Jennifer Hancock: Founder of Humanist Learning Systems

Teaching people how to face their challenges with grace, dignity & science

Founder – Humanist Learning Systems

https://www.linkedin.com/in/jennifershawhancock/

https://humanistlearning.com/

How did you start your career in DEI or Social Impact? 

What brought you to where you are?

I had been teaching and writing about the Humanist philosophy and I was doing an interview and they asked me what my next projects were. This was at the time where bullying related suicides were in the news a lot.  I was debating between another book on Humanism and a book about how to stop bullying using behavioral science. I had trained dolphins while in college and knew the technique required to stop unwanted behavior. I know the science behind how to do this and how to actually do it as a practical skill. It felt immoral of me to NOT teach people how to stop bullying.


The interviewers got really excited about the bullying project and that encouraged me to focus on that. Since then, I realized, I can’t possibly teach each and every parent what they need to know to help their kids. I need to scale up.  The challenge, how to reach parents.  Where are parents? Parents are in the workplace being subjected to anti-harassment training that doesn’t teach them how to make harassment stop. I figured, if I can hijack the harassment training I can a) not only help people in the workplace fix their harassment and retaliation problems, I will also be teaching parents what they need to know to help their kids stop bullying. Bonus – this is sustainable as there is money in the harassment training space.

Since then, I have been working to create and provide EEO related training that focuses specifically on how to get unwanted behavior to stop using behavioral science and – yes – compassion.  This in turn, has caused me to intersect with the DEI world.


With Diversity and Inclusion, I focus mostly on how to create inclusion by actively preventing exclusion through use of the same techniques I teach in how to stop harassment. Bullying is all about creating social exclusion. That is why bullies do what they do. It works to create in groups and out groups. What if we could prevent bullies from doing that in the workplace and what if we could empower people to actively INCLUDE previously marginalized people by teaching them how to make sure the bullies don’t win.

I think the problem at this point isn’t that companies don’t want to create inclusive work groups, it’s that their initiatives are sabatoged by those who DON’T want to include others.  The challenge, as I understand it, is how do we deal with the sabateurs to ensure that they aren’t able to kill the initiative and how do we help those who do want to create inclusive groups, do so by helping them to shut down any “kill” efforts made by the bullies.

My efforts are to help people who have already decided they want to create inclusive groups, create those inclusive groups by teaching them the skills they need to effectively and compassionately shut down the excluders.

Today’s Social Impact Jobs for Diversity and Environmental Sustainability

Tell us about a personal experience on why our world needs more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

It can be your own experience or something you have witnessed.

Ther are so many experiences.  I remember as a teenager, the first time I was in a car that was pulled over because the driver was black. It was shocking to me. The experience was unlike any interaction with police that I had ever had. I later learned, we were in a former sun down town.  My friend was continuously hassled by cops. All the time. That was when I realized there was something fundamentally wrong with policing. I understand now, they were engaged in typical bullying behavior.  School yard bullies grown up and using the police to exclude people from their town. In that same town, I remember going to the movies one time and there were white teenagers kicking cars as they went through the parking lot. The cops, beelined for a black family in front of me heading to the movies with their grade school kids. It was clear to me that they cops should have been talking to the vandals. But no, they wanted to hassle a family going to the movies. We shouted at the cops to leave the family alone and to do something about the vandals, but, it didn’t do any good. There is a reason people feel helpless in these interactions.

I have had the good fortune to work in diverse and yet cohesive work groups in south central Los Angeles, and have also worked in places in FL where the open racism is quite frankly, shocking. Living in Florida has radicalized me on this issue to be honest.  I understand why people who have never experienced discrimination don’t understand what is going on or just how crazy what happens really is.  Until I experienced it for myself, I would have never believed it could be this overt. If you had told me how difficult it is for some people to vote, I would not have believed you until it happened to me for 3 years. I realize it shouldn’t have taken personal experience, but at the same time, what happens is often so insanely crazy that it’s hard to believe anything like what happens – could happen. I do think my experience can help other white people come to terms with what they need to as I’ve been through that journey myself.  

I firmly believe that the USA has been operating with one hand tied behind our back. We are self limiting ourselves with our bigotry. Every time we exclude people, we prevent them from contributing to our society. Imagine what we could accomplish if we stopped hurting and excluding people and instead, included them and supported them so that they could reach their potential.  Given all we have accomplished by excluding, imagine how much more we could accomplish if we included. We need to stop hindering ourselves and work to make sure everyone has a chance to participate in society and contribute to our collective well being.

What does DEI mean to you?  

DEI stands for  Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

As a Humanist – I love all 3 terms.

Diversity

When I think of Diversity I think of diversity of view points which means better problem solving. Everyone has different experiences and those different experiences help us solve problems better. One of my favorite quotes is from CF Hockett who said, “It is obviously impossible to see all of anything from a single vantage point. So it is never inappropriate to seek new perspectives, and always unseemly to derogate those favored by others.”  To me, diversity is exciting. It’s an opportunity to learn new things and connect with people in a meaningful way about things that are important to them. The benefit to myself is, both in the learning and the improvements in my thinking. Diversity allows me to be less wrong and that equates to more success.

Equity

One of my practices as a Humanist is to see everyone I meet as a fully formed human being and equity is foundational to my practice as a Humanist. The problem is that seeing other humans as equal is hard. Not just for me, but for everyone.

We humans evolved as a tribal species.  We naturally break the world into our tribe and other tribes. We also have a problem with theory of mind. We think therefore we think everyone thinks like us. Both are fallacies.

“My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” – Thomas Paine.  I compensate for both of these innate flaws by reminding myself that the whole world is my country. My tribal allegiance is to the world and everyone and everything on it.  I compensate for my theory of mind problem by actively reminding myself that everyone I meet is a fully formed human with unique experiences that I know nothing about. The combination of these 2 practices (global tribal allegiance and excitement over individuals as unique), helps me approach everyone, even those I disagree with, with love. This in turn, helps me see them, not as enemies to be defeated, but as allies. And this in turn, helps me morally demand equity for everyone.   Anyone not treated with equity is experiencing crimes against their dignity as a human being and I am become morally outraged whenever this happens.  My outrage on behalf of others is grounded in love.

This practice has had a profound effect on me over the years and it has taken – years.  I now understand why every major philosopher and religious leader throughout history has taught compassion and love for our fellow humans. I also understand why most people have trouble with this. But I also know how critical love is to everything. Both for personal development and societal development. It must ground everything we do.

Inclusion

This is the challenge. For those of us who see all humans as: humans with dignity and worth – the challenge is what to do about the people who don’t. How do we fight back against the people who seek to exclude, and how do we win this battle for inclusion without violating our own principles in the process.

The following quotes have guided me in this.

Albert Camus in Letters to a German Friend (written during the Holocaust) wrote, “And, despite yourselves, I shall still apply to you the name of man. In order to keep faith with ourselves, we are obliged to respect in you what you do not respect in others.”

In Preface to Algerian Reports, Albert Camus wrote, “When fighting for your truth, you must take care not to kill it with the very arms you are using to defend it.”

This is the challenge. How to not allow those who seek to divide us from succeeding. What skills specifically do we need to learn to marginalize those who would marginalize. And how do we do this with love and compassion and with openness, while still not tolerating intolerance. Because, we must be clear, in order to create inclusion, we must not tolerate intolerance or exclusion. And THAT seems to violate our ideals.

The good news is that we have 70 years of behavioral science to know not only how behaviors are learned but also how to cause them to be unlearned. The good news is that the only way to make these techniques work, is to implement them with love and to at all times, validate the dignity of the people we are working to stop.  We can actually do this if we use science and compassion.

It’s long past  time for us to start using these tools and teach ourselves how to actually be the change we want to see.


What is your proudest moment as a DEI professional?

This is going to sound weird, but I get hired by companies who have a “problem” person who needs to be retrained.  My proudest moments are tied to the feedback I get from the people I am tasked with training, people who are viewed as problematic by their companies and by judges as problematic. The fact they tell me that they feel that I treated them with dignity makes me proud. Not only that, they get a LOT out of my training. I just did a court ordered training for someone and they told me that they were so glad they were required to take my course. They told me that my course should be required for orientation for their company! Whenever a “problem” person tells me I helped them deal with whatever it was they were going through, that makes me proud.

Never view anyone as beyond redemption. Everyone you meet has dignity and worth, even if they are not currently behaving with dignity.  Treat everyone with dignity. Teach them how to do and be better. Most will rise to the challenge. The ones that don’t or can’t, feel sorry for, but take steps to protect the rest of your organization from their negativity.

Why is DEI important to you as an individual?

On one hand, it isn’t. I am a white woman whose only negative experiences involve sexism and I have always managed to work around the people trying to exclude me so that they can’t.

I have been lucky. But I am also a citizen of the world and care deeply about my fellow earthlings and I want everyone to be given the same opportunities as me to flourish. It hurts my heart when people are excluded. It hurts my heart when people are denigrated or bullied or harmed in any way.  This motivates everything I do. It makes what I do a mission, and not just a job.

I suppose DEI is important to me because my moral philosophy requires it.

If you could change one thing in terms of DEI, what would that be? 

Hoo boy. Ok – here it is. There is a flawed assumption that underpins all diversity and harassment training. And that assumption is – if we just tell them it’s wrong, they will stop.

Harassment training is basically two hours of – it’s illegal – don’t do it. The same thing happens with diversity training. Here’s how historically this has hurt people, we need to change. Never, in the entire history of humanity, has asking bullies nicely to stop, ever worked. Never. Not once.  Bullies bully because it works. In order to make them stop, we have to make it stop working. Changing hearts is important, changing behaviors is even more so.

In order to make bullying stop, we have to learn how the behavior is rewarded and consciously change the rewards and responses to their behavior to trigger behavioral extinction.  

Often, this requires a complete rethinking of the systems we operate in. When I teach people here is how behaviors are reinforced and what is required to make them stop, only then can I help them look at the individual elements of the system and discuss how each element either serves to reinforce the unwanted behavior, or whether it helps to extinguish the unwanted behavior. Having learned this, we can now discuss how to tweak the system to create effective change.

A few years back I gave a talk about how to create happier more inclusive workplaces in India. One of the executives asked me about whether this works for a specific situation in their company. But he was framing the problem in an ineffective way. I kept telling him – nope. You have it upside down. What you are suggesting won’t work because your entire framework on how you think about this is upside down. You are concerned about outputs when you should be concerned about inputs and how your structure and systems is responding and rewarding the inputs.

Whether we are talking about how schools deal with bullying or whether we are talking about how government agencies respond to harassment in the workplace, the problem is the same. The reason we haven’t been able to extinguish the unwanted behavior is because the system itself is rewarding those behaviors. This is ALL fixable. But we have to take a systems approach to the problem and to do that effectively, we have to educate ourselves on the science of how behaviors are learned and more importantly unlearned so that we can start addressing the systemic nature of the problems.

What is stopping your community, organization or company from achieving a more equal and equitable world? 

Awareness. People don’t know what they don’t know. In most cases, they don’t even know to look for this information. They don’t know that there is a solution that is science based that works.

When I first started in this field, I was asked to give a talk to a local youth crisis counseling group. These are all licensed mental health professionals. Trained mental health professionals. I talked to them about the science behind how to stop unwanted behaviors and every single one of them doh slapped themselves. Their response was – yes – not only will this work, it’s the only thing that will. We have 70 years of science to back this up. Why didn’t they know to apply this to help their clients? Because behavioral psychology was not a big part of their education. They studied clinical psychology. They learned about behavioral psychology, but they didn’t learn it as a practical skill set. Many came up to me afterwards to tell me about how they now realize why some clients were succeeding and some weren’t.


The same thing happened when I reached out to the Association of School Psychologists about integrating behavioral extinction into their anti-bullying approach. I was referred to them by the school psychologist at my son’s school. They told me they were only interested in preventing bullying, not extinguishing it. When I tell people these stories, they are shocked. But I am not. I understand that prevention, from a behavioral perspective is way easier to do. The problem is, we need to start teaching behavioral extinction because clearly, prevention isn’t getting us where we want to go.

What I want, is for behavioral extinction to become the standard that is taught in every anti-bullying, anti-harassment and DEI lesson everywhere in the world. I don’t want to be the only one doing this training. We can’t possibly fix these problems until we integrate behavioral extinction into our trainings. What is stopping me from achieving my goal? I suppose, it’s resources to create a train the trainer programs required to help educate more people so that this content becomes standard across the field in a variety of disciplines.

If you could say one thing to the leader in your community, organization or your company about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what would you say?

I am a sole propriertor – so n/a

Anything you want to share with your readers?

Don’t give up hope. Keep fighting the good fight. Just do it with love in your heart and learn the science of behavioral extinction so that you can be more effective and help even more people.

This interview is part of the Global Diversity Thought Leader Series™

About the author

Susanne Ricee

Susanne Ricee is the Diversity and Inclusion Specialist and Researcher at Diversity for Social Impact. Sue brings over 15 years of HR and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion consultation experience.
Sue's previous experience includes Microsoft, Target, and Kraft. Sue is also the manager of Diversity Leadership Directory