Crafting a statement about diversity, equity, and inclusion can be a transformative process for an organization. It can be an opportunity to deepen everyone’s understanding of the dynamics that are playing out in both society and the organization; it can be an opportunity to build trust and open lines of communication that will keep the organization resilient in the face of all sorts of challenges; it can be an opportunity to cast a vision to guide the organization’s evolution; and it can be an opportunity for everyone in the organization to come together and become stronger, more aligned, and more connected.
It can, of course, also be an opportunity for a few people to sit behind closed doors and write a few paragraphs that look really nice on a website but end up being mere words on paper that are fairly disconnected from the lived reality of the organization.
One key thing that really makes a difference as to whether your DEI statement is a meaningful step toward actually making your values real is the process that you use to create it. There are a whole range of different processes that can be used depending on the scale, structure, and investment of an organization.
The basic point is simple: The process of creating the DEI statement is one of learning, growth, confrontation, and commitment. If you only include a small group of people in this process, then the rest of your organization will at best miss out on an opportunity to grow and at worst feel excluded, marginalized, not-represented, and distrustful.
The best process is one where people genuinely engage in challenging questions, develop shared understandings, listen deeply to each other, and become truly invested in creating a workplace that welcomes, supports, and recognizes all people. The actual statement is then a written record and reminder of an embodied process that people went through together. The embodied process will have at least (if not more) of an impact on your organization than the statement itself.
Drafting statements is a perfect excuse to engage your organization in a process like this. Getting folks invested in the kind of conversations and learning that create the soil for culture change can be hard. Having the collective goal of generating a statement brings a sense of substance, grounding, and directionality to the process. It helps people realize that this isn’t just a diversity workshop where people learn a few things, feel nice, then go back to business as usual; it’s the runway to a long term commitment that everyone is making together.
When you begin design your process, it will help for you to consider the following five elements: Crafting Team, Frame and Grounding Resources, Input, Community Building, and Implementation Accountability.
The Crafting Team is the group of people that will lead the process and synthesize feedback and learning from throughout the organization to create the actual language of the statement.
This group of people should be representative of the diverse identities and perspectives of the organization. Everyone on it should be authentically invested in a crafting a meaningful statement, and there must be strong representation of people who both hold marginalized identities and are willing and able to do the intellectual and emotional labor associated with this kind of work. At the same time, it should not be composed of people that all agree with each other.
If you think there are strong divergent viewpoints inside your organization, those divergences should be represented on your crafting team. These divergences may fall along any type of lines from identity, to ideological, to role in the organization. Whatever it is, folks who are want to earnestly and openly engage the complexities of these different viewpoints should be included on the crafting team. This way, you can be more confident that whatever process and product you create is more likely to enroll people who hold those divergent perspectives throughout the organization.
Here’s one set of questions that can help you discern who should be on the team: Is there a person that, if they were not invited to the team would be deeply upset and/or possibly derail the process later? What perspectives are so common in the organization that if they are not addressed in the statement, could lead to the statement being rejected or rendered impotent? What individuals both carry those perspectives and are authentically open to learning and growth?
One of the crafting team’s first tasks is to set the frame and identify grounding resources.
Frame and Grounding Resources
The way we begin a conversation shapes the way that conversation goes. There are so many different directions the conversation about DEI can go that it is essential to be intentional about what language and frameworks we use to introduce the subject.
The very first thing to notice is that “diversity, equity, and inclusion” is itself an attempt to frame a larger network of issues concerning the way different people are treated. This frame helps us get into some conversations, but also muddies the water of others. For example, when many groups start talking about “diversity” they end up talking about diversity of beliefs, skillsets, and worldviews instead of diversity of races, genders, and class.
I have been in a room filled with white-bodied class-privileged people who emphasize all of the various diversities between them. Those diversities are all very real, but focusing on those diversities starts to steer the conversation away from the dimensions of race and class that are present. Focusing on those types of diversity can be relevant and important, but it also misses the connection between diversity and justice, which is central to why organizations started prioritizing diversity to begin with.
Imagine how different it would be if you spoke about “desegregation” instead of “diversity.” Suddenly it becomes clear that we are talking about historical patterns of separating people based on certain defined characteristics. It sharpens a certain dimension of the conversation into focus.
Speaking very practically here:
Your crafting team should think about the language that you will be using to frame these issues to people; they should be thinking about what points are really relevant to explore and include in your statement; they should be thinking deeply about what the DEI statement is truly trying to address and coming up with ways of communicating that to the people who are in the organization.
Then they should be communicating using language that invites people to consider the dynamics the crafting team thinks are most relevant. There should be enough direction and context to begin the conversation from a grounded space, and also enough spaciousness so that people can bring their own wisdom and catch any gaps the crafting team’s framing left.
One good place to start with this process is by assembling some key resources. These could be books, articles, songs, podcasts, videos, poems, or anything that helps bring the things that matter to your team into focus. It’s not that everyone needs to agree with the perspective of every resource; it’s that the resources start to make visible the layers of the topic that you find relevant.
Having your crafting group go through a process of assembling and reflecting on resources before they initiate a process through your wider organization can be really helpful to create more coherence and alignment.
And, for what it’s worth, my own personal preference is to not frame things in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion; but instead to frame things in terms of power, belonging, and justice; and to reframe "diversity" as "desegregation."
More on that in a future blog post, but here’s the quick reason:
“Desegregation” helps us focus on the connection between representation, access, and historical marginalization. It does a better job of keeping race, class, gender, etc. at the center of the conversation. Teams need lots of types of diversity (e.g. skills, perspectives, work styles) in order to function well; but that’s a different conversation from the one about social identity, marginalization, and oppression.
I find that conversations about “equity” can be a little abstract and hard to ground; and that the related language of “fairness” and “impartiality” doesn’t carry the same specificity and weight as language of “power.” When we talk about power we are talking about who has the ability to influence different actions of the organization, and how that is shaped by organizational structure, culture, and the various dynamics of oppression/marginalization/privilege that we all inherited. “Power” gets us thinking about who shapes the things that matter to them, who shapes the things that impact who, and how they gained the ability to have that impact.
To my mind “belonging” helps us orient to an embodied experience that we are trying to cultivate. It’s one thing to be included on an invitation to a meeting, it’s another to feel like you belong there. To feel like you are valued, respected, and safe to express difference or challenge without it threatening your standing or membership in the group. Spaces of belonging radically shift our experience of ourselves and each other, and they open up new possibilities for creativity and leadership.
The best frame for your organization will depend on the people inside your organization. The key is to find something that meets people where they are, and points the way to a deeper understanding of what it means to be good to each other.
Your process should include multiple moments and methods for people to give input into the statement that you draft; and it should be designed so that you can meaningfully incorporate the input.
Some people do better giving input on to a blank page, and others do better giving input on something that is already fairly well constructed. It’s best to give people in your organization opportunities to do both. That can look like soliciting initial comments on broad themes early in the process, and then having a round of feedback on a draft statement.
What is as essential as giving people an opportunity to give input, is responding to that input authentically and transparently. This doesn’t mean necessarily including all perspectives in your draft. Some input isn’t good, and your Crafting Team will have to use their discernment about how they should respond to various ideas. If they decide to not incorporate a piece of input, it can be very helpful to openly explain why. Not only does this communicate to the person who gave the input that it was seriously considered, but it also helps everyone better understand the decisions that are being made.
Different people also like to give input in different ways. Some do best in writing, some do best verbally, some do best anonymously, some do best in one-on-one conversations. The more options you give people for how to engage the more inclusive your engagement will be.
At the very least, there should be an option to give input anonymously through writing, and an option to have a one-on-one conversation with a member of the crafting team.
Community building is about getting the people in the organization to deeply engage each other about the themes of the DEI statement. This is different from just giving input. Giving input is about directly shaping the product, community building is about developing understanding and strengthening relationships.
There are, of course, ways to do both input and community building at the same time. For example, you can host a session where people learn, discuss themes, and then offer input at the end of the session.
You can also separate community building and input. For example, you can form small affinity groups to read and discuss articles or to open up about their personal experiences.
Your DEI statement is meaningless unless you actually do things to align your organization’s activities with it. Part of crafting your statement should also be outlining the basic ways that you will implement the values. This does not mean creating a detailed roadmap, goals, or metrics right off the bat. It might be something as simple as establishing a quarterly meeting where staff can give feedback to the executives and management regarding alignment with the statement; or it could be identifying a working group or a specific person that will lead the organization in its process of finding alignment.
The most important part of defining your implementation accountability is that it is blatantly obvious whether it is happening or not. If your accountability is “all people in the organization commit to these values” there is no way to tell whether its happening. If your accountability is, “we formed an internal team that will conduct a yearly audit, host bi-annual town halls with all staff, have quarterly meetings to update board and executives about priorities, and report to all staff the steps board and executives take to meet those priorities;” it becomes very obvious whether those things are happening.
Of course, those accountabilities don’t take your organization all the way toward actualizing your values; but they do start to create a scaffolding that your organization can build upon.
Process. Process. Process.
How you craft your statement is at least as important as the statement you craft. It's an opportunity to unite and align your staff, deepen your organization's understanding, and create a statement that carries the kind of weight and legitimacy that will let it support the direction of your organization moving forward.