June 13, 2022

In Greater Public’s DEI survey, we learned that a major challenge for many stations is implementing effective communication about the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work they’re doing. A majority of respondents expressed uncertainty about how often DEI goals should be communicated within the organization, and what should be communicated. 

Greater Public’s Equity and Inclusion Advisor, Sway Steward, and NPR’s Diversity Equity & Inclusion Manager, Whitney Maddox, recently sat down to discuss this and other equity and inclusion topics. 

Sway Steward: Whitney, how should better DEI communication be happening in our organizations?

Know Your 'Why'

Whitney Maddox: You know, I often say that before we can ask about what should be communicated about DEI goals and progress, leaders first have to ask themselves why they arrived at that particular goal.

This is where I see leaders misstep in their DEI goals. If you’re looking at your organization’s climate survey results, maybe that’s informing your ‘why.’ Or if you’re looking at facilitated discussions, how audiences are engaging – or not engaging – with content, or HR’s reports on diversity, or lack thereof. These are ways in which we can get at the ‘why.’ But you should be able to answer: What’s working – and what’s not working – for your team that makes this DEI goal important right now? 

Steward: Yes, you have to start with the ‘why,’ then you can determine the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘when.’ 63% of our survey respondents said their organization has a plan to communicate DEI goals, and the most common ways are via all-staff meetings, email updates from leadership, and emails from committees. How does NPR give some of these updates to staff?

Opportunities for Communication: Orientations, Discussion Spaces, Newsletters, Vision Statements

Maddox: I agree with all of the ways that have been mentioned, and another important way to communicate goals is through new-employee orientations. It is so crucial that when new staff come in the door, leaders must be saying “This is what we think about – and what we’re doing about – DEI.” If we don’t catch staff at the beginning with conversation, then we’re leaving new staff to figure it out on their own. And that’s not helpful. 

This year [at NPR] we also started “DEI New Hire” monthly spaces where we come together for an hour every month with new employees to talk about what we’re doing in DEI. This can also be an opportunity to learn about the concerns or worries that new employees are carrying with them, because people aren’t coming in as clean slates to an organization. Sometimes they’re bringing trauma with them. So these early connections are an opportunity for the organization to try to alleviate those worries.  

At NPR we also have a monthly DEI newsletter where I develop topics like, “Why some staff are dreading coming back to work in-person,” or “How to develop your team’s DEI goals.” It’s really being consistent with that communication.

We reached out to member stations in preparation for today, and one I’ll highlight from Rima [Dael, GM] at WSHU is that she wrote and shared with her staff her own personal vision statement, which talks about being born in the Philippines, growing up in Southeast Asia, and why the work is important to her. She also put together a presentation entitled “Cultivating People Unlike Ourselves.” It was talking about the ‘why’ and centering every other goal around DEI. I think it’s so important that leaders think about why you come to this work, where you see yourself in this work, and how do you bring your colleagues as well.

When you get to say “I’m not comfortable so we’re not going to talk about it,” you’re literally taking away the opportunity from somebody to speak up and change their workplace.

What Good Communication Says to Your Employees

Steward: Let’s talk about frequency. I reached out to the KPCC team and heard from Ashley Alvarado, Vice President of Community Engagement and Strategic Initiatives who shared that routine is incredibly important:

“Routine. Routine. Routine. The DEI Task Force [sends] out an email every Friday at 9 a.m. We also [have] a set of group agreements that [informs] not only the process of putting the email together (how we communicate with each other on the task force) but also how we communicate with colleagues. One example is that we [don’t] include mentions of people without their explicit consent. This is something we didn’t know to do at the start but that became core to how we communicated.”

What frequency has worked at NPR?

Maddox: The reality is that most of our DEI goals are about changing conditions for marginalized people. When you have staff who are disproportionately affected by [harmful] policies, if you don’t communicate with goals and updates, the messaging [they perceive] is “You don’t care about me. I’m not a priority.” 

If it’s not enough of a priority to set aside time for the things that are impacting them, it can affect the very air they breathe in this organization. The ‘why’ and ‘when’ and ‘how often’ are leading to some of our colleagues leaving our organizations or disengaging from DEI work. They feel they’ve been asking and asking without seeing progress, or only seeing progress in 2020 to catch up, and then a standstill. For them, it leads to burnout in an organization. So please have a [communication] plan, because if you don’t, it leads to mistrust.

Communication Doesn’t Need to Be Perfect

Steward: I know that sometimes leaders may want to seem like they have it all together. They may strive for perfection and leaders want to seem like they’re figuring it all out. But we are a team, and we have to recognize that people need incremental updates along the way. Ashley Alvarado also pointed out that different people have different communication currencies. So, recognize if someone needs a one-on-one, and equip your managers with the knowledge of what’s happening and how they can be a part of what’s going on. 

Maddox: What I’ve noticed is that the leaders want to do the work “behind the screen,” like emailing. When it comes to sitting down with your people and saying “tell me the things…” “I heard in the climate survey…” “I want examples of your experiences…” Our leaders tend to shy away from that. There’s the guilt and the shame that you have to acknowledge and own, and then set aside, because that gets in the way of doing the work.

Don’t Center Your Discomfort

Steward: Here’s a question we received that’s connected to leaders wanting to have the conversation over email instead of a dialogue in-person:

“How can a station full of all-white leadership encourage employees to have this conversation?”

Maddox: If you allow your comfortability to dictate the work that we do, we would never do the work. Leaders can acknowledge that they’re uncomfortable leading this conversation, but people are experiencing real impact in our workplace as a result of something we said or a decision we’ve made. 

Leaders hold power. When you get to say “I’m not comfortable so we’re not going to talk about it,” you’re literally taking away the opportunity from somebody to speak up and change their workplace. Yes, you will make a mistake. But get out there and be a part of the conversation and be a part of the work.

Steward: If you’re a leader, be honest with yourself. Find ways to get coaching, educate yourself, and find the right person to help you build intentional communication.

If Your Team Is Silent, Start to Worry

Steward: I’ve noticed that communication in many organizations is top-down. It’s leaders presenting at an all-staff meeting and sometimes there’s no opportunity for the staff to participate in the dialogue. So let’s talk about multi-directional dialogue. What’s worked at NPR to create multi-directional dialogue, especially between manager and employee?

Maddox: When I came to NPR in 2021, I knew for a fact that I did not want to be emailing people I didn’t know – and who didn’t know me – and say “here are some decisions;” I have to emphasize the “who didn’t know me” part, because we’re often not mindful of that as leaders. 

If you’re a leader, just because you can make a decision, does not mean you should make a decision without talking to people first. The process works smoother when the buy-in is there, when people know you’re not going to make the decision and close the door. I need to be able to say to you “this is jacked up, it didn’t work. Let’s try again.” You can’t do the work if you don’t have trust. If you’re going to tell me what you’re doing and not ask me how it impacts me – especially if you don’t know anything about me and my experiences – why would I trust you beyond this moment?

Steward: It speaks to how so many people in our industry feel. They’ve never been asked. They haven’t been allowed to share. Or when they did share, they weren’t listened to fully. 

If your team is silent, that’s when you should start to worry.

Maddox: Exactly.

We have to be mindful that it’s not a DEI trainer who’s opening up these wounds. The reality is that the pain is always there.

Talk About DEI Everywhere

Steward: Let’s talk about all of the ways we can create dialogue. This is how to say “DEI is a priority here and our team knows it.” Tom Godell of WUKY shared with me how he has infused diversity, equity and inclusion into the fabric of their organization by talking about it at all-staff meetings and departmental meetings, but also by adding communication points on the bulletin board in the break rooms. DEI can be a conversation in passing in the hallways in our workplaces. We can talk about it day in and day out.

Maddox: And in your performance review! It doesn’t need to be a “gotcha,” but rather, “I value this work so much that I’m going to put this on the agenda and we’re going to have a conversation about planning your goals in the coming year.” You have to put DEI in the performance evaluation. You have to put DEI in the job description. You have to communicate what the expectations are.

Steward: That’s how progress is made is by having goals around it. Employees need to talk about how they’re reaching these goals, and what obstacles might be in employees’ way. The thing that brought me to DEI work was through HR, and your people want to make sure the organization succeeds and they want to do a good job. So how [as a manager] can you coach them to be the best that they want to be?

Setting Goals Sets Expectations

Steward: Here’s another participant question:

“Could you please say a word about individual accountability in terms of DEI goals? How do we get coworkers to take personal responsibility about creating organizational (sic), rather than relying on the next person or higher-up to do it? How do you promote positivity, proactive behavior?”

Maddox: We need leaders to get their teams invested in this work. You can’t expect someone to do something if they don’t know what to do, so you have to set goals. 

Start with the big goal. We know we’re not there yet, so back yourself up to figure out what we need to do to get there. Another good place to start is to identify the barriers that are preventing us from getting to that place. Literally write all of those barriers down – big and small. Then identify a smaller barrier that you could change in three months. That’s your measurable goal for the next three months. 

Then, back to the communication – what this whole conversation is about – tell your staff about those barriers. Don’t keep them just in the leadership team. 

Steward: Yes, because your staff may have solutions for how to address those barriers! Maybe they’ve addressed something similar in their department and can bring that solution on a larger scale in the organization. 

Maddox: And then when you go and talk to your [audience] stakeholders, leave room for [the goals] to change. If you come to me to say you want to build community with my people and you’re already telling me what you’re going to do, I’m left wondering: When can I add what I think?

So, after organizations outline the ‘why,’ then we need to talk to the ‘who.’ Sometimes we can only build goals after we talk to [those stakeholders] who can help us outline the issues and barriers as they see them.

Your words do not create psychological safety for people. Your actions do.

Without Apology, the Hurt Remains

Steward: Here is another question from a participant:

“Our staff and management participated in 6 hours of facilitated “workshops” with 3 trained DEI facilitators. The process opened up some wounds that still haven’t healed. The facilitators ignored gender equity issues in order to spend time, almost exclusively, on bipoc dialog. We have a lot more work to do! Can you suggest a format for encouraging gender diversity and equity conversations within a multigenerational workplace so we can all do a better job recognizing inequity and communicating about it with each other?”

Steward: DEI conversations can bring out a range of emotions for people and the expectation is “Let’s just go back to work now.” That’s unrealistic. How has your team at NPR found ways to create spaces for healing?

Maddox: One of the reasons our colleagues have wounds that haven’t healed is because they were hurt and the people who hurt them are still their colleagues. They have never listened to that person, apologized, and changed their behavior. Sometimes it’s the leaders of our organizations who have caused the hurt. And that [leads] people to say “this organization is never going to change.” The emotional toll is worse for them and – or – they leave. 

So we have to be mindful that it’s not a DEI trainer who’s opening up these wounds. The reality is that the pain is always there. The DEI training is an environment where a DEI facilitator is asking me to talk about something that I’ve already said, and had to put in a box and not talk about anymore because I determined this organization isn’t going to change. 

And if you choose to open up [in that training], you may also be hearing from the colleague who hurt you. And now they’re sounding all woke, like they’ve evolved, but you’re thinking, “For real? Yesterday you were the person who micro-aggressed me.” So some of that emotional toll comes from having to listen to colleagues who they know haven’t been doing the work because of their actions.

Safety Starts Outside the Room

Maddox: When colleagues at NPR come to me saying they’re going to have a conversation and want to create safe space, I say over and over: Safety starts outside of the room. 

It matters how you show up in team meetings. It matters if you interrupt your colleagues or don’t listen to [them], or if you attribute what they said to someone else. It matters. You have to show me that you care about me, not just tell me. If you don’t do that, people are going to say “My psychological safety in this workplace doesn’t matter to you.”

Your words do not create psychological safety for people. Your actions do. Because safety has to be proven, y’all. If you can’t do the work, if you don’t know how to show up and say “My bad, I made a mistake. Let me own that.” That is a part of proving that you can be safe and the things I care about are safe with you. 

Steward: I think that’s why we are where we are as a society. We have to be honest if we’ve harmed people in the past, and figure out how we’re going to mend the relationship. The words are just a small bit of it; it’s about the action. If there’s no change in the pattern of behavior [there’s no] moving forward.

Uplifting Ourselves, Uplifting Each Other

Steward: Here’s another participant question:

“How can I uplift myself and stand firm at a station that constantly challenges my background?”

Maddox: If you are at a station and people are constantly questioning your existence – who you are as a person – you have to address that head-on. Whether it is with HR, or with the individual, the behavior has to be addressed in our workplace. 

We can’t just let people talk any kind of way and then ask me to uplift myself. No, we’re not doing that. That is about accountability. Letting people off the hook for foolishness: I am done with it. How are we going to do this work if people do and say whatever and then just walk off? Absolutely not. 

I also believe wholeheartedly in having work colleagues you can go to to say “I need a good word.” [I can say], “Sway, remind me of the Black Queen that I am in this moment.” Having people who remind you who you are, who say, “You wrote that story last month, don’t let these people tell you you’re not a good journalist.” Have your tribe of people who come to your rescue when you need it. I have been saved a number of times by this very thing.

Steward: You have to surround yourself with people who are going to uplift you no matter what, no matter when you need it. If you can’t find that in your organization, that is your cue to start going somewhere else. 

Look, you can’t be responsible for the behaviors of other people. If you won’t get it at your organization, at a bare minimum come find me and we’ll work on a plan together.

Sway Steward photo