4 Lessons in Diversity, Belonging & Brave Leadership from ALI Conference

May 4, 2021

If you’re a regular reader of the Brilliant Ink blog, you know that our team has been on a journey to learn and support companies to become more equitable, inclusive and create a sense of belonging for all.

We’re always on the lookout for new insights, and I picked up many lessons, best practices and a whole lot of inspiration when I chaired a recent conference titled,  “The Communicator’s Role in Building an Equitable, Anti-Racist Workplace” hosted by ALI. Here are just a few of the lessons I walked away with:

Understanding Equity vs. Equality

Several speakers discussed the importance of differentiating between equity and equality. All too often, organizations strive to create systems that divide resources equally. After all, if everything is equal, it should lead to fair outcomes, right? Wrong.  

An equality-focused system fails to recognize and address the barriers that are placed on some people – women, BIPOC, veterans and others. Rather, organizations should focus on allocating resources in a way that drives equitable outcomes and levels the playing the field.  


While I’ve seen the above graphic as an explanation for the difference between equality and equity, I’d never seen the version below, which was shared by Dr. Danette Howard, Chief Policy Officer of Lumina Foundation, (the original is credited to Tony Ruth).  

Using simple illustrations inspired by Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, Dr. Howard helped us understand the relationship between equality, inequality and equity, and took it a step further by emphasizing the importance of JUSTICE as the outcome we should all be fighting for – i.e., fixing our broken systems to enable equal access to tools and opportunities for all.

Language Matters

As communicators, this one may seem obvious. Of course, we know that words are important, but as the language of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging continues to evolve, it’s critical to listen, learn and adopt antiracist language in all our communications.  

For example, terms like “minority,” “underrepresented” and “at-risk” are examples of “deficit language” – meaning they’re focused on how a particular group is less than the primary group. Another example of deficit language that I am guilty of using in recent conversations – the term “tone deaf” to describe something that was poorly executed. While seemingly harmless, regular use of deficit language only serves to feed existing stereotypes and biases.

Instead, look for language that is clear, fair and equitable. Use qualifiers only when truly necessary and choose ones that do not emphasize deficits.  

Not sure how to keep your organization up-to-speed and consistently using asset-based language?

Joseph Dawson, Director of Strategic Communication at Freddie Mac, led his organization in creating and maintaining a DEI style guide, which provides direction on appropriate terms and usage in all company communications. This seemingly simple tool helps ensure communicators across the organization are regularly using inclusive, antiracist language.

Need some inspiration? This a publicly available diversity style guide provides a great starting place.  

The Role of Leaders in Creating an Environment of Belonging

Nponano Maikori, Senior Manager of Internal Communications at Understood, emphasized the importance of pushing leaders to lean into discomfort and face difficult conversations head-on. After all, senior leaders must model the behavior they wish to see within their companies. As Nponano explains:  

“The leaders in your organization should be the protectors of its culture, and setting the right tone from the top when it comes to inclusion can be powerful. It is key that the ‘tone from the top’ comes from an honest AND maintainable place.”

Creating Change Through Communities

One really important lesson discussed was the need to provide employees with opportunities to connect, support one another and express their experiences. One organization planned and hosted virtual “decompression sessions” following painful moments like the murder of George Floyd or the rapid increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. These safe spaces gave employees a structured way to step back from their daily work to explore their feelings and support one another.  

Lydia Hemphill of BioMarin went a step further – in the summer of 2020 she collaborated with a few of her colleagues to create an ongoing opportunity for employees to gather and discuss what they were seeing and feeling. She transformed this informal group of colleagues into BioMarin’s first-ever Community Resource Group. Catalysts for Change (C4C) “provides a safe, supportive space for employees to be their best authentic selves while getting into the practice of having difficult conversations, becoming more self-aware, and modeling diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.”  

Feeling inspired to introduce your own Community Resource Group? Lydia drew a lot of inspiration from this podcast episode, which explores how to enable and nurture community conversations inside any organization.  

Still hungry for more?

If you’d like to keep the learning going, here are a few additional resources shared throughout the conference:  

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Ann Melinger

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