“Walking the Talk: Committing to Change through DE&I Efforts”

By: Adora Beard

We’ve all heard the expression “change is hard.” Fundamentally, I would argue that change is not hard—if the will to change is authentic. It isn’t markedly different from setting a goal and then implementing the processes to bring about the desired outcome. But admittedly, change is complicated.

It involves identifying and gaining consensus about changes in human behavior and attitudes. Thus, change cannot be mandated by legislation or policies. Although effective on some level, those tools produce “outward” compliance but fail to create a permanent shift in hearts, minds, and attitudes or “inward” compliance. In a salute to Black History Month, think about the Voting Rights legislation passed sixty years ago. Yes, it ensured that things like poll taxes were no longer obstacles to voters, but it didn’t end the use of voter suppression tactics supported by technology platforms and social media.

As a Black woman, my personal and professional experiences are influenced by a perspective that may reflect a completely different experience from yours. Because of that fact, my hope for the future is that we build a strong value structure where diversity of thought, experience, and critical thinking is an asset no matter where it comes from. I hope that when you see me or any person of color, you see a competent and professional human being, and “black” or “brown” not become adjectives that cloud your perception of my ability to contribute. I’m further optimistic that we can build a level of understanding and respect, where it’s not just about race and ethnicity, but people being willing to “first seek to understand and then to be understood” (Stephen Covey). To be present with others that don’t resemble them, have different cultural and societal characteristics, and trust that they can bring their authentic selves, perspectives, and knowledge to the table without incurring negative judgments.

My twenty-nine-year career with GED Testing Service affords me the ability to unequivocally say that change is constant and that we are faced with an opportunity to help co-create diversity goals that will create an inclusive culture. Five things I know for sure—to borrow a line from Oprah Winfrey—about the work that GEDTS is undertaking in Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DE&I) is that it is essential to acknowledge that:

  1. DE&I is a long-term investment—albeit with some short-term (or in some cases immediate) upside.
  2. DE&I supports a nimble and responsive corporate strategy—a must in today’s rapidly changing business environment.
  3. DE&I offers the potential to drive gains in problem-solving and innovation.
  4. DE&I allows more seats at the table to develop better relationships with and better solutions for customers.
  5. DE&I’s success is contingent on doing the work: a) organization-wide commitment to change; b) leadership prepared to “walk the talk;” and staff engagement to examine assumptions, biases, and limiting beliefs about their potential and others’ potential to make contributions.

It would be simple if DE&I could be viewed as a “one-and-done” in the popular vernacular. The organization initiates a few low-risk activities, and voila, the problem addressed. Check it off the to-do list. But it isn’t. We must be mindful that organizations are complex, aggregate entities made up of people interacting in an overarching corporate culture. Keeping in mind that the whole person shows up at work, organizations manage a dynamic mix of personal history, choice, attitudes, education, preferences, and identity, plus fitting all this into the prevailing corporate culture.

The marginalization of certain members of society results in limited access, societal inequities, and gaps in opportunities, which are issues that our organization and the adult education community are wrestling with today. The question that comes to the surface is: Does this kind of thinking best serve the adult education community’s strategic needs and our learners? No, and we need to explore that. Understand that great ideas and innovations can come from anywhere. Differences in perspective are worth hearing and nurturing. We, as a community in service to learners, need to be open to all ideas.

My curiosity begins with educators because they are in the business of changing lives and are up close and personal with students. The best thinking, the unique and valuable perspectives — those considered too far outside the box about DE&I have the potential to form with student and teacher relationships built to envelop inclusive practices and processes that help to assimilate diversity. Moreover, my role with GED Testing Service is to build strong relationships with our educators, with all our stakeholders, allowing me to champion their efforts for change. All of this, in turn, lends itself to being a catalyst for strategic alignment and enhances our organizational strategy for diversity, equity, and inclusion that will increase the capability to build an inclusive environment where everyone, especially our learners, feels that they can be successful.

Periodic analysis and reporting (e.g., goals, outcomes, policies, and efficacy) are also necessary. The requisite steps for an effective DE&I strategy are part of a journey of discovery and unlocking the potential within the organization. There is no doubt that universal and cascading change must happen. The conversation starts with interwoven and cyclical diversity. Leaders and line managers must be willing to look further than just the people who look like or think as they do. Companies cannot be responsive or innovative if they rely exclusively on established relationships, “likes,” or unnecessarily complex processes to surface ideas. Management also must signal that the person (or persons) who initiated an idea is to be recognized and that the attribution doesn’t wind up on someone else’s docket, who may have contributed a finishing touch.

Small gestures carry a significant impact. Staff are savvy observers; they see whose ideas receive major attention from the management team, who the corporate idea champions are, and who receives the public recognition. Often the expectation is that a diverse staff member doesn’t have the credentials—and it is often the case that managers may lack information about the candidate’s previous experience, or an arena of expertise based on the positional responsibility the person currently has. A corporate culture that insists that employees stay in their lane—in other words, that an idea or an activity is outside their current job description—may be sacrificing future profitability. Embracing the core tenets of DE&I can boost responsiveness and access to additional intellectual assets. DE&I creates more seats at the table, and the more, the merrier! DE&I can help overcome selection bias and get muted voices heard. Broader participation—consciously deciding to manage the diversity of thought, perspective actively, and problem-solving skills—can yield better results and more innovation.

The trifecta for DE&I in organizations is 1) commitment; 2) leadership; and 3) staff engagement—meaning all employees. The commitment to change must be authentic and backed by action. Although diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. And, by the way, attracting diverse candidates is not sufficient. The environment should be such that those individuals belong to and are included in the greater community—not pigeonholed by an ethnic or racial label that becomes their primary identifier in the organization.

Leadership has an integral role in modeling behavior for the rest of the organization, as well as identifying and enabling champions who amplify the DE&I message throughout the organization. Leadership has a critical role in socializing the new mindset throughout the organization. Consistency, clarity, and consciousness are the watchwords for this crucial phase of the work. When a person wants to see change happen, I also believe that means rigorous self-evaluation: I must walk the talk. As a leader, self-appointed or otherwise, people will mirror my behavior, and if I don’t hold myself accountable, other people won’t either.

Last but certainly not least, there must be staff engagement. The DE&I work is not just for diverse staff members; it is for the company’s benefit and everyone in the organization. Most people of color who have chosen corporate careers understand what the accepted norms are and how they may not always be included, no matter how well they understand and commit to working with the norms. DE&I provides an excellent counterpoint for the rest of the staff to gain critical insights that can transform the work environment and the work performed.

Adora Beard is a State Relationship Manager with GED Testing Service and Strategy and Stakeholder Lead with Pearson Bold. Adora has worked with GED Testing Service for 29 years in various roles, and in addition to her current role, she focuses on internal and external diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.