More and more these days, organizations are joining the chorus to become more diverse and inclusive. The private sector is abuzz with discussions of “return on investment,” while nonprofit organizations often start the conversation with a visual audit of board and staff members and a quick acknowledgement that “we need more diversity.” Experienced diversity professionals know there is a significant distinction between being diverse and being inclusive.
Diversity without inclusion is costly.
As noted diversity expert Andres Tapia states, “many companies have gotten comfortable with the idea of bringing in people who look different. The problem is if those people start to act differently, they get told, ‘We don’t do it that way here.’ And so the person says, ‘I thought you wanted me because I was different.’ And the unspoken answer is, ‘We like the fact that you look different, but we don’t really like the fact that you think and behave different.’” In fact, this was exactly the issue facing Affirmations, Metro Detroit’s community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
In the years leading up to 2006, Affirmations had committed to developing a diverse staff and had begun the process by actively recruiting and hiring racially diverse candidates. One new hire was charged with the responsibility of being Outreach Coordinator. The plan was flawed on several levels. Not only had no work been done to create an inclusive culture at the organization, the Outreach Coordinator was charged with both reaching out to communities of color and designing and implementing diversity training for the agency staff. In essence, the responsibility for diversity and inclusion was being siloed on the shoulders of this lone staff member.
As someone who was on staff and a member of the interview team at the time, I distinctly remember when our proudly Afro-centric potential staffer turned to me and said, “Kat, are you sure Affirmations is ready for this?” I nodded emphatically, ignorant to the kinds of micro-aggressions that people of color often face when joining a primarily white staff. No work had been done internally to shift organizational culture. Styles of communication, dress code policies and layers of unconscious bias created a work environment that left people of color, especially African American staff, feeling isolated and undervalued. When staff left in 2006 citing a hostile work environment, it was these experiences they voiced publicly in the media.
The damage done by attempting to diversify without making the necessary organizational culture changes led to a significant back-step and resulted in our community being painfully torn apart. Not only did it negatively impact staff diversity, it affected the diversity of people participating in programs. Many people of color no longer felt Affirmations was a support or resource for them. When the stories of a hostile work environment surfaced, African Americans boycotted the organization and stopped attending programs. Historic racial wounds were ripped open and Affirmations was faced with a much larger, more difficult problem. The only real solution that would have lasting results was to work toward healing, which meant inviting a reluctant community to sit down with us at the table and embark upon the journey together.
When we began this process at Affirmations, we didn’t have a roadmap to guide our work. The Race Relations Team, which had been formed internally following the public walk-out of African American staff in 2006, wasn’t sure which way to turn. We knew we needed to bring the community together, we needed to acknowledge the pain and own the cause, and we needed to work together to create a plan for change. We decided to create a very special committee called the Multicultural Advisory Committee (MAC).
The team discussed critical ingredients for the committee’s composition, agreeing that success would require several key elements:
- The committee needed the voices of those wronged. Concerns about Affirmations’ history had become stories passed from community member to community member, mainly within the LGBTQ African American Community. The stories were so prevalent that even those who had never been to Affirmations now avoided it. We needed to get at those concerns and bring those voices to the table to have solid input on making change.
- The committee needed more voices of color than white voices. Affirmations, as the largest LGBT organization in the state, had a significant presence within the community and it had been led and operated out of a mostly white culture. White culture often imposes its own normal as the normal for all and from that perspective sets the standard for everyone to adhere. It was important to ensure that the white constituency on the committee did not comprise too great a percentage of participants so as to frame normalcy. They could not dominate the conversation. As we frequently talked in jest, “we’ve never had a shortage of white people; what we really need is diverse voices at the table.”
- The committee needed to be broadly diverse. Although the race concerns tended to be framed largely in a black-white context, the Race Relations Team knew, even at that early point in the process, that other groups were missing from the conversation. If we were failing the African American LGBT community, how were we doing with other communities? So the team went about ensuring that several of the most populous communities of color were at the table. For the Detroit area, that included Arab Americans and Latino/a Americans, specifically.
- The committee needed key community leaders. Although we also wanted a community-wide invitation, encouragement to participate amidst the backstory meant we needed community leaders to model participation. Leaders within each community of color were personally invited in order to ensure accountability from the group itself and also to encourage other members of each community to participate.
Once these priorities were documented, the Race Relations Team requested formal approval from the Board of Directors to establish a Multicultural Advisory Committee under these terms. The approval and public announcement of that approval provided a measure of accountability to those who committed to serve on the MAC. With two staff, two board members, and eleven community members, the Multicultural Advisory Committee held its very first meeting at Affirmations in May of 2008. It was tasked with creating a set of recommendations for racial inclusion at Affirmations.
While not all organizations will begin a racial inclusivity effort under these circumstances, many will attempt to diversify their staff or board without making the necessary organizational culture changes for successful inclusion. In a sense, Affirmations was lucky that a few very vocal African American staff shared their concerns publicly. In so many cases, people simply walk away from an agency, sharing stories in their communities and neighborhoods, discouraging future participation. Agency staff may never realize why they just can’t seem to be successful at their diversity efforts. In our case, we were able to listen to the concerns and work with the community as a whole to create and implement the changes necessary to truly become a diverse and inclusive organization.