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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, this year’s 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 Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Your Role.

HPDL facilitator and GCN Vice President and Senior Consultant Sir José Bright designed and led the day-long session, which took the 23-person class through a moving tour of race relations in the U.S., demonstrating how historic oppression and bigotry continues to hold people back today, through both systemic inequities and individual attitudes. He then provided a number of tools for valuing every member of a diverse team, fielding discussions about discrimination and equity, and dismantling organizational barriers to equity and inclusion.

How not to get to Mars

The class began with an eye-opening exercise in stereotyping. Ten members of the class volunteered to play-act a planning session for a trip to Mars. The wrinkle: A label was put on each participant’s forehead indicating their demographic characteristics and instructions for how to treat them, based in common preconceptions.

The exercise itself triggered a lot of laughs, as participants dutifully followed the instructions on their colleagues’ foreheads – joining together to tell the “immigrant” that she’s traveled enough already; standing by while the “senior citizen” put her hands all over her “beautiful” coworker; and passively agreeing with whatever the “white male” and the “expert” said. In the discussion that followed, however, the feelings of discomfort, devaluation, and anguish expressed – by participants and observers both – were nearly universal. Many participants said that they simply shut down, feeling that there was no point in participating at all.

Why would I want to work with people who don’t respect my value? Why would I contribute to a group of people who only ignore me and make me feel insignificant?

As emotional as this exercise was, Bright said, it highlights how much more intense and harmful the issue of labeling can be in real-life situations. The implication for the workplace is clear: “Why would I want to work with people who don’t respect my value? Why would I contribute to a group of people who only ignore me and make me feel insignificant?”


Defining the terms

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

Diversity can be defined, said Bright, 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 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 a counterexample, Bright cited a scenario where a person is invited to the table as a kind of favor, rather than because their input is seen as important: “Inclusion is not just being given the chance the speak, but being listened to.”

Equity is a level playing field. To make the meaning of equity more clear, Bright showed the class a video of an exercise demonstrating the effects of inequity. In the video, 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 didn’t even bother running the race.

Another way to understand equity is with this illustration:

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire
“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. “We now interact with many different types of people from different groups,” said Bright. “If we don’t understand them, we may miss out on their value.” Once we discover the benefit of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and apply it to our organizations, Bright explained, we will see greater innovation, problem-solving, opportunities, and resources.

Tools for advancing inclusion and equity

“So where do we go from here?” asked Bright. “We need to make sure that you’re engaging with people in a healthy manner, that you have healthy way of processing and understanding the dynamics of diversity – so you can have authentic conversations, knowing that some politically incorrect things are going to be said, but allowing people to speak from the heart and not penalize them. I call that Cultural Intelligence.”

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. “If we don’t understand the people around us, we miss out on their value and contributions,” said Bright.

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. 

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. Bright cites fundraising as an example: “20th century models of fundraising aren’t working so well because everyone’s going to the same sources.”

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). To that point, Bright pointed out that there is no “common memory of America,” which creates disparities in our responses to the stimuli around us. The varying, and at times conflicting, worldviews that develop as a result affect us as a society and as individuals.

For instance, the “normalization” of white culture in America is a huge factor in the development of each American’s personal worldview. For whites, it leads to confusion regarding the experience of non-whites, and obscures the fact of white privilege (part of which is their ability to simply walk away from the “race conversation”). For people of color, it creates what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” the psychological challenge of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of white society. “We grow up with two standards,” said Bright. “We have to fit into the eurocentric normalization of whiteness, and then we have to fit in back home. It creates what I call the internal incompatibility of goals.”

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. The goal is not to achieve a state of “color-blindness” or to “treat everyone the same.” If you “don’t see color,” then you also don’t see the value in differences. “That means you’re not going to be comfortable when I’m saying something that’s ‘outside the box,’” said Bright. When you can see and account for differences, you can take steps to welcome them. “In some cases, you’re going to have to make accomodations: You’re going to have to give someone a cushion to sit on, or move a chair. But that’s a wonderful opportunity to learn more.”

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. To flesh out your plan, it helps to 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. Those in power may not see the need for diversity, inclusion, and equity because they don’t have the knowledge, or because they feel threatened by the prospect of losing or sharing some of their power. 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? Bright has these suggestions for adjusting organizational strategy:

  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.


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