On seemingly every military spouse site, Facebook group or blog, the issue of inclusivity pops up at least a couple times a year. Each time, in some form, there is a call to action for one group to be more inclusive.
Perhaps it’s time to drop the qualifications from that call and recognize that effective inclusivity only happens when we all accept the shared responsibility.
The topic recently circulated social media again after an article published on Military Spouse Magazine about one male spouse’s negative interaction with his Spouse’s Club. The conversations spurred by the article frequently became heated and defensive as people recounted their own personal experiences that either mirrored or contradicted the article.
But, here’s the thing: the thing that struck me most from that article had very little do with that spouse’s club or even the low participation of our male spouses. It was that despite the author’s impression that it was his gender that isolated him from the expected welcome, the other spouses at his table felt the same way.
“I found myself at a table in the back of the room where four female spouses were sitting. Upon making conversation with them, I learned that not only had I found the only open table, I had also found that all four of these spouses had were brand new to the area themselves.”
The experience of his table mates seems to indicate that his feeling of not belonging had more to do with his “newness” than his gender. Which, in my mind, exposes a challenge currently facing the military community that might be even more pervasive than the fact that Spouses’ Clubs are generally female focused.
Did you jump in?
I am the first to admit that my own personal feeling about Spouses’ Clubs is shaped by a very positive first experience. When my brand new husband deployed eight days after our wedding I did what I always do when I am apprehensive about something – I decided to learn every I possible could about Army life. The first contact my Google research turned up was the (at the time) Fort Lewis Officers’ Spouses Club, so I reached out. I was quickly persuaded that volunteering was the perfect way to meet people and off I went.
Since then, I’ve had both wonderful and less positive experiences at the various installations we’ve traveled to in the last 10 years. Sometimes I participate and sometimes I find my village elsewhere. I’ve served on Spouses’ Club boards and been spread too thin to give more than the occasional hour at a luncheon. Along the way I’ve learned that the people who drive these clubs generally have the best of intentions, work extremely hard to have a positive impact on the community and deal with a lot of negative attention in the process.
There is no doubt that welcoming spouses who are new to our military communities is a tremendous challenge. FRGs, Spouses’ Clubs, and the spouses of unit senior leaders have traditionally led the charge on that effort. In today’s military, though, many of us make our first (and sometimes only) connections online in Facebook groups and forums. Many spouses today work and scheduling events intended to help us get to know each other is an impossible-to-please-everyone exercise in frustration. But the fault with that barrier between resources and the new or new to the area spouse doesn’t only lie with clubs, classes and organizations that are trying to support the community.
Today, we are accustomed to being able to touch the world through our phones. I can do my grocery shopping, send all my Christmas gifts, and share memories with loved ones all without actually speaking to a person. When I have a bad customer service experience, I can tweet about it and have an international company respond and offer something to make up for it. Why should we put ourselves out there when the world comes to us?
When it comes to the military community, we have to meet in the middle. Undoubtedly, those of us who are active in clubs, units organizations and installation resources can do a better job of welcoming, including and onboarding spouses new to the area/unit/command/installation and ensuring that they know that there is a place for them if only they’ll come take it. On the other side, those spouses can make the time to locate and reach out to those clubs, unit organizations and installation resources. The opportunity to connect can be made available, but we still have to take the step of embracing that opportunity and putting ourselves out there.
In the original article that spawned the latest round of discussion, I was struck by the fact that at a table of five newcomers, where there was a diversity of gender and likely of other background/lifestyle factors if we dug a little, they all felt there was an invisible barrier to participation.
Coincidentally, here is something that we universally share. Most of us have felt that same way at times. Happily, it is something we, as individuals, can take action on. We can reach out to someone if the club/organization needs help reaching out to spouses. We can walk over to that spouse on the edge of the room who looks uncomfortable. At any event, we can introduce ourselves to someone we don’t know.
We know that today’s generation of military spouses has an incredible depth of diversity in professional goals, experiences, needs and ability to give. It makes sense that our efforts to connect would need to evolve to reflect that broadening pool. And the easiest way to do that? For each of us to take a step forward and reach out.