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Starting with the ABCs of DEI

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

September 4, 2020

Photo Credit: Colorful Hands - George Fox students Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon - Newburg mural

In the context of George Floyd's death, there has been widespread public outcry, protests, continuing cases of police brutality, racial violence, increased social activism and heightening tensions. I've found there are some central questions which have emerged across many conversations I've held in this complex space: How can I reach out to explore and support each other? What am I doing that may be contributing to this? What can I do to create more diverse, inclusive and equitable communities, organizations, societies? How can we leverage diversity and not lose our uniqueness? At the heart of the questions are fears to venture into the space of conversations about race and uncertainty about the way forward. I'd like to suggest that apart from reviewing history for its lessons, using the lens of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a good place to start.

It's essential that we get clear about the definitions of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - because the conversations are going to be messy, uncomfortable, but the possible outcomes imperative!

So you've heard of “D&I”, what about "DEI", “DIB”?

Quite similarly to the LGBTIQA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender diverse, intersex, queer, asexual and questioning) movement, there are many acronyms related to diversity and inclusion used today and the existence of these different acronyms reflects society’s evolving understanding of these issues. Organizations tend to use D&I, DEI, DIB interchangeably, though each requires distinct acknowledgment and an understanding of nuances.

The first is D&I; Diversity refers to anything that sets one individual apart from another, including the full spectrum of human demographic differences as well as the different ideas, backgrounds, and opinions people bring. Inclusion implies a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging and sense of uniqueness. It represents the extent to which employees feel valued, respected, encouraged to fully participate, and able to be their authentic selves (Harvard Business Education, 2020). I loved Crayola crayons as child! As if opening up a box of 8 and mixing palettes were exciting enough, I was beside myself with a box of 24! I recall how amazing it was to see variations in shades and their names e.g. cerulean. Several weeks after getting my first box of 24, I was still using the same 8 colors; I realized this when my younger brother began creating these masterpieces of incredible depth and color gradations. In hindsight, whilst I appreciated the diversity, I limited myself to what I knew by using the same 8 and by not including the other 16 colors either through creativity or experimentation.

The “B” in DIB adds the word “belonging” into the conversation—the experience of being treated and feeling like a full member of a larger community where you can thrive. You can have diversity of representation without inclusion and inclusion without creating an environment in which everyone feels they actually belong.

The “E” in DEI stands for equity—fair treatment for all, while striving to identify and eliminate inequities and barriers. Equity is different than equality and Seth Boden (2020) gives a great illustration - if I am helping all employees reach the top shelf of the supply room, I would give everyone access to the same height ladder, regardless of how tall they are. The problem with treating people equally is that not everyone has the same needs. In this case, some may not be able to reach the top shelf with the provided ladder, while others may not need to use one at all! Compare this to “equitable” treatment. When I am treating people equitably, I strive to eliminate barriers and overcome past inequities—I would give the tallest people the shortest ladder and the shortest people the tallest ladder so everyone can reach the same height.

The equity consideration

Whilst all these terms are important, many organizations and groups are focusing in on equity, which is key to belonging. Groups that have historically been outsiders in the business world pay a variety of prices for lack of equity e.g. "code-switching" to fit in, which means “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities". Those who engage, have to mute or hide aspects of who they are to fit in and succeed at work; they may even be ostracized by members of their own group, who do not choose to "code-switch" themselves.

Employees from marginalized groups may experience several different types of negative or aggressive behaviors towards them including:

  • micro-aggressions - the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person's membership in a group that's discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. A key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.

  • gaslighting - describes the psychological manipulation of another individual, when you make that individual doubt their own truth and mental health. It happens when someone discusses an issue (racism or otherwise) in general or points out a specific act and they're either told they're overthinking it or wrong or criticized for how they brought up the issue. Sometimes a person may even be characterized as violent, stupid, or mentally unstable for calling out a discriminatory act at all. It can also occur when a group of people is blamed for a problem rather than the underlying societal cause.

Privilege is the key to understanding lack of equity

Generations of preferential treatment have put certain groups ahead and led to widening disparity with other less privileged groups. Whilst this may difficult to appreciate, groups that are not privileged may be marginalized, underrepresented, or under-served - this is one of the primary drivers behind several social movements. Organizations can no longer afford to ignore that there may be business relationships, internal systems, processes which may unwittingly contribute to systematization of inequity and which may bring reputational impact to their stakeholders. A recent example (drawing from a Caribbean perspective), is the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Reparations movement, which in 2013 was initiated to establish the moral, ethical and legal case for the payment of reparations by the Governments of all the former colonial powers and the relevant institutions of those countries, to the nations and people of the Caribbean Community for the Crimes against Humanity of Native Genocide, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and a racialized system of chattel Slavery. In 2018, there was the announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) built upon the principle of “reparatory justice” between the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies for the payment of £200 million in acknowledgment of reparations for benefits which the former accrued as a result of slavery; the money will come in cash and kind, scholarships, exchange programs and other activities geared towards empowerment.

As leaders amidst managing the COVID-19 pandemic, let us not forget the matter of DEI as a new lever to generate value for businesses and generations.

As we embrace diversity and work to create inclusion, equity, and belonging for all, we must address how this privilege operates and work to balance its impact through understanding, empathy and inclusive listening. (Seth Boden, 2020)

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