Just start: Try a pledge for committing to internal equity work.

Sarah E. Whiting
Sep 10 · 6 min read

Policy-makers and government employees show up every day thinking about outcomes for diverse citizens. They don’t come for the glory but rather to co-create the just world that inspires them. Many of us are drawn to public service because we know we can collectively do better as the status quo is not sufficient. It is a well-documented fact that many government systems and structures have concretized and exacerbated historical injustices. As public servants, educated and aware of history and this truth, we must act. Ignoring or admiring issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) will not get us to a better society. We need to focus our efforts, take responsibility, and deploy and test strategies.

Time, money, and attention are scarce resources during our work week sprints. The challenge of creating an organization that demonstrates cultural awareness and action internally and externally may seem grandiose. But this ideal state cannot be willed into existence. Creative thinking, internal organizing, and individual engagement are needed. There are many ways to begin creating organizational behaviors that integrate DEI-aware perspective into policy conversations and decisions. While we engaged in a policy organization, this type of action could be taken in many types of organizations and starts with an individual commitment. Here we share one strategy we used to get started.

Our story. A group of mission-aligned government coworkers moved quickly to create a set of organizational habits to turn an internal tide in favor of equity and inclusion. We observed colleagues seeking concrete ways to move DEI work into the center of conversations, we heard a demand for organizational habits and structures, and we knew that this work would not start without agency and persistence. We collectively prioritized this aspect of our work in order to satisfy our personal drive for working in education and further commit to actualize the changes we see possible for students and families. The behavior provided framing for many others — a pledge.

One way to start putting DEI topics within the day-to-day operations of your work is by creating a pledge. Pledges make space for personal choice, can be constructed as an on-ramp for a movement, provide a visual reminder of a pre-commitment to action, and do not cost any money.

Pledges spell out an improved way of living that employees know they can accomplish. Pledges allow employees to opt-in on a commitment and then remind them about the behaviors they signed onto. Pledges place the onus of action on the individual and create internal conflict (or cognitive dissonance) when commitments are broken. Making an opt-in movement creates space for people to choose while also embedding a reminder for the pledge signer to do what they said (or at least have an awareness that they are not doing what they said).

A well-constructed pledge can scaffold engagement for individuals who may have not yet started personal bias work. Our pledge began with a personal commitment to working to understand ourselves in the contexts of our implicit biases. This first commitment did not include any public dialogue or exposure for someone seeking to take their first step. Our pledge was designed to have progressive levels of actions from private and personal to public leadership. When writing the commitments, we considered where colleagues across our organization were in their journeys and how each interested individual could step up to more public ways of committing to DEI work in policy and implementation efforts. We also thought about how we could support their efforts to keep commitments. The commitments we and our colleagues made included:

1. Individually, doing their own work about understanding their implicit bias.

2. In team dialogue, asking questions so that those not at the table are not overlooked.

3. In organizational structures, hard-wiring decision-making or consulting bodies to include a variety of voices.

4. Across peers, bringing others along by sharing your journey with this work and asking them to join.

Posting pledges in workspaces provide a visual cue for signers about their commitments and flags that space as a safe and welcoming place. Our pledges were copied on yellow paper and hung in individual cubicles as a signal to both the employee and to colleagues. Similar to an LGBTQ safe space sticker, our equity pledge was intended to signal an alliance and a safety for individuals engaging in this tide shift.

No funding was needed to create our pledge. We used available resources to think through how to structure the pledge. We created a quick online survey to try and understand where pledge-signers were in their journey, how to best support them, and how to gauge our progress. We also used generic office paper to print the documents.

We received and saw a variety of reactions to the introduction of a pledge. As the pledge spread, we saw some employees across organizational departments connecting with one another with a little more comfort and interest. Simultaneously, many small teams worked to plan and support aspects of this equity work. Specifically, one team created and shared resources in alignment with commitment one (engaging in implicit bias work). Those that took the online survey indicated a need and desire for support addressing the second and third commitments (pushing dialogue to ask about unintentional impact and re-establishing consulting bodies with an eye on diversity).

As expected when challenging the status quo, we also encountered skepticism. Some employees felt anxious about signing on to this work in this specific public way. Some raised concerns about how commitment to these four actions was exclusive, despite the fundamentally inclusive message of the pledge. Others wondered why and how this effort aligned with the purpose of our jobs and found such efforts outside of our job descriptions.

The why. As individuals committed to bettering our society, and especially as public servants, we must hold ourselves to be informed and empowered stewards of the work. We are accountable to all our constituents and need to keep in mind that money, time, and attention are our most regarded available resources. We begin with our own work but believe that the impact must go beyond ourselves. Only by developing solutions that shift organizational behavior to consider and contradict systematic injustice will we be able to co-create the change that brought us to the work.

Just start. One way to frame your entry into this work is to ask yourself, ‘What might you or the world lose if you do not act?’ Take a day to investigate the look and feel of D.E.I. in your place of work. You can do this by keeping a careful ear to conversations about historically marginalized populations. How are perspectives and needs understood, considered, and integrated into decisions? What does that language sound like? What types of assumptions show up in conversations? Then ask yourself, what might you lose if you did not try creating a DEI pledge?

Still not convinced? Take a look at some other articles that share info about the psychological power of pre-commitments and the formation of a community.

Thanks to the systems and structures equity team for their dynamism, Shoba for her photogenic self and willingness to step forward, and Pam Denton for co-authoring.

Sarah E. Whiting

Written by

Sharing experiences from working in the public sector. Looking for new opportunities innovating and leading change for a better world.

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