In my work with organizations around topics of diversity, equity and inclusion, I often hear that a few people are asking “Why do we need to talk about this?” This usually happens in organizations that serve very diverse communities, with staffs that aren’t as diverse. And, usually, there’s less diversity in the senior management and board. So, isn’t the answer to that question a no-brainer? Well, actually, no, it isn’t.
I am glad this question is asked because people often assume that we all know diversity is important, but don’t ask the deeper questions about why. If we forge ahead without being clear on our motivations, our efforts may be ineffective or lack direction. We may end up with people feeling burdened, guilt-tripped and unmotivated. When people do this work because they feel that they should, they sometimes lack motivation and it is done drudgingly. People often approach diversity for business, political or moral reasons, which may or may not be motivating. Some organizations are driven by complaints or perceived problems that need to be fixed. While it is important to address things that don’t work, a narrow focus on solving problems may prevent people from seeing a wider spectrum of opportunity. Here are four reasons to talk about these issues that I believe can lead to increase engagement, shared ownership, and commitment.
1. It relates to all of our lives. A friend and colleague, Ignatius Bau, once told me that it’s often a personal experience that compels leaders to make a commitment to to invest in responding to the needs of diverse communities. For example, a child who has to interpret for his/her parents at a medical visit grows up to be a hospital administrator and makes sure that services are accessible to people who speak different languages. A young woman who grows up in an environmentally polluted community of color dedicates herself to engaging communities of color in working towards environmental justice. We all have these personal connections, whether or not we are aware of them. I invite people to explore and make these personal connections, which can build a heartfelt sense of investment in diversity related work and can also strengthen staff connections to each other.
2. It’s about reaching our collective potential. A staff person who is a former client works directly with families of color. She has ideas about how the organization can more effectively engage families and how people in the organization can communicate and support one another. Here are two possible scenarios regarding what happens next. In scenario A, she is afraid that if she brings up concerns, she will be labeled a “trouble-maker.” She is never asked her opinion and her ideas are never heard. She feels unsupported, becomes disheartened and resigns from her job. In scenario B, she is encouraged to share her ideas and brings them up so that the organization begins to excel at engaging families and hearing their voices. Other staff members learn from her experience and perspectives. She is supported to develop her leadership and advance in the organization. The families who engaged are able to reach more of their own potential. This results in greater organizational effectiveness and enhances the organization’s ability to reach its mission. Everyone benefits. This is just one example of how being inclusive can help the organization, staff and clients reach their potential.
3. It can make us happier. When issues of culture are not addressed, it may cause stress, create distance between coworkers or cause feelings of dissatisfaction and resentment. There may be conflict or discomfort between people who have very different lives and ways of thinking. Some people may feel that that they can’t be authentically themselves, but need to put on a façade in order to be perceived of as professional. When differences are fully acknowledged and valued, people feel a greater sense of belonging and trust. Addressing issues of culture, power and difference can help people be more authentic, communicate more effectively, feel they have a true voice and build connections across difference. Job satisfaction can increase and, along with that, people bring more enthusiasm to their work.
4. It’s about striving to reflect the world we are creating. Many organizations are embracing the idea of developing internal organizational practices that reflect what they are trying to achieve in the world. For example, an organization that helps diverse communities get access to jobs and education examines it’s own hiring and personnel policies and practices to ensure that it is being as inclusive and equitable as possible. An organization that works on recruiting diverse staff also works on ways to support staff and develop a more inclusive organizational culture. This may include anything from establishing gender-neutral bathrooms to adopting and practicing communication guidelines for talking about issues of culture and difference. One way that this can be approached is by developing values and guiding principles that are practiced inside that organization as well as in its external work.
Here are some sample questions that can be used to guide dialogue in your organization and develop a mutual understanding of why diversity is important to address. Discussing these questions can also help shape the direction of your organization’s work around these topics.
- What, in your personal experience, motivates you to work around diversity, equity and inclusion?
- What are some examples of the potential you have seen when people from diverse backgrounds are given opportunities to grow and learn from each other?
- How can addressing issues of culture and difference improve job satisfaction?
- What values would you like to see your organization practice with regards to diversity, equity and inclusion? What might be possible in your organization if you practiced these values?
A Final Note and a New Resource
There are many events in my life that have shaped my own personal commitment to work around diversity, inclusion and equity. One that is very near and dear to my heart is having a son who is gay. This video, which is the third in my “Proud Mom” series, illustrates the challenges we faced as a family as a result of exclusion and the potential that can be realized when people learn from each other. I thought I was open-minded and aware, when it came to issues of diversity. Being the mother of a gay son and working with the LGBTQ community has challenged my thinking and opened my eyes, and ultimately made me a stronger and happier person and more effective in the work I do. This video, and the two others in the series were designed to encourage dialogue and learning about LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion in families, communities and schools.
Note to readers: I hope you enjoyed reading “Lessons from the Field”. If you find this information useful and want to share it with others for purposes of learning (not for profit), please feel free to do so. Please acknowledge Mayeno Consulting and include my web address (www.mayenoconsulting.com) if you pass it on to others. Thanks!