Challenging our thinking about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

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This is the first in a series of articles on this topic. Read the second article here.

I was fourteen years old when I heard one of the most profound statements on diversity dialogues in the Canadian context.

We were two young black girls sitting in our high school cafeteria eating French fries, when my friend suddenly and very nonchalantly and asked me: “Have you ever noticed that whenever anyone says anything about black people, everyone turns and stares at you? It’s like they expect you to start crying.” We spent a couple of minutes reflecting on how weird and how uncomfortable it felt, and we quickly moved on to other topics because we were teens and there was a lot of life to discuss.

Why it resonated

What sticks with me most about that conversation was not just how often this happened growing up, but why it happened. Our classmates were likely checking in on us because they were concerned that any reference to difference would be hurtful. I realize now that as X/Y cusps, we overlapped between two generations that were taught to be “colour-blind” -- that we were all the same and should be treated equally. That naming our differences was counteractive to everything we had learned about being empathetic.

What my friend was able to do in that moment was forecast a key tension we see today with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). We know it’s the right thing to do, but because many of us grew up learning to suppress and be silent about difference, we often don’t have the tools or experience to engage in this work in a meaningful way.

Over the next few months, this series will explore the possibilities for DEI in the nonprofit sector and provide actionable steps to help you become more inclusive in your organizations. Before we do a deep dive, I think it’s important to take a step back and ensure we have a good shared understanding of the key concepts and particularly how they relate to one another so that we can implement DEI in our organizations in ways that work.

I’m sure diversity, equity and inclusion are familiar terms to us all. But sometimes the language is used interchangeably, or you might see some organizations referring to DEI while others prefer D&I or EDI – so what does it all really mean anyway? In fact, each term is a distinct concept that contributes to a bigger picture like pieces of a puzzle. Let’s break it down.

Diversity

Diversity refers to the ways we differentiate between groups or individuals. Some of the ways we do this are by age, race, ethnicity, colour, gender identity, gender expression, class, creed, abilities, religion, sexual orientation, marital status and family status, for instance – and I imagine you could easily think of many more. A 2018 Harvard Business Review report suggests that there are actually three categories of diversity. The list above reflects the first type: demographic diversity. Experiential diversity includes factors such as education, interests and experiences, while cognitive diversity is what is more often referred to as diversity of thought.

Equity

Equity recognizes that because of our diversity, sometimes accommodations need to be made in order to create a level playing field. For non-profits in particular, an equity approach removes barriers so that services, supports, and opportunities can be made accessible to all. This is different from equality, in which differences are minimized and everyone receives the same supports. Instead, equity ensures that everyone has the specific resources and accommodations they need to have a fair shot. When we think of equity, we should be thinking of fairness. This is a particularly powerful image of what equity looks like in action.

Inclusion

Inclusion occurs when everyone feels that they are being treated fairly and with respect, that their contributions are valued and that they belong. It means appreciating the full range of our diversity and how our differences contribute to a larger whole and creating spaces that are safe and welcoming for all. In the nonprofit sector, inclusion requires active outreach and engagement to underrepresented groups in order to be meaningful.

So how do the puzzle pieces fit?

Now that we have a good baseline for DEI, let’s consider how they relate to one another. One way to think about it is the following:

E + I = D

In order to build diversity among your clients and staff, organizations need to be equitable and inclusive. Equity is what gets people in the door, and inclusion is what keeps them. Equity removes barriers, while inclusion fosters safety and belonging. You have to start with equity and inclusion for diversity to be sustainable.

Furthermore, if equity and inclusion are the drivers for diversity, then it’s crucial for us to recognize and speak to our differences in order to do this work well. This is a true mark of empathy in DEI. It might be uncomfortable, and it might go against everything we’ve learned, but it’s necessary.

What’s Next?

We’ve laid the groundwork and challenged our thinking about DEI, so what’s next for our organizations? To put it into practice, of course! The rest of this series will help you do just that, and will break down five steps to get nonprofits started:

  1. Know your “why”
  2. Connect the dots (to mission, vision and values)
  3. Think, “Inclusion First”
  4. Take an organizational approach
  5. Community is key

Each article will explore these steps, with the goal of helping you reflect on the possibilities for DEI in your organization, engage in important dialogues, and consider what you can start doing today to move the dial forward.

I’m looking forward to taking this journey with you and invite you to drop me a line at christina@boldlyinclusive.co if you have any questions!

Christina Sackeyfio is the Founder and Principal Consultant at Boldly Inclusive. She is a Canadian Certified Inclusion Professional, who worked for over a decade on social impact and innovation projects as a nonprofit leader, capacity builder, community engagement specialist. She sees inclusion as a lens for everything from strategy to program design and delivery, and believes that if we stretch our thinking about DEI, it can be a way of doing rather than a thing we do.

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