I have heard from several of you about the importance of DEI issues and of having an actionable plan for addressing them. From what I hear from our consultants and clients, there is some good news, and still much work to do.
We Have Made Considerable Progress
The good news is that we seem to have evolved as a sector of the community to a place where we are having respectful conversations about the importance of DEI and meaningful strategies for improving ourselves and our organizations. I hear more about actions taken than I do about frustrations and hurt feelings. It is as if we have moved to a more pragmatic reality. I would like to think this is because the first phase of maturity and growth was accomplished: For the most part, we have recognized that we have a problem.
This is not to say that EVERYONE is on board the DEI train! Not by a long shot! But it is becoming easier to identify leaders and organizations who do and who do not recognize the importance and value of diverse perspectives in any workplace. The good news is that if you are someone who cares deeply about equity and inclusion, it is easy to decide who to work for or do business with. The bad news is that the people who do not care about those issues can also find comfort (and avoidance of the issue) just as easily. I worry that this dichotomy will send us back to where we started – divided, distrustful, and ineffective at helping our communities.
But for now, we seem to be entering a new era of earnestness among the leaders who “get it.” We still come with different perspectives and lived experience with the issue, but now we more often find ourselves at the same table talking instead of across barricades or on social media screaming at each other.
How Do We Keep the Momentum Going?
So how did we get here? And how do we keep momentum heading in the right direction? The common thread I have noticed in leaders and organizations who are successfully navigating this topic (note that I don’t know ANY leader or organization who has MASTERED it!) is humility.
Discussions now have the benefit of some soul searching on everyone’s part. For the leaders who are older and learned their craft in an era where we didn’t talk about fairness or valuing employees on any level other than the results we were able to achieve, there seems to be more openness to learning. These leaders are open to learning how behaviors, assumptions, and actions might be perceived differently by people who have different perspectives based on their lived experience and the experiences of their ancestors.
Create Change by Making it Personal
In the session we led on anti-racism at last year’s Washington Nonprofits Conference, this table was a great conversation starter:
The column on the left that points out behaviors that are perceived to be remnants of white supremacy drew equal numbers of heads nodding in agreement and mouths gaping open in surprise. It was an “aha moment” for many participants. “How can Perfectionism or Objectivity have anything to do with white supremacy!?” was answered with explanations of how these concepts manifest with people who have no say or even participation in what perfection means, or what it feels like when objectivity is based on a set of “knowns” that are not part of your reality. Add to that the generational impact of learning from your parents and grandparents that “Their view of perfection and objectivity is not the same as ours. They set the standards they expect us to meet in the workplace – just try to get along, don’t make waves.”
Participants started to “get it.” Humility and honesty are strict, yet fair, teachers. Something else happened. It turned out that resentment of the traits associated with white supremacy was not limited to people of color. Certainly, there is well documented history on that front to prove the point that authoritarianism can only exist if you demonstrably reject the idea that everyone might have wisdom and insight to offer. But then we started to hear from people who were conflicted. They perceived themselves as White and as the ones who were to blame. But with the sharing of this new perspective on traits that had not been questioned before some of them, timidly at first, and more openly in the months since then, started to relay stories from their background. We heard things like:
The stories go on; but not all are spoken. Sometimes the reality is too painful for casual sharing with strangers. Like reliving the feeling of being stopped by the police for speeding or a burnt out taillight and having the officer approach your car with a drawn weapon on numerous occasions. Or watching as the store owner is obviously watching every move YOU make because you are black while your white friends are all over the shop with no one watching them.
How to Understand Lived Experience
The term “lived experience” is not just a euphemism for diversity. Living with the reality that you or your family are and have been treated differently (as dangerous or less than) leaves a mark. That mark influences how you interact with the world, even though the expectation is that you will stuff all that emotion and trauma away someplace when you walk into the workplace.
Once we liberated the discussion from a premise of vague, societal anger to be one of loss, hurt, discrimination, and imposed shame, the anger was reframed in very personal terms. The anger was almost universal once we heard each other’s stories. Some stories are certainly more painful than others to hear, but they were all painful to live. It was no longer a matter of the oppressed versus the oppressors. It was much more basic than that. It was a recognition that oppression, shame, and being told to NOT be seen or heard – no matter the reason – was wrong.
DEI Represents the Results We Hope to See
In the end, the realization is coming to us that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are not the whole picture. They represent the RESULTS we hope to see in the world. We hope that our workplace is vibrant, and sometimes even unpredictable, because we are eager to hear and learn from the diverse lived experience represented in our co-worker’s life stories and how those stories impact the work we are trying to do in the community. Equity in the workplace in the form of compensation as well as opportunity and respect as an equally valued contributor to our work frees us to share more deeply and perhaps connect more authentically with the community we seek to serve. Inclusive experiences, whether in the workplace or the community at large are feeding grounds for learning.
And THAT turns out to be the key to DEI – listening, learning, and empathy. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are not just boxes to tick off, they are the result of caring about each other. They happen when we hear each other’s stories and we start to get an appreciation for the pain, sometimes generational pain, caused when people we love (including ourselves) are not valued. They also happen when the workplace is REALLY about serving members of our community more than it is about reinforcing the power structure that has been around forever. It isn’t solely about race. It is about the human experience and a realization that every person has the potential to change the world – if they are valued.
About the Author:
Dave Lenox – Valtas Managing Partner
Dave Lenox is an experienced leader with a demonstrated history of working in the non-profit, change management, organization design, and management fields. He is a skilled business development professional with a BS in Special Education from Missouri State University and a Master of Business Leadership focusing in Organization and Change Management from Capella University. Most recently, Dave Lenox took over as President and CEO of Special Olympics Washington (SOWA) in August of 2014 after originally beginning his employment with them in 1985 as the Area Director in Kansas City, Missouri.
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