Laying the Foundation for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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By: Teron Buford, VP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Growing up as a Black male in inner-city Chicago, I experienced my fair share of hardships. One might think that, as opportunities presented themselves, things got easier. Not exactly. Laws of thermodynamics suggest that energy is never destroyed but is transferred from entity to entity. I think the same can be said about the struggles of people of color as they navigate the landscape of predominantly white educational and professional workspaces. The worry and anxiety shifted from my neighborhood to my classroom. From my classroom to my office. All along the way, the challenges never subsided; they morphed to fit my new landscapes.

I remember sitting in an English 101 course as we covered literature that focused on social injustice. This took place at a predominantly white college in St. Paul, Minnesota. We were reading a book in which the author purposely left behind her financial stability to explore what it might mean to live on minimum wage. From paycheck to paycheck. During one of our class discussions, a young woman raised her hand and matter-of-factly asked “why don’t people just save more of their money? If they just saved more money, they wouldn’t have to live like they do.” My blood boiled as my inner monologue argued with itself: “Wow! She clearly has no idea about the systems in place that impede financial mobility and financial security. Is it my job to educate her? Am I to be the spokesperson for a group of underserved, underrepresented, and clearly misunderstood people? If I raise my hand, am I going to find myself on an island, fighting a worthy but losing battle? What do I stand to gain if I speak up? What do I stand to lose if I don’t?” I gathered my thoughts, calmed my spirit, and raised my hand.

I remember sitting in a meeting with a former employer where we were looking for ways to bring greater access to a product. We discussed some of the feedback we’d received that claimed our processes were biased and skewed, our policies were rooted in oppression, and that we were effectively marginalizing an already over-marginalized population. We went around the table giving countless examples of our intentions and explaining why our operations needed to remain the same. Some scoffed at the notion that we were a part of the problem. They even pointed out ways in which we have provided the solution. After about 40 minutes of pacifying and justifying our perspectives, my inner monologue was at it again: “I mean, the feedback is making good points. How can so many people experience our product in the same negative way and be wholeheartedly wrong? I understand that our intentions are positive, but does that outweigh the actual impact? Ok, now this is high stakes. Speaking up could jeopardize my job. My income. My family’s finances. Is this my fight? Can someone else do it? Maybe I can send a softly worded email after the meeting? No. That won’t get it done.” I cleared my throat, collected my thoughts, tried to push aside the fear, and spoke my piece.

“Diversity” seems to be the new buzzword floating around the atmosphere. Organizations are scrambling to recruit new and diverse talent. Interestingly enough, I was on a call with a friend at a large organization the other day. He’d asked why most of his diverse employees were leaving the company after 2-3 years. He’d shared that they had solid compensation packages, fancy titles, and fulfilling job responsibilities. I asked about the company’s culture as it relates to equity and inclusion and, not to my surprise, he couldn’t speak to it fully. And that’s the issue: treating DEI as a numbers game will never pan out in the end. The environment matters. The culture of the company as it relates to belonging matters. And, if companies are ever going to get ahead of the curve, they’ll have to build environments that are intentionally conducive to respecting diversity, building equity, and living out inclusion.

For the longest time, we based the success of diversity initiatives on sheer numbers. “That company has XX% people of color and women, which means they’re doing well.” Today, we understand that the issue is a bit too complex for tally marks alone to tell the whole story. Diversity and inclusion, from my perspective, is cultivating an environment that is not only demographically representative of the greater population, but also encourages, empowers, and uplifts the voices of employees who have been historically under-represented, under-valued and, quite frankly, silenced. A commitment to living out these ideals should not only be reflected in a company’s mission, vision, and values, but should be genuinely felt across the company.

There is something to be said for companies that have paid more than just lip service to their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Creating positions, departments, and/or committees with the dedicated responsibilities of increasing diversity and inclusion within an organization is a step in the right direction. Each company, however, will have a different set of obstacles to overcome on their journeys towards creating diverse and inclusive environments and should look to their workforce to help them identify the gaps. At Avenica, for example, we’ve created a diversity board comprised of leaders from various departments who have united to create intentional company-wide learning opportunities. Each quarter has a theme around which topics will be introduced and each month has a dedicated learning goal. There’s a mix of readings, videos, interactive modules, and person-to-person conversations to help aid in the growth process. We will also be rolling out an anonymous feedback survey that will allow participants a safe space to provide input. Regardless of the approach, it cannot be stated enough that company-wide buy-in is integral in this process. Companies should intentionally work to ensure that all employees understand the value of a diverse and inclusive work environment.

All of this, of course, is easier said than done. The marathon of creating inclusive and welcoming spaces functions less as a one-person race and more like a relay; requiring a concerted effort from all involved. No one has all the answers. For more help with laying the foundation for DEI work, I’d recommend starting (but not stopping) with the resources below.

Stay strong.

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