DE&I: Where do I even start...and end?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is big and complex. There are myriad of assessments, trainings, and articles about it--and I encourage everyone to explore the resources out there. However, it can feel impossible to know where to start. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea. It takes a lot of hard work and interrogation of an organization’s history, present situation, and the individuals within it to start making change.

Yet, I do believe there are some important and often overlooked ways to start challenging our ways of thinking when it comes to inclusion. The following are a few important concepts to keep at the forefront of our minds when navigating the workspace. The list is far from complete, but it might just be a place to start. Note: Everything I am about to dive into is underpinned by the very real existence of historical and systemic oppression, implicit or unconscious bias, and intersectionality (easy, right?).

Absent conversations: It seems remiss to talk about DE&I without speaking explicitly about issues affecting race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and class (among others). For many (if not all) of us, culture change is inseparable from these issues. By excluding these very important facets from the conversation, personal, cultural, and organizational growth are stymied. We cannot assume everyone understands what is implied by the term “inclusion,” as what may be implied for some is absent for others. When we name things, we have to confront them.  

There may also be an absence of voices from people who are not deemed traditional leaders within the organization, such as those who are not supervisors or those work on the frontlines, but play vital roles within the organization. They may be affected the most by problematic behavior because they 1) lack the platform to speak out, or 2) feel silenced due to their position within the organization, or 3) feel silenced due to experiences of microaggressions and/or discrimination within the workplace.

Good intentions: Intentions do not outweigh the impact of words or actions. Focusing on intent over impact overlooks or excuses behavior based on someone’s “good intentions” or being “well-meaning.” In fact, these tend to be some of the most problematic situations because they occur regularly and are rarely checked. Many times they come in the form of microaggressions, which, in isolation, seem small (they are not). And years and years of microaggressions and “good intention” comments can create serious cultural rifts and internalized racism and trauma.

We must interrogate not only our own interactions with, for example, employees of color, but also how we characterize and think/talk about people, e.g. POCI*, to others and ourselves when they are not in the room. The intent and impact framework must be understood widely, and we should prioritize it as microaggressions occur regularly in the workplace.

Accountability: It’s true personal journeys are important in making lasting change and a more inclusive workplace culture; however, focusing solely on change at the individual level creates a challenge to accountability. If an employee faces problematic behavior by someone else in the organization, they cannot hold that person accountable based on where they are in their personal journey, but they can hold the person accountable to championed and widely understood policies in the organization. Additionally, if someone leaves the organization, their personal journey leaves with them. It is hard to know whether work done at the individual level (i.e. their personal journey) that fosters DE&I within an organization will remain with turnover, which is why policies are important to uphold a culture of inclusion.

Education: Do the work. Podcasts, books, videos, documentaries, articles, and so many more resources exist to help us all grow and challenge our assumptions. It is never the job of someone from a marginalized community to educate others or be forced to represent an entire group by responding to inquiries based on an aspect or multiple aspects of their identity/identities. 

A co-worker/friend/family member from a marginalized community does not bear the responsibility to call out problematic behavior because in many situations, especially in the workplace, it can feel unsafe or risky for that person to do so. And they just might not want to. We need to do our own work by questioning our own behaviors and words before and after we do and say them. And if resolution is necessary, it is on those who have been called out to step up. On the flip side, being called out, while difficult, is a gift (but also think about how difficult it was for the person who felt the impact of the problematic behavior). It is a learning moment we should all be open to as it allows us to notice our own blind spots. And know it is rarely easy to call someone out--whoever did so likely put their neck out there.

We also need to understand the history and structures upholding systems of oppression in addition to the privilege we carry (are you living without a disability? Are you white? Are you cisgender? Do you have an advanced degree?). Educating ourselves on our privilege and harmful behavior will eventually (hopefully) lead to discomfort. And that’s okay. That’s good. Think of it as growing pains.

Lastly, check your language. Language matters. It constructs the world around us and the history we learn and eventually tell. There are resources, such as this media reference guide from GLAAD, that can help. Search them out and don’t make assumptions.

Again, this list is far from exhaustive. In the workplace, there are so many other things we need to think about: Are social gatherings always formed around one type of activity or certain time of the day? How much space are we taking up in meetings? Are people’s pronouns assumed? Are policies created, interpreted, and enforced in a way to privilege a dominant group? It’s hard for me to stop writing this piece because it still feels incomplete. But maybe it will unlock and crack open the door to a more inclusive way of thinking. And once you open that door, throw away the key.

*I recognize the term POCI is a complex and nuanced, and I am not speaking of the group as single homogenous entity.

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