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Moving beyond conversations to address systemic inequities

By Saray Lopez and Christina Neider, Ed.D.
November 06, 2020 • 3 minute read

As calls for social reform persist, people continue to look to leaders to champion a more diverse, inclusive and equitable society. A critical first step is to create safe spaces for conversations to promote an overall understanding of the impacts and outcomes of systemic inequity. But it’s time to move beyond this. It’s time to implement solutions. In October, the four-day webinar series “Essential conversations in diversity, equity and inclusion,” sponsored by University of Phoenix and the National Diversity Council, brought together industry leaders in criminal justice, healthcare and higher education to discuss systemic inequities.

A blueprint was created for championing equity conversations within spheres of influence to drive change within organizations and address deeply ingrained inequities. The takeaways apply to industries across the board, and they begin with ensuring a solid understanding of the challenges facing our culture and each organization.

Unraveling the threads

It’s important for leaders to help their teams understand what systemic inequity is and what it looks like. This can be approached using the metaphor of an old, tattered sweater taking up space in your closet. You recognize it is in a state of disrepair. You attempt to aesthetically improve it by sewing on a different sleeve, but you quickly recognize the random sleeve doesn’t make the sweater more attractive or less threadbare. It draws attention to the new sleeve, but it doesn’t address that the true issue lies within the fabric itself.

In the metaphor, the sweater represents an organization or institution, and the threads are the processes that lean inequitably toward the privileged, often excluding populations that are marginalized based on race, class, gender, disability status and more. The sewn-on sleeve represents a partial — or misunderstood — effort to change. Although it is a visible change, the bulk of the sweater remains as before.

Like the sweater, we must unravel the threads that have held the inequities in our systems in place. We must unlearn behaviors and relearn best practices so we can provide future generations with the tools and access they need to thrive. To begin this process, organizations need to look inward.

Start with a needs assessment

Once there is an understanding of what systemic inequity is, you can begin looking at your organization through the lens of a needs assessment. Depending on the nature of your business and services, the details of this exercise may change, but the structure is applicable across industries.

Do our leaders/employees understand the organization’s philosophy and culture on diversity, equity and inclusion?

Exercise: List steps that have been taken to encourage open conversation and understanding, as well as which structures exist to foster equity in areas throughout the organization.

For example, take a look at departmental diversity. Could hiring, promoting or transferring employees ensure better representation of diversity in gender, ethnicity and culture, as well as diversity in thinking?

Does our organization/leadership team/institution have access to the necessary tools and resources to best serve our employees/customers?

Exercise: Define the resources and tools and who is responsible for ensuring they are available and understood within the organization. Look toward implementing ways employees can demonstrate an understanding of these resources and tools.

One way to do this is through training sessions that include learning assessments the participants complete prior to the session and again afterward. Consider tiered trainings that focus on a different topic or angle related to diversity, equity and inclusion each time so the learning is ongoing and valuable. Ensure new hires and seasoned employees alike participate in the trainings and offer touch points between sessions to encourage dialogue and communication.

How can we work toward eliminating inequities and disparities within our organization?

Exercise: Create a plan and a timeline to meet your organization’s goals. Identify a point person from each area within your structure to ensure all departments and employees understand the guiding philosophies and goals. Provide guidance for departmental goals that align with those of the institution.

For example, in higher education, the institution may have a goal to identify inclusive practices that allow students to feel like they belong and can engage in activities. Each department should list how they serve students in this way, how they can better serve students in this way and brainstorm ways to collaborate with other entities to meet the goal together.

It is crucial in this time to make concerted efforts to move beyond conversation and understanding. It is time to take action to create an environment within our organizations that will best support our employees, our customers and our communities by addressing the various inequities that exist within our culture.

It is a living, breathing process that should be ongoing and sometimes uncomfortable. But we have to be willing to be uncomfortable to learn and grow.