How Revamping Systems and Asking the Right Questions Can Foster Inclusion in Schools and the Workplace

Panel discussion by Elizabeth Weingarten, Senior Associate at ideas42 and Managing Editor of the Behavioral Scientist; Michael Meotti, Executive Director of the Washington Student Achievement Council; and Alex Nana-Sinkam, who leads the Global Equity portfolio at OpenIDEO; moderated by Renee MacLeod, who leads inclusive marketing at Tableau, at the 2020 Project Ascendance Summit.

The panel addressed:

  • Getting past assumptions and misperceptions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)
  • Getting the best return on investment (ROI) possible with investments in DEI
  • Taking the right first steps toward inclusion
  • Asking questions from a place of humble inquiry

Getting Past Assumptions and Misperceptions About DEI

Michael Meotti, Executive Director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, said that WSAC is a cabinet-level state agency that deals with all sorts of higher education issues. It runs a number of initiatives, including the state’s financial aid programs, which are meant to increase participation and success in higher education. WSAC is helping more Washington residents get some kind of educational credential.

We don’t think enough about what it means for the college to be a student-ready environment, Meotti said, and we need to relentlessly scrutinize the data on how students are doing. If an educational organization keeps seeing racial and ethnic disparities in enrollment, along with disparities in student participation and success, the model is systemically racist. Changing models requires taking a deep dive into how you operate.

Elizabeth Weingarten leads the workplace DEI initiatives at ideas42, and in her view, two misperceptions hold us back on making progress on DEI:

  • Misperception #1: To fight bias, you need to change people’s beliefs. Instead, based on behavioral science research, Weingarten said, fighting bias and discrimination can actually be done more effectively in some cases by changing systems and structures, rather than focusing on changing people’s beliefs and attitudes. From research on well-intentioned unconscious bias training, interventions focused only on the latter have actually backfired.
  • Misperception #2: Existing solutions can easily solve complicated DEI challenges. This misperception doesn’t line up with reality, she said. Practitioners need to dispel the “solutions illusion.”

When an organization seeks to de-bias hiring, redesign performance evaluations, or set up diversity programs, they’ll look for resources to help them do that, Weingarten said—but many of the practices being encouraged aren’t backed up by research, or are based on flimsy evidence. The solutions haven’t been tested enough, she said, and the best practices that exist are often a launchpad rather than a finish line.

Employers want to get the best ROI possible with investments in DEI, Weingarten said, and a big part of that is shifting the focus from trying to change people to trying to change systems and structures—and dispelling the “solution illusion.”

Alex Nana-Sinkam, who leads the Global Equity portfolio at OpenIDEO, said that she’s often one of the few black designers in the room, or speaking on a stage, which is part of the reason why this topic is important to her. She leads a portfolio of work focused on global equity, which includes education, global health, and economic resilience, and a lot of assumptions are made at the intersection of design, education, and equitable systems change. In the field of innovation, there are a lot of questions we fail to ask, she said, especially about inclusion:

  • How are we working alongside communities to build programs, products, or services that actually suit these communities’ unique needs?
  • How are we designing from a place of service rather than presumption, especially thinking at the systems level?
  • And most importantly, how are we consistently thinking about redistributing power?

There’s an incredible opportunity to leverage design as a tool to push forward conversations about DEI, particularly in education, in Nana-Sinkam’s view. Design can help us visualize futures that we can’t yet imagine, and think beyond the edges of what we already know. If we can do that in a human-centered way that involves all stakeholders, we can ensure that the people who are influenced by a system are part of the conversation and part of the innovation process.

Addressing Systemic Inequities in Schools

Nana-Sinkam has been working on a report on the future of education entitled “Learning Reimagined: Radical Thinking for Equitable Futures.” The report explores the ways that DEI might influence how we learn, who gets to learn, and who gets access to learning.
In her view, schools are epicenters of inequity. The initial steps to take from a systems design perspective are approaching challenges from a place of codesign and collaboration, and thinking as consistently as possible on how we’re redistributing power to those individuals who don’t have it as a result of systems and how they function.

Brutality against people of color starts in schools, Nana-Sinkam said, and the research makes it clear that there are disciplinary issues, policing in schools, generations of redlining, and funding inconsistencies. Research shows that:

  • 6 million US students attend schools where police—but not counselors—are present.
  • 42% of US high schools have some type of police presence, and Black and Latinx students are three times more likely to have a negative encounter with police in those contexts.
  • Black students have less access to the math and science courses that are necessary for college.

It’s important to be grounded in how sobering the numbers are, she said. As systems designers—whether from a lens of academia, behavioral science, or design innovation—it’s the designers’ task to approach challenges of inclusion, and they should start by listening and asking questions. For example, what are the barriers a BIPOC student is experiencing when learning remotely in their first year at a state school?

Implementing Solutions to Support DEI in the Workplace

Weingarten said that there’s a tremendous opportunity to engage people in formulating the questions to ask. She would love to see a mindset of experimental humility across different fields. Testing and gathering data when you’re trying to implement any type of solution or practice for DEI in the workplace is so critical because context matters.

One assumption people often make, Weingarten said, is that a solution or idea someone reads about will work in any context, but it’s crucial to keep in mind that there are key differences in environments that will make certain solutions succeed in one place and fail in another. Implementing something is really the first step, not the last. Ask how you’re measuring success, and if that’s even the right problem to be solving. Talk to the people you’re designing for, design with humility, and treat it as a learning process.

Meotti said they worked on a consulting project for a foundation. The foundation was using design thinking as a meeting facilitation tool to come up with solutions to impose on their environments, but that’s not what user-centered design is about.

In the documentary Personal Statement, students at Brooklyn high schools get their peers to think about going to college. Meotti brought the film’s students to Seattle for a screening at The Gates Foundation. The students in the documentary know more about the reasons why low-income students don’t seek out these pathways than what the established research will tell us, Meotti said. That’s why he always cautions people against just finding best practices—that’s not the way to achieve success. Instead, enable and support the community.

Organizational Shift or Mindset Shift

Weingarten said that it’s more of a mindset shift, but it’s also a set of tools you can put into practice. It often starts with approaching a problem with a set of questions, rather than with the belief that you know what’s going on and therefore know what the solution is.

Nana-Sinkam emphasized the importance of taking an approach of humble inquiry when approaching a problem, challenge, or a community. Acknowledge your naiveté, be curious, and ask questions.

Families of Color Seattle and other parenting groups are organizing in terms of community support, Meotti said.

Nana-Sinkam said that it’s important to look outside of your perspective and recognize that systems are complex. Even someone who has your exact lived experience, but is three years older, will have a totally different perspective and set of needs.

There’s an important power dynamic between the person who is asking the questions and the respondent, Weingarten said. We should ask if we’re the right ones to be posing these questions, or if somebody else should be asking them. It’s possible that the questions presented and the attributes of those asking them could be getting in the way of an honest response from the person or group of people  that we’re seeking to understand and help.

To learn more about the Project Ascendance Summit, visit https://projectascendance.com/.

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Sonia Steinway

About the Author

Sonia is a principal at Artemis.