Dodge TA: Implementing diversity, inclusion, and equity during a pandemic

May 8, 2020

Definitions of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

There is broad acknowledgement that we are living through an unprecedented time. It is a time of crisis. For many of us and our organizations, also a time of trauma. When things are so hard, how could this possibly also be a time to focus on diversity, inclusion and equity concerns – particularly for those of us who have not previously prioritized these things?

I would argue that this is precisely the time – because we are in a time of crisis and disruption – to focus our efforts regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity. Here is why…

By definition, crises are different than problems. A problem is a situation in which we can define the issue and then utilize our existing coping strategies and previously developed methodologies to resolve the challenges we are facing. Many of us as organizational leaders are used to solving problems and might have developed robust organizational practices for doing so. However, a crisis is a situation in which our typical coping strategies are outstripped by circumstances and no longer function to help us respond to the magnitude of the situation.  When the magnitude of a crisis overwhelms us, we experience trauma. Trauma creates inner fragmentation which creates a higher probability of fragmentation that can impact our organizational culture, systems and services.

A frequently used trope when discussing crisis is to invoke the Chinese word for “crisis” which is composed of the two characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity.”

Danger and Opportunity
Chinese character for Crisis meaning danger and opportunity

 In the original Chinese, the meaning of the first symbol “wēij”ī is actually best defined as “danger at a point of juncture.” 

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic presents significant dangers to our collective health, our economy, and our community well-being. Stosh Cotler of Bend the Arc likens the pandemic to a tsunami. She reminds us that before a tsunami hits the coastline, all the water recedes. What once was covered, is now exposed – all the muck, the debris and the living things gasping for breath.  When this happens, we can see with startling clarity what was previously obscured for those of us who had the privilege not see or to look away.

Our current juncture danger point is whether we, due to our own trauma or perhaps through the privilege we have of being on higher ground during this tsunami, translate the public health necessity for physical distance into a social distance and compassion gap that leads us to ignore the systemic disparities and inequities that the pandemic has exposed.  

The data is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting black, brown and poor communities. Decades of disinvestment in public health infrastructure and economic and community development, coupled with the warehousing of black and brown bodies in substandard housing, prisons, immigrant detention centers, and close quarter assembly lines (i.e meat packing plants) has resulted in higher infection and death rates. It should be no surprise, if we allow ourselves to see the muck that has the been exposed, that systemic inequities lead to systemic disparities.

In the face of this, the danger is that we hunker down, await a return to “normal,” and wait for the water to flow back, without attending to the things that are now right in front of us.

Conversely, the opportunity of this moment is also significant. One of the lessons I learned when working as a family psychotherapist was never to waste a crisis because opportunities for systemic change emerge in crises that might never come again. In times of crisis, systems are disrupted enough for real change to happen – for people to see and hear things that were invisible to them before, to experiment with new behaviors and ways to show up for each other, and to shift structural aspects of interactions that significantly heal and alter the system. In short, intentionally utilizing the disruptive aspects of a crisis presents an opportunity to accelerate systemic growth and change.

As organizational leaders we know that making organizational change is hard and typically takes a significant period of time to get our systems and services aligned with a new direction. However, we are not in a typical time. We are in a time of disruption that impacts every part of our organizations – where and how we work, how we interact with our constituents, our funding streams, and all of our operations. 

The choice before us is stark. Do we react to this disruption by retrenching in our current organizational culture – in our “just the way we do things around here” way of operating? Or, do we seize the disruptive opportunity this crisis presents to embed our values concerning diversity, inclusion, and equity into our organizational culture and make deep systemic changes that will enable us to respond in more relevant and impactful ways to the pressing needs of our communities? 

Here are a few suggested practices that can support you in making organizational shifts:  

  • Intentionally utilize this time to develop your inclusion muscles. Focus on developing new norms for interpersonal interaction that reinforce connection and caring. Our collective health, well-being, and our lives depend on all of us seeing and experiencing how interdependent our futures are with each other.
  • Practice seeing and naming the disparities embedded in our own policies and practices that contribute to current inequities. We can’t make change until we can expose what was previously unseen. 
  • Practice adapting these policies and practices to more intentionally embed diversity, inclusion, and equity into all that we do. 

Below are some guiding questions to consider as you are taking your next implementation steps:

  • What are the differences that make a difference in our work in the current context? 
  • Of these differences, which of our staff and who among our constituents are currently facing the most disparities and are most marginalized in the midst of this pandemic? How do we hold these staff and constituents at the center of our planning as we move forward?

Given the answers to these questions, what do we keep doing, what do we stop doing, and what do we start doing to take advantage of this crisis to more deeply implement diversity, inclusion, and equity in our organizational culture? 

  • Keep: What has been emerging in the ways we are working now that demonstrate our care, concern, and compassion for each other and our communities? How do we plan for these practices to stick and stay as we move forward? 
  • Stop: What practices are no longer serving us and our mission that we need to sunset during this time? 
  • Start: How can we utilize the disruption to our organizational culture created by the pandemic as an opportunity to reinforce or launch more effective ways to address systemic disparities to achieve more equity for our staff and constituents? 

We and our organizations are being challenged to work differently and adapt to urgent needs and new challenges. Let’s not waste the disruption of this crisis. Let us use it to deepen our commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity and address the disparities and systemic inequities that have been exposed by the pandemic. Together we can heal. Together we can make lasting change. For all of us.

Beth Zemsky, a Dodge Technical Assistance faculty member, is Principal at Zemsky & Associates Consulting, LLC, and a qualified administer of the Intercultural Developmental Inventory (IDI).