By Sarah P.

DEI: diversity, equity and inclusion. We’ve heard these words often; they might just be the second most popular phrase this past year, next to “in these unprecedented times.”

As someone who has worked closely with equal opportunity offices, I’ve almost put the definition of DEI into a box of three major ideas: ensuring fairness in policies and practices; ensuring universal access to appropriate resources and opportunities; and actively pursuing initiatives that show that the organization and its leaders value DEI. 

Robert Sellers, the University of Michigan’s chief diversity officer, has a great way to communicate DEI, comparing it to a party: Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party. Equity means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist. Inclusion means that everyone has the opportunity to dance.

This is a very simple and clever way to differentiate DEI aspects, and Equal Employment Manager Charles Montañez takes it a step further; more than inclusion being the opportunity to dance, he says, people should be asked to dance.

“When you see every seat empty and everyone dancing with everyone else, that is inclusion!” said Montañez.

Putting these words into practice can be complicated. How have we observed various organizations incorporating DEI initiatives? Perhaps you’ve seen diversity-centered hiring practices or communications on DEI topics – such as trainings and leadership bulletins – or perhaps you’ve seen a mentorship program aimed at creating a more inclusive culture.

These are all great ways to start the discussion and walk the walk. However, I’ve been able to appreciate and learn from various leaders what it truly takes to change an organization: specific and relevant education.

Earlier this year, Muslims celebrated the Islamic holidays of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email ahead of these holidays from the leader of a large organization. The email explained what the holidays were, who this may affect and how accommodations could be made for Muslims in the workplace, such as allowing flexible hours for fasting and prayer. It also included potential days off that Muslims might request to celebrate and sensitive practices during these holidays, such as avoiding holding a workplace lunch event.​

This was an incredible demonstration of leadership recognizing its part in promoting DEI principles. It is the responsibility of all leaders, formal and informal, to recognize, communicate and practice the principles of DEI. In this case, a simple email conveyed a timely, applicable education opportunity. 

A good, DEI-oriented leader challenges us to look around, learn from others and offer a helping hand to colleagues.

As someone who grew up learning about and observing these holidays from childhood friends who celebrated them, I now look at Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and other holidays in a different light. I see opportunities to speak with Muslim employees about how their daily routine may change and what I can do to support them. I am able to use this as a platform for greater understanding of one another and improving team dynamics. 

When I joined WAPA, I was invited to an amazing Employee Assistance Program class called Parenting During a Pandemic. As a result of the Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr email, I saw this as an opportunity to learn what my colleagues who have children might be facing that I otherwise wasn’t aware of. 

We talked about the difficulties of childcare, seemingly awkward but necessary conversations for some parents around vaccination status and attitudes of other families, the social and developmental limitations of virtual learning for children and more. 

This pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, but seeing and hearing discussions and questions in this class contributed to my timely education of the additional considerations that my colleagues are making for their children.

There are opportunities abound that perhaps we haven’t seen as such regarding DEI. This might involve attending classes, receiving DEI-minded emails from leadership and, in my case, adding a special holiday calendar that accommodates multiple religions so that I can better understand, include and accommodate colleagues of different backgrounds.

I plan to walk the walk by pursuing and encouraging others to pursue these various opportunities. I will hopefully discover new ways to make others feel included.

It’s amazing how one email opened my eyes to so much more in the DEI realm around me. It reminded me of an illustration of what equality may look like in an organization, and what equity should look like. DEI-minded communication encourages a “we’re in this together” outlook, and I truly believe that reinforcement of this idea starts with education, both formal and informal.

The Leadership Development Team, the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity and the Inclusion and Diversity Committee are working to integrate DEI into our daily routines. These groups are committed to bringing new and exciting DEI programs and timely, relevant training to all WAPA employees in the near future. Stay tuned for more information.

John Lennon said, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.” I like to think that that’s a good thing. 

Note: P. is a leadership development specialist.

Last modified on September 12th, 2023