Filed Under: Blog, DEI

From Cafeteria to Community: The Journey Towards Equity and Inclusion

By Jeremy West

It recently happened again. For no apparent reason, some stranger attempted to get one of my daughters to identify their ethnicity. I was with them during the interaction and, as the individual persisted by asking about every Asian country they could think of, I stated that “she is from Chicago.” This got a bewildered look but shut down the uncomfortable conversation. After the interaction, I asked my two daughters, who are 14 and 15 years old, how they would prefer I respond to this frequent question when asked. One said she did not know and the other said to tell them it was “none of their business!”

Having spent my career in the foodservice industry and nonprofit world, I have had the opportunity to work alongside and lead teams that were as diverse as the communities we served. Additionally, I have served on a nonprofit board who provided education and services for immigrants, refugees and asylees. While these experiences and relationships have deepened my understanding of inequities in our country and work and introduced me to new perspectives, none of this qualifies me, a white, 40-something, male who grew up in the United States, to fully understand the lived experiences of my colleagues of color and those who have faced discrimination in their communities or workplaces.

As I reflect on how to improve my own skills at facilitating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in my home, workplace, community, and industry, I am reminded that one’s ability to understand and contribute to a more equitable world is a journey filled with reflection, self-education, dialogue, action, and grace.

  • Reflection- To engage in this work, one must reflect on their own experiences, biases and how they contribute and detract to the culture of DEI. What experiences of others are you blinded to because of your cultural heritage, identities and lived experiences? There are any number of self-assessment tools one can use to help guide the journey.
  • Self-Education- From self-reflection, one must move to self-education to equip themselves with the knowledge, stories, and common language of DEI. Notice, this is stated as “self-education,” as in do not rely on others to bring you up to speed on their people group’s experiences with discrimination, racism and oppression. Further, self-education is a continual process. For example, I recently learned at a conference that DEI is now often referred to as DEIA- the A is for accessibility.
  • Dialogue- With a firm grasp on how one “shows up” in DEI work and an expanded knowledge base and understanding, now is a good time to engage in dialogue with trusted colleagues or others through interactive workshops or training. Just like any important conversation in your professional world, you want to come prepared for the dialogue and engage in a thoughtful manner.
  • Action- Do something! Engage with others that differ from you. Find a mentor to help you in your journey and be prepared to mentor others. Take stock of your personal and professional life and where you may be able to advocate for change to create a more equitable experience.
  • Grace- Where would I be in my journey if individuals in my life had not called me into accountability by patiently, gracefully redirecting me when my terminology or understanding of an issue was a bit, or a lot, off? We need to allow for some grace, for ourselves and for others, as we journey down the road of DEI as some unlearning and rebuilding will need to occur.

Why Cultural Diversity Matters
So why does this matter? In the context of organizations, a commitment to equity can change organizational DNA when it is operationalized in strategic planning, mission/vision/values, brand identity statements, policy development, and hiring practices. This can positively impact organizational success and improve employee, member, and funder satisfaction.

A few of the personal benefits I have experienced in my journey are increased cultural knowledge, improved mindfulness of other perspectives, appreciation and respect for interpersonal differences, empathy for others’ lived experiences, and some amazing food experiences! The organizations I have worked and volunteered for have also benefited, as a diverse and inclusive workplace culture fosters innovation, prevents groupthink, results in improved operational policies, and lends richness to the decision experience.

I will leave you with this passage from Rev. Jacqui Lewis, an author and activist whose work I recently became acquainted with during the Food Solutions New England (FSNE) 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge, from her book Fierce Love:

“In any relationship, fierce love causes us to cross boundaries and borders to discover one another, to support one another, to heal one another. When we do this, when we go crazy with affection, and offer wild kindness to our neighbor across the street or across the globe, we make a new kind of space between us. We make space for discovery and curiosity, for learning and growing. We make space for sharing stories and being changed by what we share.

This is the space of the border, of mestizaje [mixed race], of both/and…. We can learn to see the world not only through our own stories, through our own eyes, but also through the stories and worldview of the so-called other…We simply must open our eyes, look across the room, the street, the division, the border—and reach out to that neighbor, offering our hand, our compassion, and our heart.”

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