Beyond Diversity Programs: Planting Seeds for Systemic Change

planting seedsHow do you take something from a diversity “project” to becoming integrated into the everyday workings of an institution?   Systemic change is at the heart of true diversity and inclusion work –

– to get to a place where you no longer need an initiative, where the culture of the organization supports a genuine and positive curiosity about difference, and authentic inclusion becomes a reflex for the organization. While many agencies start with an initiative, leaders of such efforts don’t have to wait until completion of the project in order to begin planting seeds for systemic change. The time to start is now.

Procedural changes do not require multiple levels of approval and they don’t need to cost a lot of money to implement, as long as the initiative leader has the authority or support to make such changes and has a measure of respect and credibility among his/her staff members.

To plant the seeds for institutional change and a cultural shift, everyone must be touched by the conversation.  When we began our racial and ethnic diversity initiative at Affirmations, led by the Multicultural Advisory Committee, we immediately began implementing strategies internally that would shift the organizational culture on diversity and inclusion – well before any recommendations came down the line.  By the time the recommendations arrived, they were welcomed with open arms in an intentionally fostered organizational climate.

Here’s what we did:
  1. We were specific and intentional in our messaging.
  • We posted our specific values statement on inclusion, called the Statement of Inclusiveness Principles, at our website and on large poster paper at every entrance to the building, along with the Code of Conduct.  The Statement of Inclusiveness Principles clearly outlined our values on inclusion while the Code of Conduct outlined behavior standards connected to those values.
  • We sent regular updates on the work of our diversity and inclusion initiative to our constituents through the website, newsletter and major media outlets.
  • We attached the Statement of Inclusiveness Principles to all job postings.

This was an easy, yet critical step to setting expectations within the organization and for new people arriving to their roles as board members, staff, interns and volunteers.  In fact, we regularly had people comment upon arriving, “I applied for the job because of the Statement of Inclusiveness Principles – it told me this was a place I wanted to work.”   Further, it clearly set the tone for new people on the values of the organization around diversity and inclusion.

  1. We enhanced existing orientation procedures – for board, staff, interns and volunteers.
  • We added an oral review of the Statement of Inclusiveness Principles and Code of Conduct at orientation for all board members, staff, interns and volunteers.
  • We required everyone to complete a 4-hour basic diversity and inclusion training within the first 90 days of service and we offered it on-site monthly.

Viewing our human resource pool as including all board members, staff, interns and volunteers was critical.  Volunteers greeted visitors at the front desk; board members represented the organization at a variety of internal and external functions; staff members coordinated teams of community members; interns often delivered service directly to clients – all were ambassadors of the organization and all needed to have the same foundational dialogue on diversity and inclusion.  In order to get full buy-in on the training time commitment from board members, it was helpful to have them formally approve the work of our diversity initiative first.  In fact, we didn’t initially make the training mandatory for board members.  The subsequent culture shift provided peer encouragement for all to complete the training until the board itself decided to make it a requirement of service later on in the process.

  1. We identified a cost-effective approach to providing diversity and inclusion training.
  • We contracted with a local third party respected provider of diversity and inclusion education, The Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, to create a customized training for our organization, then trained a core group of staff to become trainers.
  • Once an internal training team was ready, we offered the training on a monthly basis, rotating between Saturday mornings and weekday evenings to accommodate a range of schedules.  We initially trained a team of five diverse and committed staff members, who rotated as co-facilitators depending upon their schedule availability.

It was important to outsource the initial training for a number of reasons.  First, they were an impartial third party with a distinct and credible reputation in the community on diversity and inclusion training – it lent public legitimacy to our efforts.  Second, they could use tested tools and approaches to create a custom training suited to our needs.  Third, it relieved the time resources that would have been required to create the training using internal staff resources.  And last, it eliminated conflicts of interest and power dynamics among staff related to program content, training models and effectiveness.  As an organization that prided itself on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender diversity, many people in the organization were already well informed on diversity issues; outsourcing it took the pressure off of “being right.”  Adding a train-the-trainer component allowed the organization to continue offering the training in-house for many years to come at no cost.

These were critical first steps in planting seeds for building inclusiveness into the organizational DNA.  After just 12 months, we saw a noticeable change in attitudes, beliefs and expectations.  A learning philosophy had begun to uproot a somewhat blaming culture.  There was also a shift in board, staff, intern and volunteer confidence in handling racially-charged situations which frequently came up between people participating in programs at the center.  One unexpected benefit – our monthly trainings were offered to all who needed to take them, which resulted in a mix of staff, volunteers, interns and board members at each.  Due to the intimacy of the experience, many formed lasting bonds with those with whom they had attended the training and this was often times a cross-role relationship with staff and board members mixing with volunteers and interns.  This cross-relationship building only further solidified and strengthened the inclusive culture that was taking root.

Read Part 7: I’ll Show you Mine: Transparency in Diversity & Inclusion Work

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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
 

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

Employers, What’s your Water Cooler Conversation on Michigan’s Gay Marriage News?

gay marriageI get called on a lot to help businesses create a more welcoming environment for their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.  As part of the presentation, I help HR professionals and supervisors understand what lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people want in order to feel like valued employees.

I cite surprising statistics about the high percentage of LGBT people that feel unsafe to come out for fear of reprisal or professional consequences – hitting the lavender-tinted glass ceiling of advancement.  One question that comes up over and over again from well-meaning supervisors and HR directors is “How can we let LGBT people know that it’s a safe environment?”  “How can I, as a co-worker, encourage my fellow colleagues to come out and feel safe?”

The perfect opportunity just dropped in your lap.

This past weekend, Michigan became the 18th state to rule that a prohibition on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  Hundreds of couples rushed to the three courthouses in the state which opened their doors on a Saturday, following the late Friday afternoon ruling from Judge Bernard Friedman.  Although the Appeals Court issued a stay on Saturday afternoon which temporarily ended the issuing of same sex marriage licenses until an appeal is heard, hundreds of couples were married over the weekend and Facebook exploded with traffic on the issue.

In my own town of Ferndale, Michigan, hundreds of straight well-wishers commented on the wedding announcements.  After being engaged for 22 years, I finally married my fiancée and was astounded by the local support of our straight friends and allies.  I was overwhelmed to learn that school board members waited for hours at our LGBT community center for us to return from the courthouse and applaud our nuptials;  I was awe-inspired to see high school friends from out-of-state and college friends from out-of-country praising the decision and congratulating us to all of their friends on Facebook.

The sheer feeling of community support was indescribable, especially since I once lived a part of my life in the shadow of the closet – worrying how others would treat me if they found out.

And your employees are not much different.   The vast majority of LGBT people have lived a portion of their lives in the shadow of the closet.   People living in that shadow carefully watch for signs that they can come out or that they should stay in – they listen to the informal conversations, they pay attention to how those who are “out” get treated.  They watch how other minorities fare professionally.

Michigan’s recent court decision provides all organizations with an opportunity to do a quick culture check.  What’s the conversation around *your* water cooler on this issue?   Do you hear people excitedly talking about friends, family and colleagues who got married over the weekend?   Did someone at your company get married?  Do you know?  Did you ask?   How do you feel about it and how are you conveying that feeling to others?

Listen in.  Is the conversation instead comments like, “Geez, what’s this world coming to?” or maybe there’s no conversation at all.  Perhaps when the subject is brought up, there is silence.

These are great opportunities for you to take the temperature of your organizational culture.

It’s also a good opportunity to check on your organization’s non-discrimination policies.  Do you specifically state that you won’t discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression?   If not, now is the perfect opportunity to make some headway there.

If you already have such a policy, the recent news is an excellent reason to recommit your organization’s values by sending a congratulatory message to all those in your employ who may have benefited.   Talk to them about what this may mean regarding their employment benefits, now that they are married.   Check with your legal counsel about what this may mean and share the information with your staff members.

And don’t forget the little touches, something as simple as receiving a beautiful and heartfelt Congratulations! card can make a world of difference.

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Kathleen LaTosch works as an independent consultant and focuses her work on building diverse and inclusive organizations.  For more information, visit www.LaToschConsulting.com.