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You formed a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Committee…

– and now you are looking for ideas and guidance to make “it” happen.

The pandemic and social reckoning of 2020 have ignited many companies and organizations to consider the role of social justice, anti-racism, inclusion and white privilege within their walls and externally in connection with their people, planet, mission and/or business goals. White folks, in particular, are finally leaning into truths they did not realize or feel propelled to address as never before. Stephanie Long ignites action by white folks stating black people need stronger white allies that do more than simply learn “that racism and white supremacy exist.” A focused DEI Committee and strategy will reduce harm and have lasting impact. A planful DEI Committee will prepare for mess ups at its outset so they don’t automatically retreat at the first misstep or uncomfortable conversation around race. As Long states, this preparation will reduce harm and prevent the common white person retreat reflex that happens sometimes as soon as things get real.

Your company/organization is at this point – the outset. You want to do more than just learn, you want to do less harm and actively show up. You want to create lasting and systemic change inside your organization, so you formed a DEI Committee to get the work moving!

You may have formed with an intention something like:

Let’s figure out if we have issues with racism in our organization.


Everyone is talking about it so let’s all talk together.

Or maybe you got “big” in your thinking and your goal is something more like this:

Working to create an equitable, diverse and inclusive culture while also addressing systemic racism in our field of influence.

For many well-intentioned people, creating a DEI Committee to capture the desire to learn, contribute and set-up better systems is empowering. And, at the same time, the process, decisions and amount of information to digest is overwhelming.

Both things can be true and still fuel good change! There are many reasons organizations are looking at their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Your organization is highly motivated to establish a culture committed to positive impact and service toward your mission. You may prioritize service delivery, environmental impact, activism, innovation, etc. And you may now be having your eyes opened to the fact that racism plays a role that is counter to your ultimate goal. It’s a big and very important question to consider.

Starting a DEI Committee can be a good first step to exploring this. There is no one right way to do this and the design should vary according to your current company culture. That said, establishing accountability and methods that will reduce unintended harm with and for Black, Ingenious, and people of color is a non-negotiable. As S. Rea People’s states, “As organizations further marginalize, mute, and silence the voices and resourceful power that lies exclusively within BIWoC, (Black, Indigenous, Women of Color) efforts to create diverse, inclusive, and equitable work spaces will only end up perpetuating the very harmful environments they desire to transform.”

To get your committee going, we suggest you determine three+ important things first. This is cyclical work so be ready to return to them as you build upon them.

  1. Why

  2. Who

  3. When

  4. And Why again

The What and How will come later; resist the urge to jump to that.

Why 2 Whys?

Your DEI Committee was initially formed for a reason. Either something happened in the world, within your organization, or the life of someone involved. You’ve reached a tipping point of some kind. Capturing that spark is a critical first step in determining why this work is starting. Most likely it will be a messy statement and it is likely to come from an individual or a very small group.

1) The Initial Why captures the reason folks may be talking about and/or realizing their role in racism and inequity. For example, “I just want us to do something about injustice after learning of George Floyd’s murder,” or “I’m curious about how we can bring more diversity to our board of directors,” or “We are uncomfortable with the conversations we overhear in the break-room and we’d like us to learn together and be more respectful of differences.”

If that Initial Why is coming from a person in leadership, it is even more critical it is captured and considered as the group progresses. Just grab it, write it down and be ready to refer to it over time. The group will likely add to, diverge from and revamp this initial inspiring reason to reflect a Group Why.

Either way, this initial Why is likely messy, and will be reevaluated and changed. These shifts should be intentional and celebrated. We’ll return to that!

2) Who is on your DEI Committee matters! Share the Initial Why to activate folks and ask for volunteers ready to do the internal work as well as the visible work. Realize discussing racism and oppression can have harmful effects on those who experience either or both. As it’s unlikely you are forming a DEI Committee to “do harm”, starting out with self-selection makes sense. Do not force participation on anyone, especially not Black, Ingenious, and people of color who have not raised their hands.

Engage people willing to hear and grow when wrong or when doing harm. Recall Long’s words and find folks who won’t retreat or blame when it gets difficult. On a basic level, this work is humble, learning work. Find those willing to connect rather than correct.

Be sure to consider power dynamics and keep them in check. While it’s important to have those with positional authority, such as your CEO, involved in this work, consider whether people will be open to share freely while sitting with a boss or even a direct report. Remind excited executives it’s possible to inspire the formation of a group, support it deeply and do the work alongside it, without being in every conversation.

Finally, make space. People may connect best in smaller groups or affinity groups to bring insights and ideas back to inform an overall plan or direction. Find what works for your people.

3) When to meet is as easy as comparing calendars, right? Not really. Consider the lives of those engaged. What schedules work best for people in different departments or roles? Those juggling childcare or multiple jobs may have less flexibility but a lot to share. Plan outside the box a bit. Remember this work is likely in addition to regular workloads so compensating members for the extra work, especially if members are Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC), is important. Compensation acknowledges the importance of the work. Additionally, for BIPOC , this work often carries an additional psychological or personal burden. Be aware, inquire and then address this for those affected this way.

Following these simple steps lays the foundation for how your DEI work will begin. And it can have lasting impact on whether it sustains itself, changes culture and ultimately leads to the greatest impact on mission and success.

Now what?

This is the point where many DEI committees find themselves stuck. Unsure of what to do next or what goal to prioritize can be overwhelming. Don’t give up! It’s a lot to learn a new language around anti-racism, white privilege and fragility, systemic oppression, and to unlearn pieces of US history and the role of nonprofits we were taught while also applying it to your day-to-day work.

4) On to your &Why! It’s HERE your committee, must come back to the Initial Why and transition to a Group Why (aka &Why). This is where things start to get “real” and change is on the horizon. And you will likely need outside support to move forward successfully.

Your &Why will be a collective effort, with more voices and bigger systemic impact. Engaging external support and facilitation lifts the burden, shifts the power structure and creates boundaries as you engage in deeper learning, culture change and important conversations. Moving conversation and growth into action usually requires external help and even more so with equity work. Conversations about organizational change, oppression, racism and whiteness surface emotion and struggle. Now is not the time to retreat!

Bring in someone outside your organization, board or staff to move things with appropriate boundaries while addressing harm that may happen along the path. While equity work is not about good people vs bad people, without proper guidance it can derail and do more harm than good. Worse yet, you can put a lot of time and energy into some learning opportunities without ever addressing the outcome you are seeking, your &Why

The Initial Why sparked a learning opportunity and process to fill knowledge gaps, listen and start to develop outcomes and internal board and staff cultures where belonging is cultivated. This next &Why will carry you into the next phase of How to make change and to explore What is possible in your area of influence.

You have set the stage to move on to How and What! Now you need to ignite this energy with the support of external voices and facilitators to ensure the process continues and lasts.

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