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  • Writer's pictureItzbeth Menjívar

A Basic Introduction to Diversity and Inclusion

Project Good Work interviewed me recently, and the highlights are a great introduction for anyone thinking about diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace.

"Why has it taken so long for diversity inclusion to be properly addressed in society?"

Project Good Work Interview Excerpt - For the full article, please go to this link.

How can people make diversity inclusion part of their everyday lives, so it doesn't feel awkward?

Many Americans are interested in moving our society forward as long as it's not uncomfortable, or awkward for them. However, non-white male Americans who are driven and interested in achieving their full potential have had to deal with a lot more than discomfort for generations. People's very lives and freedom have been taken for granted due to discrimination. Setting things in the right direction will require deep self-reflection and the type of growth that will make many uncomfortable, but this is a small price to pay for the benefits that are possible if everyone was free to fully contribute.

What constitutes a diverse workplace? For example, I have seen articles saying it's a company that has women, LGBTQ+, minorities, and people with disabilities represented, are people missing the point?

There is not one formula for what constitutes a diverse workplace. Diversity will vary according to many factors, including context, geography, the demographic make-up of a particular place, and what is the workplace looking to accomplish. At a minimum, the diversity in a team should reflect the diversity of the general population where it is based. Additionally, for-profit companies should seek to reflect the diversity of their desired customer base, and non-profit organizations should strive to reflect the diversity of the community that they serve in the make-up of their staff, senior leaders, and board of directors. Diversity is not only about including historically underrepresented groups, it's also about including a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. For example, you may have an ethnically diverse team, but if they all were educated in ivy-league schools, then perhaps you may not have as diverse a set of perspectives as you may have if you included people with degrees from state schools or no degrees at all. Many companies are now looking closer at whether a college degree is really necessary for a particular role, and that opens the door for a greater pool of diverse applicants. However, any diversity conversation that does not address racial inequities directly, will continue to perpetuate the systems that allow for not only people of color but, people from all underrepresented groups to be excluded.

Why is creating diversity inclusion difficult in the workplace?

In the US context, it is difficult to create inclusive environments because of the historic and systemic nature of discrimination, as codified in law, policies, and practices, since before the founding of the country. These policies and practices keep morphing up until today without being fully examined by the public at large, though thankfully this is slowly beginning to change. It is difficult to have conversations that advance equity when the preferred method is to focus on the individual instances of discrimination, instead of on the systemic structures that exclude and discriminate. The United States has a long history of investing in and looking after the interests of its White citizens while working to intentionally displace and exclude Black and Brown citizens, who were not considered full-fledged citizens until everyone finally obtained the right to vote after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is easy for those who were not affected by chattel slavery, black codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and redlining to say to those who were: "It's been 55 years since you have been free, why don't you pull yourself up by the bootstraps and catch-up?" Notwithstanding that catching up would mean having to make up for 350 years of intentional discrimination, exclusion, and de-humanization starting with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619 together with the systematic removal of Native Americans from the lands that they cared for and protected for thousands of years. In the US, we have been socialized to believe that black and brown people are somehow inferior, lazy, or criminal and that this explains the level of poverty in their communities. Popular culture served to spread this kind of misinformation about the nature of black and brown people since the beginning of film and radio. It's a shameful victim-blaming tactic used to preserve the status quo, and the worst part is that not only White people have believed these lies, Black and Brown people have also often internalized these false beliefs.

Why is a diverse workplace important?

Exclusion and the inequities that result from it diminish our society's ability to deliver on its promises of liberty and justice for all. We pay a high price for discrimination, not only socially, but also economically. By advancing racial equity, the United States could experience a significant increase in economic output and associated increases in consumer spending and tax revenue, as well as decreases in spending on social services and healthcare. The Kellogg Foundation commissioned a study that estimates that an additional $8 trillion could be added to GDP by 2050 if we successfully closed the racial equity gap. Racial disparities and lack of access to opportunity limit human potential and the economic contributions of people of color.

Diversity is also important because plenty of studies have shown that diverse teams are stronger by having access to different viewpoints, which increases innovation and performance. One theory is that people from different backgrounds tend to prepare more to persuade others and will vet their ideas more, helping the team make better decisions.

For organizations with a vision of advancing justice and opportunity, they must practice the values that they seek to advance in the world by creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to join their staff and leadership. That being said, I must add that adding diversity to the workplace is not enough. I am part of the first generation of adults who grew up in a system where it is illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disabilities. This means that there is an increasing number of people from underrepresented groups joining the ranks of senior leadership.

However, the experience for many of us is that we are brought in to add diversity to an environment, but since our voices tend to be in the minority, our ideas tend to be ignored, our contributions unheard, our leadership undermined. Groups made up largely by one dominant culture, most often a white-dominant culture, believe that by abiding by the democratic principles of a majority rule, they are being "fair." However, this has harmful consequences for those in the minority who were top performers in their field until they begin to encounter resistance from the very teams they are meant to lead, often due to just not being accustomed to having to report to someone with a different background. This resistance is rooted in both conscious and unconscious bias, and those not trained to identify their own biases tend to not be aware of how their behavior excludes and marginalizes others.

What are the top three barriers to diversity inclusion in the workplace?

  • The systemic nature of discrimination in the United States, accompanied by internalized racial superiority and inferiority across our society is the greatest barrier.

  • Another barrier is a lack of root cause analysis of the conditions of underrepresented groups in this country.

  • And lastly, as mentioned earlier, the focus on the individual instances of discrimination, rather than looking at the systemic. Despite America's history of immigration and a multitude of cultures, to be successful in the workplace requires a high level of assimilation to the White dominant culture. For those for whom assimilation is not possible or desirable, it is virtually impossible to break through the walls of exclusion.

What are the challenges of having a diverse workplace?

I believe that one of the challenges is that in diverse workplaces, we need to take a little extra time to build trust and ensure open lines of communication. I believe that extra time is an investment in a much more robust product or solution.

Is diversity inclusion only an American issue?

Unfortunately, most societies find some type of way to classify and divide themselves from others. However, the United States' founding history of Native genocide and the enslavement of African people for financial gain, as well as the subsequent structural discrimination, which when contrasted by the concept of American exceptionalism and beacon of human rights, tend to position it as a place with a lot of work to do in order to live up to its intended values of liberty and justice for all.

Does diversity inclusion affect immigrants differently?

I would say that yes, particularly in the current environment of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Exclusion is even more marked for someone who not only looks different from the dominant culture but, who also may sound different if English is not their first language. While conversations about equity must begin with and directly address race, no equity conversation is complete without a full examination of the intersecting identities that may result in exclusion, such as gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, legal status, religion, physical and/or learning/cognitive disabilities, etc.

What steps should an organization take to create a diverse and inclusive environment?

First, it begins with a commitment by leadership to embark on a journey towards equity and belonging. If the commitment is real, an investment in support for the journey will be needed, whether from a senior staff dedicated to diversity and inclusion or from a consultant. A willingness to invest is one of the first indicators of the level of commitment by leadership. Second, I believe early work must include developing a shared language that allows for open and honest dialogue. Equity work is people work, and it's important to understand the different experiences that each staff may have lived through may evoke different emotions and reactions. It is important to develop norms that allow for a safe exploration of these issues without creating additional injury to those who already have been exposed to so much harm throughout their lives. And third, it's important to create a shared understanding of the historic root causes of the problem to be solved, before jumping in to try to solve it. Legend says that Einstein said, "If I had one hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes understanding the problem, and 5 minutes working to solve it." I believe this is the type of analysis that is required for an organization looking to create a culture of belonging, having a deep, extended understanding of the problem and its root causes, before running to solve it. These would be my first three steps to start a journey that could potentially take years.

I see that in some industries such as tech and always surprisingly non-profits or cause-based industries lack diversity … why do you think that is?

I am not familiar with the tech industry, but I understand that diversity there comes in the form of many Asian Americans, for many reasons that I am not equipped to speak to. I would guess that the same anti-black sentiment that pervades in our society is present in that industry. In the non-profit industry, I think the lack of diversity is an extension of what I discussed before, regarding a lack of analysis of root causes of poverty and injustice, and the assumption that communities of color are impoverished due to some kind of cultural deficit on their part, rather than intentional systems of exclusion and discrimination. Non-profits are funded by philanthropists who tend to be white and wealthy, who then become part of the board of directors which decides on the Executive Director to run the organization, and until recently, they tended to be mostly white males. However, there's been more recently a large shift to the hiring of white women executive directors, thanks to gender equity advances that have often left women of color behind.

I am beginning to experience philanthropy as a problematic concept overall, because wealthy donors, instead of being fairly taxed to fund public education and healthcare for all, get to keep most of their money (at least in relation to the average tax-payer), and then they get to decide how to invest that money, having undue influence on what type of solutions are provided to a community in need. By keeping communities in need, in poverty, they can continue to access low-cost labor for their businesses and industries. The book Winner Takes All by Anand Giridharadas explores this concept in quite a bit of detail. Another great book on the topic of philanthropy comes from indigenous wisdom, Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva.

Why has it taken so long for diversity inclusion to be properly addressed in society?

Silence is the most powerful tool that those who benefit from excluding a large proportion of citizens use to maintain the status quo. By making up and maintaining unspoken rules about what should or should not be discussed in the workplace, or society at large, the power structures remain in place. Changes in technology, social media, globalization, and the pure shock for many of having a government leadership that openly promotes white nationalism have all resulted in a wave of awareness and activism to finally address the elephant in the room. In addition, I believe that there is a growing number of senior professionals like me, who have come of age in a system that told us that if we worked hard we could achieve anything we wanted, but when we rose too high, was quick to remind us that we did not belong there, and that our employment would be threatened by our speaking up, which is why I am now an entrepreneur working to solve this very issue.

Why doesn't or Why does affirmative action work towards diversity inclusion?

It depends on which affirmative action you are referring to. Affirmative action is defined as a system of preference or advantage based on race and including gender. Based on this definition, there has been affirmative action providing preference and advantages to strictly white males, since the first arrival of European colonists. When the definition was expanded in 1964 to include all other Americans, this caused an outcry of "reverse discrimination" despite clear evidence that this would be the first time that non-white and white female Americans enjoyed the same protections as their white male counterparts. It should be noted that affirmative action only applies to government or government-funded agencies, and not to the workforce at large. From my perspective, it is a small gesture to try to right a wrong that is much bigger than who gets hired or who does not.

Do you feel that America and the world have become more siloed than 20 years ago?

Yes and no. While our government is implementing isolationist policies and curbing trade and cooperation with our allies, globalization is so far advanced that for a large percentage of everyday people, being connected to someone outside of the country is almost the norm. Because of my work in international development, I have traveled extensively, and with the help of technology, I have been able to maintain relationships and connections in many of the places I worked and visited. Because America has always been a destination for immigrants, there are strong bonds for many to their homelands. However, there is a clear global shift moving from neo-liberal and international cooperation thought towards populism and white nationalism in a significant number of countries around the world.

Statistics say millennials and the upcoming generation (Gen Z) are one of the most diverse populations in history how is it translating in all aspects of society?

I see very positive changes coming from the younger generations (I am Gen X), including a real desire to align their values with their work. I welcome and encourage this sort of idealism. The risk I see is that in our drive toward idealism, we may neglect to see the immediate need in front of us to build bridges and foster greater understanding through dialogue with those that think differently from us.

What is the most profound thing you have learned about diversity inclusion?

The most profound thing I have learned is that change begins with me and that the most important tool in our equity and belonging toolkit is a mirror. If we are not willing to self-examine and try to understand our own complicity in the structures that dehumanize, exclude, and oppress others, then all the work in the world will not get us the desired result.

About BridgePeople LLC

BridgePeople leverages relationship-building to add value in three core areas of focus:

  • Facilitating conversations and organizational change management that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion,

  • Strategic Management Consulting for philanthropic institutions, and

  • Executive Leadership Coaching, to support those who lead diverse teams

To learn how BridgePeople can support your organization go to:

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