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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Action
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Sustained DEI Efforts Take All Hands on Deck

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They say that advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a journey. Once you get started, you need to keep going. Two association leaders with long-term DEI programs share what it takes to stay the course.

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.

“There is absolutely nothing stopping you from really thinking deeply in your organization about what inclusion means and how you welcome all voices.” — Simon Woods, League of American Orchestras

Change can be incremental. Some organizations have a long way to go in their DEI work, while others are further along in their journey. Even if systemic changes are needed, associations should focus on things they can improve now.

“I’m always emphasizing to our members, nobody is stopping you diversifying your board immediately,” Woods said. “There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t actively work to recruit and hire a diverse staff. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from really thinking deeply in your organization about what inclusion means and how you welcome all voices.”

Communication skills can be learned. Many issues surrounding DEI can be hard for people to talk about, but you can teach staff how to communicate in ways that move discussions forward, rather than inflame emotions.

“I think the most important piece is to be able to have that dialogue,” Acosta said. “You have to come to the table realizing that some people have much better [communication] skills. We can’t assume that everybody has the skills, but we can assure them that ‘We want to teach you.’ We can admit those skills didn’t come easy for most of us. We all had to do some work on this.”

DEI is a core value. Associations need to make a dedicated commitment to DEI. “You’re going to become diverse if you have an intent,” he said. “There’s got to be this commitment that we all want this, and if we all want this, there’s a certain amount of work we all have to do in order to get there.”

Avoid making DEI feel like an add-on by encouraging everyone to embrace it as a key element of the organization’s culture. “DEI is not something you do to other people; it’s about us,” Woods said. “It’s about our values. It’s about how we think about our work. It’s about how we include people and how we’re thoughtful about it.”

DEI is long-term work. DEI programs can make significant changes in short periods. But continuous improvement takes time.

“Try to secure the resources to create the long-term change, recognizing that it may not give you results tomorrow,” Woods said. “But if we’re not changing things in 10 years’ time, our whole business is going to be much more at risk than it is now. We have to make that long-term investment.”

The work will change over time, too, Woods and Acosta say.

“Even though we have a road map, we have got to realize that the road changes as the world changes,” Acosta said. “We have to be nimble enough and feel OK with that and be flexible in order to really sustain what we want to do.”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a senior editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips.

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