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March 21, 2022

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Community: How to Do It Right

Whether it’s in building external or internal communities, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEI & B) is essential work.

Communities are made up of people and failing to acknowledge the issues of social inequality that affect them is a mistake that could break communities and companies in the long run.

So, where do we begin?

What it means to be Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive

The first step is to understand what DEI & B is — and isn't.

DEI & B shouldn’t be an afterthought or contingency plan when things go wrong in your community says Chauntelle Lewis, Inclusive Communities Consultant for Cobble, an 800-member strong Slack community for founders around the world.

“Folks are tired of empty equality statements without action — we saw them in light of #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate,” she says. “This is a chance for companies and community builders to show their values. People are looking for a space to belong! If you nail the inclusion element, you’ll increase retention as members will turn into advocates and offer their loyalty to your community or brand.”

It is also important to understand what the terminology means, why they go together and why it matters in community building.

Diversity: To have a certain representative number of community members or team members from various backgrounds, whether BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, or people living with disabilities.

Equity: All these people from different backgrounds feel they have equal rights and fair opportunities within your team or community.

Inclusion: Your members should feel that their backgrounds and differences are celebrated and their contributions are valued. This also means everyone in your community feels their expertise is valid and contributions welcome.

Belonging: This term brings the first three together and cannot exist without the others. Creating a sense of belonging means that your community members feel that the culture you have built is one they can thrive in as they are.

Why DEI & B work matters

It’s for the people in your community

“Being proactive about your DEI & B work is the right thing to do,” says Karine Bah Tahé, CEO and Founder of Blue Level, a company specializing in DEI & B training.

“Companies say people make them what they are. Communities are made of people. We develop products and establish services to help people.”

“People are the center of all that we do  DEI & B is all about improving how people are being treated and are treating others. We work on and making sure it is fair,” she says.

It can reflect the internal values of your company

PNAS research shows that hiring discrimination against Black people has not improved in the last 25 years, Karine says.

“Take that in for a second. Since 1989, two years before we could even surf the internet, hiring discrimination against Black people has still not improved.”

She adds that Ignoring DEI & B work right now means companies are missing the best period to get started.

“Just as the market drastically shifted to new and faster technology solutions in the internet curve, the market is now drastically adapting anti-racism and DEI education and strategies.

"It is demanding that organizations not only acknowledge, but embrace and adopt impactful DEI strategies. This movement is gaining momentum, and the companies not getting on board right now will be left behind in the next couple of years,” Karine says.

It could yield growth and retention

Karine adds that BIPOC are underrepresented in organizations and institutions’ top ranks, even though they are actually the majority of the world.

“By focusing on these groups for hiring, sponsoring, as customers, and as community members, you will most likely unlock half the world to your company or community,” she says.

“If you invest in creating a space where they are heard, seen, considered, and valued, plus you create a better sense of belonging, everyone will ultimately benefit.”

How to build DEI & B into your community strategy

Building DEI & B into your community architecture ensures it is not viewed as a last-minute plan B when things go wrong.

However, whether you’re just starting out or your community has been active for some time, it’s never too late to implement this framework. These are some of the ways you can do it.

Provide training for your team or community

In her work, Karine says she has seen several challenges come up in an effort to build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive internal communities and teams.

“One common challenge as an educator is to make sure we keep the information we deliver and our language as objective as possible.

“Stating the facts about racism and DEI&B instead of our opinion is a challenge but when it is done well, it allows our learners and clients to better digest the information and make their own conclusions.”

No matter your political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, or disability, there are common biases that we all have ingrained in us because of our education, our history, our privileges, and the media. “Colonialism tainted everything,” says Karine.

Another challenge she sees occurs when internal communities, such as employee resource groups, purchase DEI training but the broader company they belong to does not plan on purchasing any training.

“That is difficult to see because you know that if for example, a BIPOC internal community purchases anti-racism training, more often than not, the employees who are outside of this community are the ones who may need that training the most,” she says.

Even though she sees this often, training for internal communities and their allies is a very important step as it provides a deeper understanding of the non-inclusive behaviors, their origin, and how they can be interrupted in the workplace.

“Almost always, leaders, sponsors, allies, and people from other internal communities or who are not part of that particular community, will also join. And when they attend training or a webinar and realize all the things they actually did not know before, it can spread the word to the whole company.

"We assist internal communities in any way we can to help entire companies recognize the importance of investing in inclusivity," she says.

Create and enforce community guidelines

Chauntelle says community builders may face many challenges with belonging and retention if they forsake the role of DEI & B in their community strategy.

“It is important to go back to the drawing board and clearly define your community and enforce your community guidelines,” she says. “When establishing and growing your community, it’s important to create clarity around what you stand for, what behavior will be tolerated, and how members report issues or complaints.”

Make your community a safe space for all

“Diversity and inclusion are hot topics and rightly so but many people tend to forget the equity or/and equality and belonging aspects," Chauntelle says.

As community builders, we must intentionally create safe spaces for members to show up as their full and authentic selves without fear of judgment or discrimination, she adds.

Build inclusive language and accessibility into your content

Your members will come from all walks of life and identify in a variety of ways — which is why community pros must build with intersectionality in mind. Making sure you encourage members to use inclusive language and practicing it in your content is a sure way to make members feel a sense of belonging.

“Encourage members to add their pronouns or pronunciation of their names to their profiles and ensure you’ve done the same to set an example,” advises Chauntelle.

“When addressing the entire community I opt to refer to them as ‘everyone’ and ‘friends’ instead of using gendered language.

“When it comes to your content or messages, try using bullet points vs. long paragraphs to take into consideration folks who digest information differently. Also, always use alt-text descriptions images,” she says.

Listen to your community

We cannot Google our way into thinking that we know all the challenges or needs of our members says Chauntelle.

“We have to be willing to listen to individual lived experiences and take relevant action. Reset the room to shift dynamics and place your community in the driver's seat when our allyship requires us to offer our support by listening.”

To have a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community that fosters a sense of belonging means that every member of your community feels that they are welcomed and are valuable to the community regardless of how they look; in terms of race, gender, age, or class.

The work of DEI & B is to make sure these environments are created and remain a space for people of all backgrounds — especially disadvantaged ones — to want to be a part of.

Will DEI & B work ever be complete?

As Community Managers will know, community building is never-ending work so long as your community is alive and growing. DEI & B work is no different.

“DEI & B work is ongoing," says Chauntelle. “Even if I am the one to begin the conversation and set the foundation, my dream is for others to keep the ball rolling. We will always have something new to learn and change as our society is always evolving."

Karine also believes that there will always be something to learn about social identities and how they co-exist — which is why DEI & B work will always be needed.

“I used to say that I will work until we are not needed, but I think that because of the deep and long global history of colonialism, genderism, and others, there will always be a need for Blue Level.

“There is always something new to learn and something to improve for groups who share a social identity whether it is age, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, languages, or religion.

So what should we be striving for through DEI & B work?

For Karine, the ultimate goal is for everyone to have a voice and for the world to be a fair place.

“I have been obsessed with fairness since I was six years old. I don’t want people to think they are better than others because of the color of their skin, their accent, their gender, their faith, or their physical ability,” she says.

“In my ideal diverse, inclusive, and equitable utopia, structural discrimination of all sorts will be gone. But since DEI evolves, just like humans do, when we solve one thing, we will go to the next one. There is no day we will not need DEI & B.”

Pam Magwaza
March 21, 2022

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