Hardwired to be Inclusive: Lessons from My Military Family — Tanya Stewart Blackmon

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4 min readFeb 8, 2024
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

As the daughter of a U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Drill instructor, we moved to four different communities in my early years. Learning from my Dad and my never-met-a-stranger Mom hard wired me to be inclusive, from elementary school through multiple leadership roles.

And I’m grateful for their example and the experiences I have had.

Attitude + Actions

My parents taught me the power of embracing differences and creating communities of belonging. Not only through who they were, but also by what they did.

Learning from Who They Were

My Dad lived the USMC Motto, “Semper Fi.” Through love and association, my mother, brothers, and I felt like we were Marines too. We watched him apply his “always faithful” commitment as a Marine and in subsequent roles as Beaufort County Sheriff Department Captain and criminal justice professor. My parents’ servant hearts and focus on our family, understanding others and making meaningful connections shaped my view of the world.

And it shaped my approach to leadership.

Learning from What They Did

Beyond who my parents were, I learned so much from what they did. Since 2004, I was fortunate to serve as President and Chief Operating Officer of two hospitals and EVP and Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer for a major healthcare system. In all three roles, I applied four key lessons about how to build inclusive communities:

· Take the First Step — Each time we moved onto a new base, my Mom would make sure that we knew our neighbors. We built relationships that drew upon our commonalities of being military families. As a leader, I always encouraged my team to take the first step to engage new employees, work together and build on each other’s strengths to achieve positive outcomes. Ditto with new business partners to enable a collaborative, inclusive culture.

· Be Willing to Learn — My Mother taught us we can learn from anyone, and be better for it. When we moved from the Marine Corps base in North Carolina to the one in Hawaii, there were many cultural differences. We learned and appreciated the Hawaiian culture and made lifelong friends. Being a lifetime learner and engaging with people at all levels has served me well in my career. When you connect with employees who work closest to the customer, you learn about ways you can be innovative to meet both customer and employee needs.

· Seek Commonalities –Whether I was living in Louisiana (our original home) or living on a base where my dad was stationed, despite differences, we learned we had more in common with others than not. And to focus on what we could do to make the experience more positive. As a hospital leader serving very diverse communities, we looked for ways to meet the needs of all patients as well as the employees who cared for them. We wanted the core experience for all our patients to be of the highest quality. Did we need to continuously evaluate our practices? Absolutely. But it started with a shared vision for inclusion and equity.

· Find Ways to Give Back — When I was in high school, I volunteered at a camp for underserved, developmentally disabled children. Many of the children had basic hygiene needs and it was a challenge for their parents to purchase supplies to manage them. I had the idea of making personal hygiene kits for each of the children. I was willing to use my allowance to buy the supplies, but that would not have covered the entire costs of the kits. So I asked local retail stores to make donations and combined that with my allowance to create hygiene kits for the children.

The families saw my heart and we were able to forge a strong bond with them and with their children. As a leader, I’ve followed the quote by Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When you really listen and care about people and do your best to serve them, it makes them feel valued and it creates a sense of belonging.

A Multiplier Opportunity?

According to a Department of Defense report, in 2020, there were more than 2.1 million Active Duty and Selected Reserve military personnel and almost 2.6 million family members in the United States. While not every military family was or is like mine, many of them had similar experiences, moving frequently and needing to create communities of belonging.

As a DEI consultant and strategic advisor, I have a renewed appreciation and respect for fellow military families, who also may be hardwired to create inclusive environments. That’s a win for them, and for the organizations they serve.

Tanya Blackmon is a nationally recognized DEI executive with an exceptional record of leadership, cultural change, performance improvement, and revenue growth. She has served as Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity, Inclusion & Equity Officer and President and Chief Operating Officer at an award-winning integrated healthcare system along with several Boards.

Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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