Imagine a world where people who have the physical ability to “move” through life void of mobility challenges and/or the mental capacity to be “fully functioning” had the power to determine how life should be experienced for everyone else. Scratching your head? You are correct if you quickly concluded that this is the world we live in. Despite law. Despite good intentions. This happens day in and day out. This is systemic and structural inequity created by those with privilege.
For obvious reasons, over the past few weeks there has been a new level of attention around the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion. A “been wokening” as some might put it. As a practitioner in the space, I have mixed feelings about reactive outpourings of action oriented dialogue. While I am hopeful, and understand that sometimes it takes catastrophic events to invoke change, I’m most interested in action oriented action, measurable change and sustainable results (which is why I’ve built a consulting practice around it).
I’ve always been of the mindset that this work is critical, for the top line and for the bottom line as well as morally right. I grew up watching my parents advocate for basic rights for my sister who had special needs. I believe their relentless fight, which took place over the entirety of her 34 years of life, blazed the trail for future generations of people with differing abilities. But the work is far from complete. I’ve always been of the mindset that you have to hear and see everyone, give access and visibility to everyone, create opportunities and possibilities for everyone, role model behavior that unites and have zero tolerance for that which is divisive. But let’s get one thing clear, everyone is not created equal and diversity is not the only goal that should be pursued.
Let me explain why I am so focused on a holistic approach that begins with equity. Diversity can’t thrive without some fundamentals. I remember when I first started this work in 2013. I was in a boardroom with the executive team pitching my first strategic plan for D&I. That same day, an attorney was conducting ADA compliance training for a group of construction managers. The premise of the training was about preventing ADA violations which in turn, could result in lawsuits, a lagging indicator caused by inequity. I’m not suggesting these compliance issues are/were not important, but having grown up with a sister who had special needs, what is/was equally, if not more important, is/was to understand why ADA was even created… as a means to level the playing field, ensure basic human quality of life, create a framework for equity. Simply focusing on the legality and giving people a list of instructions doesn’t change the underlying purpose and issue of equity. It certainly doesn’t unleash compassion or inspire a deeper understanding of why this should be important to everyone. Had we any employees who were wheelchair bound and could have been invited to the conversation, I would argue the takeaway would have been entirely different, more meaningful, more human.
This and what we are dealing with today is fundamentally an issue of equity that is only changed with diversity and inclusion but we have to start with the commitment to and accountability for equity. An absence of equity leads to an absence of inclusion and then diversity doesn’t matter. When we hear terms like structural inequity, institutional racism and privilege it means that our nation, our laws and legal system, our businesses have largely been built on a foundation, be it intentionally or not, that lacks equity and serves the best interest, intentionally or not, of the majority. The majority being those who built the very foundation that others are expected to adhere to and the framework by which everyone is expected to function within. In order to facilitate and foster diversity and inclusion, there must be a focus and a willingness to find, address and correct inequities. And trust me, they are in both obvious and unsuspecting places. Diversity training, committees, celebrations and events are all good but without the equity component, which is ultimately controlled at the top, the desired outcomes will never be fully realized. I liken it to building a beautiful house on a weak foundation and hoping the wind won’t blow it over.
There is no quick fix or instant gratification with this work. There is likely a lot of low hanging fruit but it’s a journey. It’s hard work. It’s disruptive change. It’s a sustained commitment to finding, fixing, removing people, policy, programs and practices that inherently prevent equity, present obstacles to inclusion and derail the best intentions around diversity. We are not created equally but together we can achieve equity.