Ndidi Okezie: It’s time to push back against the default of ‘us and them’

We cannot continue to place dealing with 'us' on the back burner, while we distract ourselves by focusing on fixing 'them'

Have you noticed how much of our lives is structured around the notion of “us and them”? We bind ourselves to one group and “other” everyone else.

The “others” are often deficient in some way. In our minds, they don’t “get it”, and so they become the problem we need to overcome.

The “us”, on the other hand – yes, we may have challenges (not many, though!) but, even when a challenge arises, the benefit of the doubt is always given and we seek to move forward with the same compassion that we would want for ourselves.

We just have to look around to see multiple examples of these “us and them” stand-offs: whether it is on social media, in our workplaces, with cross-sector colleagues or, indeed, with our government.

The starting point so often tends to be that “we” are right, and “they” are wrong. But imagine if that wasn’t our default state.

Imagine if we gave others as much grace and space to err as we give to those we have deemed to be part of the “us”.

I often marvel at how immediately people will disagree with a viewpoint, solely based on who has shared it.

The discussion moves so quickly from the issue at hand and becomes more squarely about getting the “other” to behave in the ways “we” would find most palatable. There is no space for grey. No room to consider that we may have something new to learn from them.

Over this past year we have seen real moments of social reckoning, where a mirror has been held up to “us”. The mirror shows how other people have experienced our behaviour, the work we do, the atmosphere we create and how we collaborate.

There have been moments we have unanimously celebrated; so proud of our achievements, moments of real highs. And then there have been those triggers that have sparked visceral disagreements and pain, leading to real lows.

Through it all, I often find myself asking whether our volume of opposition is as loud when the point of contention is about the “us” we identify with, rather than the “them” we don’t naturally align to.

Is our instinctive reaction to “them” one of distrust and cynicism? If so, why? And if we behave in this way, are we therefore comfortable that others should have the same reactions when we speak?

The definition of integrity is the quality of being honest and consistent, regardless of the context. As a sector we rely on our integrity, as part of our license to operate.

That integrity should mean that we hold ourselves to account more boldly than anyone else ever could.

We have to work harder to push against this “us and them” default that is so casually entertained. The time is now to lean further into those issues that the mirror has held up to us.

Long-standing, always deprioritised issues including race, gender, and psychological safety are areas where we cannot currently hold our collective heads high with pride.

We cannot continue to place dealing with “us” on the back burner, while we distract ourselves by focusing on fixing “them”.

Ndidi Okezieis chief executive of UK Youth

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