Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Communication

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As babies, we come into the world with unlimited potential and openness. We learn from our surroundings: the people, the environment. We pattern our behaviors and attitudes after those closest to us. This can be a useful survival mechanism. Another aspect of this is that we want to be like our support group, to fit in. If we differ and do not get that support—if we are alone—that can be really scary.

As we age, our horizons expand. Whether through media or through direct contact, we are exposed to differences. These differences challenge what we know, what we accept as norms. These differences may seem like threats to the essence of our lives.

We sometimes deal with differences by ascribing stereotypes to the differing groups. Stereotypes can be a shorthand that keep us from being overloaded with new information that differs from our world view. But they are harmful: they put up walls and barriers. They keep us from getting to know each unique individual. They tend to be created by the dominant group to indicate the otherness of another group. They can be extremely powerful. Even if a stereotype is, on the face of it, flattering, it puts those in that group into a pigeon hole and defines them by only one dimension.

This is a Skill that celebrates difference. We contend that difference isn’t bad but rather is a wonderful fact of life. Life would be dull and flat if we were all the same. This Skill celebrates our blending and cross-weaving our vast, nuanced talents into a synergy, inextricably intertwined, in which the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. It also talks about Accessibility writ large.

If we are familiar with the term “accessibility” at all, we may understand it as something to cover a lack: people cannot do something in the typical, “normal” way, so we try to find a workaround for them. We understand this in very concrete, specific ways, such as making it possible for people with physical challenges to enter buildings and for people who have visual, hearing, or motor challenges to access course materials and content. But all of us, no matter what group we feel that we belong to (and most of us feel a connection to several different groups), face some sort of accessibility challenges. We may not have the necessary knowledge, the use of necessary technology, the required funding—we could go on and on, but we get the idea.

The Skill asserts that we are better together. It contends that no one is expendable, that when any people are hindered from fulfilling their potential, it diminishes us all. In this Skill, we will explore some challenges, stimulate ourselves with scenarios, provide a springboard and catalyst for us to build upon, problem-solve, create solutions, stretch, grow, and become more open.

As we work our way through this Skill, let’s try to be open to and respectful of the new perspectives that we’ll encounter. This may be really difficult. We may feel as though our core assumptions are being challenged, so we want to push back strongly or withdraw from the discussion, running away with our fingers in our ears. Please let’s not do that. If our core beliefs are challenged, that’s an opportunity to fine tune and adapt them. Let’s have faith in ourselves and our ability. Other themes that we’ll find recurring throughout this Skill are relationships and the art of listening. Relationships are the antithesis of stereotypes. It’s much harder to generalize, to make a faceless, nameless “them” of a group when we know an individual who is part of that group. Stereotypes dehumanize people. Relationships help us see ourselves in others—how very human and multifaceted they are. It’s hard to deny the humanity in others when we see ourselves in them and them in us.

And as we work through the Skill and build upon it, we cannot overemphasize the importance of really good listening. Listening does not mean simply being silent while someone else is talking. This should not be a pause for us to compose our next reply. No, active listening means to fully engage with the speaker, trying to wring every shred of meaning from what the person said, connecting through eye contact, body language, occasional minimal encouragers.

Before we dive in, let’s discuss some of the key terms used in this Skill, which appear in its title: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion. A goal is that as we journey through this Skill, we will operationalize these concepts, make them our own, weave them into our lives. Our explanations of them are purposefully deep and evolving. Language is incredibly broad and nuanced. If we speak a common language with others, we may think that we share common definitions of the terms. But all of us see terms through our own unique experiences. There may be as many definitions of a term as there are people defining it. So we’ll offer some ideas as a foundation and springboard for us to continually expand and refine.

The term that many of us are probably most familiar with is diversity. When we see or hear it, what flashes through our minds? Going a bit further, what do we think flashes through other people’s minds? If we’re like many people, that term triggered us to see images of race/ethnicity/color. Diversity is about difference: what makes us unlike one another. Championing differences can be a good thing: it helps us cherish what makes each of us unique. But diversity, pushed to extremes, can be a divisive, corrosive thing that establishes hegemonies and creates in-groups and out-groups. Yes, we should celebrate our breadth and depth. But not to the point where we create or affirm hierarchies that leave many people on the fringes and underrepresented.

As we said earlier, we are better together. No one is expendable. There are times when any category may be underrepresented. We need a way to tap and blend all of our disparate strengths. We need inclusion.

We may be thinking that Inclusion is easier said than done. If so, we’re right. How do we create a society in which each person can share that individual’s unique gifts? How do we level the proverbial playing field?

Our initial answer may be that we need to achieve perfect equality. All people should be treated just the same, and all should be given exactly the same experience and opportunities. But that assumes that all people start from the exact same place. Yet we know that that is not the case. Some people have far more challenges than others. Giving people with significant disadvantages the exact same treatment that those with advantages get will never achieve true equality. The people who are disadvantaged may make some progress. But the people with more advantages are likely to make just as much progress—if not more. So the achievement and equality gap will remain the same or could get even larger. What we need is another “E” word: equity.

What’s the difference between equity and equality? Consider a very concrete example. Say we have three people who are trying to look over a fairly high, solid wooden fence. The equality solution is to give each of the three the same size/height wooden box to stand on. The three people who make up our group are: one very tall, one medium height, one very short and in a wheelchair. The very tall person does not need any help to see over the fence. On the box, that person towers over the fence and is very conspicuous. The medium-height person is delighted with the solution. The very short person in the wheelchair cannot even get up on the box. So the equality solution really helps only a third of the group.

Equity is about seeing that people have what they need to compete fairly. So someone practicing equity would not give the tall person any box. The medium-height person would still be thrilled with that standard-height box. People practicing equity would take the box for the tall person (the one not needed), make it into a ramp, and let the person in the wheelchair use that ramp to get up onto her box. Now she, too, can see over the fence.

Equity is not about “special” treatment. Getting equitable treatment does not mean that people do not have to be able to do the essential aspects of the job. It is not about lowering standards or shifting criteria. It does mean that those with disadvantages should have a boost so that they can begin to perform those essential aspects from a starting point comparable to those with more advantages.

Throughout the rest of this Skill, we will consider some of the challenges to equity and inclusion, as well as such additional components as the cultural elements that people have experienced and some of the different groups to which people may belong.

Further Reading

Beydoun, K. A. (2019). American Islamophobia. University of California Press.
Branch, T. (2007). At Canaan’s edge: America in the King years, 1965-68. Simon & Schuster.
Branch, T. (1989). Parting the waters: America in the King years, 1954-63. Simon & Schuster.
Branch, T. (1999). Pillar of fire: America in the King years, 1963-1965. Simon & Schuster.
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Avery.
Brown, C. (2010). My left foot. Minerva.
Catapano, P., & Garland-Thompson, R. (Eds.). (2019). About us: Essays from the disability series of the New York Times. Liveright.
Cervini, E. (2020). The Deviant’s war: The homosexual vs. the United States of America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One World.
Kramer, D. J. (2018). Generation of change: A call to millennials. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Lewis, J. (2015). Walking with the wind: A memoir of the movement. Simon & Schuster.
Moskowitz, B. A. (2020). Finishing up: On aging and ageism. Dio Press.
Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race. Seal Press.
Perez, C. C. (2019). Invisible women: Data bias in a world designed for men. Abrams Press.
Treuer, D. (2019). The heartbeat of wounded knee: Native America from 1890 to the present. Riverhead Books.
Weiss, B. (2019). How to fight anti-Semitism. Crown.
Suggested Films
Sheridan, J. (Director). (1989). My left foot. Miramax Films.
Lumet, S. (Director). (1957). 12 angry men. United Artists.