The concept, and value, of diversity, equity, inclusion and access are issues I have well understood for some time. Or so I thought.
As a college-educated communications professional, and a master’s student focused on external messaging at that, I felt confident that my cultural competency and ‘wokeness’ as a millennial automatically made me DEI-proficient.
I thought wrong.
I recently took a class on DEIA-focused leadership and communication and here’s what I learned.
My background matters
White privilege wasn’t a buzzword when I was a child or even teenager like it is now, but I certainly knew it existed. I just didn’t have a name for it. All that my adolescent mind grasped was that the white people I knew owned pretty homes, went to college and got the Christmas gifts on their list. Non-white people most often did not, at least not the ones that I knew. I observed this in my own family too.
My mother’s relatives hail from Spain with speckles of Native American blood throughout the generations. My father’s grandparents came from Italy and Poland. So, genetically, I’m just a hodgepodge of different flavors of white. But, I also grew up in Southern California, one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and have brown skin because I tan well and live in the sunniest place in the U.S.
I also didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. In fact, we grew up without many things including financial security of any kind. Although my heritage is nearly all white, I’m brown on the outside and grew up in predominantly Hispanic communities of, to be reductive, poor brown people.
The (tragically) funny thing is, that if you described my ethnic identity based solely on blood work or 23andMe, I’d pass as a white girl with flying colors. But, take one look at me and that potential privilege, locked into the innermost part of my genetic makeup, fades away.
D, E and I aren’t synonyms.
It was news to me that diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t synonyms and certainly aren’t interchangeable. They mean different things and addressing each requires a completely different approach.
Diversity describes how different a group of people are. Differences include age, race, gender identification, religion, socioeconomic status, education level and more. It’s empirical and quantifiable with simple check boxes we’re all so used to filling out nowadays.
Equity involves equal access to similar opportunities. Do diverse groups have access to resources, networks and support to access the same education levels, wealth management, internships and job opportunities and so much more. This is far more difficult to measure quantifiably but is often addressed with programs and initiatives designed to funnel money and resources into communities of need to try and raise them to the same playing field as those without disadvantages.
Inclusion necessitates that diversity and equity have already been achieved. Once a community is diverse and everyone is given equal access to opportunities to succeed, inclusion ensures that everyone’s voices and opinions are heard and weighted just as equally. This is far more difficult to achieve and even more so to measure. In fact, it might be impossible to empirically measure and is most applicable to each individual rather than systems. Achieving inclusion requires everyone to respect and accept everyone, including their differences.
It's DEIA, and the A means something
We often hear “DEI” and are familiar with what each stand for. But there’s a whole letter we’re leaving off. The “A” stands for access, and I realized that the disability community if all-too-often left out of our inclusivity initiatives and considerations, at least from an organizational standpoint.
It also struck me that many people have a limited understanding of who all is a part of the disability community. There are people who are blind, in wheelchairs, neurodivergent, use a cane, use communication assistive tools and so much more. There’s not one thing that makes someone a part of the disability community, yet our engagement with and action for these people is lackluster, at best.
Safe spaces aren’t the goal.
Safe space is another buzzword we’re all familiar with. We most often use the term to describe a culture of respect. It also connotes a kind of intimacy and is designed to embolden people to be vulnerable, brave even.
The problem is, it actually discourages bravery and promotes walking on eggshells around one another for fear of saying the wrong/offensive thing.
Brave spaces, however, better avoid this problem. Brave spaces give people the freedom to genuinely speak freely, without fear of chastisement for saying something to offend another. This approach also requires that everyone in the space agrees to handle conflicts differently than what we see on display all too often.
Rather than taking offense, differences are met with open dialogue to understand one another, dissect individuals’ points of views and reconcile. This slight but significant mindset shift holds the power to let people discuss the difficult issues that we all recognize as weighty and important within communities.
Safe spaces tip toe around issues while brave spaces create a communal code of conduct to productively discuss them to find resolve and maintain relationships.
Biases are natural
Everyone has biases and it’s not because everyone is just a terrible human. Our brains are hardwired to develop biases, or snap judgements to shorten response times to those chosen stimuli in order to protect us. For example, we assume that streets are dangerous, so we don’t walk into them without first checking for oncoming traffic in both directions.
The problem is, most often those biases are more harmful than helpful, and it takes significant work to rewire our brains to consciously think about people we have biases against differently.
Not all biases are purely based on a subconscious survival mechanism deep in our minds. There’s oftentimes malicious intentionality behind who societies choose to ostracize and subject to widespread hasty generalizations, like Nazi Germany vilifying Jews or South Africa’s apartheid. It could be argued that even these are couched in the desire to survive, they’re just uber sophisticated and allow for the triumph of one group at the expense of another.
All of that may seem far removed from the everyday DEIA (or not) experience, but it’s important to keep in mind. Yes, we all need to be mindful of what and how we think about people and challenge ourselves to look beyond and move above our biases. But it also tells us that we should give ourselves grace and patience to improve slowly but surely to short-circuit our auto mode snap judgements.