It’s important to understand that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work is not new, but more so the “in season” subject matter given the recent heightened awareness from the nation’s racial reckoning. Diversity practices began because of the civil rights movement, to give voice to the nation’s historically marginalized communities that were rapidly growing in force.
For context, think of DEI like this: Diversity focuses on people of varying backgrounds. Inclusion ensures those people are fully valued and not merely a quota number. Equity allows those people to receive the same benefits with different, but fair, treatment. In combination, DEI ensures there are checks and balances in the workplace regarding belonging.
A question I’m often asked about creating a culture of equity is, ‘How do I start?’ or ‘Where to begin?’
In response, you already have begun by acknowledging the problem. For far too long, companies have remained oppositional or denied the need for change. Industries at large understand now they cannot afford to squander opportunities to do right through implementing effective DEI practices.
As renowned American author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Initiating A DEI Program
Initiating a DEI program is challenging. It will require strategic planning and training to remain impactful throughout, both on the macro and micro levels of the company. Many company participants will begin the journey with you, all with the intention of getting to the end. Yet, entering this journey without proper preparation will lead to a disastrous result that will ultimately affect your company’s social and financial standings.
It is also important to understand that a program should be sustainable. Initiatives cannot be simply transactional, reflected by numerical quotas or data points. This critical work will influence and change mindsets, behaviors and performance. Communication and transparency will be of utmost significance to maintain engagement and encouragement throughout the entire company.
As Edgar Villanueva, author of “Decolonizing Wealth,” so eloquently stated, “Everyone has the potential to lead, and leadership is about listening and being attuned to everyone else. It’s about flexibility. It’s about humility. It’s about trust.”
The next step is to engage with leadership. Effective and sustainable practices will require the support of leadership. While they do not need to be experts in the subject matter, they should be informed and confident to take action to correct injustices within their organization.
If possible, they should lead by example with calls for training, resource allocation, and utilizing subject matter experts or external support to develop such initiatives further. After all, DEI is an investment for the company.
Creating An Inclusive Work Culture
It is important to realize DEI work can help to address the glaring deficiencies and blind spots within a company and then help to balance (and sustain) an inclusive work culture. To understand the benefits of DEI further, think of the curb-cut effect.
The curb-cut effect is a theory that focuses on targeted universalism, or how doing right for one group benefits many groups. The curb-cut is a cut or ramp in an elevated curb allowing easier passage between the street and sidewalk, and originally implemented to make streets accessible to accommodate the physical limitations suffered by some of our disabled populations. Yet, we all use the ramp in different forms — by riding bicycles, pulling luggage or pushing carts or moving large items to a car. An idea to help one group can be a benefit to everyone. We should look at DEI similarly.
Another great resource designed by the Equity Institute focuses on the concept of “Awake to Woke to Work.” This framework is easy to understand because it “calls out” that we are all engaging with DEI from different positions of employment, backgrounds and experiences and, collectively, we aim to work together. With this known, the groundwork for an inclusive workplace can begin.
Intentionality is also key as data is gathered from employees’ stories and experiences. This can occur through establishing focused committees or learning communities, tasked to initiate difficult conversations around how to improve company culture. A well-structured guided discourse can establish a secure foundation, opening lines of communication, transparency and fairness among the employees. Experiences can differentiate a person from another; however, company staff can bond and work better through a shared collaborative training where everyone’s input matters.
Let’s be clear: The evaluations of your current company climate may be surprising to learn and hear. Nevertheless, you must remain engaged and committed, and above all, listen. Listen to colleagues, team members and customers about their experiences. We have learned biases that are inherent in all of us, and it takes effort to recognize and counter such embedded actions. This is the perfect time to acknowledge harmful truths and commit to change.
Representation, Respect, Repair
In today’s culture, it is not enough to be non-racist; you must strive to be anti-racist. That will take inclination and decisive action.
Keep in mind that results and/or benefits of DEI initiatives will vary by company and their actions. There is no formulaic timeline, as DEI is unique to each company’s culture and its employees. The earlier a decision is made to improve culture and implement well-planned strategies, the earlier results will begin to appear.
Part of the process of engaging in DEI is also to establish target goals. Do note that targets stemming from conventional metrics will be ineffective, as it may still be using the same biases that need to change. DEI practices use both quantitative and qualitative analyses that will require nimble, innovative and creative methods. It is ideal to find ways that will curate a personalized experience to your company that will have a broad ‘curb-cut’ impact.
Recently, I began to use an alternative framework to (easily) conceptualize DEI, respectively. If you look at it in order of D.I.E. (diversity, inclusion and equity), replace each letter with three Rs: representation, respect, repair. This simple substitute of terms profoundly provides the opportunity to understand and engage with DEI beyond the limitations of our background status to cover all personal experiences. It allows all ranges of the inclusion spectrum to march forth at once.
Now that we know DEI is a process, let’s acknowledge how grueling implementation can be. We also know that strategic preparation is essential for success. Understanding that everyone has a unique style of learning based on their experiences to date only adds another layer to the process.
However, no matter where they are from, or how they identify, we all have the opportunity to start from the same place. This neutralizer allows for an equitable experience. Starting from the same space is huge. It allows participants to know that, no matter what, we are all here with the same goal, and that goal is to do our best to change the industry. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is the destination, and WE are the navigation.