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Fundamentals

Sustain Your Focus on DEI

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Public statements from an association supporting social justice mean little if it doesn’t have their own house in order. Successful groups maintain their attention on DEI internally—and think carefully before speaking out.

When George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) quickly made a statement of condemnation. In retrospect, CEO Vicki R. Deal-Williams, FASAE, CAE, describes it as a “massive failure.”

It’s not that the statement was inappropriate. But it was toothless—and, to some critics, self-congratulatory. “The stance we took was basically that we’ve been dealing with these issues for so long, and we’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing,” she said. “That’s not what was needed in that particular instance.”

A follow-up statement explicitly condemned systemic racism and committed to actions to address it. “Members wanted us to be intentional and specific, which was what we came back and did,” Deal-Williams said.

Maintaining attention on DEI within an organization—among staff, members, and public stakeholders—can be a challenge. And, as ASHA’s experience shows, occasionally prone to missteps. Avoiding such problems means making sure staff and volunteer leaders have done the work to determine what its DEI goals are, how it intends to address them, and how it will measure its efforts.

Doing the Work

“A statement isn’t a strategy,” said Robin Rone, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Smithbucklin. “Many associations haven’t done the work to ask, ‘Where are we as an association? What are our priorities around diversity, equity, inclusion, and access? How is this part of the strategic development of our association?’”

One way to create sustained attention to those questions, Rone said, is to establish metrics around DEI goals and ensure they’re monitored. “If you want to have more women represented in your committee leadership structure, you then have to ask, ‘What do we have in place to ensure a wider, more diverse range of committee chair candidates?’” she said. “Don’t be intimidated by the idea of counting. Everyone starts somewhere. No place is better or worse.”

By making DEI part of all staff activities, it sustains a culture where it’s understood as a priority.

Measurements are also valuable when it comes to staff efforts around DEI. At ASHA, all activities around DEI are required to have an explicit learning outcome, which can be very straightforward—a staff education session on microaggressions, for instance, might simply acknowledge that the staff person attended. But it can also mean that when a job opening exists, those involved in the new hire look at the job requirements for biases.

By making DEI part of all staff activities, it sustains a culture where it’s understood as a priority. “It has a cumulative effect,” Deal-Williams said. “People start talking about it, and they keep talking about it in the work that they do.”

When to Speak Out

When it comes to taking conversations around DEI public in response to news events, Rone cautions associations to avoid an “urgency bias”—making a statement just because it’s a hot topic. Any comment, she said, should be talked through with staff and board leaders—not just in terms of what they want to say, but in relation to how the association itself lives the values it intends to talk about, and what it will specifically do in response.

“Associations should be clear with how it aligns with their own strategy and position,” Rone said. “Just firing from the hip is rarely helpful for anyone.”

ASHA convenes subject-matter experts, as well as its leadership, to discuss such statements. A recent case of Brigham Young University discontinuing speech and hearing services to transgender clients prompted a discussion that led to a statement. Knowing it had done its homework on the subject helped ASHA speak out more confidently.

“We were able to say where we as an organization stand and what we expect of our members,” Deal-Williams said. “There were misconceptions that our members weren’t obligated to serve gender-diverse populations. But it’s in our scope of practice. It’s in our code of ethics. So, we were able to very clearly speak out.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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