re from, they’re really asking where you were born, but to Ghanians and other African nations, they don’t really care where you were born they want to know where your family’s from. So, it’s always interesting telling people where I’m from. I say I’m from Ghana through the way of Michigan.
How have you found Charlotte?
There are certain things that I really enjoy, I love the access to both beaches as well as the mountains. I participated in Leadership Charlotte, which was a really cool and great experience, just to see the great diversity of thought that existed amongst the people.
But there are some aspects of Charlotte that are still very segregated, and we need opportunities to enlarge our circles. Even in people’s neighborhoods it’s very challenging for people to enlarge their circles, which feeds into the school systems, which feeds into the socioeconomics and all these other systems, so that’s one of the things I think Charlotte has an opportunity to do a better job of.
I love the work that [assistant city manager] Taiwo [Jaiyeoba] was doing with affordable housing and helping to recreate or rethink how we do neighborhoods. He was fortunately one of my Leadership Charlotte cohorts. Overall, I’ve really appreciated the forward thinking and progress — and when I say progress I mean the fact that we looked at how Charlotte is doing in terms of people being able to continue to grow, raise their economic development, and Charlotte seems to be taking that very seriously. So I like that they didn’t explain it away, they’re like, “This is the issue, we need to address it. Let’s start moving forward.”
How did your work in the corporate world lead into what you’re doing now?
I spent about 10 years or so in corporate American organizations, but I’ve been working with organizations for over 10 years, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes over those years, and to be honest, I’ll probably continue to make a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes that I can position how diversity and inclusion is talked about in a unique and valuable way. I found that diversity and inclusion was only talked about from a very shame-based approach or deficit approach, it was always what you’re doing wrong. The focus wasn’t generally on how do we grow, progress and get better, which is more an abundance thinking, it’s more so like this is the baseline. You hear statements like, “It’s 2021, are you still struggling with that?” versus meeting people where they are and helping them to get better over time, and there’s that delicate balance of meeting people where they are but not pacifying people if they’re not moving in ways that are helpful and meaningful for other people as well.
So it’s a nice dance, but I felt that this is an approach that isn’t often taken, and it’s not the only approach, there are many approaches to this work. But this is an approach that people have said, “Hey I like it, I appreciate it, I’m growing from it,” but unfortunately, I have also had some white heterosexual males who have said to me, “This is the first time I feel included in a diversity and inclusion conversation.” So for me, part of my passion is really helping people to be curious about each other again, to learn how to respectfully disagree. We talk so much about the business case [for diversity], and I realize that, we know the business case, we’ve talked about it for decades and we still haven’t moved the needle. So it’s not just elegantly stating the business case, what’s missing is the humanity case, and the humanity case is simply that we enlarge our circle, that we get out of social isolation and we start engaging with those that are different from us; we hear their stories and see the significance in who they are, and we start approaching diversity and inclusion as if we’re approaching one of our favorite loved ones.
There’s a growing backlash among right-wing politicians who have lambasted all diversity and inclusion trainings or discussions in the workplace as this sort of monolithic “critical race theory” that is somehow harmful. What are your thoughts on seeing that talked about in national media?
That’s one of the things that I don’t think that we often have enough conversations about. I’m a big believer in dialogue. One of the best diversity books I ever read had nothing to do with diversity. It was a book called Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together.
Unfortunately, with most politicians, they’re really not trying to have dialogue. They’re interested in speaking to their base, because at the end of the day their base it’s what’s happening for them. For those politicians who choose to have true, genuine dialogue, when you have genuine dialogue, it allows you to better understand what do you mean by this when you talk about diversity and inclusion.
Often I find myself, not just with politicians but with everyday people, I find myself needing to describe how I refer to diversity and inclusion, that this is not just race or gender or identity, that there are so many aspects of diversity, ability, socioeconomics, these pieces, because when people see themselves as part of it they also see themselves as helping it move forward. But when I see myself as something that I’m not a part of, that’s something that you all have to do.
So I challenge people to get past this conversation, and you saw it in the primaries; what the news people would say is, “They just came from Iowa, they’re ready to get to New Hampshire, but wait ‘til they get to more diverse states.” I was just screaming at the TV screen like, “No, I’ve been to both Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re very diverse in different ways.” Now use the preface: Are you talking about racial diversity? Are you talking about gender diversity? Are you talking about ethnic diversity? That’s the thing I’m really challenging people to do so that we’re not unconsciously or subconsciously alienating groups of people and saying, “You’re not a part of diversity and inclusion.”
So back to your statement, just around the politicians, more questions need to be asked. There are people who are approaching the conversation of diversity and inclusion from a variety of different aspects, and there are myriad different ways, but you can’t lump all of the diversity-inclusion conversation into one and say that it’s not good.
How would you describe social isolation?
Oftentimes when we are intentionally or unintentionally isolated from groups of people, no matter what those groups are, they could be within our neighborhoods, and right now we’re seeing it huge just with the pandemic; we have gone inward versus continuing to explore and experience the world around us. Those experiences help shape us.
One of my key phrases is: Proximity breeds empathy. When we don’t have proximity to people, when we don’t have an opportunity to engage people, when we don’t intentionally choose to go out and connect and hear the stories of other people, we do a thing called othering, where that’s those people, and normally what goes with that is negativity, with the othering. Why are those people doing this? When we are more inviting it moves from, “I’m glad you’re here,” to, “I’m glad we’re here.” That’s the aspect of social isolation.
We tend to give more grace to those within our circles, and when no one’s in our circles but ourselves, our family members and friends, people like us, everyone outside of our circles is everyone else. And everyone else is people we tend to give no grace, no benefit of the doubt, they’re guilty until proven innocent, and one of the things I challenge people is to think through who everyone else is, and be honest.
I share my own experiences with this in my presentations and in my book. I talk about not just stuff I’ve gotten over but stuff I still live with.
And you have some practices people can use to lessen the effects of social isolation.
There are two things we can do, because I’m all about practicality. One is to develop meaningful relationships. The reason I say meaningful is it has to go deeper than, “I have two white friends. Yay.” We have to talk about the tough, hard issues and hear their stories.
So one practical solution I have to that is called “1 MC over W.” That’s not a new mathematical formula, it simply stands for One Meaningful Connection Per Week. I encourage people to build into their calendar 15-30 minutes to hear the stories of their neighbors. Blame me, tell them you got an assignment from this guy and you have to hear the stories of other people. So people go and they hear these stories, they listen and engage.
Diversity is not that we always agree, which is something else that we need to really hit hard on, is that we learn to respectfully disagree. When I can vehemently disagree with your ideology and yet still passionately pursue your humanity. We’ve lost the art of that. For me, it’s not that I agree with all the stories I hear, it just means that I take the time to hear some other people’s perspective vs. second- and third-hand information.
The second one is something I call the six-month challenge: every six months I challenge myself to go to an event, experience something or engage with someone which I either disagree with or I don’t know a lot about. It allows me to challenge the second- or third-hand information that our brains are wired to receive. Our brains are conditioned to save information from things it doesn’t know, and so when we get this second- or third-hand information from media sources or social media or from friends, it categorizes that to utilize for a future date. So what intentionality requires is why I do the six-month challenge, because it continues to enlarge my circles so I’m not just confined to my circle of comfort, but rather I’m engaging and enlarging the circles that I experience.
How have you seen COVID-19 affect your work around social isolation?
Unfortunately it’s impacted us in a lot of negative ways, because we’ve lost touch with the outside world in many ways, and we’ve been forced to disassociate with our neighbors. It’s like, “You all stay over there,” and we haven’t had creative solutions to address it.
Unfortunately it allows for a deeper sense of anger, resentment and violence to build up that we started hearing less and less of people’s stories unintentionally. Just by going out into society, you hear the stories of others. So because we started hearing less and less of people’s stories, it allowed us to see people as others, and when we see people as others, there seems to be a deep-seeded root of, “Maybe they’re the worst, while I and people in my circle deserve the best.”
With COVID, it’s intensified othering even more so than before. It also creates this space of loneliness. I’m in this alone. When we start to think that we’re alone, then we start to react and/or act out in ways that aren’t conducive to healthy interpersonal relationships and relationships with other people and that’s why you see some of the things, even in people’s own households, that become very challenging.
People don’t know how to channel their anger or frustration. I struggled with it when COVID first happened. I was going through my Netflix, HBO, [Amazon] Prime binges because I was just so disappointed and frustrated with what was happening in society. And so, I do think that it’s amplified it, intensified the frustration that people feel, the othering that people exist, but that’s the bad news.
The good news to that is I’ve seen how people have become more intentional with engaging others, and that’s the thing; people have to want it. You can’t make anyone do this. There’s not a city ordinance that says everybody has to get on Zoom at 7 p.m. so you can hear the stories of other people. People ultimately have to want to, and when people want to, we have to provide intentional solutions for people to engage, so people are saying, “OK cool, what’s a virtual experience that you wouldn’t normally go to but you can experience to challenge your social isolation?”
There are neighborhoods where neighbors come out and put their chairs in their driveway and they’ve had conversations and social distancing in meaningful ways outside so they can hear and continue to connect with their neighbors. I’ve seen people utilize Zoom and all these other things in very unique ways.
One of the ways I did it, I’m part of a group called Outdoor Afro, where we would go hiking outdoors, and we would do that in ways to still continue to connect with others and deal with our social isolation. It took a lot more intentionality, but it’s something that’s doable. I know people are getting out and going back but it still requires a great deal of intentionality.
Do you think that intentionality will translate to the so-called “new normal” as we begin to return to some version of our regular lives?
No. I don’t think so. I wish I could have a positive report. I think people are going to try to return to normal the best that they could. It required intentionality before the pandemic. It’s going to equally require intentionality after the pandemic in whatever the new normal is.
At the end of the day, if I go back to my normal, I’m going back to my same circles, my same family, my same friend groups. I’m going to the same type of restaurants where people like me go, and I’m not going to have those conversations with people that challenge my own narrative that’s been created either internally or through second- or third-hand info. So I think people will have to remain vigilant and that’s why the six-month challenge isn’t a six-month COVID challenge, it’s a six-month challenge for a reason, to challenge us to consistently go out, hear the stories of others, and understand others’ perspectives and see how we can see things from others’ perspectives. Proximity breeds empathy.
Any other tips for fighting social isolation?
A lot of people have great knowledge about diversity and inclusion but very few people have hard knowledge about it, and the thing I think is a great starting point for people, and this is a great conversation people can have with their family members, with their friends, I do this in my workshops, one of the things they can do is share a time when they felt on the outside or not included, how they thought about it and what it felt like.
One of the things that’s been phenomenal when we do these in our sessions is that, every single person has one of those experiences, and my challenge to people is, why do you want someone else to feel the way that you did?
That begins to help us from a heart level have a better feeling to begin the intentionality to intensify ways that we ourselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are othering people and/or making people feel unincluded and not valued.
Find Justin Jones-Tosu’s book and more on his website.