Home > Articles > The value of difference: Leadership lessons on inclusion and equity

The value of difference: Leadership lessons on inclusion and equity

Each year, GCN’s High Potential Diverse Leaders program (HPDL) brings together a cohort of nonprofit professionals to develop the skills, knowledge, and networks to take on top roles in the sector. In response to the changing needs of the sector, the 2018 curriculum was updated to include a number of currently-trending topics that will only prove more important in the future, including an all-new session titled Racial Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Your Role.

Lessons and tools included in the course are meant to counter system inequities and individual attitudes that have taken hold through the history of race relations in the U.S., and continue to hold people back today. Here's a sample of the issues and solutions covered.

Defining the terms

So what, exactly, is meant by diversity, inclusion, and equity?

Diversity can be defined as “difference.” Every characteristic an individual possesses can be counted under the rubric of diversity: race, ethnic group, religion, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education levels, nationality, ability, and more.

“We all have multiple characteristics,” said 2018 session leader Jose Bright. “Sometimes you fit in because of certain similarities, like nationality. But we have to understand the complexities – the subgroups, and the subgroups within subgroups.”

Inclusion is what happens when people of varying identities feel valued, welcome to participate, and a sense of belonging – as opposed to being invited to the table as a kind of favor, rather than because their input is seen as important. In other words, inclusion is not just being given the chance the speak, but being listened to.

Equity, to put it simply, is a level playing field. In a video meant to demonstrate the concept, a group of college students line up for a footrace. For every advantage they had grown up with – like a two-parent home, financial stability, private education, and freedom from hunger – participants get to start the race two steps ahead of the rest. Because it was a forgone conclusion who would finish last, many of those left at the original starting line don't even bother running the race.

“These are the implications of an ideology that was designed to build wealth for a certain group of people,” said Bright. “The founding fathers set up an idea that all men are created equal, except for people of color, who are property. Our history has advantaged some people and oppressed others over nothing any of them did.”

The results of this systemic oppression continue to impact us in multiple dimensions – including the dynamics of an organization, office, or team, all of which are likely to be far more diverse that at any other point in American history. Failing to understand people in all their diversity means missing out on the value they bring to the table: greater innovation, problem-solving, opportunities, and resources.

Tools for advancing inclusion and equity

Cultural Intelligence (or CQ) is recognizing the differences among people, understanding the dynamics those differences create, and successfully navigating them. When we overcome the mindset that says, “I’m not equal to you,” or vice-versa, the result is an ability to get the most out of each other.

When we overcome the mindset that says, “I’m not equal to you,” or vice-versa, the result is an ability to get the most out of each other. 

To build CQ, Bright detailed a four-step model:

1. Be motivated. Being aware of other people’s differences should be important to you not just because diversity is the norm, but because of the “bonus” that inclusion and equity provide everyone involved. Two heads are only better than one when their contents differ; with a variety of perspectives working on a single problem, the chance of a successful solution becomes much greater.

2. Get knowledge. When we remain in a state of ignorance, said Bright, that’s where fear takes over, and where actions taken innocently can get us into trouble. Though it’s true you can never know everything about others, and you will make mistakes as you learn, you must become knowledgeable about the differences others possess. The key is to be genuine on your journey while seeking to discover how worldviews are built over time, through billions of factors (cultural inputs, historical precedents, and the way the brain filters information).

3. Develop a strategy to implement knowledge and improve interactions with others. Based on what you’ve learned, you have to decide how you’re going to deal with the full range of constituencies: coworkers and board members, community and clients, investors, volunteers, and more. The goal is to move from ignorance to understanding, and from tolerance to acceptance to rejoicing. You can plot your CQ development strategy with an action plan template, including columns for tasks, activities, someone you’ll be responsible to, resources required, and measures or deliverables. Get advice from people who you see leading with a high degree of CQ.

4. Evaluate and adjust. Once you’ve implemented your strategy, you have to reflect on your outcomes. If they aren’t the results you’re looking for, you have to consider what went wrong, and change your approach. Again, a good source for counsel is a leader who exhibits great CQ.

The structural barriers to diversity, inclusion, and equity that might exist in your organization can be found in a multitude of areas, including people, principles, policies, practices, processes, programs, promotion, partnerships, and funding. If you want to eliminate the obstacles to diversity, inclusion, and equity in your nonprofit, your strategy must include a way to address those in power and get their commitment. Developing your CQ, sharing the lessons it’s taught you, and articulating the value of differences are all key to convincing others.

What strategies can help your nonprofit begin dismantling those structural barriers?

  1. Make equity, diversity, and inclusion a value of the organization – particularly regarding race.

  2. Develop a formal policy on racial equity, diversity, and inclusion.

  3. Develop a plan of action to increase racial equity, diversity, and inclusion.

  4. Include them in performance evaluation measures.

  5. Provide staff training and/or coaching on them.

  6. Rethink succession planning and coaching with them in mind.

In practical terms, that could mean a number of things, like consciously moving away from stereotypes when designing marketing and program materials, operating from the frame of reference of the people you serve, rethinking your research methodologies, harnessing ethnic media to reach more diverse audiences, and creating more partnerships with diverse groups.

Because the issues of inequity are deeply rooted and far-reaching, the work of incorporating diversity, inclusion, and equity is both broad and deep. That makes it a significant challenge, both on a personal and organizational level – but it’s also an invaluable opportunity to expand capacity, deepen relationships, strengthen relevance, and ensure the sustainability of your nonprofit’s work and your leadership journey.

Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.


Subscribe to GCN Articles RSS