Programs to support diversity, equity, and inclusion have been around for a long time in many associations. And while the DEI field is constantly changing—acknowledging newer diversity types like neurodiversity and gender identity expression—so are the staff and volunteers at the associations that produce these programs.
To understand how associations can sustain and improve their DEI initiatives over the long term, we spoke with Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, whose DEI program has been in place for more than four decades, and David Acosta, a longtime diversity advocate who in 2017 became chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The two offered some key tenets that help sustain DEI programs so that they achieve their goals year after year.
Leadership matters—and so does everyone else. “I think it’s worth saying leadership is critical,” Woods said. “We have a board which is very progressive and very much behind this change, and I am deeply committed to it. So it starts at the top.” But not every employee is an organizational leader, so everyone has to feel empowered to participate.
“When you talk about diversity strategic plans, they often fail because it’s usually a top-down thing, and they don’t really take the input from everybody,” Acosta said. “It’s so important to engage everybody in the organization in the process. It’s not just top down; it’s also got a bubble up from down below. People at all different levels need to feel that their contribution is valued.”
AAMC has DEI advisors—staff who apply for the role—who focus on the DEI culture in different divisions of the organization. “These DEI advisors work really closely with the chiefs of each of these particular units about what needs to happen along the DEI space,” Acosta said.
Diversity doesn’t create losers. Sometimes people resist DEI efforts because they view the process as a zero-sum game: If someone else gets a win, they must be losing. DEI champions need to debunk that myth, Woods said. “Organizations that are diverse are much richer places. They have a diverse range of views. They have diverse ideas. They behave in ways that are likely to build diverse audiences and diverse constituencies,” he said.
Money is critical. “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is,” Woods said. “You can’t do this change without money. This is not something you can just bolt on” without devoting the necessary resources, as the organization would for other important initiatives.