If you ask my father about his favorite memories of my youth, he might mention one of the times 14-year-old me (freshly out of the closet in a small New England town outside New York City) delivered a keynote on issues of homophobia and antisemitism in the classrooms with the Anti-Defamation League or True Colors (a queer youth advocacy group in Connecticut). He’ll point out how confused he was sitting there in the lobby of a hotel because in his Persian, immigrant mind, why would someone tell anyone they were gay?
But still, he was supportive as he could muster, ferrying me hither and thither but never able to sit and watch me talk because of his own shame. Until one day my boss came to talk to him. Anyone with immigrant parents knows how thrilled they are hearing someone like your boss gas you up. She told him that if I could motivate rooms full of educators to shift perspective on handling bullying in their classrooms by linking together all forms of discrimination through empathy, I could talk my way through life making a huge difference.
My father’s reaction was shock. Not at me, but that there was a need for the kind of advocacy that seemed to come from within me. After the talk, he took me aside and promised me that he’d take me to every workshop, keynote, panel, or any other gig I had to hone these skills. In many ways, it was my baptism into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work.
Since then, I’ve worked leveraging my own experiences as a Jewish queer transracial adoptee with cerebral palsy and ADHD to build bridges through speeches, panels, board service, and as a consultant in the charitable and private sector (prior to starting Little Red Fashion.) Now, I use the power of storytelling and fashion to help young people learn about themselves or the world around them by pulling the threads of history, design, and material culture.
Now that you know a little bit about my own DEI journey, let’s help you with getting yours on the right foot for 2024.
DEI can be tough to tackle in large organizations, let alone for indie pubs! From learning all the lingo and various frameworks to then putting them through the lens of your unique mission and brand to meet your stakeholders where they’re at.
All DEI work starts with a common vocabulary:
Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective. These are populations that have been—and remain—underrepresented among practitioners in the field and marginalized in the broader society.
Equity is promoting justice, impartiality, and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our society.
Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those who are diverse actually feel and are welcomed. Inclusion outcomes are met when a person or institution and its program are truly inviting to all. Diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes and development opportunities within an organization or group.
Getting Conversations Started
This is often the hardest part after getting everyone on the same page as far as terminology goes. I want to use this space to share a framework we originally developed at Little Red Fashion that my colleagues in the fashion industry space have also found helpful in workshops I’ve run with them to “get the conversations started.” Much of it is focused on soft skills that will make an environment more conducive to the tough conversations that DEI entails.
I call it the L.E.A.R.N.I.N.G. DEI Framework:
Listen to reveal not to reply. DEI starts with conversations to reveal and identify issues. Lots of them. Cultivating the space and climate for them is essential to any substantive progress in DEI. Team members from historically marginalized groups need to feel they can speak freely about their experiences and perspectives while others listen to learn. Defensiveness happens, but it can’t be allowed to derail the conversation or delegitimize lived experiences.
Empower through equity not through appeasement. DEI is impossible without empowering members of your team from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups to drive changes identified through feedback loops. Whether via duties, advancement opportunities, hiring, the formation of a DEI driven stakeholder advisory board, or a place on the cap table/board so your leadership looks like the customers you serve and team members you employ. Nobody needs bumper sticker rhetoric without action.
Activate through empathy, not assumption. Cultivating empathy is essential for successful DEI or corporate social responsibility programs. When DEI-related issues arise, are your team members trained to take a step back from an emotional reaction to see how and why a situation arose or a fellow team member felt violated or disenfranchised? Does leadership and/or management triage grievances alongside DEI working groups or advisors/stakeholders or in isolation? Are features on platforms like Slack optimized to inform the use of gendered or other loaded language in a friendly way?
Relate though storytelling opportunities. A robust DEI program starts with organic internal storytelling, which has a trickle-down impact on how brand story gets communicated to your customers and stakeholders. Publishing has always been about storytelling, and authentic stories are more important than ever. A strong DEI program uses the power of authentic storytelling to open minds and heart inside your company and in the community. As publishers, we are in many ways cultural gatekeepers of knowledge and how it is spread. A DEI-driven approach to our work means cultivating a diverse author base and a diverse workforce.
Nurture transparency not fear. Tough conversations about privilege, race, gender, disability, poverty, childhood, and other things may (and should) come up in conversations and trainings on DEI. The goal from a culture standpoint is to put in place policies and procedures that help maximize transparency in DEI matters, protect against retaliation for openness during DEI work, and to shine a light on the perspectives of those from historically marginalized groups without judgement.
Investigate assumptions and biases. All staff and leadership must do the work of questioning any biases or assumptions that inform how they operate across all divisions from HR to IT, PR to marketing and manufacturing and production. The C-suite must buy into empowering the investigation of everything through a lens of DEI to identify what may have found its way into everything from marketing messaging or copywriting, the supply chain, or even language used on internal forms to name a few. Just because you haven’t heard anyone raise an issue, doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
Navigate privilege without presumption. It’s very hard to affect change when you feel alienated. Discussions of privilege often entail one or more parties who feel alienated in different ways. It helps to navigate this from a place of non-assumption. Everyone has varied life experiences, but some of us are affected by systems, traumas, or struggles outside of our control. DEI is about honoring these differences. Calling people in rather than out helps make these conversations easier and having trained experts mediate them is usually helpful!
Grow and adapt organically by being open to change. Re-wiring biases, questioning preconceptions, and adjusting our language in the service of building a more equitable and inclusive organization is hard work. DEI can also be emotionally taxing and often requires discomfort to be effective. But this growth on the micro (personal) level first is the only way we achieve the necessary progress on the macro level with our companies and the industry writ large. Starting the DEI conversation means leadership must create a safe space for stakeholders to grow with enough resources to do so in their own way. Space, resources, and dialogue are how folks can be encouraged to shift perspectives through the ongoing DEI learning process. And it is, above all else, an ongoing process, not just a box to check each fiscal year. Viewing DEI as an organic process removes pressures than can negatively affect outcomes if racing an invisible clock to tick a box.
Where Do I Go from Here?
At this point you may be thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot, Jonathan. Where do I find more resources to understand all the nuance?” The answer is right here at IBPA! My fellow DEI Committee members have worked tirelessly to curate an entire DEI Resource Center (ibpa-online.org/page/dei-resource-center) where you can find publishing-specific DEI resources to inform and guide your journey prompted by some of the questions and issues raised by the LEARNING DEI Framework.