Like a string of beads, it is our unique differences and intricacies that make us so appealing and attractive. We would not be as beautiful if we were all the same. It’s the contrast and asymmetry that makes us worthwhile.— Lindsey Lunsford, M.E.M., eXtention Foundation, 2019 Impact Collaborative, DEI Fellow  

One of my early jobs was at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. At that time, it wasn’t hard to create a member persona. If you understood the habits of a middle-aged white male physician, you were squarely in the ballpark. A quick search today for a board-certified neurosurgeon in Chicago yielded many women as well as an international roster of names.

The current question is not whether your population is more diverse. Although there are still groups that look too much alike, every association is a brighter rainbow than it was 10 years ago. The issue is do your leaders, decision-makers, and staff reflect those changes? And is your organization giving all its constituents the representation and services they want and need.

Think Beyond Diversity

The economic, social, and cultural events of the last year have put diversity at the top of many organizations’ priority lists. In a recent survey conducted by .orgCommunity, Over 50 percent of respondents reported making diversity a greater focus at their meetings.

Jacqueline Price Osafo, the first person of color to serve as executive director of the Society of American Archivists, made this observation about the post-pandemic environment, “My fear,” she says, “Is for those who did not shift. For example, although diversity, equity, and inclusion have been on SAA’s agenda for a long time, it is a huge change that many groups need to address. We can’t just bring a diverse audience to the table; we need to make sure that their contribution is noted. Everyone must have a voice. We’re all invited to dinner, but if I can’t talk, what’s the point of having me there.

A sense of belonging must be part of the welcome package.

“I credit the shift in my career to a lot of folks who have helped me on my journey. Many of them looked like me and many did not. But it took all those folks in my different kitchen cabinets for me to be here today. I’m the first person of color to serve as the executive director at SAA. Many of my colleagues who are also sitting in this space are “firsts” as well. That’s good, but it’s also sad because it’s 2022, and we’re the first.”

Jacqueline’s comments highlight the distance that can stretch between the desired goal—which is diversity and the behavior that makes embracing differences possible, or equity and inclusion. In a recent Association 4.0 Podcast. Sharon Rice, .orgSource, managing director of business strategy discussed closing that gap between intention and behavior with Christine Saxman, CEO of Saxman Consulting. 

Christine’s consultancy specializes in racial and social justice facilitation and training in educational and corporate spaces. “I was a high school teacher for 15 years,” Christine explains. “Student-teaching made me ask myself what it means to be a white teacher whose students are from many backgrounds, heritages, and traditions that are significantly different from my own. I realized that I needed to learn more to answer that question.

“My journey brought me in contact with SEED and Courageous Conversations. Both organizations are dedicated to teaching others about educational equity and diversity and leading important dialogues about racial justice. As a white person doing this work, I owe a lot to them. I left the classroom to be a full-time consultant four years ago.

Understand the DEI Values

The DEI acronym causes us to lump the words diversity, equity, and inclusion together. But each value has a distinct meaning. My search for definitions brought lots of options—some simple, others more complex. I think this statement from the University of Michigan strikes a good balance. It is precise, active, and recognizes that the DEI triad of behavior must occur simultaneously, along with the need for and the willingness to change:

DEI closes the gap between intention and behavior.

Equity: We commit to working actively to challenge and respond to bias, harassment, and discrimination. We are committed to a policy of equal opportunity for all persons and do not discriminate based on race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or veteran status.

Inclusion: We commit to pursuing deliberate efforts to ensure that our campus is a place where differences are welcomed, different perspectives are respectfully heard, and where every individual feels a sense of belonging and inclusion. We know that by building a critical mass of diverse groups on campus and creating a vibrant climate of inclusiveness, we can more effectively leverage the resources of diversity to advance our collective capabilities

Be Prepared to Change

Christine had some insightful observations about why diversity must be linked to equity and inclusion. “Diversity by itself whether race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, or sexual orientation, can be very tokenizing,” she explained.  

Achieving diversity is not a box you check when you hire a Black or Latina employee. A diverse workforce is the beginning, not the end. It is a catalyst for positive and ongoing organizational change. A sense of belonging, or inclusion, must be part of the welcome package. If new employees don’t have a stake in the organization and some related power, they are unlikely to be around to celebrate their first work anniversary.

Equity is critical to building trust and reinforcing that sense of ownership. Equity has a larger dimension than equality. Equality means the same rules apply to us all. Equity, however, ensures that those rules are fair and just. It refers to the quality rather than the quantity of an experience.

“I’ve been in the association community for 30 years now,” Sharon observed. “About 15 years ago, we became conscious of the optics surrounding diversity. That awareness probably showed up first in marketing departments that were creating brochures, webpages, and other graphics. There was the desire to promote an inclusive attitude. Those were good intentions, but they didn’t reflect actual organizational change.

“It’s only been in the last four or five years that boards have begun asking challenging and specific questions. They are considering whether to create goals and strategies for DEI and having conversations about leadership and workforce issues,” Sharon advises. “Taking diversity beyond face value is a complex initiative with layers of human and systemic challenges that we are beginning to tackle.”

As associations explore new levels of understanding, it’s important to remember that there is a learning curve. “One of my great mentors, a Black woman, taught me that we need to practice this skill like anything else,” Christine notes. “So, for the group that is the most normalized, there may be feelings of defensiveness or the perception of having done something wrong. And we need to remember that blame is not part of the DEI initiative. But building a more positive environment is. That process requires that we all work together toward a common understanding.

“What we’re striving for is structural justice in the workplace and full inclusion,” Christine advises. “If we accomplish all three goals—equity, diversity, and inclusion, then we know that we’re advancing as an organization and as a community.”

The digital world has made the physical world a smaller place. In the future, what divides us may be overshadowed by what we have in common. That time will arrive more quickly when we learn to prize our differences. Their value lies in revealing the unique perspective and knowledge that is only visible when we step outside of ourselves.