Diversity and Inclusion for Business and Education in the Trump Era

Via Instagram: User @onphileek, Student at recent Chicago protest

Part 1: How did we get here?

Now do you believe us? Us- the practitioners, recruiters, coordinators, managers, directors, assistant/associate/vice- you name-its who are charged with “that stuff”.

For the last 12+ years, I’ve been quietly (loudly at some points) observing, working and interacting with students, employees and leaders of schools and companies, both for profit and nonprofit , both public and private around what we call “diversity and inclusion”. There’s a spectrum where some claim to “support these issues”, invest money, hire resources, host celebrations and conversations, high five ethnic affinity groups , create brochures and websites to a certain extent whereas others completely turn a blind eye and publicly denounce entire populations of people. *Chick-Fil A*

Either way, this recent presidential election has shown how we have mis-managed and downplayed the importance of this phenomena and functional area in our schools and companies where the public lives and works. We have gotten here because we have failed to show how diversity & inclusion benefits us all-including white people. Our rainbow flags and celebrations weren’t enough. Our new favorite question of “Why Diversity Matters in Tech” was too elementary.

We have seen and treated diversity and inclusion as a “nice to have” and a side note that makes minorities feel better- without mentioning Race of course. We have trainings that only point fingers at white people or outline problems instead of equipping everyone with tools to engage in consistent conscious dialogue .

We haven’t respected it as both an art and science ( the way it looks and the way it works) that has to be both developed and managed alongside all other functional and operational areas of an organization. We have downplayed the complexities of our communities, student bodies and our human resources. We conveniently zoom into specific topics such as “microagressions” , “equal pay” or “privilege” instead of embracing a holistic approach to our education and work-life- ignoring the apparent backlash that considered all of this- “too politically correct”. For the last 10 years, we have hired executives, given them titles such as “Chief Diversity Officer” neglected to give them staff or adequate resources, and barely churned out strategies based on recruitment numbers and buzzword best practices like “implicit bias” and we have continued to do the same thing over and over again hoping for different results- the definition of insanity.

I met Paul Gorski at the 2016 White Privilege Conference in PA. He is an educator and the founder of edchange.org

We think the people who choose to do this work are just bleeding hearts who want to sing kumbaya. We radicalize them and make them feel like their “message” is too strong and might “make people uncomfortable”. This is why we underpay them and neglect to position them in the organization so they can actually create value.

We treat them like ancient soothsayers who sometimes have knowledge to help get us out of trouble or a lawsuit. Knowing all of this, after I finished my Master’s in Management- concentrating on Entrepreneurship- I still chose to step into a diversity and inclusion “Coordinator” role where the implicit and somewhat explicit expectation was that I was to simply coordinate “food, fun and festivals” and “support underrepresented populations”.

Festivals and other functions are cool and students do deserve someone that looks like them to support them, but to do only this would have not only been an insult to my intelligence and business acumen, but an insult to the students I serve and suppose to be supporting(all of them-not just the students of color) and a waste and mismanagement of resources. I knew these roles were not properly defined making room for backlash and chastisement when results did not appear. This is why I knew I had to experience it for myself in order to change it. This is not only my personal experience. I know many diversity practitioners who are stuck in this dilemma and have been for over 20 years- since we had to fight to even be schools.

In a sense, diversity professionals are constantly in change management mode but most did not study management and don’t have the tools, knowledge or skills to shift the way things are done. This is not to discredit the extremely intelligent and talented professionals who I consider to be colleagues. We in fact have a wealth of knowledge about how to improve inclusion- you just have to listen. I am simply acknowledging the unique challenges that navigating and implementing new ideas in organizations can bring and the non-traditional and specific tools and skills needed.

Some professionals actually grab onto inclusion “initiatives” or have it thrown in their laps on top of another role because they are the only person of color or the only one who cares. They do the best they can to network and get help and support from academic research, experts, volunteers and the latest trends in training, only to end up going in circles, trying to make a dollar out fifteen cents for themselves and their work, pretending to be 5 people, fighting burn-out while stalling and potentially plateauing their careers and life.

But what if you do have the knowledge, skills and know-how of for change management?

The current narrative is that you have to “just get buy in” from the top and then have a “strategy”- but we don’t pay enough attention to the specific hurdles for diversity and inclusion professionals in this narrative. Often times- people of color and women are in these roles and left out of strategic conversations even if they do “lean-in”. They are boxed into either human resources or student/multicultural affairs initiatives and silently beat up if they try to go outside of that boundary.

So the “just get buy-in” narrative has to change. Before you secure that “buy-in”- You have to establish what you’re actually buying into.

Along with training, conferences and studying diversity and inclusion content- I went to business school twice. I sat in classrooms in the U.S, China and France filled with some who I could see voting for Trump. I was heavily involved over 10 years with multicultural education and diversity & inclusion at my alma-mater and a witness to tremendous dedication and progress, and still- A couple of current students from my beloved alma mater just rode over to Hillary Clinton’s alma mater to intimidate.

In a sense we were all being trained to be Donald Trump whether we want to admit that or not. I knew that when I signed up for it. For me- you have to play the game to change the game. Thankfully this education also taught me to take smart actions, entertaining thoughts without fully accepting them- so now it’s time to straighten up our ties (or blinged out statement necklace- whichever you prefer) and fight for what we believe in- inside and outside of the boardroom. For me- that’s diversity and inclusion in business and education. So onward…

Part 2: Where do we go? #designthinking

How do we get that “buy-in”? I position diversity & inclusion as a product. This was a challenge for me in Education, because speaking about education as a product with sociologists, interculturalists, global educators and liberal artisans can be seen as blasphemous and can get you written off as a self-centered, capitalistic, evil person. If you allow yourself to entertain this concept however- it makes a lot of sense and introduces new possibilities for inclusion that move beyond bickering and blinding politics.

Diversity and inclusion is a product that everyone needs and any good marketing and salesperson will tell you that the most satisfying yet challenging part of sales and marketing is selling a product to someone who doesn’t know they need it.

You have to paint a unique picture for them about features and benefits then dance with them- while gaining and giving more information until they have a clearer understanding of their life with your product in it. Yes- you rely on industry reports, market (sometimes academic) research, demographic information, historical trends, future projections, focus groups, to craft a strategy and plan of action. Voila! If all goes well, you close the deal. Then you have a team and infrastructure in place to process a sale, and do it all over again.

We have not closed the deal on diversity and inclusion.

We have not committed to the dance and tried to understand why some don’t “buy in”. I’m not writing this to complain, I’m writing this to inspire new thinking.

Design thinking and innovation can help if we actually use it. Both offer a holistic approach to problem solving and will position diversity and inclusion as something that is an ever-present part of everyone’s lives both at home and work whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. I’m not talking about the anecdotal “try something new and if it doesn’t work just do it again” definition of innovation. I’m talking about the methods that forward thinking business schools and firms are actually using to design your cars, hospital waiting rooms, coffee cups and mp3 players. If we use this creative and iterative process to conjure up the products and services that make our life- why wouldn’t we apply it to diversity and inclusion- something we obviously and desperately need? Take a look at this video from DaylightDesign:

Design thinking allows for diversity to be positioned as a journey towards a question to be continuously asked versus a dilemma that we just throw initiatives at. Here’s what I mean- instead of “what speaker can we hire for MLK day”, or “what training can we do for staff”, we need to engage in a conscious process of “how might we create and sustain a valuable diversity and inclusion operation for our organization?”. The former questions stumps creativity and innovation. The latter question inspires deeper thought and more impactful action. Using design thinking allows space for an iterative process to arise and cuts out a lot of the bias and assumptions around diversity and inclusion- ie: “white people can’t handle the truth and minorities need hugs.”

Tools like “user personas” will give us a sense of who we are actually catering to beyond standard definitions of identity groups. In the tech industry for instance, stop pointing to numbers and begin asking, “what are the motivations and aspirations of our white male engineer hiring manager”. From there we design diversity that no longer rests on the shoulders on those who want it, but a vital part of the organizational culture.

It gives space to collect “insights” about inclusion instead of making assumptions and biased opinions about diversity. For instance, supporting the function of the diversity person be to formally collect insights to drive design of inclusion would give a broader to pool of ideas to create structures such as resource groups instead of throwing together employee resource groups or cultural organizations that sponsor disjointed initiatives would save time and money and actually make deeper impact.

Design thinking gives us a different lens for inclusion. It allows us to be informed but not ruled solely by academic research and surface demographic information. We can be proactive rather than reactive to “incidents and reports”.

It will allow for a sustainable approach to inclusion. Schools would see more student and alumni engagement and companies would see less employee turnover and higher margins- both would create more positive impact overall.

How do I know this will work? In 5 years, I was able to build out a structure from the “initiatives” using these methods. I know folks probably thought I was crazy, but I’ve had students say “ I’ve never thought about it like that- people just make it about race”. This summer I worked with Education Design Lab on their 21st Century Badging Project where we partnered with Vassar College to design an “Equity & Inclusion” Badge for students. This past weekend, I led a design workshop for current students at my high school- a predominantly white, all women school. They had honest dialogue about their own identities and experiences before pooling insights and going through the first stage of ideation. They were enthused to be able to have tools to articulate inclusion in ways that mattered for themselves and their community and left my hypothesis confirmed that diversity and inclusion is not a “difficult conversation”. It’s a precursor for productivity, creativity, growth and sustainability.

I know it’s hard to deal with the racist and all but inclusive rhetoric that has come out the recent presidential election, but use this as an opportunity to move forward as diversity professionals and true allies doing what we already knew needed to be done.