Get Real: What DE&I Work Actually Requires

by Markiesha Thompson Monitor 101 2022
Diversity, equity and inclusion has become a well-known phrase, but not everyone knows exactly what DE&I work entails. With societal norms continuing to evolve and the demand for acceptance growing, Dr. Arin N. Reeves, managing director and president of Nextions, spoke with Monitor about the ways DE&I can shift an industry.

Markiesha Thompson,
Associate Editor,
Monitor

Dr. Arin N. Reeves, president and managing director of Nextions, a work culture advisory firm, found herself transitioning from practicing law to focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace more than 25 years ago, but she says the demand for DE&I services within companies began to intensify after the 2016 presidential election and then even more so in 2020 and 2021, with the summer protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd bringing more of a focus on racial diversity and racial equity than ever before. From there, the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, D.C., continued to show DE&I leaders the need to focus on explicit bias instead of just implicit bias, all while COVID-19 continued to have a huge impact on the lives of all, particularly those from marginalized groups. In the midst of these events, Reeves says the focus on DE&I work and services has intensified to a point where it has become a major part of Nextions’ work rather than just one element of it.

Get Real

For companies looking to improve in the area of DE&I, Reeves says the first step is to “get real” with goals, expectations and assessments of what is needed to accomplish those goals. Leaders should ask themselves who they are, who their people are and what they want to accomplish. Unfortunately, many won’t know those answers, according to Reeves. Leaders can get stuck with wanting to be more diverse and inclusive but not understanding what that means, so Reeves advises that leaders and companies become more self aware, distinguish between commitment and action and understand what their goals are and how they are setting up metrics around DE&I to really create results.

To actually “get real,” an organization collectively needs to start with a true accounting of what it is at this moment so it can start finding answers. Reeves also recommends taking the step of separating commitment from action, as being committed doesn’t mean that an organization is changing.

One must also differentiate personal commitment or personal passion for something from what it takes to create organizational change, Reeves says. People need these kinds of changes like they need any other organizational shift, and each of these requires a methodical, research-based, focused process, according to Reeves. A person’s passion is fuel, but it is not enough, and they should start by asking, “What’s my commitment? What’s my action? What is the goal and how do I know it’s working?” Reeves also adds an organization’s goal should not be getting something off a website or other such actions, but knowing what it is you’re trying to achieve and how you will achieve it. Speaking with leaders and professionals that are doing this well in order to start crafting goals that work is really important to Reeves.

Depersonalize Offense

Nextions’ role is to support leaders who are cultivating workplaces and leaders who honor and value DE&I, justice and wellness.
There are different types of leaders committed to DE&I work, according to Reeves. There are leaders who really want to get DE&I things done at their company but don’t know how, as well as leaders who really want to do DE&I work and know how to do it but don’t always know how to influence others or bring them together. Among these leaders, there are often those who are overlooked, such as people of color and women in leadership roles. When working with this type of leader, Reeves understands they are often asked to lead their business and lead with DE&I work, so Reeves tries to give them additional support and stand for them because their needs are often overlooked.

For those that come from underrepresented communities, one useful method to ensure success is to depersonalize offense.
Instead of saying “I am not included,” say “This is not an inclusive workplace,” because if it wasn’t happening to you, it would be happening to someone else. Even though it is happening to you, it is not happening just to you, Reeves says, likening it to a rainstorm: When it is raining, it is not just raining on you, so everyone will get wet. If one depersonalizes discussions around offensive workplace behavior, she believes it becomes easier to navigate, even though she knows personalizing racial offenses is natural.

“Depersonalization is important [for people of color] because we spend a lot of energy being hurt, being tired and being frustrated,” Reeves says, emphasizing the importance of personal resilience to ensure employees do not second guess their right to be there while understanding that it may be harder for them to be there. For people of color working on depersonalization, Reeves suggests investing in resiliency and taking care of yourself in order to bounce back from transgressions that can happen.

Depersonalization is just one of many challenges in navigating the workplace. Another challenge Reeves sees is a huge misperception of DE&I work itself. She notes it is not just about social and public speaking, but it is academically rigorous because of the research and consulting required to be effective. It is also emotionally taxing, she says, noting it requires its practitioners to stay calm and neutral in their work.

Rewarding Work

While there are challenges, there are also rewards in doing DE&I work. Reeves says there are “aha” moments with leaders that are rewarding for her. In addition, sometimes leaders may immediately change a policy, the name of a product or something else that is impactful within their companies. Reeves also realizes rewards when she sees kids talk to their parents about DE&I, with their parents then requesting DE&I services at their children’s schools. Reeves says it is heartwarming and rewarding for her to see parents and children able to talk about DE&I in ways they didn’t before.

You can always be more inclusive everywhere that you stand and when you do, people will take notice, Reeves says, encouraging leaders to not tolerate “jokes” that come at the expense of marginalized employees. She also suggests leaders simply talk to anyone who seems isolated or marginalized. Reeves adds that non-senior leaders can make an impact by extending generosity, grace and humanity to people around them simply because they are people. People often think, “I can do something toward diversity and inclusion, so I will plan something,” or “I’m going to educate myself,” but it can be even simpler at times. Reeves therefore advises employees to identify the people who are different from them, the people who are isolated, the people who are marginalized and pull them into the center.

Reeves also believes DE&I is part of social reality and when people say we need a more diverse society, they are wrong, as we are already a diverse society with diverse communities. However, that diversity is not adequately represented in all fields and that is not good for business. Companies are either working within that reality, or they are not, Reeves says, and she wants people to look at DE&I as mechanical as opposed to charitable.

“People really pat themselves on the back when they care about this,” Reeves says. “[DE&I] is romanticized a bit, but it is not romantic or beautiful that someone does the work individually or companywide. It’s a reality, and not facing it has dire consequences for a lot of people in a lot of communities. So, you just [have] to get real with it.”

Markiesha Thompson is associate editor of Monitor.

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