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Last week, the International Foundation hosted a webcast called Stronger Organizations: Your Role in Diversity and Inclusion. Wendell Young IV, the Foundation’s President and Chair, had wanted this topic to be an overarching theme for his leadership year, starting the conversation with a meeting among the Foundation’s Board and Committee members in March and running throughout the year. Because of the pandemic, that meeting never happened. Given the horrific events of the past few weeks and the ensuing call for social justice, Wendell asked that we have this discussion with a broader audience. We invited all Foundation members as well as anyone in the industry to hear three diversity and inclusion professionals: author and speaker Risha Grant; Nehrwr Abdul-Wahid of Intercultural Development Group, LLC; and Dr. Leeno Karumanchery of MESH/diversity. Together they brought a powerful message that left me feeling awakened to many considerations.
Each of our speakers approached this idea of diversity and inclusion differently, and some even admitted disdain for the word “diversity.” Their unique frameworks, paradigms and illustrations underscored a common thread: We need to recognize our own culture, our own history and our own biases in order to work effectively with people who are different from us. When this happens, when we genuinely allow space for someone to be different, when we hear what they have to say and give them support and appreciation for what they bring to the table, then real progress can be made. And then we’ll find tangible organizational results.
Bias, Beliefs and Culture
Our beliefs and our actions are fed by both conscious and unconscious bias. These are the beliefs we hold after a lifetime of getting messages reinforced over and over. Risha Grant explained it as the “them” that we refer to: “They” will think we were not raised properly. “They” will not let us get a job we want. For many of us, “they” are the people on the other side of the tracks, or the people who are a different color than our own. It is the “theys” who create our isms and phobias—racism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia. But, is the “they” really a “they”? Or are “they” really us? Risha offered three steps to addressing our own biases:
- Give ourselves permission to accept our feelings as they are. Acknowledge our own biases.
- Own it. Say it out loud. How does it sound when we say it out loud? Does it make us cringe?
- Confront our biases by being intentional about being inclusive. If we continue to circulate with whomever we are most comfortable and we are not deliberate and intentional about including others or genuinely considering other perspectives, no progress can be made.
Racism and Today’s Environment
Racism is a human issue, a social construct, one that involves a difference in power, and it has been in effect for generations. As employers who may be in a dominant group, we need to recognize that for some of our employees, this is a way of life, something that is carried with them always. Racism is a complex system; it is not a black-and-white problem with a correlating binary solution. Diversity and social oppression are nonlinear. There is a pattern to racism, but the science is complex and deeply embedded.
Leeno Karumanchery shared his view of today’s environment: He asserted that good, kindhearted, ethical, moral people take part in the racist system, and they don’t recognize it. But after George Floyd, after Amy Cooper, it feels like the world is changing. For the first time, the outrage of recent events is met equally with outrage from good, kind, ethical white folks. Diversity experts are being asked to do not just a single training, but to do more in-depth, sustainable work that will have lasting impact.
Look at Your Organizational Patterns
The speakers talked of organizational culture, defining it as repeated patterns or a shared experience. If we see what Leeno termed as 2-D diversity—meaning that diversity in race, gender, sexual orientation and age is present in entry-level jobs and then diminishes significantly as you move up the organizational ladder—it’s likely a system issue.
He shared that researchers have found two types of diversity that make a positive difference in an organization: inherent diversity (sex, race, etc.) and acquired diversity (cultural fluency, generational savvy, language skills, etc.). Firms that had both types had greater growth in market share over the previous year and were more likely to report that the firm captured a new market.
If our organizations have 2-D diversity, but we have a closed, dominant culture that does not truly embrace different perspectives, different ideas and different cultures, will those outside of the dominant culture survive? Building a sustainable, healthy culture together is a vital part of the puzzle. When the culture is healthy, it is the organization’s biggest recruitment tool.
Culture is Not About Ethnic Food
Ethnic lunches—and as Nehrwr pointed out, what food isn’t ethnic?—don’t help us understand a culture that is different from our own. We need to develop a capacity within our organizations for workers to improve their ability to work with others with cross-cultural differences. While we don’t need to know all the answers, we do need to ask the right questions. Nehrwr offered the following guidelines for building this cross-cultural capacity:
- Validate. Even if we don’t understand where someone’s coming from, we still need to validate their perspective as real and true for them.
- Appreciate. Show some appreciation that someone trusted us enough to share their experience or perspective. Say “thank you for trusting me with this.” The idea of appreciation was emphasized by Leeno. It is the point where compassion and a true sense of community can begin.
- Investigate. Be curious about deepening our understanding, and find ways we can be more responsive and supportive. Research using sources created by those within the group we’re trying to learn from.
Nehrwr suggested working beyond the golden rule of treating people the way we want to be treated. Treat them how THEY want to be treated. Practice reciprocity. Share before asking.
Mandated Training Does Not Get It Done
All speakers agreed: Mandating bias training will not accomplish anything. Because this is a highly complex, ingrained systemic issue, it will not be solved by a conversation, by watching a video or by doing a training. The work needs to be outcome-based. Developing intercultural competence, defined as the ability to work more effectively with people who are different than us, starts with the self and builds to group responsibilities. Leaders need to ask themselves, what options are we making available to develop this core competency? It must be part of the organization. Does our diversity statement say we value diversity, yet our leadership is a homogenous group? Our culture—including the repeated actions we take as well as our policies—must reflect this statement in order to be effective.
Each speaker wove in the idea of intention. We should be intentional in our efforts to include those outside of our own culture. Refocus on what we have in common. Get past defensiveness and polarization.
As we embrace being intentional, expect some bumps on the road. It’s not reasonable to take people from different races, backgrounds and cultures and expect them to get along. We assume it’s supposed to be natural. It’s not. Working with people who are culturally different is something we need to learn; it’s a process that requires continuous practice. Accept that this will be a little awkward. Risha asked us to consider that when we are with our extended family, we probably don’t like half of them, even though they have our same experiences. How then can we expect to seamlessly integrate with those of different backgrounds? Progress is messy. Focus on outcomes. Engage in development.
When it comes to communicating with each other, we tend to rely on our intentions, not realizing that our message can be received very differently. We didn’t intend to offend someone. We intended to give them a compliment. But how our message is received is what matters. We can’t not communicate (double negative intended). Everything we do is communication. How we interpret the message is about our life experience. Make sure our message is clear, simple and relatable. Our world experiences define our beliefs—Does our communication consider the other person’s world experiences?
The World Is Changing—How About Organizations?
The world has changed; how do we get our organizations to change? Each speaker emphasized that we all need to be part of the solution. Recognize our biases. Be intentional. Show appreciation.
As I wrote this blog, I found myself stopping the webcast, backing up, listening to a concept again, hearing something I missed on the first go-around and pausing to reflect, to ask more questions. I encourage you to do the same. There was so much in this webcast, and it made me realize that my understanding of racism is surface-deep. There’s a lot of work to be done.
International Foundation members can listen to the full webcast Stronger Organizations: Your Role in Diversity and Inclusion on demand to learn even more about how their organization can fully engage in building a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Stacy Van Alstyne
Communications Director at the International Foundation
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