Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

How To Be An Ally For Muslim Colleagues With Rahimeh Ramezany

In Episode 104, Rahimeh Ramezany, DEI Practitioner & Founder of Rahimeh Ramezany Consulting, joins Melinda in a discussion on how to be better allies for Muslim colleagues. They dive into the importance of addressing intersectionality in the workplace when building religious inclusion and how managers can use an intersectional approach to establish policies & procedures for religious accommodations and inclusion. They also explore meaningful ways to support Muslim colleagues, such as learning to navigate religious differences during the winter holidays and promoting policies to address the impact of religious discrimination.

Additional Resources

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Quotes

  • “There are always going to be… horrible things happening that are affecting a certain identity group…, and it doesn’t have to be people who are directly tied to that identity group. If your organization doesn’t ever address any of these kinds of [world events], your people are [going to be] actively in pain, incredibly distracted; it’s going to affect their productivity; it’s going to impact their concentration and how much they feel that your organization truly lives up to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging value…. So I do really encourage organizations to have some sort of formalized policy around, ‘What [events] do you comment on? What kind of resources do you have available to offer to your staff…?’ I am a really big believer in just being honest… with your people about what you can and cannot do for them….”
  • “You are a collection of identities that can’t be just pieced apart. We are not the sum of all of our identities, we are this mismatched [combination] of all of these things at the same time. And Muslims are no different; we are human beings just like you. Muslims will make decisions based on many different factors, not just our religion…. There’s also a difference in ascribing to the religion and… how practicing you are. There are different sects of the religion…, which is another reason why it’s so important to get to know many different people from any identity group.”
  • “If you are engaging with a Muslim who also has an immigrant background within one or two generations, they will likely have an immigrant mentality where… [they] might not express to you what their actual needs are…. If you want to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, you have to have this sense of psychological safety genuinely…. For your Muslim employees, what’s going to be really amazing is if you can be accommodating; that there is ideally a prayer space if they do their daily prayers. If you don’t feel that it’s appropriate to call it a prayer space, you can use [a] meditation or mindfulness room…. Everyone will benefit from this space, but your Muslim employees will see that you have gone out of your way to make space inclusively and [have] given them their needs without them having to ask.”

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Headshot of Rahimeh Ramezany, a pale-skinned Muslim woman wearing a multi-colored religious headscarf with pinks, blues, and purples and a fuchsia blouse smiling at the camera in front of greenery against a stone wall

Rahimeh Ramezany
DEI Practitioner & Founder of Rahimeh Ramezany Consulting

Rahimeh Ramezany is a multiethnic, neurodiverse, visibly identifiable Muslim American woman, and a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Intercultural Practitioner. She founded her DEI business in order to help organizations incorporate Muslims and considerations of marginalized religious identity into their existing DEI programs, comprehensively spanning the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and systemic implications of the work. Rahimeh leverages her lived experiences at the intersection of multiple marginalized and privileged identities, a master’s degree in intercultural communication, and years of professional DEI experience to address the often deeply uncomfortable but nonetheless essential work of making our spaces inclusive and equitable for all.

Transcript

MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I am Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & Allyship. Welcome! 

 

Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. 

 

Each week we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. 

 

Let’s get started. 

 

MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Welcome! Bear with me a bit today. I’m recovering from COVID today, so you may notice my voice change or other symptoms come up. I have asthma and some other immune system issues. So, it’s definitely impacted me more than it does for many other people. 

 

Our guest today is Rahimeh Ramezany, DEI practitioner and founder of Rahimeh Ramezany Consulting. We’ll be discussing religious inclusion today, especially focusing on how to be an ally for your Muslim colleagues and why intersectionality is essential when working on Muslim inclusion. So welcome, Rahimeh.

 

RAHIMEH: Thank you so much for having me, Melinda. It is a pleasure to be here.

 

MELINDA: Awesome. All right. So, Rahimeh, would you start by sharing your own story? Where you grew up and how you ended up here doing the work that you do now?

 

RAHIMEH: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I am American, born and raised in the United States. That’s something that I have a little bit of tension with. Not in this conversation but in general, because Muslims in the United States and in the West, in general, are kind of perceived automatically as being foreigners. So, it’s something that I’ve learned as a part of my work that I have to clarify because, folks, a lot of times, if I critique government systems that I see as my government or I can critique my own government, folks get very defensive of like, “Oh, this foreigner is critiquing our country.” And like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is my country, too.” 

 

So anyway, I’m American. I am born and raised specifically in California, which you might be able to tell from my California Western West Coast accent. I am currently in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area absolutely has my heart. I was born into a Muslim family. I’m multi-ethnic, as I mentioned before. I have a White mixed European descent parent, and then I have an Iranian immigrant parent. 

 

I’m still in search of the right word for someone who has one immigrant parent and one non-immigrant parent. For folks who have the second generation, the thought is that they have two immigrant parents. I’ve heard of half generation, which is they themselves came to the new country that they’re in at like 7-10 years old. So they kind of have this mixed identity, but I’ve never heard. So, anyone listening to this, if you know of a term, you reach out to me on one of my socials or my email or something. You let me know. Like, “Hey, I listen to this podcast. This is the term you’re looking for.” Please, I would be so grateful. 

 

So growing up, there wasn’t any awareness of the cultural differences between my parents and how they raised us. I was primarily raised by my, again, White, mixed European ancestry parent. So, I don’t speak Farsi. I only got to know Persian culture as an adult. I wasn’t raised in a practicing Muslim family. So, I wasn’t a practicing Muslim, though, ironically, I wore a hijab or the head covering since I was 11. So, it’s very mixed up. It’s a weird story. 

 

That’s a story for another time. I’m happy to tell it. But just for the purposes of like kind of being removed from Middle Easterners, away from Persian folks, away from other Muslims, all of these things. And when I got into college, I got my major in my Bachelor’s in communication studies. I took my first intercultural communications course, and my mind was just blown because I heard about these cultural dimensions, especially around direct versus indirect communication. 

 

If anyone has spent any time around both direct and indirect communicators, their ways of speaking, showing respect, showing that they’re angry, and conflict management, it’s just completely different. And at the time, when I was in college, my dad and I were living together, just the two of us. And that was the first time I’d ever spent, like, so much concentrated time with my dad because he was working from home. 

 

We would have constant fights, which ultimately came down to the same thing. It was him being upset with me and me telling him, “Well, if you were upset, why didn’t you just tell me.” Right? “And then, I could have done something about it.” And him telling me, “No, you should have just known.” Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. 

 

So, when I took this intercultural communications course, it explained the differences between direct and indirect communication. It unlocked so many answers about my parent’s relationship and my relationship with Middle Easterners, to Persians. By that time, I had chosen to become a practicing Muslim. So I was around a lot more Middle Easterners and South Asians, and Southeast Asians, which are also indirect communicators. So it just answered so much of what was going on in my life. 

 

And so I went into a master’s degree in intercultural communication from there. In my master’s degree program, I learned about the existence of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a field. Most little children growing up, when you ask them, like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s the same sort of kind of career, but DEI obviously was not one that I’d even known existed. So, I love the intersection of DEI and intercultural communication.

 

MELINDA: Awesome. When it comes to religious inclusion. It’s often left out of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Could you start by just sharing some of the experiences that Muslim people have that are important to address when it comes to inclusion and belonging in the workplace?

 

RAHIMEH: Yeah, I would say that, yeah, absolutely. That religion, religious identity, and religious diversity are one of the least discussed, even mentioned in passing, right, never sent her, got no never, but not even mentioned in passing as a thing within diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

 

It’s really important to me to be very clear that my work in trying to incorporate religious diversity and inclusion into DEI work and taking a turn in being centered is never to be in competition with other identity groups and them having attention and inclusion work and belonging work directed towards their unique needs and situations, right. Part of White supremacy, culture, and norms is for all of us, no matter what our identities, privilege, or marginalized, to feel like we are in constant competition with each other. 

 

And so, my intention in trying to deconstruct those norms is to be very intentional about I am not in competition with other groups. We are all collectively human. We all need to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion and equitable access to opportunities and good treatment and all of that. This is one part of many people’s identities. Many people around the world, most people around the world identify with some sort of religious faith-based identity. If you focus on ethnicity, there’s very much an intersection and overlap between religious and ethnic/racial identity. So it’s very important to me to be very clear about that, that my intention is never to be in competition with other groups. I’m not taking away from them. They are not taking away from me.

 

Okay. So just setting that framing very clearly. The idea with religious inclusion, especially what I see in the workplace, is that there is such a strong sense of like, it is unprofessional, it is taboo, it is just completely not appropriate to mention religion in the workplace that anyone like me who visibly is very clearly a member of especially a marginalized religious identity. Muslim women who wear hijab are a part of that, but there are six who wears a turban. There are many other people who would be visibly identifiable as a part of a certain religion. 

 

Many people’s names are associated with a religious group. So if you wanted to hide your religious identity based off of your name, changing your name, which, as we know, names are the most beautiful word to all of us individually, is the sound of our own name. It’s obviously very attached to our heritage and our family. And usually, our parents or family members had spent a lot of time and energy, and care picking out our names when we were born. All of these things are having to be hidden in order to, just again, be appropriate and be considered professional in the workspace. 

 

Even if you aren’t visibly identifiable as being a part of a religion, there are many folks who their faith is so important to who they are. And just like we would ask someone of a racialized identity, of a gendered identity, of disability identity, or neurodiversity, like all of the different factors of identity that DEI does such a good job and is working very hard to incorporate in a reasonable accommodation sort of manner. To tell them we would never tell them to just like, check your identities at the door because you’re bothering people because your existence, literally your existence, just as unprofessional is not appropriate for our space. 

 

We would not tell someone, or we are telling people from a religious background, that your identity, even if they’re–. And there is a way to do it constructively, right? We can get into that later. But just your existence as a religious person, even if you’re not trying to convert me, even if you’re not bringing literature, even if you’re not taking up any space that imposes on other people whatsoever, just your existence is too bothersome and we just rather you just not.

 

MELINDA: Yeah, obviously, that is not belonging. Not where we want to go. I think we’ll get to some solutions in a moment. But I also want to address intersectionality. You talked about being multi-ethnic. I think it’s important to, you know, people often see Muslims as one way of looking and being. Can you talk a little bit about intersectionality?

 

RAHIMEH: Yeah, absolutely. And this is really important, again, in all identities. So anything that you’ve learned in DEI training or DEI courses that you may have taken, that have to do with intersectionality, that have to do with psychological safety, that has to do with feedback and just all of these things. A lot of these same principles apply to religious identity. It really isn’t that foreign of a concept if you sit with the discomfort and push past that discomfort of like, “Oh, I’ve never been able to talk about this without people blowing up or trying to tell each other that you’re going to help or whatever. Right? 

 

If we can push past that discomfort, there is so much in common with other identity work that is being done. So having said that, with the idea of intersectionality and the diversity of Muslims, specifically, there are an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims around the world. I believe it is estimated by Pew Research that that’s going to go up to 3 billion by 2060. So about 25%, a full quarter of the world, is Muslim. That’s a huge percentage. It is the largest or the second-largest religious group after Christianity. 

 

And so, the idea being that any group where you can find people from this religious group all over the world, in all countries, from all genders, speaking any language from any and all ethnicity, and race, and socioeconomic status, and educational status, and on and on and on all of these different things, that just like non-Muslims, like think of yourself, if you’re listening to this, that you have one–. Pick any part of your identity, and that part of your identity is so important and a core part of who you are, but it is a part of who you are. You are not going to be making decisions, whether gut decisions that you just react to or things that you are thinking and considering, and then making the decision based off of one of your identities. You are a collection of identities that can’t be just pieced apart. We are not the sum of all of our identities. We are this mismatched of all of these things all at the same time. 

 

And Muslims are no different. We are human beings just like you. And Muslims will make decisions based off of many different factors, not just our religion. Religion, yes, is part of that sometimes. There’s also a difference in ascribing to the religion, and like how practicing you are, there are different sects of the religion. It’s funny. Sometimes I talk to non-Muslims who really have just no idea about anything about Muslims. It doesn’t even occur to them that there are different sects of the religion, which of course, there are. There are many. And even myself as a Muslim, I don’t even know all of the sects within Islam, right? Which is another reason why it’s so important to get to know many different people from any identity group. And you’re not just like, “Oh, I know, one Black person.” “I know one Muslim person.” “I know one Latina person.” I know one of any one group, and that’s my sole source of information about this giant group of people. 

 

So, the idea being is that you have to keep that in mind that Muslims do things for different reasons. If they also bring it into the workplace, there are going to be Muslims who ask for different accommodations, or one might ask for accommodation, and another one doesn’t care about that accommodation. Right? For instance, Muslims, if you are a practicing Muslim, you pray five times a day. Once at dawn and two times in the afternoon time. Most of the time, they will split them up like noon and afternoon, and then one at sunset and then one at night. Muslims pray those five times a day if they’re practicing Muslims. So if you have someone in your workplace who is doing this, and they ask for a prayer space, or if they can take some time out of their lunch, right, like within their lunch hour to do this, it’s not like they’re asking for the extra time that other people don’t have. They’re slotting that into their lunch hour, or maybe they use their 15-minute break at some point to do that as well. 

 

But you might have another Muslim on your team who does not do that. Right? And it’s not going to be appropriate in any way for management or leadership or anyone in that organization to question the two Muslims and be like, “Well, you guys do things differently. What’s that about?” Right? Because then, I mean, unfortunately, that’s really problematic because you’re putting these two Muslims where they have to either tear each other down to defend themselves instead of throwing one of the other ones under the bus, right, which is really not a cool move.

 

MELINDA: Yeah. Let’s talk a bit about how we can be more supportive of Muslim colleagues. And also maybe how managers can be supportive of their direct reports as well. What are some things for folks to think about?

 

RAHIMEH: Yeah, no, absolutely. So something that is really kind of the foundation, that it’s not like a, here’s five tips on how to, you know, be inclusive of Muslims. Like, we can’t. We will get to that. We’ll get to that in a second. But the idea is that a lot of Muslims are from ethnic cultures, that indirect communication, as I mentioned at the beginning, is kind of like the norm. And also many Muslims in the West. Not all of them are immigrants, but many of them are. Let’s, please do hold this at the same time, like, don’t assume that all Muslims are immigrants or children of immigrants. But however, if they are, you can, like, hold space for that as well, right? We can balance those two things. 

 

If you are engaging with a Muslim, who also has an immigrant background within one or two generations, likely, they will have an immigrant mentality where in order to survive in this new country, where they are already so highly discriminated against as an immigrant that to survive, you must put your head down, don’t create waves, don’t ask for anything outside of the norm, be very accommodating, just be grateful that you’re here, and this sort of kind of like mentality. In many ways, again, time, this immigrant sense of thinking, and it being an indirect communicator, if that might exist, separately, one or the other. And sometimes both very much at the same time. That means that your direct reports and your staff might not express to you what it is that their actual needs are. Right? 

 

And again, this is something that’s going to apply to literally everyone. Yes, everyone. I don’t use that word very often. But everyone in your organization is going to benefit from there being a genuine strong sense of psychological safety. But specifically around Muslims is that if they have any sense that their livelihood, especially in today’s age, with the economy, and natural disasters cropping up all the time, and inflation and just all of this instability, if you’re in the United States, your health care is tied to this, like your family’s health care, like just so much is on the line for them to stick their neck out to give you this feedback for something where they’re like, “Oh, I’m so used to just compromising on my values.” “I’m so used to just not feeling a sense of belonging.” “I’m used to not being included.” So, I’m going to preserve my basic necessities of life. Again, my income to feed my family and myself and pay my rent and my mortgage and all those things. 

 

If you want to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, you have to have this sense of psychological safety genuinely. Right? They’re going to test you and see if this is legit because a lot of the time, unfortunately, especially in the last number of years, a lot of organizations have learned the lingo on how to pretend to be DEI-friendly. We really want you to give us your feedback, and then they finally do, and then they are demoted or fired in the long term, or they’re not given projects or whatever, whatever. Right? So, they’re going to see if you really mean it. You have to really mean it. 

 

So having said that, for your Muslim employees, what’s going to be really amazing is if you can be accommodating. If they do do their daily prayers, that there is ideally a prayer space. If you don’t feel that you can/it’s appropriate to call it a prayer space. You can use meditation or mindfulness room. I’ve been to a couple of airports that have done this. I’ve been in a couple of office buildings that have done this. It’s not super common, but just having a small, quiet, clean room that any person on your staff can access because, of course, Muslims are not the only ones who do prayers throughout the day. 

 

And again, if you do make it a mindfulness room, it could be literally just, you know, someone goes, takes their phone, has like meditate app or like a free youtube video for meditation, goes meditate, does a mindfulness exercise for 10 minutes and then goes back to work. So it really could be anyone, and everyone will benefit from this space. But your Muslim employees will see that you have gone out of your way to make space inclusively and given them their needs without them having to ask. That is going to be so huge.

 

MELINDA: Before you go on. I think that it’s really important to call out that you are creating that space, whether or not you know somebody is Muslim on your team, whether or not you know somebody prays five times and needs this space, that inclusion is creating that space so that people don’t have to advocate for themselves so that they can just be in an inclusive environment. 

 

I’ll just share a quick example. Several years ago, I worked with a Muslim colleague, and there wasn’t space. There was no space. I also worked with a nursing mom, too. There was no space for her either to pump, so she was pumping in the broom closet. My Muslim colleague just didn’t pray at work, just decided not to pray at work, and then made up for it afterward, right. Both of those situations are not going to create that space so that people can step in for the reasons that you talked about. 

 

We talked a little bit about self-advocacy with Katarina Rivera and John Marble when it comes to people with disabilities. The same is true here that often, you know, people don’t advocate for themselves. They don’t know they can advocate for themselves. They don’t know how or they feel that they’re not safe to do so. And so, you create a space ahead of time to create a space for inclusion. And then also that psychological safety just invites people to advocate for themselves if they miss something.

 

RAHIMEH: Yeah, emphasis on the safety aspect of things, right? I just want to like really double down on that. Just like it’s important, totally different situation that has nothing to do with religion. It is so important for direct report individual contributors to see that management and leadership take vacation time or take breaks during the day and don’t just work, work, work or work because your staff is going to be seen, “Oh, the people in leadership, whatever level they’re at, are telling me that I can take a 15-minute break or a 20-minute break or whatever, whatever. But no one in a position of power is doing that.” So that is telling them indirectly that that is not the culture of this organization. 

 

I’m saying this, like, as someone who’s worked at an organization like that, where I wanted to take a break from a very intense workday, but none of the leadership at my organization at the time would take breaks. And so I felt, and I know that there are many others in the same situation, that oh, in order to be seen as a team player, as someone who fits in with the culture, as someone who is going to be promoted at some point. And it’s not going to be like, “Oh, well, she just doesn’t do her work very well, or she just doesn’t seem dedicated. I don’t know what it is. She just doesn’t seem dedicated.” All of those things. It felt like, okay, I have to do this as well. It came up in a management meeting later on, where they then, when I asked, “Oh, I just don’t feel like I can do a break.” So they’re like, “What? We’ve told you can so explicitly.” They told me. Well, yeah, but literally no one does. So, that tells me that it’s not a thing. 

 

In the same way, it’s important for organizations to put these inclusive practices in place before or not necessarily with direct feedback that this is wanted because there isn’t a feeling of safety to be able to ask for that, which again, is why I bring up psychological safety so much is that in order to get these accommodations needed, and I love what you’re saying, I think you said this was from a conversation around disability, right? Yeah, like, there’s so much that I’ve seen from disability DEI practitioners that talk about, like, so many people with a disability will not disclose but then therefore not get the accommodations they really do need to be successful because there is so much fear and rightly so of them losing their jobs or not getting promoted or not getting raises or any of these things seen as a lesser employee. And so, if they’re not able to share, then that means they don’t get their accommodations. Just this is like a horrible cycle that just continues forever. 

 

In the same way with religious inclusion, if you’re able to create, again, these prayer spaces again, or if you want to call it meditation, or if you want to call it mindfulness, that’s good. I also really recommend it for Muslims specifically, though, again, holidays are a thing in many, if not all, religious groups or spiritual groups. Ramadan will be coming up. I think in four months or something. That does sound like it’s, you know, always away. However, keep in mind that if you need to make policies, put policies in place for Muslims to be able to ask for time off for a holiday at the end of Ramadan, which is called Eid al-Fitr. 

 

And please keep in mind that it’s not like a celebration of yey, it’s over. We’re free. No, it’s a positive of, like, we did it, congratulations. We’re so happy that we were able to participate in this month of Ramadan and fasting. And then we’re very much looking forward to the next year, making sure that if that falls into a middle of the week, or a, you know, like, not a weekend, allowing your staff to be able to take time off again like they will do what they need to do to ask for it ahead of time. They’re not asking for it on the last day, keeping in mind that, fortunately, unfortunately, like it just is that the Muslim calendar is on a lunar calendar. And so, Muslims won’t know the start of Ramadan, or any given month, until the New Moon is sighted, which, unfortunately, we won’t really know until the day before. 

 

So sometimes, with Muslims asking, for instance, with Eid al-Fitr off, again, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, they might ask for like, “Oh, it might be this day or this day, but I don’t really know.” And if you are able to accommodate, like, okay, so we’ll just have it that these two days, you don’t have any preset meetings. They could be asking it for these days off, like, you know, four weeks in advance, six weeks in advance, or what have you asking for these two days, and then whatever day Ramadan ends up not being, you can, like go and do your work that doesn’t involve meetings, right. But if they want to ask for accommodations around Ramadan if they are fasting, moving their meanings to later in the day or earlier in the day, or if they’re not working from home, allowing them to work from home or hybrid, just like having these accommodations ready to go, rather than even–.

 

MELINDA: Yeah, not scheduling big product launches.

 

RAHIMEH: Yeah, if at all possible, or allowing for flexibility of transitioning who is on what project. Not necessarily without, like, I don’t want this to turn into like penalizing Muslims fasting during Ramadan by switching them out off of like really important projects, but having that conversation of what is it that the Muslims on your team actually want and will find meaningful.

 

MELINDA: Absolutely. And then also, maybe you could just touch on winter holidays and how people should navigate that as well.

 

RAHIMEH: Yes. So right now, we are just beginning November. So there are a lot of holidays in this winter season from many different religious and spiritual cultural groups, which is a beautiful, wonderful thing. And so essentially, the idea of being not assuming that any person, Muslim or otherwise, is celebrating or participating in any given holiday. Right? 

 

There are many Muslims who do not participate in Christmas, for instance. There’s nothing wrong with having, say, a Christmas party. However, especially if alcohol is going to be a big part of that celebration, as many Muslims, especially practicing Muslims, do not consume alcohol. This is not all Muslims. Please, please, anything you listen to me or any Muslim says about how to be inclusive and equitable towards Muslims. Like, please just know, like, there’s always going to be an asterisk above, like, not all Muslims. Right? But I would just be parroting back and forth, not all Muslims, not all Muslims, not all Muslims, not all Muslims. 

 

There are Muslims who drink. There are Muslims who, you know, go to bars. There are Muslims who do all, any, and everything. I mentioned earlier on in the conversations. Muslims, just like any group, make decisions and do things with their lives for many different reasons and are also on different spectrums of levels of practice. There are different laws within sects of Islam about, you know, some, like, for instance, the sect of Islam that I follow doesn’t allow me to eat shellfish. So no lobster, no clams, or something like that. But there are other sects of Islam that say that’s totally fine. 

 

So keeping that in mind again, so going back to the Christmas parties, or any celebrations around the holidays, or any celebration whatsoever at all, ever, if we’re talking about alcohol, keeping in mind that please don’t like if you’re giving gifts to your staff that you’re not giving wine or some other kind of spirits. I know I have seen many Muslims. Thankfully, I have not had that experience. But I know many Muslims who have had that experience where there were places trying to like give a very kind gift for the holidays to their staff, and they give out bottles of wine, and the Muslims were like, what on earth? How do I react to this? Because they don’t want to cause a thing. They don’t want to be seen as ungrateful. Anyway, it’s very complicated. Like, please don’t do this. 

 

If Muslims don’t want to come and participate in a hall in any particular holiday event, Christmas or otherwise, I just mentioned Christmas specifically because that is like the biggest and most celebrated winter holiday in the United States and, I presume, in the West as well, allowing them to opt out without it being like, “Oh, you’re not a team player.” or “You don’t want to come and socialize with us.” There are a lot of people who don’t want to socialize/want to keep what they would see as healthy boundaries between them and their co-workers in their social time. So making space and allowing for that, right? 

 

There’s Hanukkah. There’s Kwanzaa. There are other holidays that are a really big deal to other religious/cultural/spiritual groups, making sure that you are incorporating those religious groups as well. I always advocate for having, like, done the research of what is kind of the norm in that time. And also keeping like a feedback submission form or some sort of kind of open door policy where someone who does want to add another holiday or another stipulation or something has the open door to then add an advocate for that because anything that you research online, or you have a speaker, myself coming to talk about Muslims, you have a Jewish person coming to talk about Judaism and what Jews want. You have a Buddhist coming in to talk about Buddhism, what Buddhists want in your workplace, and how to be inclusive of them. Ultimately, again, those are all going to be generalizations. 

 

I personally believe that generalizations have their place. However, again, always having kind of like that open door. Again, whether they’re virtually giving you feedback or able to walk into your office in person and say, “Hey, I would really find it meaningful if we could add this additional thing or have this additional accommodation, so I’m not having to participate in XY and Z.” If it doesn’t resonate with my beliefs, on and on and on, because your people want to be able to have this open communication because you’ve hopefully identified that you have this psychological safety that you’ve established in your organization. This isn’t even addressing, of course, atheists and agnostics and folks who are not religious, who also absolutely should have space made for them and allowed to opt out of things that doesn’t resonate with their beliefs.

 

MELINDA: Absolutely. So, let’s talk a little bit about safety. I think it’s important. Psychological safety and also physical safety. And when it comes to people who are visibly religious, and people who might be construed as a, you know, people might have biases before against somebody whether or not they actually are from that religion. A couple of things have come up recently from the anti-semitic remarks from Kanye West on September 16th, 2022. Mahsa Amini, who is a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was killed under custody after being arrested for not wearing a hijab in accordance with government standards. 

 

This has impacted a lot of people in Iran and around the world. Can you share how we can address this, how managers can address this in the workplace, where people may not be feeling physical safety as well as psychological safety outside of the work? And obviously, we bring ourselves to work, and we bring our experiences to work.

 

RAHIMEH: Yeah, absolutely. So there are a couple of different points to this. And ultimately, looking at it from a bird’s eye view. Unfortunately, I wish this wasn’t the case, but there are always going to be the newest, horrible thing that is happening that is affecting a certain identity group. If your organization either one has a policy of just never addressing any of these ever, that’s going to very much to any psychological safety that you may have at all because your people who are being impacted by this, and it doesn’t have to be people who are directly tied to that identity group. 

 

If you learn anything about trauma-informed care or trauma in general, it is that it doesn’t have to be that you witnessed it directly. It doesn’t have to be something that you were alive when it happened. It doesn’t have to be something that is explicitly part of your identity. Trauma is a tricky thing. So, keeping in mind those things that if your organization doesn’t ever address any of these kinds of events, your people are actively in pain, incredibly distracted, it’s going to affect their productivity, it’s going to impact their concentration and like how much they feel that your organization truly lives up to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging values, right? Because ultimately, again, it’s like, no, you’re just a worker bee. And we just need you to work, work, work, work, work, and you can go have feelings and be human afterward. 

 

Having said that, going a step beyond, if you do address some of these kinds of events, but not all of them. Or if you don’t have a standard by which you judge which ones are being commented on and held space for and which ones aren’t. That is an invitation very clearly for bias to just step through the door. Because then it’s a matter of, like, who in the leadership position or the comms team or whoever is making the decision about what to say or when to say things, it’s going to be based off of what they think is important, right? Which ultimately, any one of us, all of us, no matter what our identities, no matter how privileged or marginalized our mixture of identities are, we are biassed, right? 

 

Bias is a natural part of the human brain. It’s just a shortcut for us to go from A to B very quickly instead of having to be super critical, thinking over every single detail, every single situation. So keeping that in mind, that bias is ultimately natural. But when it becomes problematic, it’s in instances like this, where there are many different things going on in the world, say over a period of months. And someone or a team of people decide, okay, well, these are the ones that we think are really important and extra traumatizing, or we need to say something for the visuals of saying that we said something about it. But these other events aren’t, then that also is going to be problematic, because it’s still going to affect the psychological safety, and the productivity and the morale and all of those things of the groups that one, their experiences of trauma and the difficulty that they are going through and the heaviness that they’re carrying in their hearts every single day, whether they’re at work, and then when they go home, that is going to be something that they have a break in trust with the organization. But then also other groups are going to see like, oh, well, if they treat this group this way, it’s not necessarily that they’re going to stand up for us when it’s our turn either. 

 

So having said that, kind of like as a framework, so I do really encourage organizations to have some sort of formalized policy around what do you comment on? And then, what kind of resources do you have available to offer to your staff or not? I am a really big believer in just being honest and shocking with your people about what you can and cannot do for them. People don’t like to be lied to. You are listening to this. You probably don’t like being lied to. I don’t like being lied to or led to believe things that aren’t true or aren’t things that you would offer. “We’ll be there for you. We’ll support you.” And then you ask for support, and then it’s not there. So, I’m a real believer of, just like, being honest with your people about what you can and cannot do for them. 

 

And again, having a policy of this is the world events or domestic events that we comment on, and these are the ones that we don’t. It’s very clear about what are the decisions of how that’s being made. So having said that, speaking specifically to the anti-semitic comments by Kanye West and then the issues with Masah Amini’s murder in Iran. These two events are part of the reason why talking about religion in the workplace needs to happen because if your organization, again, just finds it completely unprofessional or finds it completely inappropriate, not done to talk about religion, then the people being affected by these events because of their religious identity, then have nowhere to go. Again, you’re just telling them, “Oh, you need to just keep that to yourself because this isn’t professional.” And they’re just carrying around all this trauma in their workplace and not able to concentrate and not able to communicate to their manager that they might need understanding or accommodations or something like that. 

 

Jewish folks absolutely do need to be supported in their experiences of antisemitism in the world. And at work, all of these people that we see online supporting this hateful rhetoric against Jewish folks. We see them on Twitter. We see them on all different kinds of social media. You don’t think they’re in your workplaces. You don’t think they have jobs. You don’t think that they’re out in the world. They’re not just like random internet, faceless accounts that are having these messages. They are in your workplace, right? So you need to be able to have systems and processes in place to be able to support, defend, and deal with any discrimination and microaggressions that, in this case, like your Jewish employees are facing so that they feel safe and valued in the sense of belonging and inclusion. 

 

If you’re talking about the insistence in Iran, I would say, personally, I perceive that as more of an Iranian-Persian ethnic kind of conflict and not necessarily as much a Muslim one. I will keep in mind if your organization has folks who are Persian or from ethnic minorities within Persian culture or Iranian culture, that those folks, even if they don’t necessarily identify as being Muslim, that they are really, really, really hurting right now. And being able to have a space for them to ask for accommodations, ask for understanding if they are distracted, if they are hurting, if they need to take a mental health day off. 

 

Do you offer mental health days as a part of your sick leave, for instance? I’ve seen so many articles come out that talk about burnout. In the last years, burnout has been so bad, and I recently just seen another one that’s like, oh, we think it’s better. Nope, it’s still worse. It’s actually worse and just getting worse and worse and worse. So again, something that is going to apply and really benefit this one specific group that we’re talking about in this specific example. If you put policies in place, it can actually help all of your employees, right?

 

MELINDA: Absolutely. Thank you. Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that was on your mind that we want to make sure that we cover?

 

RAHIMEH: I would love to leave listeners with the idea that, just like, hopefully, there’s an understanding of why colorblindness is so incredibly problematic when engaging on issues of race for Brown and Black folks. Their skin color, their race, as it is associated with their ethnicity and their heritage, is so important to them. They love who they are. It is only the isms of the world that make it problematic. 

 

If we can understand that, if we’ve had those conversations, extending that understanding to religious identity. Most people in the world if they identify with some sort of religion is because they want to be part of that religion. Am I going to sit here and pretend that there aren’t people who are pressured by their families to continue on their heritage religiously or are forced to do anything as a part of their family’s religious heritage? Of course, there are people like that, for sure. However, again, most people, if they identify with some sort of religion, especially as adults, it is because they want to be a part of that religion. 

 

So as an organization, you’re communicating directly or indirectly to these folks that their identity, their existence, especially if they’re a part of a marginalized religious identity in the context that you’re in, the cultural context that you’re in, right? That they are not professional, that they are not wanted, that you’re bothering us by existing as you are. People are paying attention to that. They are keeping note of that. And if you have hired them because you really believe that, especially if you’ve done DEI and you believe that having a diversity of folks drives innovation, which I presume that I am speaking to folks who have seen those stats and believe that and are on board with that, right? 

 

If you’re not on board with that, then that’s a different conversation. And that’s cool. We can have that conversation. But assuming that you want a diversity of folks in your organization to drive innovation, and you want your staff to reflect your customer and client base as well, then, yes, it is uncomfortable to talk about religion because all of us have learned as children growing up, like, don’t talk about religion and politics, don’t talk about religion and politics, religion and politics, religion and politics. 

 

I’m not trying to say that it’s not difficult, but it is possible. If we can talk about racism, if we can talk about sexism, if we can talk about homophobia, if we can talk about ableism, if we can talk about ageism, if we can talk about all of these isms, which we absolutely should, and many organizations are, then I would put to you that yes, while difficult and uncomfortable, we can also talk about religious discrimination and religious inclusion.

 

MELINDA: Awesome. What is one action, and it might be that, but what is one action you would like somebody to take coming away from this conversation today?

 

RAHIMEH: I want you to win. You have established psychological safety in your organization. Your people know what the problems are at your organization. They know how to improve your organization. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultants exist because your people don’t feel psychological safety to talk to you, and you have to bring in someone else to play mediator. That’s great. I have a job. Other DEI practitioners have a job. However, anyone who really believes in the values of this work would infinitely rather to work ourselves out of a job, for sure. 

 

If you have done the work to establish and maintain, you have to maintain it. It’s a lot of work to maintain. You have to maintain it once you’ve established it. Just like any relationship you have with a friend, with a partner, with your child, or what have you, your people will come to you and give you feedback on how to improve your products, your services, and your company culture. Listen to them. They know what it is to be on the ground, interacting with your customers, client, and with their colleagues. They know what’s happening. They are your biggest asset.

 

MELINDA: Fantastic. Where can people learn more about your work?

 

RAHIMEH: Yes, if you would like assistance with your Muslim inclusion or religious diversity, inclusion, and equitable practices in your organization, I am more than happy to assist. You can find me on my website, RahimehRamezany.com. Unfortunately, yes, you will have to spell my name correctly. But you should be able to find it again in the show notes and in the title of this conversation. You can also find me. I am very active on LinkedIn under the same name, again, Rahimeh Ramezany. Send me a DM, and let’s talk.

 

MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you, Rahimeh. I really appreciate it.

 

RAHIMEH: Thank you, Melinda. It’s been such a pleasure being here, and I wish you all the best.

 

MELINDA: All right, everyone. Take action. And we will see you next week. 

 

MELINDA: We’ll share resources and a transcript from this discussion at ally.cc. And please make sure to subscribe to our channel and rate this show. It makes a difference for us. Thank you for being part of our community. 

 

And remember, the more we take action, the more we grow as humans and as leaders, and the more we transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Let us know your actions by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or reaching out on social media. 

 

Leading With Empathy & Allyship is a show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at ChangeCatalyst.co 

 

Let’s keep building allyship across our communities and around the world. Thank you for listening.

About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

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Speaking Engagements

Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.

Testimonials

This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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If you’re looking for a way for remote teams to continue their learning and professional development, we’re now offering virtual allyship, inclusion and leadership trainings. We’ve also continued our consulting practice virtually. AND we now offer hourly coaching. Let us know if you’re interested in learning more!
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