DEI Policy: Putting the Justice Up Front

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Is DEI now JEDI?

How does Social Justice fit into the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) policy conversation? A recent Govern for Impact Town Hall audience had an answer: some organizations are replacing DEI with JEDI.

As one attendee explained, putting Social Justice first encourages “seeing each other as humans who deserve fairness in our landscape and recognizing the systemic barriers that hinder Equity and Inclusion.”

“Justice fits in right at the beginning,” noted moderator Tom Keyse.

JEDI might be more of a Canada thing, because DEI is sometimes called EDI there.

So how do you create effective policy that drives DEI from a Social Justice perspective? Two leaders from organizations that serve over 400,000 people shared their lived experiences transforming their organizations from the inside out.

“We wanna be very bold, and we wanna be very brave.”

Image credit: Govern for Impact

For Lori Payne, Board Chair Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation, addressing DEI policy and Social Justice concerns felt like a natural evolution. 

The Board conducted a strategic assessment in 2018. The result was a mission to build a community where everyone thrives and a vision to make it easy for people to do more.

Next, the foundation engaged with the community, and the community gave them three priorities:

  • Affordable Housing
  • Social Inclusion
  • Healthy Children and Youth 

Deep conversations followed on the role of the Board in addressing these issues. Finally, the Kitchener Board decided to take aggressive action. “We wanna be very bold, and we wanna be very brave,” said Payne.

“Story after story about microaggressions taking place in schools”

“Our Board has been on this journey for over 10 years,” said John P. Welch, Superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational Service District.

Student data and community input caused the Board to refocus and act. Students of color had lower graduation and higher education completion rates and higher disciplinary action rates than their white peers.

The Board also listened to their community and heard “story after story about microaggressions taking place in schools, examples of bias, stories about not feeling welcome, not feeling included.” District educators also experienced tokenism and lack of inclusion.

The data and community discussions left the Board “focused on leading for Racial Equity.” 

“You Can’t Lead What You Don’t Know.”

Image credit: Govern for Impact

“You can’t lead what you don’t know,” said Welch. “We had a lot of work to do within our organization.”

Puget Sound addressed gaps by growing a 7-person Equity Team. They also added anti-racist leadership competencies to all job descriptions.

The group also sought to build regional momentum. “How could we use our leadership voice” to “get others on the leadership train.”

Removing Bumper Rails and Barriers from DEI Policy

The Kitchener Board began by researching systemic issues and gathering community data. 

Then they looked internally. Payne wondered “what kinds of “bumper rails or barriers might we have created at the Board level.”

To address the lack of diversity on their Board, they had to reach out and be authentic with prospects who might question their motives.  

“First, we looked at our Board makeup,” Payne shared. “We rebuilt it completely from competencies and diversity. So we could create the fullest, most diverse Board.”

Since this new focus requires a lot of Board time, “we’ve really thought about our meeting cadence,” said Payne. As a result, the Board decided to create committees to handle things like fiduciary tasks to make more time for hard discussions.

All of the reflection and learning inspired the Kitchener Board to make a radical change. “We are now putting Equity actually as our critical outcome,” said Payne. The new focus is on creating Equity through the affordable housing space.

For Puget Sound, Welch noted their ENDS statement summarizes their responsibilities: Ensuring success for each child, eliminating opportunity gaps, and leading to Racial Equity.

In addition, the Board continues to sharpen its Policy Governance and use its voice and influence in the region. 

Still More Steps Taken

Both Boards continued to take action, implementing new programs and policies.

The Kitchener Board:

  • Held Community sessions moderated by people of color
  • Re-evaluated the organization’s investment portfolio
  • Reviewed their Board and operational policies

The Puget Sound Board:

  • Introduced new Board job description policy with called out EDI competencies
  • Revised Executive Limitation policies 
  • Appointed four Student Board Members

Small, Slow, and Safe 

“Spend more time on the mirror work than the window work.”

Payne advised boards to take it “small, slow, and safe.” Then, considering the sometimes difficult conversations that need to take place, she counseled, “Give yourself and others grace.”

Welch suggested that Board members start with self evaluation before thinking about changes within their organization: “Spend more time on the mirror work than the window work.”

Actions, Not Just Words

A local controversy helped shape the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation’s outward persona. When a Catholic school took down a Pride flag, community members urged the foundation to make a statement condemning the school’s action.

The incident became a “this, not that” moment for the Board, which decided not to make a statement but rather focus on its own policies.

Puget Sound’s Welch also espoused an action, not talk, philosophy: “We no longer have to put out statements because it is who we are.” 

But Words Do Matter

Welch reflected that “Language matters, as we’ve learned through this process,” acknowledging that “sometimes we’ve stepped in it.” For example, the term stakeholder is problematic as a holdover from colonial days.

Finding the right words and challenging old habits can be uncomfortable. But “we try and be respectful with people wherever they’re at, but we are undeterred by people’s comfort levels.”

DEI Policy Future Focus

Moderator Tom Keyse summed up the tension between DEI policy challenges and goals. “Despite whatever differences we have, the reason we’re there is to make a difference in the world.” 

Govern for Impact CEO Karen Fryday-Field put the evening’s content in a larger context. “This is not an exercise. This is real life. It’s not just an agenda item for Boards anymore. It is fundamental to the future of governance and the future of Boards.”  


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