November 21, 2023 by Robin Pizzo
Three years ago, the calls for increased investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in workplaces rang out globally. From hospitals to tech campuses to newsrooms, workers brought the energy of the Summer 2020 protests from the streets into boardrooms, demanding an equitable overhaul of policies and practices that historically disadvantaged employees who identify as Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). At WSHU, a Connecticut and Long Island station, leaders seized the moment of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, intersected with racial reckonings elevated by the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements to reimagine company culture and how they serve their audiences. Led by General Manager A. Rima Dael, WSHU institutionalized their DEI practice with a toolkit comprised of (1) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs framework, (2) listening and learning from DEI experts, industry insiders, station staff, audience members, and their local community, (3) collaborations with other public media leaders, and (4) grant funding to test, learn, and implement new initiatives. Dael shared how, with these tools, WSHU created a culture of belonging that is transforming how they work as a team and in partnership with their local community.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, proposed in 1943, is often presented as a five-tier pyramid with physiological needs at the base, followed by safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, stacked atop each other. When considering staff’s needs during this time, station leadership understood that each staff member’s psychological needs, for example, were different. Dael, who identifies as a generation X-born, Filipina woman, joined WSHU in her role in the fall of 2019, a few months before the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic. She learned Maslow’s framework in her undergraduate and graduate studies and applied it throughout her career in the non-profit sector. To empower the culture of belonging, she wondered what the events of 2020 meant for frontline staff’s psychological safety when interacting with listeners and station members who had differing and, sometimes, angry views about how the world was changing around them. Dael shared, “There would be people that would call and say, ‘I’m canceling my membership because everything that’s coming up on the news and through NPR is about ‘white guilt’ and I don’t want to feel guilty about being white.’” She believed her staff should not have to absorb these types of complaints from listeners at the expense of their wellbeing. She collaborated with Greater Public’s Sway Steward to make safe spaces for conversations to discuss and develop responses to the members’ outrage, as a way of prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of her staff.
In 2020, workforces called for their leaders to listen and learn from subject-matter experts who had developed strategies for designing equitable work cultures, and to prioritize the perspectives of their constituents, protestors, and activists, who felt their concerns were ignored or disregarded for far too long. WSHU leaders enrolled in the DEI Executive Forum training cohort from Greater Public, thanks to KUOW, a larger, Seattle-based station which provided scholarships to smaller stations for the six-month learning experience. From the training, they developed a DEI plan aimed at better serving communities the station had historically underserved.
Dael points out that staff are experts in their workplace, who leadership could listen to and learn from, as well. A self-described “servant leader,” Dael is driven by removing obstacles from her team’s way that will empower them to bring their authentic selves to work and to thrive. To do so, she focused on taking her team’s feedback seriously, to listen and problem-solve with them, rather than for them, and to apply the same practice to the station’s approach to building relationships with communities of color, which, Dael says, the station has underserved in the past. WSHU worked with Solutions Journalism which trained news staff to focus on responses to social problems. This approach considers the audience – and specifically communities of color – to be experts in their own lives with the power to effect change. Audience data shows that this is the kind of reporting being called for within many communities of color.
WSHU’s listening and learning work continued with engaging classical music experts. In January 2023, for the first time WSHU attended the SphinxConnect conference in Detroit. The Sphinx Organization is dedicated to building a pipeline and diversifying classical music across education, artist development, and industry leadership. Dael fondly reflected on her time spent at the conference, “It was phenomenal for me to learn from representatives from several historically black colleges and universities about the classical music history and heritage that has gone through HBCUs.”
Throughout this time, Dael leaned on her community of public media leaders to exchange data and best practices from their own listening and learning exercises, to create authentic spaces for belonging for their audiences, staff, and for herself as a woman of color. These leaders shared tools such as being “curious not furious,” a mantra for responding with a question to learn how someone’s views on an issue may have been formed. In situations where views may differ or be opposed, it creates space for people to be reflective first, rather than defensive. She acknowledged that the emotional labor of leading DEI initiatives as a woman of color requires cultivating a self-care practice and a community with whom she can be vulnerable.
Their foundational commitment to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs framework, their new DEI plan, and listening and learning work, formed a compass that guided their operationalizing efforts. Dael stated:
While WSHU developed policy and practices for responding to existing members and listeners who were verbally abusive to staff, they also invested in connecting with local communities they’d previously been unengaged with. In their DEI plan, their strategic goals were to build civic infrastructures for their communities leading up to the presidential election of 2024, and to combat misinformation and disinformation. These pillars formed the umbrella under which all DEI initiatives are living. Grant funding from sources such as Report for America, America Amplified, Solutions Journalism, and American Homefront, allowed WSHU to test and build capacity to do outreach with these new communities to the station, and develop new content. WSHU is now the only Northeast station that has a Report for America core member covering an Indigenous beat.
The grant from America Amplified funded a 9-month effort to get specific about the communities of color they wanted to reach. They participated in Pointer’s Digital Transformation program to define the next audience they wanted to cultivate, identifying an audience of 30- to 50-year-olds who are either new to public radio or new to the Connecticut and Long Island area, their geographic coverage. This audience is culturally curious and civic-minded, however, they consume media mostly on demand, rather than on broadcast. To reach them, WSHU developed, “Trash Talkin’,” a digital climate change beat, which is supported by a grant from Solutions Journalism.
As WSHU integrates their DEI practice, Dael believes their engagement with and commitment to their region is growing stronger. How they measure success evolves based on the tactic being employed. When increasing outreach with community leaders, they measured their output—how many conversations were they having and in which communities? Reporters would meet with focus groups of 3-5 people, which could inform, for example, climate change coverage, investigations into affordable housing, and rising incidences of asthma in New Haven. These investigations led to long feature pieces aligned with the community’s interests. WSHU evaluates their success by reviewing website metrics, Google Analytics, and social media, to see how they’re engaging their new target audience.
They see Fairfield County, one of their largest municipalities, as a microcosm of the U.S., where racial diversity and socioeconomic disparity are intertwined. Being equitable in how they reach such a diverse population, and thus inclusive of these communities, has become a station mandate. “We’re not just doing DEI just because we jumped on some bandwagon. This is the work that we’re doing to be more inclusive of the audiences we need to serve better in our community,” Dael states. “It’s also part of the business plan of staying relevant. If we’re not relevant, there’s no reason to be in business. That plays out both on the classical music side, as well as the news side.”
Recognizing that they have made mistakes along the way, WSHU has turned mistakes into learnings to strengthen their DEI practice. While reaching the underserved communities became increasingly urgent to station leaders, Dael admits that they wanted to do much more work in a shorter timeline. She says she learned, however, “Time and trust ground everything. It takes time to build trust. Partnerships and outreach don’t happen automatically.” Station leaders saw an opportunity to convert individual relationships that staff had with community leaders, small business owners, non-profits, and corporations engaged in social justice work, into institutional relationships. “That was the culture shift,” Dael shared. She credits her staff from frontline reporters through senior staff for their ongoing DEI commitment: “We have a shared vision on the importance of this work. Even if we hit a wall, that doesn’t mean we give up and go home. We just have to regroup, be agile and nimble, to pivot quickly, and be resilient to make sure we eventually get there.”
Download WSHU’s powerpoint presentation from PMDMC21 entitled “Speechless: How Saying Nothing Enables ‘-isms’ and Goes Against Our Mission,” including sample language that WSHU uses in response to veiled comments or abusive behavior.
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