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Updated: August 21, 2023 Outside the Box

Nurturing America’s superpower

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
To read Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, follow the links at the bottom of the article.
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When my daughter was younger, maybe in kindergarten or first grade, I talked to the students in her class about my job for career day. After I arrived and gave my introduction, including my title – executive director of diversity and inclusion strategy – the sea of young eyes stared hard at me. One girl blurted out, “What’s that!?”

I explained I worked for a large organization, much like the giant sandbox on their playground, with a structure that supported many different people with different thoughts, experiences, and needs. Organizations have to have tools and resources to support employees, like the toys in the sandbox. I reminded the students of the rules they had to follow to play in the sandbox, and that it wasn’t always easy to get along: sharing, learning the needs of different friends, learning different names, talents, etc.

Similarly, there are rules of engagement between employees at work, policies, and learning about others in order to get work done in a way that includes everyone. There needs to be a sense of belonging, so people do their work well.

My job, I told the students, is I find people to come into the sandbox who have talents that are needed and sometimes missing. I went on to talk about the importance of playing fairly, asking questions for understanding, and about being thoughtful of the experiences of other kids, including practicing curiosity, humility, and empathy.

Many people don’t know what DEI professional practitioners, like myself, do. It’s understandable, because the focus of this work may seem very simple on a superficial level: advocating and setting priorities around the needs of people groups in organizations, targeting support for underserved, historically marginalized and underrepresented groups, to better support all individuals, and meet business goals. This work is not simple. Given inequitable, exclusive, and oppressive systemic structures, power imbalances, access issues, and social-political forces, it is very challenging to create and elevate comfortable environments where justice and belonging are centered.

Too many folks claim to be DEI experts, or at least to have the ability to do the work of expert practitioners without the foundational, comprehensive, and ongoing training in DEI. False narratives surround DEI work, one being that DEI is not mission critical. In the education realm, the question asked was, “Why are we focusing on this DEI stuff in the curriculum (or any of our school time)? Our focus should be on core academics, like math, science, and English.” Ironically, integrated DEI initiatives are essential to academic success and bolster success in professional fields across all industries. DEI integration allows us to be better collaborators and problem solvers, more prepared for competition in a global marketplace, more productive, and more innovative. Creating inclusive and supportive working and learning environments benefits everyone, and it is America’s superpower.

Far too often, organizations only focus on programmatic DEI efforts. Specific initiatives are designed to promote DEI, such as training sensitivity programs, employee resources groups, mentorship programs, and diversity recruitment. Programmatic DEI efforts often fail to create strategic change.

Strategic DEI efforts, on the other hand, refer to a more comprehensive and integrated approach to enacting DEI within an organization. These efforts involve a long-term commitment to creating a culture of inclusion and equity and may involve changes to policies, practices, and systems. Strategic DEI efforts create sustainable, institutional, and structural change, and promote equity and inclusion at all levels.

Professional DEI practitioners have to understand and stay abreast of the social-political regional, national, and global landscape, understand competing priorities tied to identity, equity, and organizational development, and have experience in the field in order to build from a historical foundation to the present, with a growth mindset. They need to have a higher degree, certificates and certifications, and continuously receive professional development to keep up with changing needs and trends. Folks who organize cultural food festivals or support a diverse group or committee, as examples, may well be strong advocates and allies to DEI practitioners, but they are not DEI professionals.

Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

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