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What you’re not learning in your Diversity & Inclusion workshops: The Basics

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There’s a dangerous trend happening in the world of “progressives” and Diversity & Inclusion. People are learning what to say and what not to say, without understanding the actual meaning behind their words. People are memorizing formulas, rather than learning how to analyze, adapt, and respond critically.

People claiming to be “progressive” are constantly gaslighting those around them. “Allies” are subtly excluding those they are claiming to support. We are growing distant from each other while seemingly engaging in the same conversation. Getting “woke” seems to be trending, but are folks actually waking up?

On multiple sales calls, I’ve heard *heads of Diversity & Inclusion* say to me, “we’ve been trying to recruit more women and people of color, but it’s been really difficult. We just don’t want to lower the bar!”


We are not on the same page, even though we are using similar words. This gets really freakin’ confusing, people!!

I’ve written about why Silicon Valley’s obsession with Unconscious Bias training isn’t actually making a dent in driving inclusion and how to do it better.

I’ve written about how people managers should lead their teams in times of political trauma.

I’ve written about how companies should respond to #MeToo and other political issues that can no longer tolerate their silence.

What do all of these things have in common?

At the root, all of the analysis and suggestions are rooted in basic social justice concepts that help us approach “diversity and inclusion” more thoughtfully and critically.

I find it very difficult to engage in any conversations around “D&I” unless there’s some type of baseline, a basic level of agreement and understanding around key, fundamental concepts. But these basic, yet critical, concepts rarely get unpacked or even brought up in most of today’s corporate D&I trainings.

Why? Because well, these “basics” can make people feel uncomfortable. These are not safe topics, like “unconscious bias,” or “diversity of thought.” But how do we change without a little bit of discomfort? We can no longer afford diluted, surface-level workshops that just “check the box” — it’s just not working.

At Awaken, rather than approaching one-off D&I topics (e.g., unconscious bias) as isolated academic concepts, we teach people how to think about D&I issues using basic social justice frameworks and critical analysis skills.

Think of our approach as learning how to read vs. having people brute-force memorize chapters of random books.

Our theory of change is that once people learn to read, they can go read whatever they want.

So what are some of these fundamental concepts we need to understand before we can truly understand how to create diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging?

Here’s a list of key terms and discussion questions to get you started. And trust me when I say these “basic” concepts are definitely not the simplest to approach or unpack.

Fundamental Concepts for Understanding Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.

  • Identity —what is social identity? How does our identity shape the way we experience the world? Why is it important to recognize all of our identities? What does it mean to bring our whole-selves to work? Why do we need to talk about race? Why can’t we just be one human race?
  • Privilege — what is privilege and why does it make us feel defensive when we hear the word? Why do we have to talk about privilege? Is privilege bad? Should I feel guilty if I have privileges? How do we move forward from defensiveness to allyship using privilege?
  • Power — how does power operate in our society and at work? Who has power? What power dynamics are at play along the identity lines? How do we shift power? What does it take to redistribute power equitably?
  • Discrimination — what does discrimination mean, really? Can something be called “reverse discrimination?” Why or why not? How are power and privilege related to discrimination?
  • Cycle of socialization — how do we learn stereotypes? Where do our unconscious biases actually come from? How do we break the cycle of socialization?
  • Intersectionality — what is intersectionality? What do people mean by “white feminism?” Why is intersectionality important? How do all of our different identities intersect? How do we make sure our efforts are intersectional?
  • Allyship / accomplices — what does it mean to be an “ally?” Who gets to decide who is or is not an ally? Why do we fear being an ally? What happens when an “ally” makes a mistake? WTF is an ally cookie?
  • Systemic oppression vs. personal experience — how do we differentiate between personal experiences / exceptionalism from systemic and institutionalized oppression? What do we say when someone in the dominant group (e.g., White, cis-men, Christian, heterosexual, etc.) says something like: “I’m a white person but I struggled a lot in my life. I don’t understand what you mean by ‘white privilege’ because I feel like I didn’t have any special privileges.”
  • Microggressions — what are microaggressions and how are they different from someone just being a jerk or passive aggressive? How do I know when I’m microaggressing? What if I didn’t mean it that way?
  • Nonviolent communications — how do we move forward as a team when someone makes a mistake? How do we engage in uncomfortable conversations in a way that doesn’t erode our relationships? How do we acknowledge when harm is caused and take responsibility for our actions? How do we express our hurt without completely expending ourselves or being tokenized?

Again, this is just a starting point.

During Awaken’s workshops, we use a variety of interactive and experiential exercises and group activities to teach these concepts and translate them into practical, actionable workplace strategies. After all, who wants to be lectured on these already politically charged topics?

Tips for Discussing the “Basics”

  1. Create a compassionate space in which people can engage without judgment, shame, or fear → Try setting a set of ground rules prior to discussing
  2. Make learning personal and discussion-based, rather than didactic lecture-based → Structure time for introspection and pair-sharing
  3. Ensure the integrity of the concepts are not lost while allowing differing perspectives → Secure skilled facilitators who can put guard rails on discussions that can easily go rogue (and cause more harm than good)
  4. Provide real-life scenarios and practical examples to make them come to life → Prepare relevant examples in advance and solicit input from audience
  5. Don’t educate at the expense of marginalized people in the room — never tokenize individuals or force personal story sharing → Think critically about each group exercise / activity to ensure intimacy and vulnerability are created consensually

It takes time to learn and internalize these concepts, but this foundation will help teams develop a critical lens through which they can begin to analyze all of their D&I practices and education approach. Without the right foundation, companies’ D&I efforts can easily become misguided and reductive.

Have questions or feedback? Reach out to us at!

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About Awaken
Awaken provides modern, interactive Diversity and Inclusion workshops to organizations small and large. Awaken believes in creating change incrementally by meeting people where they are with compassion and criticality. You can subscribe to Awaken’s Newsletter here.

About Michelle Kim
Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and a coach passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the co-founder & CEO of Awaken and owner of Michelle Kim Consulting.

Connect with Michelle on LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook




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Michelle MiJung Kim

Michelle MiJung Kim


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