Today’s social context has increased the priority of conversations centering on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This renewed importance within organizations affects many learning leaders who feel pressure to deliver solutions that address the harm caused by racial inequity.

Here’s the thing, though: Racial injustice is not a new issue.

So while, yes, we should act with urgency to address these issues, we can’t hop into the work if we haven’t spent the time needed to understand the root causes. It’s just like weeding your garden; if you don’t kill the root, the issues will keep growing back.

This article introduces five key perspective shifts necessary within DEI solutions to address this root.

1. But, what if I get this wrong…

Listen, we’re all going to get this wrong. Social identities and the politics surrounding them are ever-changing and evolving. As we shift from dominant narratives and make room for alternative and more inclusive ones, we’re going to be challenged to relearn.

As learning leaders, we know that mistakes are necessary to reinforce this learning. Instead of letting fear of inevitable errors paralyze us, let’s begin to build a perspective of accountability and repair.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices asserts that this restorative perspective is the science of relationships and community. In practice, this means that we're going to build processes to ensure that we’re getting feedback; we are receptive to the feedback; and, when we receive feedback that tells us that we messed up, we’ll listen, affirm, learn, and restore.

Being open to making mistakes as we learn does not mean that we intentionally create harm through bigotry, but that when we make a misstep because we’ve all been socialized with dominant narratives, we correct ourselves and try to make it right.

Questions for learning leaders to consider are:

  • How are you collecting feedback on your work and behavior surrounding DEI?
  • How prepared are you to listen and address feedback when it does arise?
  • What practices can you put into place for additional review and accountability?

2. But, we made sure to represent diverse individuals...

Representation matters, and when folks from marginalized (systemically excluded and oppressed) groups don’t see themselves reflected, it causes harm. However, representation falls short without the nuance of intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a concept coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the compounding impact of racism and sexism on Black women.

An understanding of intersectionality requires an understanding of systemic oppression. It forces us to reckon with the ways that aspects of our identity give us more access or present increased barriers.

Intersectionality is an analysis that honors and centers on the experiences of Black women and challenges marginalization across all lines of difference. In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo shares a list of key questions to consider when applying an intersectional perspective—great questions for learning leaders considering programs and training to address DEI issues:

  • Ask how race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, or sex impacts the issue.
  • Ask how what you’re looking for confirms what you know or explores what you don’t know.
  • Ask other people if they notice anything missing from your racial justice (DEI) efforts.

Ultimately, depicting BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) in your work is shallow if you are still centering on the folks within those groups who have the most access and privilege. An intersectional perspective forces us to go deeper within the margins.

3. But, we treat everyone equally…

We’ve all likely seen the meme depicting equity vs. equality. It depicts three individuals who are different heights struggling to see a baseball field over a fence. The first image, labeled equality, gives all three individuals the same accommodation to remove the barrier. Well, this equal accommodation still leaves the shortest individual struggling to see over the fence. Conversely, the tallest individual gets more than they need.

Equity shifts the narrative by providing each individual with the accommodation they need to see over the fence. This means that folks are not receiving equal accommodation; they’re receiving equitable accommodation.

Now, there is plenty of critique on this image, as the reality is that the fence was built to keep folks off of the field in the same way that our systems were designed to exclude some groups. The real power is in thinking about liberation, which removes the barrier of the fence completely.

We’re a long way from liberation but by reflecting on equitable solutions, we can better identify the nonsensical barriers that need to be dismantled. An equity perspective centers on the experiences of marginalized social identity groups and asks what is needed within the solution to address systemic roots. To assess this in their DEI programs, learning leaders might ask these questions:

  • Am I considering complex and diverse motivations and barriers to access within this program?
  • What barriers is this program seeking to address? What is the root cause of these barriers?
  • Who will benefit most by addressing these barriers?

4. But, that’s not what I meant…

For most of my life, I’ve been told that I am articulate and well-spoken, and for most of my life this has made me uncomfortable. As a public school-educated kid born and raised in the city of Detroit, expectations around my ability and performance were… well, pretty low. This “articulate” compliment feels like an affirmation of those low expectations. Still, people think it is a compliment, and maybe it could be a compliment, but because I am a Black woman, it’s also a microaggression.

A microaggression is an indignity that stems from bias and stereotypes, and while avoiding microaggressions is key to a DEI strategy, this deficit framing can be intimidating for folks who don’t understand how their unconscious bias informs them.

As learning leaders, you can reframe this perspective in your DEI solutions by supporting microaffirmation. Microaffirmations, according to research from Dr. James Jones and Dr. Rosalie Rolón-Dow, recognize, validate, and protect social identity and life experience of those from marginalized identity groups. Their research demonstrates how microaffirmations can be implemented through spoken and written communications or communicated through body language or as visuals through images.

Shifting your perspective to one that prioritizes microaffirmation does not mean you should ignore the harm of microaggression, but it shifts the focus to also include the nurturing of folks from marginalized experiences.

To assess this in their DEI programs, learning leaders might ask these questions:

  • Am I inviting folks to share authentically from their lived experiences?
  • Have I learned the strengths and desired ways of working for the folks on my team? Do I leverage this information in our work?
  • How is social identity reflected and affirmed on the team?

5. But, I invited you…

Have you heard the popular saying “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”? While this is an oversimplification of a complex DEI issue, the sentiment is pretty spot on—except that I would add: Inclusion is being asked to dance to music that reflects your taste.

Inclusion and belonging are gaining traction in conversations on DEI, and in her TedX Talk, Just belonging: finding the courage to interrupt bias, Kori Carew, an attorney and inclusion strategist, shares that individuals who aim to facilitate belonging and inclusion should:

  • Listen from the heart. We cannot tell people how to feel about their lives, and we have to silence ourselves until we can make situations not about ourselves.
  • Cultivate curiosity. Carry a mindset of learning, and honestly demonstrate that you want to know and go beyond your own lived experiences.
  • Engage in cultural learning. She suggests finding a cultural mentor—someone who wants to and can provide feedback on your cultural learning.
  • Show vulnerability. It’s not easy and not always fun, and you will get angry and frustrated. You could be opening yourself up to being judged and ridiculed, but sit in that space of vulnerability no matter how messy and painful it gets. Tell yourself, I will keep going and do it again.
  • Do something. When you notice harm, speak up against it. Reframe the single incident by naming its connection to larger systemic issue. Remember, when you intervene, you’re showing up and supporting marginalized members of your community. Try not to take reactions or the situation personally.
  • Connect across shared values. As you explore differences, remember the core values of your organization and your work, and connect across them by holding them at the center.

To assess this in their DEI programs, learning leaders might ask these questions:

  • What are the shared values our team upholds together?
  • Are we prioritizing comfort or courage in our program?
  • When folks are uncomfortable or make mistakes, how do we address it?

Shifting perspective moves us toward accountability and repair

As learning leaders, to ensure that our DEI efforts are effective, we’ll have to adjust a few key perspectives to make room for today’s context. This might slow up our processes but these shifts move us from fear of making mistakes to a norm of accountability and repair.

Expand representative diversity to include intersectional experiences. Focus on equity over equality to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met. Affirm the identities and lived experiences of marginalized people in addition to reducing the harm of microaggressions.

Ultimately, these shifts will foster a sense of belonging and inclusion across all lines of difference that span beyond our typical understanding of DEI.

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