In All the Equity Talk, We’ve Skipped Diversity & Inclusion

For the past year, maybe even a little longer, I’ve repeated the same phrase over and over again with a shake of my head and frustrated heart, and mind. “We’ve forgotten about diversity and inclusion.”

About every 18 to 36 months, for about 18 to 36 months, we find new things to buzz about. With my work in communications, I’ve seen many trends come and go. This isn’t to say they go away. Instead, this is to say that organizations that weren’t really committed to real change are no longer talking about them. The words go away. They’ve dropped the jargon for the next “squirrel” of a trend. 

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So now, we are at equity. It is all the buzz, particularly in the nonprofit and government space. Almost every conference, workshop, and conversation is consumed with talk about equity, inequity, equitable opportunities, economic equity, or some other version of the sentiment. Rightfully so, we should be working towards equity. We are light years behind. 

But I have five major caveats and concerns to the equity conversation: 

  1. Equity only works if there’s a collective and shared definition among an organization or groups working in collaboration.

  2. Equity needs to be modeled, and defined when presented in public. The use of the word alone is not enough. Equity is a verb, an action that must be lived, made mistakes around, and pivoted, in order to really shift.

  3. Equity work must be led or co-led by people who are apart of communities that have traditionally not benefited from society’s prosperity - economically, socially, financially, or psychologically.

  4. There are varying levels to the type of equity an organization may be working towards but it must begin internally, and with deep discussion about race - historically and presently, and the understanding of systemic racism. * be clear, this is not about individual people being racists but systems built to be induce racism over and over again *

  5. And, you can’t produce equitable changes until you’ve understood, exercised, and evaluated diversity and inclusion - also terms that need defining.

For the purpose of this piece, I will focus on #5. 

So that you are clear on where I stand, here’s how diversity, equity and inclusion are defined by my agency

Diversity - acknowledgement of someone’s existence that differs from you.

Inclusion - intentional programming, processes or policy that value the strength of a differing existence.

Equity - specific strides to advance a particular community to ensure they have all they need to be successful in an effort to one day be seen, valued, and supported (financially and otherwise) as equal to their counterparts without question or hindrance.

While this isn’t the only way to define these words, this is what has helped guide our work as inclusive communicators. 

If your definition differs, good; please share it with me. No matter how we put it though, equity only works if a person working within a system understands the system, and their place in the system. This starts with acknowledgment. And that acknowledgment always has to begin with the person, and not the organization. But so often we jump to developing messaging, slap a couple of photos on our marketing materials, or embed a couple of tactics in are already developed strategic plan (STOP doing this…call us sooner). 

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You see, we are skipping steps. 

Unless you understand the business case for diversity, unless you appreciate that more innovation and creativity can exist when there is more in the room than diversity of thought, and until you can reflect on how your behavior may have contributed to the room looking “one type of way”, WE CAN NOT GET TO EQUITY. At this point, we can’t even maintain that we are inclusive. 

Once you’ve done the preliminary work as an individual, you have to then develop a company wide opportunity for that same exact exercise to happen. It takes time. Sometimes this process is months, and many times it is years. From the time you start until you begin having the uncomfortable conversation more broadly (externally), there will be a need to manage a great deal of shame, pride, confirmation, embarrassment, harassment, and smatterings of other feelings that someone will need the tools to facilitate. 

Oh, and this is not just a bunch of meetings to kick the can down the road. This must be modeled behavior, practice-like-you-play type of work. 

And then you have to consider the lens to ensure that the organization, made up of people, have policies, programs, language, and practices that support the work to be an inclusive environment. This likely means doing more than the minimum of ensuring that the organization is a reflection of the world it serves. It’s about intentional behavior that begins to set aside power and position. Honestly, this is where people get stuck. 

All of this is to work towards true system change. 

Systems change is hard. It’s deep and uncomfortable, and most people in a lifetime might not every actually accomplish a true system change. It’s so easy to do what we know to do and that’s usually to throw money at bandaids instead of cutting off the limb. But how do you know that you are operating with a broken arm if you’ve never x-rayed it? Ok enough with that analogy but seriously, how do we jump in to the work that is the hardest because it’s the most trendy right now. 

What happens when equity is no longer on the tip of people’s tongues?

I encourage you to go deeper, and not lean in to what’s easiest. 

I encourage you to make the mistakes.

I encourage you to stop having meetings that don’t yield an action.

I encourage you to consult with someone who can see the larger forrest. 

So, here are some very preliminary (maybe) uncomfortable questions for you to consider as you challenge yourself as you work through diversity, equity, or inclusion. 

  1. Do I understand, and can write out, my privilege and the ways it has supported and benefited me? Have I shared those privileges with other people?

  2. Have I gone to the places where I’d like to impact change and asked permission to be apart of their community? And then silently listened?

  3. Have I reviewed any set rules or guidelines that I’ve established that can potentially harm others today or in the future?

  4. Have I researched other groups, starting with other races and ethnicities, that have been systemically oppressed in the past and today? Am I willing to have a conversation about what I’ve learned?

  5. Do I understand why hashtags like #blacklivesmatter #blacktwitter can exist as a tool for justice and community building and not racist rhetoric?

  6. Do I understand why Latinx is a term of identity reclamation and not “just a way to be fancy”?

  7. Have I challenged myself to see when another person is not being included (maybe even with my doing?)

  8. Have I called out another person for not upholding the norms we’ve put in place?

  9. Am I willing to place my power and position to the side, my good name too, to let another person take the lead or credit?

  10. If a funder or government official, have I used money or relationships to keep an organization or its leader from funding? Have I written a plan to change that?

  11. If a funder or government official, have I convened the tables where I somehow continue to lead the conversation?

  12. If a funder, have I purposefully or otherwise overlooked a potential candidate for funding because of perceived lack of capacity?

  13. If a board chair, have I requested that we review any current language about diversity, inclusion or equity? Or, have I requested that we develop language that we can adopt and will serve as a guidance to our work?

  14. If an executive director, have I reviewed our hiring or volunteer recruitment language with another person of another background, community, and race, to ensure its description is not limiting?

  15. If an executive director, have I intentionally or otherwise made an assumption about an action from a team member that could be explained with a conversation?

  16. If an executive director or strategic planning consultant, have I required that we include our diversity, inclusion, and equity work as a part of our strategic plan?

  17. As a volunteer or board member, have I requested to see examples of inclusion in the organization I am serving?

  18. Have I sat in reflection and questioned: am I an ally or a gatekeeper?

This is a heavy and deep conversation. A blog isn’t enough. Neither are conversations in silos. Let’s do more together to change the direction of where we’re going. 

What questions would you add?

What is your experience? 

* To be clear and careful to not confuse the topic, there are many people continuing the Diversity and Inclusion work. This is not what this piece is about. Those people should continue the work. This is about those organizations or consortiums that are running away with the word equity without doing the equity work. *