Image of a person stepping outside comfort zone

Life is all about choices. As I navigated Restart, the ICMA Annual Conference this past October in Portland, I created a list of sessions that I wanted to attend. Like many of you, at times I found myself in a pickle, wanting to attend more than one session that was scheduled at the same time. That issue presented itself on my calendar on Monday at 10:15 a.m. local time. In that moment, I made a decision to attend a session that forced me outside of my comfort zone and I am glad that I did.

As I walked into the “Find Your Power Crew” session, which was part of the SheLeadsGov series, I scanned the room, like I usually do, to see if I recognized any peers. I don’t know what I was expecting when I walked in, but my quick scan revealed that I was one of maybe two or three men in the room of 40 to 50 attendees. I must admit, this was a unique experience for me. In my career, I have often found myself to be the youngest person in the room, but never the only male.

I debated leaving, as I truly felt out of place and extremely vulnerable. I didn’t know if I belonged. I didn’t know if I was going to jeopardize a safe space. I didn’t know if my presence was going to make others feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be viewed as someone intruding, someone that shouldn’t be in the room. Most importantly, I didn’t want to offend any of my colleagues.

To be honest, if a friendly face had not sat next to me and told me that I was welcome, I would have snuck out. I never realized how uncomfortable you can feel just by being you. I’m sure I have inadvertently made others feel this way and I want to apologize for that. I know it’s not anyone’s intention to make others feel unwelcome, and the fact that this is the first time it has happened to me tells me that we all need to do better. Until that moment, I didn’t truly grasp how easy it is to create environments where people don’t feel welcome.

After talking to some of the women from the session, I learned that how I felt in that moment is how many of you have felt at different times in your careers. I appreciate having gained that perspective and want to thank you all for allowing me to understand. Even more importantly, I hope that everyone in our profession knows that they are welcome and deserving of a seat at any table. The women in that room could have easily excluded me and likely made me feel like I don’t belong, and I am grateful that they didn’t. The presenters made an excellent point early on: women in our profession have been excluded for so long that they often go out of their way to try to make sure everyone feels welcome. This is a trait that can transcend all of our communities as we grapple with complex social issues that require inclusivity.

My hope in attending and staying in this session was to learn a little more about the challenges and blind spots in my own experiences and perspectives. To be a true ally and to help bridge the gap that exists in our profession where women and minorities are underrepresented, we all need to reflect on our own blind spots and work to overcome them. I am thankful that I was able to learn more deeply some of the challenges that my tremendous peers face.

I want to close this article by issuing a challenge to my colleagues in the profession. If the experience isn’t something you’re familiar with, I challenge you to push yourself into places where you may be the minority and to push yourself into environments that make you uncomfortable. Make the conscious choice to better yourself and our field by expanding your horizons. My hope is that if we can all experience this feeling, even just once, we can better relate to one another and we can learn how to better support one another.

JEFF WECKBACH is assistant administrator of Colerain Township, Ohio.

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