Over the past year I’ve been deepening my understanding of equity and inclusion and my role in advancing these values. In sharing what I’ve learned my wish is that you come away inspired to help your workplace better resemble the change you seek to be in the world.
Lesson #1: Advancing equity and inclusion begins with awareness.
Working in countries experiencing armed conflict and natural disaster was meaningful, not only in helping to channel resources to affected communities, but also for the insights I gained about my own biases and privileges. I once organized a workshop for representatives of local and international organizations. Although I budgeted for meals and accommodation it hadn’t occurred to me that not everyone who was invited would be compensated by their organization to attend and that traveling to a retreat location would pose a financial burden.
I took for granted my status as an expatriate working for an international organization that could afford to cover these expenses. Fortunately, a local leader at a partner organization brought this disparity to my attention and suggested providing honorariums to attendees, which ensured good attendance at the workshop and led to a successful outcome. This experience helped me see obstacles that can prevent people from getting to the table.
Lesson #2: Equity and inclusion efforts require a support system.
If being aware of disparities is the first step towards advancing equity and inclusion, the second is obtaining support to remove barriers that not only exist in our minds, but also in our workplaces. How we perceive other people and situations affects not only the way in which we work, but ultimately the results we achieve.
As in my own experience, obtaining support for removing mental barriers can come from people who help us see things differently. However, this only works if we are willing to genuinely listen with an open mind and alter our views to accommodate information that may challenge our beliefs. In this situation achieving the outcome of a successful workshop required letting go of my belief that knowledge and skills derived from working directly with people seeking social assistance, as well as the experience of being in need of assistance, were less valuable than credentials gained through formal education and training. Instead of viewing this situation as paying workshop attendees to show up, I could choose to see it as a way to value the contribution of experience I lacked.
Just as support is critical for shaping how we understand and approach equity and inclusion, the same is also true for organizations. In situations where there is a lack of awareness about the need for change or there is resistance to change, a supportive environment is essential. As explained by Organizational Psychologist, Dr. Michael Broom, “a critical mass of support exists when we recruit all the individuals with the range of technical and human systems skills needed. [This involves] recruiting select people one at a time.”
Later on, in my work as a consultant, some nonprofit staff shared recurring experiences of “isms,” like racism, sexism, and ageism, with people in a supervisory role. Addressing this situation requires a variety of support—for staff who were experiencing an unhealthy work environment, for supervisors who are likely unaware of the impact of their behavior on others, and for the organization to prioritize centering equity and inclusion in their work.
I helped create a critical mass of support for initiating positive change, which involved:
1) Informing senior leadership, with whom I had a direct relationship, about this situation. Around the same time some staff met separately with senior leadership to share their personal experiences, which contributed to building a case for change in which information was shared from different sources.
2) Advocating for change, in collaboration with other direct reports, to senior leadership. As momentum for change developed progress was also communicated to staff.
3) Serving as a resource to senior leadership by helping to identify and recommend solutions.
In this situation building a critical mass of support was aided by senior leadership willing to listen and take action. In other instances, it may take more effort to build support for change by enlisting the participation of a larger group of individuals one-by-one.
Lesson #3: Advancing equity and inclusion requires an ongoing effort and a systems approach.
Changes are more effective and likely to be sustained when they are deployed through a systems approach that takes into account the key components of an organization, such as: (1) incorporating equity and inclusion goals, like increasing diversity of leadership, into an organizational strategy; (2) creating a supportive structure (e.g., establishing an equity and inclusion task force with representatives across the organization); (3) people who are committed to carrying out and supporting changes made; (4) work processes that take equity and inclusion into account, like amending procurement processes to increase outreach to and make it easier for businesses owned by people of color to participate; and (5) creating a culture in which there are explicit agreements about how staff work together and fostering an environment in which everyone can thrive when people bring their full selves to work.
As important as advancing equity and inclusion is, it’s also extremely difficult work that requires a commitment to examining our own biases, having difficult conversations with people who have different experiences, and committing to change that creates the space for co-workers to more fully participate, which includes leading efforts to address inequities in communities. Because of the emotional and organizational challenges this work often entails, it can be helpful to work someone who specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion and is also experienced in managing change in organizational systems.
Closing equity gaps requires working at multiple levels.This begins with an awareness of our own privilege and examining the extent to which we participate in systems—at home, in the workplace, and communities—that foster inequality.We can’t make progress in addressing socio-economic and environmental disparities in our communities until barriers to equality and inclusion are dismantled within ourselves and in our organizations.
This article was originally published by SEE Change Magazine on March 4, 2019.