I believe in cultural immersion as the next step in the evolution of diversity, equity, and inclusion practice. The primary reason is because at its core, cultural immersion done well is about equity. And diversity and inclusion simply do not work without equity.
Let me explain.
I had the opportunity to partner with Ignite on a cultural immersion program specifically geared towards melding cultural competency training with real-life experience.
Our theory was that by giving our participants the fundamentals and tools to understand how to foster inclusion, they would go into experiences more aware and therefore learn more deeply. The experiences would help them transform ideas into actions, instead of just leaving them with ideas to process and potentially forget.
Based on the response to our program, I am more certain than ever that this approach is the future of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
But I didn’t fully realize why until I had an in-depth conversation with one of our participants.
Before attending the program, she’d been skeptical of whether my trainings would be effective. As a long-time leader in the diversity space, she was suspicious of my use of the much newer “DEI” instead of the more established “D&I” in how I frame my work. And with good reason.
Equity is a relative newbie in this space, and many practitioners are still wrestling with what it means and how to use it.
In fact, I wrestled with “DEI” versus “D&I” when I was founding Ethos. Equity felt ambiguous, undefined, and seemed like a trend word in many of its applications.
Yet, I came to use the “E” because the more I looked at what was working in organizations, the more I saw it as the process guiding progress.
To move from diversity to inclusion, you need equity. Without equity, not only do you risk never moving towards welcoming and appreciation, but you risk backsliding on the progress you have already made.
Power simply means the ability to act in a particular way, including by directing or influencing someone else’s behavior.
Taken in this context, there are power dynamics in every pairing, meeting, and social interaction. We are all navigating how we might take actions or influence others in these situations.
Power becomes a problem when it’s consistently and systemically unequally distributed, especially on the basis of social identity.
That’s what equity is meant to solve. It’s a process that understands the relationship between power and fairness. Namely, it seeks to balance power dynamics in pursuit of fairness by acknowledging that not everyone starts from the same place, but instead some start with advantages while others with barriers.
So, how does this relate to diversity and inclusion?
When it comes to diversity and inclusion at companies, we almost always start with diversity.
Diversity simply means variety. In nature, biodiversity refers to the variability of organisms within an ecosystem. This general concept applies to work, too.
When we introduce individuals from different backgrounds, thinking styles, and social identities into the workplace, we also introduce diversity. But, diversity is not a fixed point.
If the environments they enter are monocultures where “fitting in” is privileged and speaking up against the status quo is discouraged or even punished, diversity declines in two ways.
First, those who brought new ideas to the table because of their different, unique experiences are pressured into suppressing those ideas and conforming to the existing cultural norms. They become more like the standard, reducing diversity.
Second, they leave.
Why? It’s a lot of work to come into companies that haven’t built inclusion into their DNA first.
These individuals are forced to be more than competent at their jobs, constantly disprove colleagues’ beliefs that they were hired because of their difference and not their skills, and make the overrepresented feel comfortable with their difference. Plus, they must represent their entire identity groups, bring more people from those identity groups into the organization, and often spearhead initiatives around diversity by default.
It’s a tremendous load, and one that might be avoided at another company or in another industry.
To get to inclusion from diversity when these tremendous pressures on pioneers are weighing them down and leading to significant attrition is no easy feat.
Inclusion means belonging. Instead of tolerance, which literally means putting up with difference, belonging means welcoming and celebrating differences. In an inclusive organization, employees feel leveraged, valued, and included regardless of whether they belong to a differing identity group.
But inclusion is not a fixed point. African Americans in an organization may feel included while parents may not. Or a sudden inflection point in the business may shift the culture or organization from inclusive to exclusive because of how decisions are made or which new individuals are introduced into the environment.
This is where equity comes in. It’s a constant measure, an evaluative marker that bridges the gap between diversity and inclusion. It looks closely at diversity in an organization and asks:
By asking these questions and in turn developing initiatives, actions, and programs to address them, equity creates the conditions for inclusion. It becomes a support framework as much as it does a watchdog.
Similarly, because equity is a process that never ends, it defends against blind spots and oversights that threaten inclusion. Since inclusion is a way of being — one that celebrates how diversity consistently brings new ideas, opportunities, and strengths with it — equity asks if that way of being is changing.
Equity asks of inclusion:
Equity’s purpose, then, is to ask these questions regularly and develop solutions based on the honest answers. It’s about more than putting new people into the room or creating a sense of belonging, but developing the practices that make all of that, and the steps in between, possible.
The reason my Ignite experience helped crystallize these thoughts on equity comes down to the fact that cultural immersion is about the journey — the process — more than the outcome.
Cultural immersion is never fully achieved, though significant progress and understanding can be gained through its experience. There’s just too much nuance, depth, and rich complexity to “master” any given culture.
Cultural immersion’s goal is to create learning opportunities and facilitate deeper connection points between people who don’t normally interact with one another. It’s the link between diversity and inclusion because it strives to introduce different people to one another and make them feel as if they can not only understand each other, but rejoice in one another.
But it does all of this through practices, rituals, and actions. It is fundamentally an equity practice.
And equity is how we move beyond tolerance to full-scale appreciation without taking steps backward along the way.