Executive Director's Blog: Seven Questions, a DEIA Roundtable Discussion

Prompt & Goal

The following discussion questions are based on a recent MIT Sloan Management Review special report, a summary of which can be found here. The goal of this roundtable is to use the questions as a launch point for a group conversation and the sharing of real-life experiences related to the topics raised.


Borrée P. Kwok
Associate Provost for Administration
Campbell University

Emery Ortiz
Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Dr. Keyunda Miller-McCollum
Director of Library Services
Shaw University

Rob: One of the study’s takeaways is that DEIA-related initiatives are more successful when the leader puts everyone “on the solution side of the equation,” framing the goal as changing the organization rather than people. The study found that “a lot of what was being written about DEI and a lot about what was being prescribed to promote DEI was actually not inclusive,” and stressed that successful initiatives are those “that can be designed and owned by people anywhere in an organization.”

Q1: How have you attempted to put employees on the solution side of the equation when implementing DEIA-related change?

Emery: One of the primary questions driving DEIA work in public libraries when I was in management is whether the focus is on internal DEIA work, or external-facing DEIA work regarding collections and services. Governing structure and limited resources had a major impact on our ability to prioritize internal work, so frontline staff were encouraged to plan library services and develop collections that emphasized these areas. Committees were created that involved staff from across the system to collaborate on specific service areas (Collection Development, Public Services, Children’s Services, etc.), and the teams were encouraged to incorporate public-facing DEIA initiatives into their areas of focus. Staff training had incorporated basic principles of this work for several years, giving everyone a baseline understanding of DEIA concepts.

Borrée: At Campbell, a standing committee composed of faculty, staff, and students across the university serves as an advisory body to facilitate, promote, and plan DEIA-related initiatives. Other university-wide, focus-specific committees also exist to move forward DEIA work. In addition, our Campus Life and Spiritual Life (we are a faith-based institution) offices generally take the lead in implementing these initiatives and practices. The university libraries actively participate in the discussion and facilitation of these initiatives through their work in producing DEIA resource guides for faculty, students, and community members (e.g., alumni and prospective students) respectively.

Q2: Do you have any examples of DEIA-related initiatives at your organization that were designed and owned by people at varying levels in the organization?

Emery: The various committees created involved staff at all levels, and in turn these groups incorporated a variety of initiatives (again, public facing): an inclusion statement to include in policies; programs that incorporated DEIA principles, or provided connections to community organizations that supported marginalized/underserved populations; policy reviews to remove harmful or exclusionary language/practices; plans for displays and book lists that aligned with DEIA topics and celebrations; etc.

Borrée: One way that our entire university community is made aware of DEI challenges and encouraged to participate purposefully in DEIA work is through the voluntary signing of the Diversity Pledge (https://www.campbell.edu/life/diversity-in-community/diversity-pledge/). The Pledge itself serves as a framework and a clear reminder of the need and work involved in building and further enhancing an inclusive environment. Another example of initiatives designed and owned by the entire university community is discussion sessions named “Courageous Conversations.” Meeting guidelines are provided to promote respect, humility, and grace and to encourage a willingness to learn from each other amongst all participants (https://www.campbell.edu/life/spiritual-life/courageous-conversations/).

Keyunda: We have proposed a DEIA Literary group in conjunction with the Center for Racial and Social Justice. This required buy-in from several department leaders and deans of several areas. This group would target incoming freshmen as well as any faculty and/or staff that wanted to participate. The purpose of this program centered around student engagement through DEIA resources. Students would engage with a preselect reading list and attend events hosted by the library related to the books. A few of the books are below:

  1. The Browning of the South by Jennifer A. Jones
  2. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  3. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

I believe this initiative directly aligns with the creating purpose on campus. The designed purpose addresses students and the library as a part of the larger campus community. We are contributing DEIA resources to our stakeholders, tracking attendance and engagement, exposing students, faculty, and staff to new concepts, and reflecting on the success of the initiative which is vital to tracking purpose impact.

Q3: How would you (or how have you) found a balance between requiring DEI-related initiatives and inviting employees to participate?

Borrée: While most of our DEI-related initiatives are open to all university members for voluntary participation, one initiative that was strongly encouraged/required was a workshop on equitable hiring practices which was provided to all academic deans (or their designees) and hiring managers, with an understanding of the long-term effect that the advancement of diversity hiring practices could have on the development of a truly inclusive culture.

Rob: The study found that many organizations were actively recruiting for DEI, but not successfully. “They wanted people from underrepresented communities, [but] people from underrepresented communities didn’t want them.”

Q4: What would you suggest to leaders who are struggling to recruit people from underrepresented communities?

Emery: I strongly believe that there should be action plans incorporated to the planning/building phases of this work, and long-term strategies to assess, grow, and further develop the work included. I’ve seen more than one organization be very quick to adopt philosophies and visible cues that promote DEIA values, but then do very little (or nothing at all) to incorporate action and assessment. In these situations, recruitment efforts were unsuccessful because if the organizations were able to hire individuals from underrepresented communities, those individuals quickly realized there was limited-to-no support for their continued success. It’s a lengthy and multifaceted process that requires significant investments of time and resources that many organizations are unwilling or unable to provide; if it’s a case of limited time and resources, logically and preemptively adjusting infrastructure prior to beginning DEIA work at an organizational culture level would seem like the first step that would be more likely to lead to long-term success in recruitment and retention.

Keyunda: Leaders who struggle to recruit people from underrepresented communities should reference the Four Core Values of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. If leaders would fully implement the concepts of representation, participation, application, and appreciation when recruiting people from underrepresented communities it could immensely improve the organization in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Also, leaders must be aware, conscious, and self-reflective about their implicit biases. As mentioned in the article as willful interrogation, frank discussions must address race, gender, age, accessibility, privilege, and anything else that might hinder recruitment from underrepresented communities while keeping implicit biases and equity in mind.

Rob: This next one strikes me as, fundamentally, a change management point, but it’s interesting to think about it applied to DEIA change specifically.

Q5: The authors note that a major challenge to implementing DEIA initiatives are the twin enemies of history and success. “You’ve got a long history of doing things, and they’ve all been successful, and now we’re going to change. We are going to redefine success. It’s very, very hard to do that.” Do you agree?

Emery: Rob, I agree. The benefit of studies such as these being conducted and published is that a more clear case can be made for return on investment, which can be a useful tool in swaying stakeholders to take on such fundamental and extensive work.

Keyunda: The mental model refers to a person’s worldview and rationale on how things should work (look, act, etc.) in the real world. In my personal case, I agree with the author who suggested that leaders must be intentional about changing the mental model. The article referenced this concept as it was related to leadership, but I believe it can be applied to recruitment. stubborn employees and inflexible organizations. I do this work through representation, meaningful conversation, and intentional action. Oftentimes, being present in a dominant culture or homogenous environment is enough to aid in the change of the mental model.

Q6: When trying to implement DEIA-related change, how do you persuade employees who have an “if it’s not broke…” mentality?

Emery: I’ve experienced more struggles with leadership/stakeholders having this mentality, more so than employees, specifically in the public library arena. I think frontline library staff are naturally exposed to the impacts that discrimination, systemic inequity/injustice, and a lack of diversity and/or inclusion can have through their direct work with the public, which can make them the best champions for change. In the few cases I’ve experienced with employees that were more reticent to support DEIA training/integration, creating understanding around how certain practices or habits limit the public library’s ability to truly fulfill its mission and purpose have helped bridge the gap a bit. There is always room for improvement, even if they truly believe things aren’t broken.

Rob: The authors cite “willful interrogation” (i.e. “frank discussions about race, gender, age, accessibility, privilege, and anything else that might hinder DEI”) as a pathway to building trust and beginning the DEI change process, but acknowledge that “sometimes it is very hard to learn and accept that your organization has longstanding flaws that impact some people in a very negative way.”

Q7: As a leader, do you have any examples of willful interrogation? Can you share a time when you had to face up to a longstanding flaw in your organization that was impacting people in a negative way?

Emery: Without getting too specific (because I’ve certainly had these experiences), I will say the biggest flaw I’ve identified is shutting down communication. When an organization is unwilling to address any issue, let alone topics of such magnitude, and cannot or will not listen to (or discuss) concerns with employees, it’s an instant halt to progress. Again, work around DEIA principles does take a significant amount of time and resources, and I understand how it can feel insurmountable to organizations that have not had much incentive to invest in this work previously. However, no progress or positive growth has ever happened without communication.

Rob: Thank you all for sharing your knowledge and experiences. I encourage readers to use this study as a launchpoint for “willful interrogation” at their own institutions and to follow the conversation wherever it may lead.