The following is a conversation between Dr. David Sengeh, the Chief Minister of Sierra Leone and author of Radical Inclusion: Seven Steps to Help You Create a More Just Workplace, Home, and World, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Imagine a world where everyone’s voice is heard and valued. Dr. David Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s Chief Minister, brings that vision to life in his book, Radical Inclusion: Seven Steps to Help You Create a More Just Workplace, Home, and World. It captured David’s tireless advocacy for educational equity, especially his push for pregnant girls’ rights to education in Sierra Leone, a quest that unveiled surprising challenges even within his own circles.
And he’s with us now. Welcome to The Business of Giving, David.
David: Thank you very much.
Denver: David, what sparked your drive to transform education in Sierra Leone?
David: I think for me it’s really family. My grandfather was in government as somebody who was an inspector of schools and supervisor of schools. My grandmother taught in kindergarten very early, and then in the rural areas, she helped support the primary school. My dad was a teacher. My mom works in the Ministry of Education. All of my siblings are teachers, and I understood the value of education. So, there’s a little bit of a genetic element to it, and this is what my family has been working towards.
And for me, I understood that a major part towards supporting other young people was by working in education. And I think I’ve always kind of wanted to follow. I’m named after my grandfather. And I always wanted to maybe kind of do what he always did.
Denver: Yeah. Oh, that’s sweet. Well, it’s in your DNA. There’s no question about that. I don’t know how you could have done anything else, probably, with the way you were brought up and surrounded.
Your book centers on radical inclusion. What’s so different and, well, radical about your approach?
David: I think it’s an element of first of all, understanding that we all have been excluded before, and we all can exclude and have excluded.
So it’s not either/or, it’s not black and white, it’s not that some people are good, some people are bad. It is that we all experience some form of exclusion in our lives, and we all experience ways in which we can be more inclusive, in which we can make the world a little bit more just by bringing more people in.
And I think the first element is recognizing that. And the first element is really pausing to say you have been excluded against before and you can exclude somebody. And it became a case of: How do you then get a whole system, an entire country, an entire government, a president, your home to accept that and then work towards changing and setting a new normal… the people who were excluded before that everybody works towards bringing them in?
Denver: Share an experience, David, you’ve had where you were excluded and, upon reflection, the impact and influence that had on you and your work.
David: It’s every day, every day. It’s like I was in Brussels with the president… Just a couple of days ago, we went to a meeting. And, I’m the chief minister, you know, for some prime minister. And so I’m behind the president, I’m going through and the president goes in, and there’s somebody comes to the door and stops me, and I’m standing there, I’m not trying to make any…, and I think they’re just waiting for the chief minister to arrive… for the president. So, they were like, “Oh, that’s our chief minister,” you know, and I think there’s always elements where whether it’s because of my age, because of my hair, because of how I dress in my profession, almost every time that there is some elements where there is an active exclusion.
But one of my real worst examples, I was in DC, and I write about this in the book, I had just co-hosted the TED conferences, it’s TEDMED, and it was a peak moment, you know. I had arrived, I was co-hosting, and this was a big deal. And the minute I leave the facility, JFK Center, Kennedy Center, and I’m walking down the streets to go back to my hotel, somebody comes and picks a fight… and I’m not talking, and I finally when I talk, he goes, “Go back to where you come from, go back to Africa, go back to Sierra Leone.” First of all, I was amused that he knew my accent and could tell that I was from West Africa and Sierra Leone. But it was a really crazy moment because he had a broken bottle in his hand and he was drunk; that could have gone any bad way.
So, there are many instances where you’re going through the airports, and somebody profiles you and says, “Come this way.” And you have to respond and respect that it’s just what it is.
Denver: Yeah, those resonate, and I think if we all take a moment to reflect where we’ve been excluded, it might create greater empathy on our part.
David, you know, in your work, which I found really interesting, you emphasized the importance of defining exclusion before anything else.
Why is this so important for an organization to have a precise definition of exclusion, which is so foundational to everything that you preach?
David: When you can’t …if you don’t understand it, you can’t begin to address an issue if you can’t define and accept it and just put a wall around it. It can be either too big, or it can be too evasive, or you can avoid it. And I think parts of what I wanted to express in there is no matter what our training, our experiences and our biases have been, it is our responsibility to collectively define the exclusions, to define the issues that we deal with. And those vary from time to time. They vary from person to person. They vary from organization to organization.
If it’s an element where junior staff feel like they’re excluded and their voices don’t matter; they don’t show up how they are choosing to. That might be different from a place where there’s people whose race or people… how they dress or their religion or their tribe or the language they speak or the agenda.
If we don’t define at a particular instance what that exclusion is, then we will not appropriately solve this specific problem that we need to solve.
Denver: Yeah, I love that part of the book, too, because I think often what we do is we jump into the solution, and we don’t take the time to name it.
And if you don’t name things, you really are just dealing at 35,000 feet. You’re really not dealing at a concrete level, and I’ve always appreciated the importance of labeling something so you can really dig in and to see exactly what you’re trying to do.
You also talk about the idea that the pursuit of inclusion is in everyone’s interest. Now, a lot of people probably don’t think that way, but you maintain there are universal benefits to inclusion. What would those be?
David: You know, most people don’t understand that the ramps in buildings or the ramps to facilities, or even just when they’re walking or jogging, the fact that the curbside is cut to allow for them to run and smoothly transition, that that was a solution that came about because we all wanted there to be more inclusion and building accessibility.
The curb, in particular, is something that was designed, and not all streets and not all cities have that, and that’s a major problem; it was done for people who have wheelchair, wheelchair accessibility, but the people who use it the most are people who have prams and business people who are using their suitcases and going from building to building… they will benefit from that.
So a curb that was built for somebody who has a wheelchair is largely because most people are not using wheelchair in society, but you have lots of mothers in society… every home has a mother …who has a mother and will have a pram and is going to use it. People who are business people are using their suitcases and running around. Same in buildings with the ramps that exist, the people who use it or who have old-age problems… our delivery, our mail facilities who are coming to drop off stuff at our place. There are lots of instances when this is the case.
You know, but it’s also one good example that I’ve thought about or people have discussed during this period: when you make a space more inclusive and accessible, you may be strong and physical and healthy today, but tomorrow you’re running, and you slip and you fall and you hurt yourself, and you suddenly have a crutch.
One of my colleague ministers, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and I think he was Minister of Mines before– strong guy, really fit, and he was always running with us everywhere. Unfortunately, he got into an accident and broke his thigh, three places, and within one minute, everything changed. And once he came back, then it’s an element of… then he has a crutch, then he has to deal with a crutch. And then it’s because of how, if we’re not thinking about inclusive spaces and how to be accessible, then this guy who suddenly was all fit, strong young man, now has an accessibility problem and an inclusion problem.
So, when we build these solutions, we must think that we all could be affected at any point in time of our lives, so it’s in all of our interests to make sure that everybody all the time could have access because it could be you tomorrow.
Denver: It’s like an insurance policy. You never know when you’re going to need it. I mean, last time I needed it was when I was moving my daughter into college, and I was pushing a dolly and I knew about the curbside effect, and I was saying to myself: Thank goodness for this. I don’t know what I would do. I’d probably still be moving, you know, if it hadn’t been for that.
You know, change isn’t always smooth sailing, David. What were some of the surprising hurdles you faced? And how did you tackle them?
David: You know, the real challenge is when people who are closest to you are the ones who you have different opinions with, and this is why it’s important that we’re able to discuss these things, define them in a really safe environment.
But my sister, my daughter, my parents, we disagreed on many of these principles… and my boss… speaking truth to power, people say. The day that I was sworn in as Minister of Education was the same day in which the president, my boss, said that he was going to extend the ban on pregnant girls going to school.
And, we started from different places on it. I was able to go back and sit down with him, and we spoke about our differences, understood why those differences existed and how. And we were able to meet again in the middle ground to say, “Well, you know, pregnant girls are girls, first of all. They are raped by definition, and you are a champion and you’re fighting for girls education and you’re fighting for justice,” which we agreed on.
Secondly, we agreed that we should not double victimize victims, so somebody who’s been raped, and now we’re sending them out of school. And thirdly, we spoke about the opportunities around when you get these girls to school. No matter the mistakes or the victims that they’ve become, they are able to continue education and contribute back into society.
So, we looked at it, understood where we diverged from, understood whether it made sense or not, what the bottlenecks and challenges were, and presented them as opportunities. That was how we were able to make progress and break the barriers that existed between us.
Denver: Yeah, very persuasive. And I think also, it’s so important to think of these girls as individuals. And sometimes when you talk about pregnant girls, sometimes we think of them as a demographic. But they all have their individual lives or stories, as you said; they are daughters, they’re sisters. And when you think about it, why would you want to take a whole, as we sometimes frame it, demographic, and penalize it? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. So, great work on that.
David: It’s absolutely correct because when you then speak to your family members, and they speak about just these random pregnant girls, you say, “Well, what about your daughter? If it’s your daughter that that happened to?”
And then, “Oh, my daughter will never do that.”
“No, but let’s just assume it’s your daughter. And it’s my niece. What will happen if it’s my daughter? How will you treat this?”
And it begins to bring it close, and this is the element around empathy that I also speak about in the book, and it’s really central to everything that we do.
Denver: You know, David, you also make the point to ensure that everyone feels valued. And I hear that all the time, but I also know in organizations that I work with, a lot of the employees there do not feel valued despite the pronouncements of leadership. What can businesses and NGOs do to emulate the inclusive culture that you have championed in education?
David: I think the most important points… and word that you said there was “feeling” valued.
Now, as the head of an organization, as a minister, as a policymaker, I can say, “Of course, you feel valued. You should feel valued. The policies agents are putting in these policies.”
But that’s not the same thing as how these people experienced and perceived those policies. And the biggest thing that we can do for organizations and for people who are advocating for, is to figure out how they can be seen, how they feel; understand and hear how they experience what they are experiencing, and there won’t be that impact or perceived impact until those same people are able to feel and show up how they choose to be, because that’s where the real magic is.
“We have to practice it, give ourselves a chance and opportunity regularly to check in with ourselves, to check in to see whether we’re saying what we think we’re saying. Are people perceiving what we are pushing out? And if not, what are the questions that we can be better asking to help us learn and change?”
Denver: Yeah, yeah. It’s almost like somebody saying, “How can you tell if you’re a good listener?” Well, you can tell you’re a good listener if the person speaking to you feels heard. So, it really can’t be in you. It has to be how that other person feels, and that is usually the measure.
You know, you alluded to this before, but you talked about the fact that we might exclude, ourselves, even unintentionally with the best intentions. How can we better catch ourselves in the act of doing that and try to make amends?
David: I think parts of it is just listening a lot, listening, listening, and listening. But we have to understand that if we’re not good about it, it doesn’t make us… we’re not bad people inherently. That if suddenly we’re like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I body-shamed that person who was at the tennis court yesterday. I must be such a bad person.” That will be a very difficult thing for us to change.
So, it’s understanding that we’re not perfect, and we can always keep working on it. And part of it is always making sure that we practice these. It’s like muscle memory. We can be better. We can listen more. We can bring more people in. We can look out for whether people are comfortable. We can ask more questions and listen more to those answers. And I think that really is the biggest way in which we can practice those muscles.
We have to practice it, give ourselves a chance and opportunity regularly to check in with ourselves, to check in to see whether we’re saying what we think we’re saying. Are people perceiving what we are pushing out? And if not, what are the questions that we can be better asking to help us learn and change?
Denver: Absolutely. David, your PhD work focused on developing prosthetic interfaces for physical inclusion. So, this mission includes physical inclusion as well. And how do you look at tech as being a game changer in this world of inclusion?
David: You know, you’re absolutely right. I was reflecting on this the other day that in…policy, it’s all about inclusion in some way. If we think about technology, the current idea is that technology is going to widen the gap between people, that there will be more exclusion between the haves and have nots, the tech savvy and those who are not using technology. That can be true if we agree that that’s how we’re going to progress in the world.
For me, I think about technology as a bridge of gaps, technology as something that can drive equity and justice, and there are many ways in which that remains true.
When I first served the government as the chief innovation officer, a lot of people thought that I will not have the impact… we can’t have the impact that we want to have. Until then, as Minister of Basic Education, we listened to people. We understood that what everybody needed was a way in which they can access their children’s results immediately. And the impact of this is the people who lived in provinces, far remote areas, now they didn’t have to wait up to 10 weeks or pay $10.
Children who their parents needed to make a decision on them, particularly girls, could have those decisions sooner and didn’t have to stay and wait home for such a long time and possibly get pregnant and drop out of school. And all we needed to do was to build the technology that relied on SMS 2G, 1G, not 3G, 4G, or 5G, that made accessible in very simple ways the child’s results. And today, it’s been used millions of times all across the country. (Silence gap 17:39-17:47)
And today, we are able to work on creating more technology, bring more solutions to people. Again, we built a solution where pregnant women can be registered using their cell phones and can get reminders and can be transferred through very simple technology across the health system so that we can limit maternal mortality.
So, these technologies, whether it’s 1G, 2G, or as you mentioned for my PhD, the MRI scanner and 3D printer, really are there to make sure that no matter who you are, you’re able to get access to a fundamental solution to your problem, whether that’s prosthetic, interface, prosthetic socket challenges, or getting access to information so that the pregnant woman doesn’t die. I believe that these technologies in their simplest or their most complex forms can bridge the gap in how we are able to provide solutions to our people.
“And this is this element around really telling young people to not hate, to focus on their growth, to focus on giving people the bait when you teach them to fish.”
Denver: Yeah, I know. It’s just amazing the difference as to how you frame a problem; and if you think that technology is going to enhance or increase the difference… you know, the separation or the disparities… it might. But if you just flip it on his head and say, “No, it’s going to reduce them,” then you start down a path where you will eliminate them.
You know, as a musician, you emphasize the importance of using music and double entendres to communicate messages effectively. Tell me about that, please.
David: And I love… Yesterday, I was in this, the day before yesterday, our cabinet meetings are on Wednesdays, and the night before, there was this studio, and the producer from Nigeria came into town, Masterkraft, and I followed them for a long time. And so I invited some young people with me to the studio to sing a song.
There’s lots of bad energy, there’s lots of negativity in the world, so I wanted… I told them this concept about winning and celebrating winning and there’s a line in there that I use, which was like, “You teach a man to fish, then you give him the bait,” like teach a man to fish, but then you give him the bait as well.
And this is this element around really telling young people to not hate, to focus on their growth, to focus on giving people the bait when you teach them to fish.
But then it’s elements around as well; I rap in Creole and English a lot. So, one of those entendres is, in Creole, to talk, T-A-L-K. Actually, when you say it in Creole, the language that we speak, it is tok. T-O-K. And so TIK TOK.
So, the TIK-TOK entendres which is, as people talk, we are ticking the boxes.
And these elements around what my music is about, around how I think, I love Eminem, I grew up listening to Eminem, and he’s great with the double entendres, and now Drake and all of those guys, J. Cole, Kendrick, and be that young people in Sierra Leone be able to use arts and creativity to learn, to study, to bridge the gap between them and other people in their generation to spread peace and love, and I enjoy it. It’s also just fun.
So,I was in the studio until 2 a.m., and then I had to go to cabinet the next day with my colleagues, and then we were in cabinet from like 11 a.m. to about 9:30 p.m., and I was like, “Oh, you know, it’s just like being in the studio,” you know..
Denver: Well, I hope it’s as much fun, although I sometimes doubt that.
David: It’s slightly different.
“And it’s also this element around enabling people to do something, like you can have the know-how, but if you don’t have the know-do, if you don’t have the elements that you need to be able to accent your learning and from which you can start, it doesn’t really go as far.“
Denver: You know I love the idea too about the fish and the bait, because often we want to teach a man how to fish, and I always consider that to be the “what”. But the “how” is the bait, and very often, we never give them the bait. We just tell them the aspiration, but we don’t show them how, and that bait is really what you need to take it to the next step and get that fishing line into the water.
David: You’re so right. And it’s also this element around enabling people to do something, like you can have the know-how, but if you don’t have the know-do, if you don’t have the elements that you need to be able to accent your learning and from which you can start, it doesn’t really go as far, right? Then you can say, “Oh, we gave them all the training, but nothing happened.” You have to give them the bait.
Denver: You’ve got to give them the bait, and that’s something in which I think we fail as a society. We just think we throw it out there, and then people will know what to do with it, but they need something– a tool–they need a start in order to be able to do it. And you have to stick with them. You can’t just do it and then say: good luck. You have to really guide them and walk them at least those first few steps to get them started down the right road. And that’s something which I observe all the time that we fail to do as a society.
“We have to understand that inclusion is in our best interest, and we have to keep working on it as a muscle for muscle memory. It is only when we do that, when we keep going back to the tools, when we keep trying to be better at bringing more of these skills in our own life can we have a more just society.”
Denver: Let me close with this, David, for leaders listening, how can they weave radical inclusion into their leadership DNA?
David: I think the first part is reading the book. I read it all the time. I listen to it all the time. And I don’t say that because, you know, as a sales pitch, but these things around inclusion, the principles that we speak about, these are principles that we have to train and always go back to, and if we don’t do that, we lose that; we lose the skill.
So, to be able to identify the exclusion all the time, to listen, to understand and learn, to listen to others so they feel heard, to define our role why, to build a coalition around the people we need to, taking action… that you can do all of that. If we don’t take action, then nothing happens. And beyond that, how do we, in this case… we’re connecting both, how do we give the people the bait? How do we help them adapt to the new normal? And how do we expand beyond that and go on and solve a new set of problems?
We have to understand that inclusion is in our best interest, and we have to keep working on it as a muscle for muscle memory. It is only when we do that, when we keep going back to the tools, when we keep trying to be better at bringing more of these skills in our own life can we have a more just society.
Denver: The book again is Radical Inclusion: Seven Steps… which David just went through… to Help You Create a More Just Workplace, Home, and World. Do yourself and your organization a favor, and go pick up a copy.
Thanks so much for being here today, David. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
David: Thank you very much.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.