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.


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?”

The Cost of Diversity Without Inclusion

Part 3 of One Nonprofit Story on Creating a Plan for Racial Inclusiveness

By Kathleen LaToschNoEntry

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.  And 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

For a complete copy of Affirmations’ “Blueprint for Change” visit www.GoAffirmations.org and click on About Us.

Read Part 4: Building Trust After Trust is Broken

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