Editor’s Note: In September 2020, Rotary formed a task force charged with assessing the current status of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in Rotary and shaping a comprehensive action plan to help us further value and live those principles throughout the organization. This is the fifth in a series of blog posts from DEI Task Force members reflecting on their work on the committee and why it is critical for the organization.
Brian Rusch has managed organizations for Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. With the knowledge he learned from them, he has created programs to inspire youth to explore ethics and how to reshape conversations on peace, equality, and forgiveness. A Rotary Youth Exchange student, he became a Rotary member in his 20s and helped create Rotary’s first LGBT-cultured club. Read his full bio.
Q: What were some key insights you learned from working with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama that have contributed to your thinking about DEI?
Rusch: A lot of what I do professionally is built around interfaith dialogues, conversations that require me to create space for viewpoints that are different than my own. I began working for the Archbishop, after working with the Dalai Lama, just as they were writing the “Book of Joy.” It is an amazing dialogue between the two about what they’ve experienced in their lives, similar and different. It’s also amazing how these two have messages that resonate with young people, inspiring them to be the best they can be. This is also relevant to Rotary when we see a hesitancy to work with young people as equal partners. I was talking to a member of Interact who is speaking at a big Rotary event and she called herself a leader of tomorrow. And I said, “No, you are the leader of today.”
You show your humanity by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others.Desmond TUtU, the book of Joy:Lasting Happiness in a Changing WOrld
Q: You talk about the concept of peace within, peace between, and peace among—how can we apply those concepts to DEI?
Rusch: Quite simply, it is the idea that when we discover what brings us inner peace, we can have more peaceful interpersonal relationships, and ultimately peace among nations. Part of establishing inner peace is having an honest look at yourself, including what your assets are and where you have room to grow. This absolutely applies to the journey Rotary is on to emphasize and prioritize diversity. Even when we think we are doing the right things, we discover there is still more work to do. For instance, when Jeremy Opperman, who is legally blind, joined the DEI Task Force in July, we discovered that many of the DEI resources within the learning center were not accessible to him. There will always be more work to do.
Q: You talk passionately about removing barriers to membership—what does that look like?
Rusch: I would love us to talk more honestly about the socio-economic barriers that exist for someone to join Rotary. There are a lot of places where you simply cannot be a Rotary member if you are not wealthy. At One Rotary we have this amazing Arch Klumph gallery that celebrates financial contributions, but how are we honoring those who can’t contribute financially, but contribute countless hours to service? There is one member of my club that delivered 4,000 kilos of food to the homeless transgender population of Delhi in just one month. She is an amazing individual, but she can’t afford dues. And if she could, she wouldn’t because she’s putting the money into buying more food. This is an important topic to me. While I am in a very fortunate position now, when I first joined Rotary, it was hard for me to find the $25 for lunch. Anyone should be able to join a little club like mine and leaders should create opportunities to support their membership.
Q: What role do our leaders have in the DEI conversation?
Rusch: Leaders need to maximize the role they have in making space for and elevating new voices. I have a personality that is such that I can make myself belong in any space that I go into. But not everybody’s like that. And so, as leaders, we must be conscious of that. We need to evolve how we think about leaders and leadership. Because right now, there’s a very set path for people to become a leader in Rotary, and that path to leadership excludes a lot of people. I know a lot of people that would make amazing senior leaders, but they’re never going to be a district governor, because they just don’t have the time or interest. We talk often about how Rotary isn’t a political organization, but we are a very political organization. We are a nonpartisan organization, but there’s a lot of politics involved in Rotary that can make people feel like they can’t show up as their authentic selves. And we need to support people who are willing to do that.
You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.dalai Lama XIV, the Book of Joy
Q: What would you like clubs to think about differently regarding DEI?
Rusch: One of the concerns I often hear is that we may lose members because of the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. But one has to wonder how many members we have already lost because DEI hasn’t been a focus. How many people have been exposed to Rotary and decided it wasn’t for them because it just wasn’t a space that they felt like they belonged? I also hear people say that if the conversation is uncomfortable, we shouldn’t be having it. In my 33 years in Rotary, I’ve been in some uncomfortable situations. I’ve had to sit and not talk about my husband, who’s amazing by the way, because it was going to make someone uncomfortable in a meeting. I have felt like I couldn’t invite him to something because it would be uncomfortable for him. But I think that if our trying to make people feel welcome is making someone a little uncomfortable, maybe it is time for you to be a little uncomfortable, because many of us have been uncomfortable for a really long time.
Q: Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently died at the age of 90. How did his passing impact you?
Rusch: Arch’s passing is such a tremendous loss to our entire world. I knew that this moment was imminent but when it actually happened, it still comes as such a shock. You can tell a lot about a person and the life they lived by the legacy they leave. I don’t mean foundations or buildings or honors. I mean by the way they have transformed people, inspired them to do better, to BE better. Throughout my life I have had the honor to know so many people – world leaders to community activists – whose lives have been touched by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his legacy is reflected in their great work. I humbly pray that in some small way, his legacy can be reflected in the way I live my life and the work that I do.
Learn more about Rotary’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement and meet other members of the task force.