#DiversityFail

mistakeLast month I went with a friend to see the famed Holocaust Memorial Center located in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  It’s one of the finest museums of its kind in the country and, like many people, I hadn’t seen one of the greatest things in my own backyard.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning; the sun was shining in a clear blue sky.  I left my house right on time, confirmed with my companion about pickup location and we were off.  As we drove up Orchard Lake Road, nearing our destination, we could see the huge museum, striking in its external appearance – a combination of brick and metal, stretching up to the sky with large glass windows and surrounded by a large, convenient and *empty* parking lot.

Uh-oh.

By now, some of you may know exactly why the parking lot was empty.  I, coming from a traditional Catholic upbringing, my friend from a Baptist one, both of us living in a Christian-mainstreamed world never gave it a thought.  Until we arrived at the empty parking lot.

And then it clicked.

Judaism observes the Shabbat on Saturday, Christianity observes the Sabbath on Sunday.  This was a Jewish museum.

Diversity fail.

Here we were, out to expand our own cultural horizons and historic knowledge, stopped by our own lack thereof.  It was the ultimate irony.  I share all this because I’m also a diversity and inclusion consultant, even more ironic!  But I share it with purpose.

We all have “diversity fails” at one time or another.  No one is perfect and everyone makes errors out of a lack of awareness – whether it’s Chevy making a “Nova” and trying to sell it in Spanish-speaking countries where “no va” means “it doesn’t go” or it’s hosting a major fundraising event on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

We all make mistakes, and it’s not necessarily about fault.  Granted, I’m not talking about mistakes that involve lying, cheating, misrepresenting facts, or name-calling.  This isn’t about Paula Deen using the N-word or Rachel Dolezal lying about her heritage.  I’m talking about honest, well-intentioned mistakes.  Truth is, we all make them.  You are, along with everyone else, the result of your cumulative life experience.  There will be times when it’s not likely you could have predicted the mistake in advance, given your life experience and your exposure to various cultures and people.

Owning the mistake, learning from it, and making adjustments as you move forward is the key. 

more people would learnGiving yourself permission to make mistakes is essential.  Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, many people are so afraid of making mistakes, of being judged for making them, that they don’t even engage.   Fear of messing up prevents people from sticking their hand in the fire, afraid of getting burned.  It prevents learning.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called “The R Word.”  It described how many white people are so afraid of being called a racist that they stay out of conversations about race altogether.   Being called a racist evokes shame, embarrassment, and often defensiveness for white people.  Many take a step back, retreat, avoid the conversation in the future. The shame-and-blame strategies of past workforce diversity trainings have left many white people, especially white men, shut down, defensive or avoidant.

But… we’re in this together.  Research has shown that one of the best ways for people to learn when it comes to diversity and inclusion is through dialogue and reflection.  Talking, thinking and practice leads to learning.   Dialoguing across difference supports that process.  If there’s no dialogue out of fear of failure, there’s no learning.  White people especially – be courageous and step into the conversation – lean in.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes, to say, “Oops, I made a mistake.”  Or maybe, “I should have known that, why didn’t I?”

At the Michigan Nonprofit Associations daylong institute on diversity, inclusion and equity in June, I heard Dianna Langenburg from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation say,

“We treat mistakes as gifts, as precious opportunities to learn.”

Several of the morning panelists echoed that same sentiment, talking about how their best insights had come from the times they had made mistakes.

Imagine the creativity, the open-mindedness, if all organizations fostered a learning culture that valued the process of learning and valued the sharing of mistakes made.   Fruitful diversity and inclusion conversations require a safe, trusting space.  That means setting the tone, leading by example, and opening up a discussion which encourages people to talk about their mistakes in order to learn and grow from them.

How do you set a trusting environment where people feel comfortable airing their mistakes?   Does your organization view making mistakes as “precious opportunities to learn?”


What Does Getting Commitment from the Top Look Like?

Denied-Approval-small

Perhaps one of most pressing questions from people who are working on best practices for diversity and inclusion is “what if we do all this work – collecting information and making recommendations for change – and nothing happens?”  For volunteers and staff who are members of diverse groups, this means, “hey, if you want me to put a lot of time and energy into this, I want some reassurance that the organization is actually going to implement the recommendations once they are made.”  There’s a fear, usually based on one’s real, lived experience, that suggestions and recommendations for change will not be heard or prioritized by organizational leadership.

And they’re right.   Sometimes that happens.  Sometimes the best laid plans are all for naught.  There’s a reason people are fearful.  Sometimes, when push comes to shove, organizational leadership deems the recommendations too difficult or time-consuming to implement.  They might say, “Why should we prioritize this issue – we need to focus on raising money.”  Or, “We have a mission and that’s our priority.”  Or even, “Isn’t this just catering to ‘fringe’ groups?”

The last thing you want to happen at your organization is for these fears to be realized.  Not only could it undermine the whole process, but it will damage your organization’s reputation on diversity and inclusion.  It will make it much tougher to successfully do this work in the future.

It’s important to set the stage early, before you do the work, to ensure commitment from each critical person whose approval will be required to move the recommendations forward once complete.  In the case of a small nonprofit organization, this means securing commitment from the board and staff, at a minimum.  It could also include key volunteers – people who will be charged with implementing action items.

Within Affirmations’ Multicultural Advisory Committee (MAC), the group had established a base trust and had identified a solid model from which to work – the Denver Foundation’s Inclusivity Project.  Once the committee laid eyes on the 300+ page guidebook, there was a pause.  No one was ready to commit to that depth of work without ensuring that the board and Executive Director would back a completed plan 150%.   This was stage two of building trust – asking the leadership of the organization for a commitment to accountability, in advance of doing the work.

It was an important step and solidly prepared the way for future work to be completed.  The Multicultural Advisory Committee (MAC) asked the Board of Directors to make a formal resolution supporting its work.  In a May 2009 meeting, the Board acted on that request, putting the resolution in writing, documenting it in the public minutes of the board record.  That resolution was then brought back to the MAC at their next meeting and presented to the full committee by the President of the Board of Directors.  This record was kept in the committee and board member files.

For groups that come together from a painful experience, this action provides a much-needed support and trust base from which to work.   This may not be the case for all organizations, and not all organizations may feel they need to gain this level of formality around their efforts, but it can also be a preventative step that protects the work from being derailed in the future.  This formality provides a measure of organizational accountability when board members or Executive Directors leave the organization and establishes a measure of expectation for their replacements.

After working diligently for two years, during which time there was  a whirlwind of change at the organization including the 10-month appointment of an interim executive director and the hiring of a new executive director, doubts arose about whether or not Affirmations should finish the work of the Multicultural Advisory Committee.  The board resolution and the Statement of Inclusiveness Principles (which will be discussed in the next blog) were the two documents that kept the work moving forward.

Read Part 6: Beyond Diversity Programs: Planting Seeds for Systemic Change

More articles on getting commitment from the top:
Expanding Diversity Requires Executive Commitment, Speakers Say.  Jeff Elder, Digits Tech News (Dec. 10, 2014)

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This is one post in a multi-part story documenting one historically white organization’s journey toward becoming racially inclusive.  The series seeks to document the challenges and successes faced along the way in an effort to provide a learning tool for other nonprofit organizations who wish to do the same.  For a complete copy of Affirmations’ “Blueprint for Change” visit www.GoAffirmations.org and click on About Us.Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012 
 
Kathleen LaTosch is a consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion planning for nonprofit organizations.  She worked at Affirmations, Michigan’s largest LGBT organization, from 2002-2011 and served as Chief Administrative Officer from 2007-2011.  While there, she was responsible for facilitating a broad-based racial diversity and inclusion initiative.  For more information about Kathleen’s work and availability, email her at klatosch at gmail.com

Building Trust after Trust is Broken

trust

Picture this: You’ve had concerns brought to you about the diversity and inclusion within your agency.  Some of the concerns run deep; they may even be open wounds and you know you need to address them.  You’ve gotten people to the table to talk, even those who felt reluctant to share, people who may have wondered aloud, “Are you really going to do something about this, this time?” or “How are you going to be any different from the last one [director/officer]?” You’re committed, you’re resolute… and you’re a little nervous.  Where do you go from here?

One of the very first steps is to establish trust among and between your committee members.  That’s not an easy task if people have had negative experiences with your organization or with past failed initiatives.  Choosing the right person to facilitate the process is important – s/he needs to have enough authority and influence within the organization to effect changes and commit the organization to them, be steadfastly dedicated to diversity and inclusion, be a respectful communicator and skilled conflict negotiator, and be open and willing to learn from committee members.  If outside facilitators and consultants are chosen to serve in this role, then the committee will still need someone of organizational authority to participate on the committee in a leadership role to ensure commitment to making changes.

When Affirmations formed its Multicultural Advisory Committee, it was designed to address a recent transgression that was rooted in a history loaded with structural and geographic racial inequality.  Those who came to the table were reasonably skeptical of the outcome of any planning meetings.  Trust was a difficult thing to establish.

Everyone’s heard the old phrase, “he can talk the talk, but does he walk the walk?”  Is it all talk, or is there any action behind those words?   In Jocelyn Giangrande’s book “What’s in Your Sandwich?” she interviews Bob Riney, President and Chief Operating Officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan.  When asked about reputation, he said, “to rebuild a tarnished reputation, it requires 100% ownership.  It helps to go public, stand up and apologize by admitting wrongdoing… it requires your reputation to be more consistent.”

A key element here is “go public, stand up and apologize by admitting wrongdoing.”  So many leaders within organizations refuse to acknowledge any role in creating the circumstances that led to the transgressions.  Paralyzed by fear, public admonishment, and perhaps possible legal recourse, they skip this step and move right into action planning. They avoid taking responsibility and consequently damage their ability to build trust within the community.  In some cases this is a fatal flaw in the process.

Have you ever felt like someone wronged you?  Have you had someone make an honest mistake but with good intentions?  Ultimately, you just want someone to own that.  To say, “Yes, this was wrong.  I did this and let’s make a plan to change it for the future.”

When Affirmations’ Multicultural Advisory Committee began to meet, the pain among community members was palpable.  People needed to be able to voice their hurt, have that pain heard and have leadership acknowledge the truthfulness of that experience.  The committee planned an off-site gathering, in a community member’s comfortable living room, with a potluck-style meal.  For three hours, people shared their hurts and their experiences and Affirmations’ leadership acknowledge the reality and truthfulness of those experiences.

Sitting with people and hearing their lived experiences provides one of the best solid foundations upon which to build.  The fears and pain are real and when fully understood by those in leadership, can provide a substantive base to inspire next steps that are thoughtful, caring and relevant to the concerns that are being shared.  It was only the first stage of building a solid trust base within the Multicultural Advisory Committee at Affirmations – there would be many more to come. But without a solid base, all future efforts would be weak.  This early step in Affirmations’ process was critical in creating an environment of mutual respect, caring and honesty and set the stage for even deeper, equally as honest conversations about transparency and accountability that would come up in future meetings.

Read Part 5: What Does Getting From Committment from the Top Look Like?

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This is one post in a multi-part story documenting one historically white organization’s journey toward becoming racially inclusive.  The series seeks to document the challenges and successes faced along the way in an effort to provide a learning tool for other nonprofit organizations who wish to do the same.  For a complete copy of Affirmations’ “Blueprint for Change” visit www.GoAffirmations.org and click on About Us.

Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012 
 
Kathleen LaTosch is a consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion planning for nonprofit organizations.  She worked at Affirmations, Michigan’s largest LGBT organization, from 2002-2011 and served as Chief Administrative Officer from 2007-2011.  While there, she was responsible for facilitating a broad-based racial diversity and inclusion initiative.  For more information about Kathleen’s work and availability, email her at klatosch at gmail.com