The DEI Journey: Learning, Unlearning and Shifting EdVestors’ Culture

By Ruth Mercado-Zizzo

Quotes shared within are reflections from EdVestors staff members on the DEI Journey.

“The DEI work has been a really powerful experience both personally and professionally. I started out thinking we were going to look at our programming and in reality we needed to turn the mirror on ourselves and look inward both personally and in our work.”

February has always been a significant month for me, a marker of time for reflection due to it being my birthday month. Coincidentally, it is three years ago this month that EdVestors staff began a more intentional process in examining what the terms “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) means to us as an organization. 

It all started with my participation in a two-part professional development workshop entitled “Leading in Troubled Times: The Role of Power, Privilege, & Race in Leadership.” Led by Ama Codjoe, the workshop explored ways to incorporate healing and justice into leadership. At the end of the workshop, we were encouraged to develop a mini-action plan that we could implement within the next month to hold ourselves accountable to moving our leadership practice forward. I decided that I would try forming a group of staff that would come together to talk more deeply about what equity–one of EdVestors stated values, means to us as an organization. With the support of EdVestors leadership, I invited all staff to a meeting. I hoped to get  interest from a wide range of staff, and was surprised and delighted when three-quarters of the team showed up for that first meeting in February of 2018.

 

The Process

“I have never had the opportunity [in a professional setting] to discuss the complicated feelings and life experiences I have had in relation to my race/identity. Being able to have these open, courageous conversations with staff and hear their own stories has significantly strengthened relationships and has fostered a work culture that is grounded in trust, respect, vulnerability, and growth.”

During the first meeting, we began by individually sharing why we chose to attend a DEI-focused meeting, what we personally wanted to learn, and our hopes for what we would accomplish together. We also discussed the multiple facets of identity and definitions of equity, with our conversation specifically narrowing in on racial equity. As a group, we agreed to continue meeting with ‘homework’ to research how other organizations incorporate a racial equity lens and to also have conversations with individuals and organizations who could offer racial equity resources and insights on next steps in our desire to dig deeper into how EdVestors could be more intentional in applying a DEI lens into our work. 

As a result of these conversations, we realized the importance of selecting an outside DEI facilitator to help guide us further. EdVestors leadership agreed to commit financial resources to this work, and as a DEI work group we created a request for proposals and chose a DEI facilitator,  Liza Talusan. For 6 months, Liza worked closely with all staff through group and one-on-one settings. When together as a whole group, we struggled with a polite hesitancy to share more of our personal selves, and to articulate what might typically go unsaid. Liza introduced us to Courageous Conversations, encouraging us to take more risks in our dialogue with each other. She also helped us to begin meeting in self-organized affinity groups that now convene monthly, and the staff regularly uses the Courageous Conversations framework as we tackle issues. Since that time, the DEI team has continued to meet monthly and has helped plan and lead meetings with the EdVestors Board around this work.

 

What We’ve Learned (and Unlearned)

“As a POC and minority in this country, I have experienced racial biases (implicit and explicit) and attended trainings for more years than I care to count. What came into sharper focus  through our DEI work was how we all carry implicit biases and White Supremacy. White Supremacy is not just the domain of white people. Some of the tenets of WS can permeate deeply in the culture and show in our own attitudes be it white, black or brown. I have become a lot more conscious about my own privilege and power and how my words and attitudes can have a negative impact on people I am hoping to support, just as I notice others’ biases towards me.” 

“I personally wasn’t aware how certain elements of WSC [white supremacy culture] played out in my own work/leadership style and within our organization… I feel now that DEI, specifically equity is front and center of our decision making.”

The process has been both rewarding and challenging. As we continue to push ourselves and shift our culture, we have had to sit in discomfort, be willing to openly question ourselves and each other, and be more transparent about how we work. We have also challenged ourselves to recognize, name, and question white supremacy culture as our default way of working. This personal and professional reflection continues and we have made shifts to our infrastructure, policies, and programming, as we strive for not just diversity and inclusion, but toward equity and justice.

 

What Happens Next?

“This work indeed is a journey and not a destination. We have to incorporate key aspects of this work in all our practices. Pendulum can easily swing from one direction to the other. In order to create an equitable, just society (and our school system), we all will need to remain vigilant…we ought to give voice to the vulnerable people and keep asking the question – who is not at the table and why.” 

“I see our organization continuing on our learning journey as there is always learning and unlearning to be done with DEI.”

As an organization, we continue our efforts to acknowledge our own privilege and power, and center those most impacted by our work (typically those most historically marginalized) into our decision-making from the start. We strive to hold ourselves accountable to racial equity in all our activities, and in our role as a convener and collaborator, both internally and externally. We have created specific action items that we individually and collectively take ownership of, and racial equity is an explicit component of our new strategic plan and a lens we intend to incorporate into all aspects of our work. 

When the staff DEI team started meeting three years ago, I was hoping to start a conscious dialogue around our organization’s values and how we live them internally and externally. The willingness to learn, make mistakes, and stay deeply committed to this work help guide us as we move forward in our organization’s mission.

 

Ruth C. Mercado-Zizzo is the Vice President of Programs and Equity at EdVestors. Many thanks to other EdVestors staff who contributed to this post.
Read a related blog on Incorporating Equity into EdVestors Work from June 2019.

 

DEI Resources That Have Been Central to EdVestors Journey:
The Four I’s of Oppression
Avoiding Racial Equity Detours
Dismantling Racism
Systems Change with an Equity Lens
Language of Appeasement