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DEI as Systemic Change Work

Too often we look at Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts as individual efforts. We limit our “change commitment” to our top leaders sitting through a seminar, learning the language, while also frequently tiptoeing around those who are ambivalent to, or trying to change the minds and hearts of those who (silently or vocally) commit to derailing, our change efforts. We frame our efforts in places where they end the moment the wrong people get uncomfortable. We forget that embracing diversity, equity and inclusion necessitates real change, and change is rarely situated in places of absolute comfort.

Systemic approaches to DEI, or approaching DEI as “systemic change work,” means creating a workplace rooted in systems and processes that place outcomes as expectations, not as optional initiatives we hope sticks with each and every member of our team. They demand accountability, transparency, and commitment that goes beyond great sounding messaging with little (or no) actual action. Rather than spaces where those who seek to derail efforts can hide (or worse, thrive), systemic change work recognizes what (and, sometimes, who) stands in the way of meaningful progress, and gives you the framework to keep you moving in the right direction.

Individual change is certainly part of systemic change work. But when we keep focusing our DEI efforts on the individual—on saying the right things, pushing the same leaders into endless training sessions, hoping for their “aha” moments—we usually see the same thing happen: the same words are spoken, and they all sound good, but very little actually CHANGES. Systemic change work is driven by active engagement, and yes, a touch of discomfort, as we embrace the idea that a commitment to DEI is also accountability to DEI.

The success of a company is rarely put on the individual. As we adopt technology, we don’t expect that every team member immediately become both proficient in and proponents of them. We rely on systems, not individuals—our culture, our processes, our leadership, our institutional memory and adaptations—to get the job done and keep growing year after year. Why, then, do we apply a different set of rules to DEI? By approaching DEI systemically, we remind ourselves that what we want are equitable processes, inclusive systems, diverse mechanisms to ensure we are effectively reflective of and operating in service to our customers and team members. Light bulb moments are bright and beautiful … Systemic changes are bright, beautiful, and sustainable.

Here are 5 ways to begin engaging in DEI Systemic Change Work within your organization:

  1. Assess current policies and procedures. Take time to examine what you're doing now, and how what may look like "tried and true" policies may actually stand in the way of cultivating belonging and inclusion in your organization. What things have always been that should no longer be? Where might bias unintentionally be reflected in your systemic "norms"?

  2. Build community through ERGs. Employee Resource Groups are tools through which organizations can share, cultivate, and foster culture. When properly and sufficiently resourced, they allow you to truly engage in the voice and lived experiences of your team members, grow a sense of community, and add to the diverse array of ideas and innovations that will make your organizational more successful. 

  3. Invest in your DEI culture. We're talking actually dollars and cents here. We budget for what matters. Some organizations have even begun tying opportunities for bonuses, promotions, and other perks to how well their leaders live out their vision of inclusive behaviors. Want DEI to be part of your culture? Budget it like you do every other part of that culture. 

  4. Disrupt power systems to enable change. Seek out champions within your organization who will help uncover blind spots and work with them to promote necessary change. Engage in bottom-up listening to ensure every part of and person on your team knows their voice has value in the conversation. 

  5. Educate, engage, and enact. Many organizations mistakenly think a company-wide Unconscious Bias training will "fix" their DEI concerns. The statistical reality is that these trainings alone rarely lead to any actual change. Instead, incorporate education that is engaging: hands-on, lived-out, and built-in. Enact the concepts of your DEI trainings to ensure team members are applying what they learned to their work and have real opportunities for behavioral shifts. Educate to build knowledge, engage to build understanding, and enact to build change.
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thank you for this enlightening blog post, Khara
I see where I can look for ways to possibly/hopefully begin to effect change, within my workplace and the industry.

  Kristine Buboltz
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thank you, Kristine! I’m so glad you see a path forward for your efforts in your workplace! Best of luck to you, and your organization, as you work toward effecting change.

  Khara House

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