Written by Erin Dunlevy, Vice President & Facilitator
At a recent social event, I had the rare and exciting experience of being invited into an impromptu conversion about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Our host introduced me to a handful of people and we started traversing the classic low-stakes conversation topics like the weather, and of course, work, when a woman offered that her week was particularly dull because she had another mandatory DEI training. Then came the eye-roll. The eye-roll elicited knowing laughs from the group; the classic bonding strategy of finding connection over a chat about what’s terrible at work. It seemed to imply, “who can’t relate?”
I didn’t know these people, and in all fairness, they didn’t know me or what I do for a living. But when I asked this woman if she thought diversity in the workplace was important, she was quick to say “of course!” and then elaborated on her previous stance by claiming that the topic was essential, but the delivery was flawed. This might seem like an evasive move, but it’s actually not uncommon for folks who do in fact think people should be able to go to work and not experience exclusion, harassment or pay inequity (to name a few of the well-documented examples of workplace inequities experienced by people with marginalized identities) to be highly critical of their company’s DEI initiatives.
Usually, the folks I speak to about why they dread their DEI programs (both white people and people of color) they say it’s the how, not the what of the trainings that fails. They’ve shared that they are mandatory, rote, sometimes patronizing and impersonal. And more often than not, they lead absolutely nowhere. Research seems to support these complaints. While much research points to meaningful and lasting change in the field of DEI, there have been a series of studies in the last few years detailing the ways that DEI trainings can be unsuccessful, and the thesis is that too many produce little to no actual structural change.
However, in a recent article in Forbes, Janice Gassam Asare rightfully critiques this research claiming that in actuality, neither the trainings nor the studies conducted about them are designed to center the experiences of BIPOC employees. When we speak to our BIPOC clients about this it’s clear a commonly shared experience is present. Many of them have shared that DEI workshops can feel alienating because they’re clearly designed for white people and now, on top of the harm experienced at work, they have to witness the clumsy, harmful or even violent responses of their white colleagues to these efforts. And all for naught, because at the end of the day, nothing meaningful has changed.
At True North, we established that in order to counter this reality of so many DEI programs, we would have to design a set of values-based policies that guide all of our potential partnerships. Here are a few that have made a huge difference.
We orient towards joy in the work
One of our core values at TNEDI is Joyful Orientation. Nothing in our Joyful Orientation value is meant to deny or divert our eyes from the existence of the individual and collective pain that this work requires us to navigate. It does, however, serve as a critical reminder that we all have a right to joy, in all its complexity and richness, and that fundamentally, we believe it’s ok to pursue ease, joy, and levity while doing hard work. We advocate for DEI efforts that feel fresh, bespoke, and imaginative, and at True North we believe in creating spaces that balance the seriousness of what we’re trying to accomplish with the excitement of possibility.
Tip: We do challenging things all the time. Consider an area of your life where you learn enthusiastically and experience a combination of excitement, hard work and dedication. What are the necessary conditions for you to commit yourself to something challenging in a joyful way? Is it the outcomes you imagine that sustain you? Is it the relationships that make you feel supported? List out those qualities and conditions for yourself and consider how you might create those conditions for your efforts towards DEI. We advocate for a multi-tiered approach, and when possible, avoid “one-offs”
There’s no quick fix for this work, and we learned this the hard way. As with any fledgling start-up, TNEDI needed to get its name out there. So when potential clients asked for single-session trainings, we thought, “maybe we can do it better!”. We tried. But it became clear to us early on that organizations looking for one, all-staff, 90-minute anti-bias training were likely not invested in real, lasting change, nor were they invested in the actual experience of their employees. Our “no one-off” policy was quickly put in place. We offer partnership rather than a product, and at TNEDI, we’re invested in working with organizations to find creative approaches to complex problems.
Tip: Lasting change takes time. Consider a regular, consistent scenario in which you can embed an equity-centered practice and give yourself an accountability timeline (and maybe join or create a community to help support you) to check in on your progress. We design our scopes of work for each client and their specific industry - we don’t offer anything “off the shelf”
At TNEDI, we are committed to tailoring our partnerships to the needs of the organization. Our client intake process is designed to learn as much as we can about our potential partners, the landscape of their field and the opportunities that exist within that field for exciting, equity-centered initiatives. A philanthropic foundation needs a much different approach to the work of DEI than a for-profit company. Additionally, we never suggest a learning arc without knowing what inequities are operating within the organization--our work should be informed by needs. Sometimes this means we engage in an extensive discovery process that includes focus groups, surveys and town-halls. Sometimes, if it’s clear to us that the client needs a more robust equity audit due to size or structure, we recommend one of our partners in the DEI field that specializes in large-scale auditing and evaluation. The goal is to design the scope of partnership through the lens of discovery, learning and action.
We need leaders
We love collaborating with organizations that are enthusiastic about executive leadership participation, commitment and change. This isn’t always the case, and as consultants who have been doing this for a long time, we’ve become very savvy in the ways an organization’s leaders can find detours around the more difficult aspects of participating in the work. This implies any work designed for staff that doesn’t include leadership in any meaningful way. For example, it’s not uncommon for executive leadership to avoid attending sessions by saying they want employees to feel comfortable to “share honestly” and if they’re present, that won’t be possible. While we certainly advocate for understanding how identity and positionality intersect in the workplace, this often feels like hiding a bad motive under a good one. It simply doesn’t work for leaders to place themselves outside the parameters of DEI work because it implies that they are not a part of the problem or the solution. The fact is that leadership is essential for any DEI strategy to take hold, and most employees understand that when DEI efforts are happening and leaders are absent, the implication is that the work is superficial at best. Good DEI leadership logically requires the qualities of good leadership, and vision, enthusiasm, self-reflection, openness and dedication go a long way in terms of creating lasting change.
Tip: If you’re a leader in an organization about to embark on, or continue your DEI journey, consider engaging in an informal discovery process with representatives from all tiers of the organization. What initiatives have worked best for us in the past? When do we feel most engaged in our professional development? When do we feel most connected to initiatives and why?
I don’t consider my experience at the cocktail party to be a “gotcha” moment. I genuinely enjoy engaging people around what makes learning exciting for them, and how we can leverage what they care about most to create meaningful DEI engagements. We often say at True North that we’re here to help the inside match the outside, meaning the values we hold can and should align with our actions. And this is as true at a cocktail party as it is in a conference room. As always, we are here and ready to partner with you as you work to reimagine what is possible for you and your organization.