Currently, our nation is experiencing protests (and even worldwide demonstrations) sparked by the tragedies of the unarmed killing of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Due to these tumultuous times in our nation, we thought it would be a ripe time to revisit our insightful conversation with Bethaney Bree Wilkinson from last fall. Bethaney serves as the Director of Programming for Plywood People and the Creator of The Diversity Gap, an emerging solution meant to “empower people to create the cultures they say they want—cultures where all people are seen, celebrated and given the space to thrive.” She’s currently in the middle of season 2 of the Diversity Gap which began on March 8th, 2020. You can listen on all streaming platforms.

With over a decade of experience in racial justice work, Bethaney is passionate about seeing organizations become places where everyone can be seen, known, and loved. As business leaders, we are looking for ways to foster a diverse culture that does great business while being great for the world. We’re thankful for Bethaney as well as the insights she shared in our time together.

To start, what is the Diversity Gap project?

The “diversity gap” is the often large gap between what leaders and organizations intend as it relates to diversity and what actually happens on the ground and in their workspaces. There’s been a few things that have illuminated this divide for me. First, I noticed from my time sitting down with leaders who have had their hearts broken about something terrible happening in society or they’re at the beginning of their own learning journeys, but they wonder what to do in terms of next steps to affect change. They’re trying to figure out effective strategies for how to address the problem as well as what it means for themselves, their board of directors, or executive leadership team. Additionally, I’ve worked in majority-culture organizations as a Black woman, and I’ve been in rooms with very well-meaning people who may have said something that is harmful or perhaps made some decisions [unknowingly] that will negatively impact people of color. So I began thinking about how can I journey with other organizations and leaders to help them have their value for diversity align more fully with what they practice in their real-life relationships. In essence, the Diversity Gap is a project that’s been the journey of my professional and personal life.

Fantastic. So who’s the target audience?

Great question! Anyone who is driving change in their organization as it relates to diversity and inclusion. A lot of research shows that unless executive leaders are on board and pushing the mission forward then it doesn’t happen. Or if it does, it doesn’t sustain. For many leaders and people of color, it’s a personal necessity to drive cultural change. So it’s also for leaders of color that are within these organizations also wanting to more effectively drive cultural change.

Can you talk about the benefit of understanding diversity and inclusion well in an organization?

Sure! There’s actually a lot of studies that show that racially and ethnically diverse teams that learn how to perform together end up being the most creative, innovative, and productive when it comes to serving a much broader demographic of people. In turn, they also generate more money. The key is not only being a diverse team but also knowing how to navigate and make the most of those differences. It doesn’t help a whole lot if everyone is coming from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but they don’t know how to work together or they’re unable to bring their authentic selves to the table. Once they figure it out, however, there’s more creativity, more innovation, better problem-solving, wider customer base, and a greater bottom line. It’s really exciting how much the research bears this out.

In an effort to put us all on the same page, can you define ‘diversity’ for us so we have a clear understanding of the term and how it’s being applied?

Absolutely. I define ‘diversity’ in a couple of ways. I have a friend who defines diversity as“the undeniable presence of difference”. I love that. We are different people. And so diversity has a lot of different faces. There’s racial and ethnic diversity. There’s diversity in military status, sexual orientation, gender, and socio-economic status. There are all sorts of things, right? At the end of the day, diversity is about dignifying people and about celebrating the ways we are and aren’t the same. It’s about people being able to say “this is who I am” and being intentional about acknowledging and celebrating that.

You know, often we hear terms like ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’. What role, if any, do these ideas and practices play in helping us develop a diverse culture that celebrates differences?

The way I like to think about equity is that it’s the idea that just because we are different doesn’t mean we should have different outcomes and experiences based on those differences. Let’s take racial equity for example, (---- I’m pulling this from Black Maternal Health Week, which happened earlier this year, and it’s a subject that I’m very passionate about ----), Black women die during childbirth at a rate that’s astronomically higher than white women. In short, Black women are receiving substandard care when compared with white women and it’s resulting in deaths. The CDC has released reports covering this. If we lived in an equitable society, a black woman and a white woman could both enter into a hospital with the same likelihood of having a healthy labor and delivery experience. They would both be able to become mothers and there wouldn’t be these disparities based on race. Now, if we translate this out of healthcare and take it to housing, economic mobility, education, etc., the idea is that anywhere these disparities exist then we’re lacking equity. And so the value for me when I think about diversity work is that if we were to design our diversity programs with the goal to eradicate these disparities, then how would our strategies be different? If diversity is only about a bunch of people of color into a room, then that’s just one goal. But what if our greater goal was to see disparities erased and disappear?

To continue, “Inclusion” is about to what extent do people feel like they can belong and fully participate in the work that’s happening. And so a lot of times companies, especially those at the beginning of their journey, will move the needle in diversity. They’ll get a bunch of people of color into a room that was historically majority white. But then, do those people of color feel like they can be heard? Do they feel like they can contribute freely? Are they able to lead? Able to offer the best of who they are to the organization or company? That’s the tricky part. That’s where inclusion comes into play.

Whether it’s diversity, equity, or inclusion, there’s a lot of different definitions. Part of my project is finding out what definition is most helpful to people.

What lead you to this work?

In 2014, it might not have been the height of Black Lives Matter, but everyone’s Facebook and social media were bubbling with the topic. I was a part of a church and working with the leaders and pastors in conversations around what does racial reconciliation look like in this context. There were continued high-profile killings of unarmed Black men in our country and our community was reeling. So much pain and confusion. There was so much vitriol online. In 2015, one of my friends and pastors, Marge Reynolds, and myself created G.Race Dialogues which was a day-long, faith-based, anti-racism training really with the goal of helping our community have the tools to engage and converse in a way that was constructive because so many of us were not practiced in talking about race cross-culturally. I’d lead this workshop for my church and then I began to go out to other churches and non-profits. Once joining Plywood [People], I’ve had conversations with Jeff (Henderson) about what it would look like to take this work to businesses and startups who are also navigating these challenges. So it started from personal heartbreak and a need to do something, and now I’m in a new iteration of that same work.

What are some takeaways that you’d love to share with business leaders who are interested in taking the next step on their journey of fostering a more diverse workplace with intentionality?

  1. Go out of your way to understand big-picture systems that exclude people. As a leader, you have to find ways to get the most of your team. Maximizing your organization’s potential requires identifying systemic gaps and biases that underutilize or limit your team members’ ability to grow. For this reason, you must expand your understanding of racism and sexism and the subtle yet often complex manner in which these prejudices manifest themselves in the workplace. These forms of discrimination, as well as others, devalue members of your team and inhibit your company’s overall success.
  1. Be working on your racial self-awareness (with someone else). Leaders should always be on journeys of learning. In the process of understanding the big-picture systems of discrimination, leaders should be finding ways to personalize and internalize lessons addressing the diversity gap within their own lives. A cultural privilege is what allows our own racial or gender identity not to be an issue when we enter a space, but this is not a luxury afforded to everyone. Heightening our awareness will go a long way towards empowering us to cultivate a diverse work environment. Also, do not go about pursuing change alone. Find someone else, a co-learner or peer, who is committed to change as well. These actions are ongoing and require time and devotion. The best way to prevent burnout is to have a partner that can motivate us as well as hold us accountable.
  2. Inclusion and equity are powerful tools in creating a diverse workplace environment. Perhaps, the most effective way that people can leverage what they have to create a more equitable and diverse society is by embracing inclusion and equity as a business goal. The first step, inclusion, is being welcoming, hospitable, and engaging to foster a diverse environment. Inclusion requires a reexamination of corporate jargon like cultural fit from business leaders. Are you willing to let your organizational culture be uncertain for a season so that a stronger one can emerge? The second part, equity, is about erasing disparity and sharing power with people who are unlike you. To what extent are you leveraging your influence for others? Are you promoting and amplifying those with less power and influence who are performing excellently? Equity is the idea that just because we are different doesn’t mean we should have a different result. When diverse teams learn to work together, they can serve a broader demographic and increase the company’s bottom line.

For more from our conversation with Bethaney Bree Wilkinson, check out the Executive Minds podcast here.