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Advice for Aspiring DEI Practitioners

Diversity and inclusion have been important topics of discussion in the professional world for many years. Starting in the 1960s trainings on equal employment laws and affirmative action we're the main focuses and the start of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in corporations. In the past, diversity and inclusion were often seen as separate topics. Belonging and equity are newer ideas that have become part of the larger conversation of organizational change. In recent years, many organizations have recognized the importance of creating an inclusive environment in the workplace, which includes ensuring that all employees, regardless of their background, are respected and valued.

As a profession that has grown exponentially since 2020 you may be wondering how to get started in the profession or looking for advice on what to do once you've landed your first DEIB role. DEIB practitioners from the DEI Speakers Bureau have come together to offer their advice on the DEIB profession.

Be a Life Long Learner

One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a DEIB practitioner is to not rely on either my personal experiences with navigating racism nor on “common knowledge” about DEIB practices. For example, studies conclude that not only is bias training ineffective at reducing bias (Onyeador et al, 2021), but it often leads to decreased representation of women and minorities (Dobbin and Kalev, 2016). I learned that in order to be effective, I had to spend countless hours learning about the root causes of DEIB challenges, including historical, structural, and institutional racism, as well as about behavioral and cognitive science principles. And then I needed to spend just as many hours teaching myself about evidence-based practices to address those root causes. For example, our tendency to have biased thoughts is too strong to dismantle through bias-awareness training, but we can design policies and processes to prevent biased behavior (behavioral design).

A second lesson I have learned is the importance of learning about historical racism and its enduring impacts on contemporary structural racism. Researchers conclude that most white Americans have a “profound” ignorance of historical racism, which contributes to both their failure to perceive structural racism in the present (Nelson, Adams, and Salter, 2013) and to significant “principle-practice” gaps between white American support for racial equality principles, on one hand, versus their support for policies and practices to address racial inequality in practice (Wodtke, 2016). Structural racism is rooted in the enduring legacies of decades of historical government discrimination against African Americans. For example, the contemporary racial wealth gap is rooted in decades of virtually white-only public investment including FHA and VA-backed mortgages and the G.I. Bill, and contemporary residential segregation is rooted in racial zoning, restrictive covenants, and redlining. I share some evidence-based principles for teaching students about historical and structural racism in this article.

Listen More Than You Speak

DEIB is about universal understanding and acceptance. I have always learned more about a person by listening than talking. You cannot receive information if you are the one doing all the output. I have realized that I will learn more about the person I am engaging with if I just let them tell me in their own words. You must respect what people want to share about themselves and what they choose to keep to themselves. Learning about people who have had experiences unlike our own is about listening; not guessing, not assuming, not doing research on. Truth and accuracy are in the stories of experiences people are kind enough to share. Bring real world situations to your DEIB work, and put them on the table. Do not point to charts and graphs when you can tell a story instead. People are stories, not numbers.

Do What We Teach

Being Black practitioners in DEIB is rewarding in that we get to share our commitment and passion for equity with people who are mandated (for whatever reason) to hear us and work through their biases and limited funds of knowledge via our curation. However, as DEIB practitioners, a bigger part of our work is letting go of the notion that people WANT to do the work, are willing to change, or will actually shift their behaviors because of our razzle dazzle. Our approach is engaging, dynamic, historically-backed and NON-JUDGMENTAL because our practice calls for it. None of those inputs equate to changed behavior within and against systems that prop up white supremacy in EVERY aspect of our lives though.

So, what’s the reconciliation? You practice showing up AS yourself, with all the trappings and trim of a decked out present! We call ourselves practitioners because while we are experts on educational pedagogy, youth development, and experiential learning that engages—we are forever students. Always seeking out opportunities to learn within and through our DEIB work, and also documenting it thoroughly. We pride ourselves as being “The Most Authentic'' and it’s our business tagline because we bring our WHOLE selves and our multiple identities to the audiences we encounter, while having honest and frank conversations with our clients.

We are professionals whose experiences guide our service with integrity, care, and high regard. Yet showing up as US definitely reduces some of the work we get despite the pride in authenticity. As DEIB practitioners the value of our work is in acknowledging that we genuinely DO what we TEACH, and we are the experts in our lived experiences. Ultimately though, your reach only gets through to those who WANT to be reached and so you have to prioritize your practice over the desire for people to change.

Set Goals and Timelines

My advice would be to have a clear understanding of your values and set realistic timelines for what you want to accomplish. Some things will take time to implement so you’ll want to start them early - but having some quicker, easier wins to go for in the meantime helps to keep up morale and focus attention to this important topic. Know that you’ll sometimes have to pick your battles but coming back for something later is not the same as a failure, and that you are not the whole system - so don’t blame yourself if you feel like enough isn’t happening fast enough.

Self-Care is Critical

DEIB work can be extremely challenging. Self-care is very important in this line of work to recharge and re-energize. Here are my tips for self-care for aspiring DEIB practitioners:

  • Do not wait until you are exhausted to seek rest and restoration. DEIB work can be stressful, frustrating, and challenging. Many in this line of work also re-experience some level of trauma resulting from the depth and seriousness of the content. Because of this, it is especially important to prioritize rest, self-care, wellness, and healing well before exhaustion sets in. The idea is to use self-care strategies regularly to prevent exhaustion and overwhelm instead of waiting until you’re past the point of no return and burn out completely.

  • Create a community that both supports you and holds you accountable. This community will remind you to take care of yourself (see previous bullet point) and also lovingly call you in when necessary. Remember, although you will cultivate this community of friends, family, and colleagues to support you, it’s imperative to give as much (or more) for the community than you take from it.

  • DEIB work can force you to focus on negative aspects of culture. Spend time exploring and experiencing the beautiful parts. Visit museums, read books, listen to music, and absorb as much culture as possible. It will help to balance out a lot of the heaviness of the work and provide an amazing learning opportunity.

Lean Into Your Authenticity

When becoming a speaker, what is your character is a very important consideration. All too often we get advice that says tone it down, play to the crowd, or “be normal.” Don’t do it… it’s a trap! Being different is what makes you awesome. It took me years of being everyone else before I discovered that I was best at being me. I was always afraid of wearing what I wanted, instead donning a business suit. With a little courage I started wearing what I wanted - sparkle suits and glitter shoes… and now every person comes up and comments on how amazing the outfit is. Fear holds us back, but pride and honesty will propel us further than we can imagine. People pay you to talk because they want to see you. They want to know what makes you extraordinary. What is your truth. You’ll get lots of advice - but read between the lines and listen to experience… and experience says be the most super awesome version of yourself!

Contact these DEIB Professionals and over 60 others via the DEI Speakers Bureau!

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