What's in a name?

Words matter. SuJ'n Chon, a founding member of our Equity & Inclusion Committee, describes how the committee landed on those words - Equity & Inclusion - to describe our work at The Mountaineers.
SuJ'n Chon SuJ'n Chon
Founding E&I Committee member
January 14, 2021

Language is powerful. We use a string of characters or words to attempt to capture history, context, meaning, intent, and often, emotion. Language is subject to personal interpretation -  most context-laden words rarely share the exact same meaning from one individual to the next. That’s what makes language imperfect. 

I have been a Mountaineers member since 2002. I have co-chaired the Seattle Snowshoeing Committee; instructed for navigation, first aid, alpine scrambling, and snowshoeing committees; am a snowshoeing, hiking, and backpacking activity leader, and a Summit Society member. I am also a founding member of the Equity & Inclusion (E&I) Committee which was established in 2018. Along with you and our other members, I believe our organization’s future is brightest when we approach our work with thoughtfulness and intention.

Over the past two years, the E&I Committee has wrestled with commonly used terms such as equity, inclusion, diversity, belonging, justice, POC (people of color), and BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) to define and describe our work. In our December 2020 committee meeting, we revisited equity and inclusion as descriptors for the work it guides and the name of the committee. We did not all agree that they were necessarily the best terms to describe the committee’s work to bring The Mountaineers core value of community to life. We did not even agree on shared interpretations of the terms. 

So we explored other ideas. 

Should we include diversity? Historically, the organizations like ours have used promoting diversity as a workaround to addressing systemic inequities. Diversity efforts led more to tokenism than to meaningful representation and power, and some individuals on the committee and in our community still feel the damage of that history. Maybe not.

What about justice? We didn’t all agree on how this term signified for our work in The Mountaineers. Did it mean we are a justice-promoting organization or that we are using just principles to guide our work? Was claiming the justice label consistent with our mission and practices, aspirational, or virtue-signaling? Would the membership understand what was meant if we didn’t even share interpretation within the committee?

Should we replace inclusion with belonging? Inclusion has been used to evoke welcoming and open arms but inherent in that evocation is an inside and outside. It centers the position of those who are doing the welcoming, and can imply that what people seek is being included to join a community or place where they do not yet belong when what most people seek is belonging to a place and community where everyone shares the same implied ownership. All belong, and no one needs to be “included.” But belonging is not yet a commonly used concept.

In the end, we decided to continue using “equity & inclusion” to describe the body of work we’re pursuing collectively with and on behalf of The Mountaineers. The reasons are primarily that equity & inclusion: 1) are now commonly understood within The Mountaineers, 2) both are also common terms used and understood with peer organizations and within our sector, and 3) while imperfect, they possess generally affirmative and aspirational qualities that unite us toward commonly shared goals.

This decision does not preclude us from revisiting our committee’s name again. Just as language is powerful and imperfect, interpretations change over time. But for now, the E&I committee looks forward to focusing our energies on building out the E&I framework and action plan.

-SuJ’n Chon
  Founding E&I Committee member

Lead image by Cheryl Talbert.

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Peter Hendrickson
Peter Hendrickson says:
Jan 14, 2021 10:26 AM

SuJ'n, your years of diverse leadership and commitment to justice are complemented by your powerful use of the language -- spoken and written. Your clarity around the short history of Mountaineers E and I descriptors is a gift to volunteers. Thanks, //Peter//