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The DNA of DE&I: Implementing a Transformational Vision

Transactional DE&I is simply a checklist of diversity targets. But a truly transformative program must begin with your “whys."

​The work of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is so much more than the nomenclature or catchy acronyms of the day. This work is personal and professional, transformational and transactional, and it requires the engagement of heart and head to create meaningful change and drive an organization toward impact, growth and success. As a practitioner who facilitates and drives the work of DE&I in an organization, I believe it is important to identify the personal and professional drivers and motivations for myself and the people I partner with in this field.  

I enter the work of DE&I as a Black woman who grew up in the South in the 1970s with a white mother and a Black father. I became very aware of race at an early age from the stares and disdainful comments when my mother and I went to stores or the park together. I grew up very aware of racial differences and all that means—hair differences, skin color, eye color, what is considered beautiful, what is accepted and what is not. And, since I look just like my white mother with a tan, I have also been keenly aware of how we are similar despite our racial and other differences. My story is one of overcoming differences, of realizing "we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike," as Maya Angelou said. 

I also enter this work on a professional front as a lawyer and a minister. I began ministry and preaching during my first year in law school, so I have always considered law and justice to be a tag-team partnership. I do not think that I can fully live my faith without a sense of justice or fully work toward a more just society or organization without the strong balance and inspiration of my faith. 

As a real estate and housing attorney, my practice has been very transactional—contract negotiations, closing deals, reviewing ownership documents and representing my clients. My work in ministry focuses on people's hearts, putting love into action to impact mindsets and behaviors and delve into the "whys" of life. 

Over the years, I have learned how to tag-team law with my work in ministry in the realm of equity and justice work. In many ways, law symbolizes the importance of transactional efforts to get work done, while ministry provides the inspiration and pushes toward transformational living. 

My tag team of law and ministry has been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of what love looks like in public spaces. As he wrote in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."

Leading with love in the work of DE&I acknowledges the humanity of those you lead and partner with and inspires their trust. The practice of DE&I in the workplace must combine a strong focus on transformational approaches that require the transactional work to push an organization and its people forward into a more diverse, equitable, inclusive and just culture and strategy that intentionally sees those who have been invisible and hears those who have been rendered silent.

Checklists vs. Mindsets

In order to successfully incorporate DE&I into an organization's DNA, it has to have both transformational and transactional approaches. 

We have seen examples of what transactional DE&I looks like. It's a checklist, such as, how many Black people have we hired? How many women are on the leadership team? How many LGBTQIA+ individuals have we hired? How have we met those diversity targets? 

All those are important components, but they also must include the overarching goal of creating a diverse and inclusive culture that focuses on people, marginalized voices and influencing hearts, minds and behaviors. That is the kind of leadership ethos that has transformed organizations and countries historically. The transformational aspect of paying attention to "heart sets" and mindsets—and what I often call people's "soul sets"—within organizations allows you to do the work of diversity, equity and inclusion internally and externally with great impact. 

A transformational approach requires more than a DE&I checklist of actions that evidence diversity or inclusion. Transformational approaches must begin with the "whys." Our why is our purpose, who we are, our cause and our reason for what we do. It is what we stand for or what we believe in and put our faith in. Once we understand our why, we can focus on the larger goal and not just transactional checklists.

We must clearly explain why we are doing this. Why is the work of DE&I essential to our organization's growth and success? If we are only compelled to do DE&I because that is what everyone says we are supposed to do, it translates into a checklist. If we are compelled to do DE&I because it ultimately extends to the greater purpose of our work, it can inspire our workforce to give more.  

Identifying Your 'Why'

A few ways to identify the whys that will undergird transformational change are through sponsorship by senior leaders, storytelling and a DE&I assessment that unveils hard truths. DE&I must be led and not merely managed. Senior leaders can lead in this area, even without being DE&I experts, by sharing their stories of how they enter the equity journey, by being transparent about past mistakes and courageous about moving this DE&I "train" forward even in the face of discomfort and challenges. 

Conducting an honest organization-wide assessment will help identify areas to celebrate and opportunities for growth and improvement. DE&I must have sponsorship at the most senior level that embraces it with a "mea culpa"—humility that acknowledges that we have not gotten this right, that boldly faces the truth of mistakes and that insists on moving forward.

Courageous leadership can use the results of an assessment as a basis for co-creating a DE&I strategy with staff that will lead to a more inclusive and equitable culture. 

What happens when we don't couple the transformational imperative to the transactional work? We get companies and corporations that put out strong DE&I statements with no follow-through. What happens if we don't couple the transactional piece with the transformational concept? We have a lot of workshops and training sessions, but we have no follow-through, ownership or implementation of the strategy. 

That's why it's very important for the two to work together and to refine the other, just as iron sharpens iron.  

Seeing Your Blind Spots

In some instances, an assessment may open a Pandora's box because it sheds light on the ways in which an organization's culture has been biased and inequitable, unconsciously or consciously. For instance, a well-done assessment can help excavate the organizational culture and focus on behaviors that must be corrected and behaviors that are expected of all employees. It is essential to not only assess, but to also be courageous enough to address the gaps, blind spots and past mistakes through a bold, transformational strategy that details the transactional goals and actions.  

As Alice Walker says in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, "The real revolution is always concerned with the least glamorous stuff." 

The transactional work is the granular march toward aspirational and attainable goals and should include clearly stated goals and tactics for reaching them, with quantitative and qualitative metrics. The transactional part of the equation should then tie into what drives success within the organization. If DE&I is siloed and not integrated into the business, it will not garner the focus or respect necessary to move forward. Your DE&I strategy may not always look profitable in the short term, but it will reap dividends, figuratively and literally, in the long term.  

When an organization begins with a transformational approach to DE&I, it is able to step back and imagine what a successful DE&I function and strategy could look like or accomplish. Will it help your organization to live its values? Will it allow your leadership to garner more trust and engagement from employees?

With all the market challenges, talent concerns, overwhelming societal pressures, pandemic fallout and increased industry competition, many organizations may think that this additional work of DE&I is impossible. However, when an organization combines the transformational and transactional work of DE&I, it is able to create a values-driven "mountain-moving" change and a culture that welcomes innovation and steps boldly into an uncertain future. This will enable organizations to benefit from the competitive advantages of a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization. As Confucius once said, one "who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." 

With this approach, organizations can move a mountain one transformational and transactional stone at a time, incorporate DE&I into their DNA and push their organizations to do what once seemed impossible.    

Natosha Reid Rice is the Global DE&I Officer at Habitat for Humanity International. She is also a Minister for Public Life at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Atlanta.


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