Six decades ago, Alan Shephard became the first American astronaut in space. Fifty years ago, we landed on the moon. Just two months ago, a four-person crew successfully launched aboard the first NASA-certified commercial human spacecraft system in history.
And yet "here we are still struggling [to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion on earth]," said diversity strategist Torin Ellis, on a recent episode of my podcast.
Torin passionately and articulately expressed his impatience and frustration for the slow progress society’s made over the past 60 years on diversity, inclusion and, especially, equity. His voice reverberates in my head weeks after our interview.
Torin is not alone. The killing of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor unleashed anger and outrage among people young and old, black and white, around the world. But for many Baby Boomers, the summer of 2020 felt like dÃ©jÃ vu: Torin was quick to point out that the events of last summer were not unlike the horror and backlash we witnessed when cameras showed state troopers and county possemen attack unarmed marchers in the 1965 Selma to Montogomery march. That event unleashed a series of social and legislative events that attempted to ensure fair and equal treatment for all. We often say that change is a marathon, not a sprint. But 60 years is a long time, even for a marathon.
Seeking to make sure we do what’s right this time, I used my podcast pulpit to access Torin’s unfiltered thoughts and advice. And I started by asking: Will 2020 be remembered as the year things really changed or will things just gradually slip back to the way they were?
Torin didn’t hesitate: "I think it's a little too early for us to say. It feels different and organizations seem to be a bit more serious around the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives this time. Individuals inside of these organizations seem to be a bit more thirsty and curious about how they are going to pursue a change in their organization."
To turn rhetoric, frustration and even anger into good, Torin says the responsibility falls on both individuals and organizations. While companies need to lead the effort in making diversity and inclusion initiatives a priority, we all need to "drop the excuses and figure out how to do the work." To get started, Torin offers four key considerations:
1. Own Your Role
Diversity and inclusion has to start somewhere. Many people suggest it starts with leadership. But Torin suggested that it is also "the responsibility of every member of an organization to own their roles fully. Every individual, after reflecting on where they have fallen short, is responsible for making the changes they need to make in order to create a just workplace."
2. Make Diversity and Inclusion a Priority
The response to the pandemic was swift. We transformed cities, schools, workplaces, and even personal living spaces within days and weeks. Like COVID-19, discrimination, exclusion, and social injustice are also very real threats to our society. If we can create a safe response to a pandemic, why can’t we create a safe and inclusive workplace for people of color, race, age, and gender preference?
Torin said, "The reason no real change has been made is not because it’s impossible, but because it hasn’t been made a top priority. Many organizations have started with initiatives such as unconscious bias training, but haven’t gone far enough. This is a great first step, but not an approach that will lead to lasting change." Instead of relying solely on unconscious bias training, organizations need to promote more holistic efforts that will exist in perpetuity and have long-term, progressive goals associated with them.
3. Table Our Fragility
Personal change is hard work. We need to accept, then unpack our personal biases and prejudices. This process can often cause people to feel attacked. One of the most difficult parts of these changes is that it is ongoing. We are never done working on becoming a better human. It is a constant process that requires reflection, understanding, learning, and practice to make real changes.
We also must accept that we will make mistakes. That’s almost guaranteed. Torin’s advice: "Rather than letting the fear of making a mistake prevent you from diving into the work of being a better person, embrace the inevitability of making mistakes and be prepared to own them."
4. Spread the Word
It is not enough to only work on yourself as an individual. To work towards a truly just society, we are all obliged to get others on board. Create a safe zone for crucial conversations about the reality of our personal biases, prejudices and social injustice. Beyond that, encourage business leaders and influencers to join efforts to advance racial equality and accept responsibility for fixing their practices. It’s not only the moral and right thing to do but racism has led to a $16 trillion loss in GDP over the last 20 years. If nothing else, this finding must be shared and used to spark change.
According to Torin, the biggest threat to progress is "the complacency of white people and the fatigue of Black people." But if we do these four things, Torin strongly believes we'll be in better shape than ever before to shape to make real change.
For more tips about how to make diversity and inclusion a priority in the workplace, check out a recent webinar about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging and HR’s role from Cornerstone’s Advisory Services lead, Jeremy Spake.
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