March 2017

Inclusion is a captain’s job

How do you explain inclusion?

I was having dinner with a colleague who challenged me to frame this both succinctly and accessibly. This sprawled into a lengthy tangent on how your identity can completely change how you’re able to talk about inclusion. If only there was a way to establish common ground.

It reminded me: I had discovered a Rosetta Stone. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

This is adapted from a talk I gave at the 2016 Code2040 summit, first workshopped with the kind support of BrooklynJS.


We are on a strange and difficulty journey, we who build the internet. We explore a frontier of reach and impact unprecedented in human history.

It seems we can automate anything, as self-driving cars prowl our streets and unmanned drones harass the developing world. The power of automation and global communication is rife with surprises and unintended consequences. As the results of these advances impact the entire planet, it is just and appropriate to have broad representation among those building the future.

To do that, you need diversity. The only way to maintain a diverse culture is to build an inclusive workplace. Luckily, there’s a training series available on Netflix, right now.

Why Star Trek?

While it’s a fictional organization, Starfleet models some of the most profound inclusion challenges you can imagine. The United Federation of Planets is an interstellar government spread across 150 different civilizations.

Starfleet’s mission profile is diverse. It’s more than a spacefaring military—its work is scientific, diplomatic and exploratory.

With 150 different member worlds, countless more aliens besides, and a vast set of problems to solve, inclusion practice is non-negotiable. They either get it right or fail in their missions.

Let’s check out some examples.

Datalore (TNG S1E13)

Inclusion is not about being perfect, telepathic or omniscient.

Sometimes, inclusion is about accountability and communication.

In this scene, the crew of the Enterprise has just discovered that their android officer, Commander Data, has a brother. Data and Captain Picard are talking about what this discovery means.

Data is pretty marginalized at work. Not only is he the only android on his ship, he’s the only android in Starfleet. Until meeting his brother, Data was the only android of his type in the universe. So this is a sensitive, important moment for him.

All the reasons that marginalize Data also leave Picard unprepared for certain parts of this conversation. The captain is using the wrong pronouns and Data calls him on it. In an abundance of empathy, Picard immediately sees his misstep and apologizes. No defensiveness — in fact, Picard’s body language signals that he yields to Data’s point even before he speaks.

Part of why this works is trust. Not everyone is going to feel confident calling their leaders on a misstep around their identity. Leaders have to create an environment where their crewmates can speak up when this happens. If they don’t, it’s hard to correct things like this, and inclusion only gets harder from there.

Ensign Ro (TNG S5E3)

Other times, inclusion is about recognizing when the current policies aren’t enough to honor someone’s sense of identity.

Let’s meet Ensign Ro Laren.

Ro is a Bajoran. Her people have been colonized by brutal, murderous conquerers for the last hundred years. She’s not easy to get along with, but she has good reasons for the chip on her shoulder.

So, Riker doesn’t like her earring. But that earring is a source of pride in her culture, and a symbol of her faith. It represents part of who she is. You can see how unhappy she is about this.

Later, after Ro finishes her mission, she wants off the ship. Hell, she’s ready to leave Starfleet. But Picard sees her value and tries to persuade her to join his crew.

Picard tries to understand Ro’s motivations — and he makes it clear that, even though she’s different, even though she’s difficult, he believes in her and wants to help her grow.

The captain recognizes that Ro is going out on a limb for him. If letting the earring slide is what’s necessary for her to feel proud and included on his ship, he’s happy to accommodate. The uniform rules are not more important than her workplace dignity.

The Sons of Mogh (DS9 S4E15)

Sometimes, inclusion is messy. Sometimes, you’re going to run aground of problems you never expected.

In this scene, Worf has tried and failed to kill his brother. While you or I might find that repugnant, his brother asked to be killed, to be spared a life of dishonor. In their culture, this is permitted.

All right. So Captain Sisko’s pissed.

He asks for an explanation. He gets one.

He’s not that impressed with what he’s hearing. But what happens by the end? Worf keeps his job, he’s not charged with anything. Sisko is able to be angry and set boundaries. But he still considers cultural context in responding to the situation, rather than blindly following a standard response.

Eye of the Needle (VOY S1E7)

Inclusion is also full of blindspots. There may be things that marginalize your crew that you don’t immediately realize.

Addressing those blindspots requires trust, especially since those marginalized may not feel comfortable speaking up themselves. Sometimes it falls to their crewmates, who may feel more secure discussing these problems with leadership. If leaders don’t have a strong, trusting relationship with enough of their crew, they won’t hear about problems, and they will snowball.

So Captain Janeway’s skeptical. But she listens. By the end, she’s clearly startled that she couldn’t recognize this problem herself. Kes, meanwhile, holds a firm line. To her, their artificially intelligent doctor, again, the only one of his kind on the ship, is a real person. Kes is not okay with any behavior that makes the Doctor feel like an outsider.

She persuades Janeway to investigate and make changes.

The tip of the iceberg

The Star Trek canon is about diversity, from the beginning. Finding ways to include people is a basic part of any captain’s job. There are hours and hours of this stuff buried and waiting for you on Netflix.

I love Star Trek as resource for finding models for these tough conversations. I hope you’ll find it useful through this lens as well.


Learn more:

Star Trek’s Uhura Reflects On MLK Encounter
Nichelle Nichols caused a sensation in the 1960s for her role as Lieutenant Uhura in the classic television series,…www.npr.org


This was lots of fun to do. Thanks Code2040!