DEI for Beginners

If you’re a member of pretty much any social media platform, or if you’ve even glanced at the news over the last few weeks, you’re probably aware that June is Pride Month. You probably also heard that Juneteenth, a date that historically marks freedom from slavery for African Americans, was officially recognized as a federal holiday. You might also have noticed that words like “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “equity” tend to appear frequently in news stories about these events. 

But although they’re used frequently, those terms can be confusing if you’re new to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (or DEI, as it’s commonly referred to). It might feel a little bit like navigating a minefield – like you’re scared to say the wrong thing for fear of giving offense or hurting someone’s feelings. Here, we’ll go over the basics of DEI and break down what that looks like at HOBY and, in particular, at the World Leadership Congress (WLC). 

DEI in the HOBY-verse

HOBY’s core values include “diversity” and “community partnership”. In keeping with those, HOBY’s leadership has recently renewed the organization’s commitment to creating spaces that are diverse and inclusive.

And while these efforts are important at every level of the organization, they’re especially crucial at the WLC, HOBY’s largest international event. With an average of up to 450+ participants from 14-20 different countries, inclusivity at the WLC isn’t just nice to have – it’s essential. 

To help guide these efforts at inclusivity, the WLC volunteer team includes an entire DEI team. These individuals are responsible for ensuring that the WLC’s programs are accessible and comfortable for all participants, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds. HOBY is also committed to educating participants and volunteers on DEI-related topics. The DEI team is even putting together a few activities specifically designed to allow participants of marginalized identities to connect and share their experiences.

For advice on DEI do’s and don’t’s, I contacted Carlo Morante and Lori Love, both of whom are serving on this year’s DEI team. Keep reading for highlights from my conversations with them!

Carlo Morante has a dedicated career to social justice, leadership, sustainability, and community engagement work within higher education, K-12, and the nonprofit sector. He currently serves as the Leadership and Sustainability Coordinator at UCLA working on trainings, strategic planning, social media marketing, and program development for campus-wide leadership and sustainability initiatives. Carlo is also the Vice Chair for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation WLC, where he focuses on advancing the organization’s DEI strategic efforts as well as supporting the development of hundreds of volunteers and high school students all over the world.

Lori Love serves as one of four awesome DEI Managers for WLC. She has been in education for 24 years and is passionate about equity and inclusion for diverse student populations. She holds degrees in advertising/public relation, special education, and diversity and equity in education. Lori is the wife of one spouse for 36 years, the mother of three daughters, one of whom is also with HOBY WLC this year, the grandmother of five grandchildren, and the daughter of a 91-year-old mother. She is honored and proud to be joining WLC this year in a DEI role.

Defining DEI

So far, we’ve talked a little bit about what diversity, equity, and inclusion can look like. But what exactly do those terms mean, in a social justice context?

I decided to start with inclusion. When I asked her, Lori told me that, “Inclusion means that everybody has an equal and equitable place at the table.” She also noted that part of giving everyone an equal place is believing that everyone has something to bring to the table – basically, that diversity is valuable. Diversity, in turn, is defined as the presence of different identities in a given group or setting. Equity means that people with different identities are treated fairly.

Carlo’s answer was a little longer, but it complemented Lori’s well: “Inclusion means that everyone is able to fully participate as themselves in whatever space they find themselves in.” 

A key part of inclusivity is acknowledging that different people experience different barriers in accessing some spaces. These barriers come in sorts of shapes and forms – some are systemic, meaning that they’re embedded in the institutions that make up our society (such as the gender wage gap). Other barriers occur on a more informal, personal level (such as microaggressions against people of color in social settings). 

Recognizing Privilege

This is where things can start to get uncomfortable for some people – especially if you’re new to DEI. Because in order to recognize the barriers that marginalized populations face, you have to recognize that those same barriers might not exist for you – or that you might not face any barriers at all. 

This is called coming from a place of privilege, meaning that your identity is typically given privileged access to resources or power. Identities that have been shown to have the most privilege are white, heterosexual, cisgender men.

For people who are ready to start examining their privilege, Carlo gave me a helpful list of questions that you might try asking yourself:

  • What beliefs or thoughts do I take for granted?
  • How have my beliefs been shaped by the way I was raised?
  • How are my thoughts and beliefs influenced by things like school, the media, or the people in my life?
  • What sorts of things challenge my worldview? Why?

Recognizing your privilege can be challenging because it requires that you critically examine where you come from and why you believe the things you do. For some people, this can bring up uncomfortable feelings or realizations. Try to cultivate a non-judgemental frame of mind, and stick with it. Even if it’s hard, the effort will be worthwhile. Carlo told me, “I feel more content knowing that I’ve evaluated and challenged my beliefs rather than just accepting the way I was raised and socialized.”

That’s Great – But What Should I DO?

If you’re still feeling a little overwhelmed and uncertain, you’re probably not alone – this stuff is difficult. And, as Lori and Carlo both pointed out to me, DEI is not a one-and-done thing. As humans, our identities are constantly changing and evolving, which means that the process of learning and reflecting on our growth is a continual one.

Fortunately, the intrepid WLC DEI Team were able to give me a few concrete action items and guidelines that participants can follow during the WLC to make sure that they’re supporting efforts at diversity and inclusion:

  1. Be open-minded. You’re going to be exposed to a lot of new people and ideas at the WLC, and you might not agree with all of them. That’s okay – the important thing is that you keep a critical mindset and be willing to question your own beliefs.
  2. Listen. Understanding the philosophy behind diversity and inclusion is important, but you can learn even more simply by listening to other peoples’ experiences.  Lori urges participants to “purposefully and intentionally get to know people who are different from you,” and then to keep in touch with them. “There’s always something to learn from other people,” she says. 
  3. Don’t make assumptions. Assuming that someone believes or does something because of an identity they have can reinforce harmful stereotypes and work against efforts at inclusivity. For example, Lori identifies as a Christian, and she told me that people often make assumptions regarding her beliefs about the LGBTQIA+ community.
  4. Educate yourself. Listening to other peoples’ lived experiences is important, but Carlo reminded me that it’s important to take the initiative and self-educate on DEI-related topics, rather than expecting other people to educate you. The good news is that educational material is incredibly easy to come by. Carlo suggests starting with a podcast like NPR’s Code Switch, or browsing your local bookstore for books on social justice. Even places like Instagram and TikTok can be good sources of information because those platforms contain accurate representations of peoples’ lived experiences. 

What If I Mess Up?

It happens to all of us – we forget someone’s pronouns, or we say something that we realize in retrospect might have been hurtful to someone in the room. We’re only human, after all, in spite of our best intentions.

“Be honest and forthcoming,” Lori says. “We all make mistakes and mess up.” She added that when you’re unsure, it’s okay to ask for someone’s name or pronouns. 

If you realize your mistake in the moment, or if someone else informs you of it, Carlo suggests apologizing. Depending on your relationship with the person, consider making a one-on-one apology too. But he also warned me that depending on the situation, making a big deal out of it in a public space can sometimes do more harm than good.

The important part isn’t that we are perfect, but that we make a commitment to keep growing and learning from our mistakes.

At the End of the Day…

Year after year, participants say that one of their favorite things about their WLC experience was the chance to broaden their horizons and meet new people. This year, the WLC volunteer team is making an intentional effort to use DEI practices in facilitating that experience for participants. You might think of DEI as providing another opportunity to bridge the social and intellectual aspects of the WLC – maybe by applying the leadership or service principles you’ve learned about to the way you treat others or how you react to inequality or discrimination in your home community.

It might seem a little counterintuitive that all this focus on different identities can help bring people closer together, but it’s true. At the end of our conversation, Lori said something to that effect that I really liked: “The most important thing is that we listen to people and value our humanity, because that’s what we all have in common.”

Author Bio: Alison Miller is a Copy Editor on the 2021 WLC volunteer team. She is a 2008 HOBY Texas Capital Area Alumna, and still serves as the Director of Programs for the TXCA seminar. She currently lives in Alaska with her partner and her rescue pitbull. 

Leave a Reply