A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Advancing Equity: The strategic importance of diversity, equity, inclusion; everyone needs safety

By Sharon Fusco
CEO, Redwood NKY

Part of a continuing series by NKY’s nonprofits who stand together against racism and any acts that dehumanize people.

While doing strategic planning work with a team of bright, talented leaders, one member candidly stated that the team may not get the return expected on the investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. The overarching vision for this team’s organization was to grow and one of the key strategies centered on addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization. Pointedly, the person was asking a valid question: To what extent will time, effort, and resources expended on these initiatives net a positive return in terms of the organization’s strength and ability to grow?

I could only point to my own experience, which was what I shared with that team member.

My professional coach taught me that our actions are based on one of two emotions – fear or love. Either we believe we are in a safe environment – accepting of us, where we can be our authentic and best selves – or we believe our environment is not safe, and we must do everything we can to protect ourselves. How we react in these situations is based on our values, which are rooted in our beliefs. And beliefs are shaped by our experience. This is how two people, with different histories, can be involved in the same event and have vastly different experiences.

If we are in a situation where we are acting out of fear, we will struggle to become our authentic and best self. Being creative and innovative, taking risk, failing, and learning are difficult when we are in situation where fear is controlling what we do and speak. Our mode of operation is survival, otherwise known as, “flight, fight, or freeze.” True teamwork and collaboration are a struggle.

Conversely, think about what happens when we have a safe and supportive environment. We can be our authentic self. We are accepted for who we are and can therefore bring our best selves to the work. Failing becomes an accepted part of learning and risk taking, which spawn problem solving and ingenuity. Teams in this environment have high levels of trust. They welcome and embrace unique perspectives and individual thought. They “rumble” with each other in pursuit of the best solutions. Organizations win with this type of environment.

I once had a colleague, now a close friend, who by virtue of her race and life story, had a very different way of looking at problems than I did. When we worked together, she and I often would rumble, get scrappy, tug and pull our way through finding solutions to the organization’s problems. I came to appreciate her perspective because it was so very different from mine. And, at the end of the day, we found we had more in common that not. We built a trusting relationship that was bigger than our differences. And the winner was our organization – the best solutions came from those creative conflicts which could not have happened if we had not learned to appreciate each other.

Sharon Fusco

Another way to look at it is through the lens of the Wizard of Oz. If you recall, the movie starts in black and white. When Dorothy and Toto wake up in Oz, the world is technicolor. By the time Dorothy returns to Kansas, she has gained a new perspective. She has also witnessed the transformation of characters who shift from reacting out of fear to individuals with unique abilities. That new perspective and different way of seeing things follows Dorothy back home and even turns Kansas technicolor.

Being from Nebraska, I can honestly say, if new ways of thinking can turn Kansas from black and white to technicolor, imagine what it does for your organization?!

As we seek to build strong organizations, we must create environments that foster creativity and innovation. We hire people for their strengths, their unique abilities. We need cultures that allow them to be their authentic selves. In so doing, our organizations become strong and primed for growth.

Are diversity, equity and inclusion efforts worth the time and resources we pour into them? Absolutely and then some.

Sharon Fusco is CEO of Redwood.

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