Rise Into A New Chapter: DE&I In The Workplace with Melissa Horne

Listen to the audio here (skip right to 3:33 and get right to the conversation!):

One of our key values at Rise Agency is Diversity Equity & Inclusion. Our agency exists to uplift people, repair the world – support the community and women’s empowerment and personal wellness. Diversity, equity  and inclusion (otherwise known as DE&I) fits into all of that.

Melissa Horne is the director of client experience at both Learning Snippets and Dialectic. She holds a PhD in black history from Rutgers University, which is amazing. Her research specializes in social justice movements, a historical background towards systemic racism, and oppression against black post-secondary students. I met Melissa through a McMaster program. She spoke to a group of graduate students about Learning Snippets, and I thought it was such a great tool and such a great approach to helping businesses really, truly integrate Diversity Equity & Inclusion into their organizations. I invited her to chat with me on Instagram recently, and she had a lot of great insights into this critical topic.

Sarah: 

Welcome Melissa and thanks for being here! So, you’re now working with a company called Learning Snippets and Dialectic. I just wanted to throw it over to you to explain a little bit about what your job is. We’ll get into Learning Snippets in a little bit and what it is, but what do you do as part of Learning Snippets and Dialectic?

Melissa:

Well, Dialectic is our parent company, and we’ve been around for over 10 years now. We design custom e-learning solutions. We’ve been in this game for a while, and what we realized in the Diversity Equity & Inclusion space is that so much training was happening as one-off speaking engagements. So, we developed a coaching tool for one of our clients using the Snippets methodology, and creating these multiple touch points with our clients that allowed us to keep coaching really top of mind. We realized that we were part of the problem – we were doing one-off speaking engagements with no follow-up, no follow through. We’d go into an organization and open up this can of worms, and then there was nothing else happening after that.

What we realized was that inclusive behaviours take time to create. It takes time to unlearn our biases, unlearn our baggage, and to learn more inclusive behaviours. So, what we did was we developed Learning Snippets, which delivers content in short-spaced intervals around Diversity Equity and Inclusion. I get to work with clients along various stages of their inclusion journey, whether they’re just starting out or they’ve already got a robust internal DEI strategy. We work with them to find the right solution, one that’s going to work for them around training.

Sarah:

That’s the one thing I really love about Learning Snippets. And you just nailed it that it keeps coaching top of mind. The way that you explained it to me is that (for everybody who’s listening who doesn’t know about Learning Snippets), you get little prompts every day, little modules in your email that are real-world examples of things that might actually occur day-to-day as a person, or as part of an organization. It keeps it top of mind for you as opposed to a mandatory two hour workshop, which I mean, is a good starting point, but sometimes that can be really performative, because it’s like you’re just check-marking a box.

A lot of organizations have been trying to do Diversity Equity and Inclusion work for a long time – great, you’ve mandated your 1000 employees to take a training module, but what about the other 364 days of the year? So that’s what I really loved about this, that it’s not performative, it’s a real way to integrate that into organizations.

Melissa:

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, I think what we’re finding with folks is that most people want to be more inclusive, but they don’t have the language and the skills to actually know what that means. Like, what does it look like to be inclusive? We often will hear something said, and we’ll want to say something back, but we don’t know exactly what to say. So, what we’re providing, because we’re modeling real workplace scenarios, is the language and the skills for you to act next time. The step that you need to start to take is, how do we actually BE more inclusive? Well, it doesn’t necessarily happen when you just know something different, it’s when you do something different. I often say that change doesn’t happen when we know more, because we know what the problems are. The question is, how do we do something different? That’s really the critical part.

Sarah:

That’s so true. It’s the doing – it helps rewire that pattern in your brain and change your behaviour.

My next question is: we’re two middle-class white girls, what do we know about DEI? I just wanted to hear from you on how you define DEI, and what does that mean? Because I think some people may not even know what DEI means. Is it just diversity? What are the other letters?

Melissa:

So, I think diversity is really as simple as numbers. Is your workforce diverse? Does your workforce represent the society in which we live in? Do you have diverse perspectives? And that means around gender identity and gender expression, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, religion.

Sarah:

Ability level is big for me.

Melissa:

Right? Like, are you hiring from the neuro-diverse population? Do have these different perspectives in your workplace? A lot of folks make the mistake of thinking, “Okay, we’ve brought in a diverse workforce, so we’re good.” The next part is inclusion. A lot of folks will say “We’ve hired a diverse workforce; I don’t understand what the problem is?” Essentially you haven’t done the work to make your workplace more inclusive. So, what does that mean? It means that it’s not about trying to get folks to fit into your workplace culture, but about making your workplace culture fit all the employees that you have. And then there’s equity: equity doesn’t mean equality because what everyone needs in order to feel equal is different. And that also fits within the inclusion piece as well. We’re all starting at different places, but the goal is how do we all get to the finish line? And some folks may require additional supports to be able to get to that finish line. So that’s DEI.

Sarah:

This is really important! So, you’re part of a diverse workforce – great. But the idea is not that you are trying to get people to adapt into your culture, it’s changing your culture to adapt to them. And I think that a lot of organizations are starting to shift into that thinking. But I wanted to really hammer it home that it’s not about getting everyone to align one way with the company’s methodology – like the challenges IBM (where my husband works) face with their IBM Culture. It’s getting the culture to shift continuously to reflect the employees.

Melissa:

Yeah, it’s interesting. We did a podcast with a guest named Wanda Deshaun, who’s an advocate for neurodiversity. The interesting statistic that she pointed out was that folks who are neurodiverse have been asking for flexible work hours to be able to work from home, to be able to engage in different lines of communication, because that suits their working styles better. And we’ve actually made this change, almost overnight in response to COVID-19. And those are the types of inclusive features of the workplace that some of the members of the neurodivergent population required to be successful. That’s the workplace adapting, right? Versus folks having to adapt to the workplace.

Sarah:

And keeping those changes beyond COVID-19, now that we’re talking about this, is important. Black Lives Matter and the conversation about systemic racism has also really exploded this year. But DEI is more than that, this conversation is not going away, it’s always been here, it’s just in the spotlight right now.

But COVID-19 has helped to blow up the conversation around these important topics. Accessibility, neurodiversity in the workplace, flexibility for moms from a gender perspective, for women and single moms who are raising a family… Working at home can give them that flexibility they need.

But, sorry, my point is that we hope that this is going to stay after that. We hope this isn’t just a crisis response that people are starting these conversations within their organizations, and that it’s going to remain in place for the people that need it. What I fear is that a lot of this is going to dissipate after everybody goes “back to work”.

Melissa:

I think that’s what you asked about earlier, what do middle-class white girls know about Diversity Equity and Inclusion? You mentioned the BIPOC population, and if we listen to what folks are asking of people with privilege, it’s not to stew and feel guilty about it. It’s to use their privilege to affect changes in your workplace. To start with family and friends. It’s to use that knowledge and privilege to be an ally, to be a co-conspirator, to be active. So again, change happens when you do something different. Then if every day you start to do something different, you’re starting to push the needle. To use our platforms to support BIPOC organizations, to support diverse vendors and suppliers in any way that we can. Using our privilege to support others is critical.

Sarah:

I should give a shout-out to Amy Lockwood and her new company called The Lockwood. she realized that wooden toys are not reflecting accessibility, and she’s making wooden toys in the shape of wheelchairs, which is incredible. That’s not part of this, but I just feel that it’s a good example of somebody trying to reflect this greater need in society.

So then, from your perspective and from what you’ve seen in the last six months, and with more people talking about DE&I now, what are some of the hurdles that you’ve seen companies facing when they’re trying to implement these things?

Melissa:

One of the first things is, a lot of people are realizing, “Oh my gosh, we actually have a problem.” Or, because there hasn’t been some massive triggering incident that has brought the issue to light, companies are realizing they should actually focus on this as a preventative, rather than responding reactively. As they’re talking to employees, people are raising issues that they never knew that they had. And so often, it’s like, where do we start? And then there’s this frenzy of wanting to get in but not knowing what to do. I think engaging with a third party expert, and trying not to do it alone (because there’s going to be tons of institutional blind spots around practices and policies and procedures that are already in place), is the right way to go. I think that looking out to and sourcing a third-party person who can come in with that lens that you don’t have and be supportive of the organization is important.

The other thing that I’m seeing is that it’s a way of looking towards the future and making a real investment in the company. There are lots of stats out there that show companies who are diverse and inclusive outperform competitors, and in the same way that we would invest in leadership training, or we wouldn’t hesitate to drop a ton of money into a marketing campaign, we really need to invest in Diversity Equity & Inclusion. The cost of not doing so is high employee turnover. If recruitment and talent acquisition are not looking for diverse candidates, then you’re not finding the best, most qualified folks. If you’re constantly going back to the same well, you’re not going to find the best people.

Sarah:

Really good point.

Melissa:

I think that’s really critical to truly invest in this, and not because it’s a cheap solution. The thing is, people are coming to me asking, “well, what is the cost?” We’ve made Learning Snippets affordable, but we’re part of a larger holistic Diversity Equity & Inclusion strategy, right? You have to start with your talent acquisition and recruitment. Leadership has to have buy-in. The companies that are most successful have champions and leaders that are pushing this, and truly value Diversity Equity & Inclusion. And that means putting your money where your mouth is, beyond that one term engagement. It’s investing in this over the next 5 to 10 years.

Sarah:

I love that. That it’s about putting your money where your mouth is, really truly. So, I think McMaster MCM is on the chat. I know they’re going to want me to ask this: who are the players around the table when it comes to Diversity Equity & Inclusion? Like, who are those leaders around the table within an organization? Do you find that it’s just the HR director, is the communications team involved? Is it the CEO? Who are you finding are the ones who are really driving this?

Melissa:

Great question. We’re talking with HR and learning and development folks at the beginning. But what we know is that a really strong communications plan is critical. When you’re responding to an outside incident that’s happened, your communication teams have to know who your stakeholders are outside, how they want to receive the messages. What do they need to hear? And you have to be able to have a long-term plan because, I think, we’re in this weird place where the public has both a short-term and long-term memory. It’s easy to dig up past things, and as we’re seeing, past discretions are being brought up, and people are being held accountable. Internally you could have invested in the best strategy, but if people don’t understand why, or don’t know why, and if it’s not being communicated beyond just an introductory email, you’re not going to have high engagement. You’re not going to get a good return on your investment, and you’re not going to move the needle. So, having a really strong communication plan internally is critical. That’s giving communications a seat at the table because they’re the ones that are going to be able to advise on the strategy. It shouldn’t be left to them to just implement.

Sarah:

I agree. The communications team often gets handed a, “This is what HR is doing, go and tell everybody about it.” But to really be strategic leaders, communicators have a huge insight into stakeholders already across the organization, where HR and late learning and development may only have one small narrow view of stakeholders. So, bringing that holistic view of stakeholders to the table is really where the communicator can feed into the strategy and be at the table and be a valuable voice.

I was just thinking more about being able to distill something down into language that is understandable and accessible to everybody too. Back to Learning Snippets, it is a communications tool that uses plain language and real workplace examples to get across how behavior can change. “Here’s some practice for you, “or “here’s a daily learning to keep at the top of your mind.” I think that’s such a great value for anybody who’s using Learning Snippets.

Melissa:

The other thing I just want to mention is that we’re a team of researchers and designers, but we actually make sure that we go out and have our content validated by folks with lived experiences and subject matter experts. So, as much as we’re using the best evidence-based practices and theories to frame everything out, we are actually then going back to make sure that this is how they would want to be responded to, or this is how they actually see the ideal situation playing out. That’s what’s going to make them the most effective as well. It has to be grounded in reality.

Sarah:

I might be wrong, but I feel like everybody probably has moments where they were in the workplace and they did something they thought was totally fine but wasn’t. I’m going to tell you mine – and my heart hurts a little bit that I did this – but there was this video that came across my feed with a woman who was BIPOC, who was shifting the way she talked to different peoples – she was shifting her personality depending on who she was talking to in the office. I thought it was a humorous video; first she was really loud and her real self, then quietly asking her white co-worker what she did on the weekend. Then she saw somebody else and would turn into a totally different person. It was code switching.

Sarah:

It was a serious video, but I thought it was hilarious because I just had no idea it was about code switching. I remember showing it to a black peer of mine and saying, “Oh my God, this is such a funny video!” Now I look back at that and I’m like, that’s not funny. I can’t believe I was laughing at that. I wish at that time that person had said, “You shouldn’t be laughing about this, this isn’t funny.” But we have that tone of social pressure saying don’t push back. I’m rambling a little bit, but I just want to share that I made that mistake, and I’m learning. I love that we’re having these conversations now and really reflecting on what the correct behavior is in order to respect each other equally, no matter what.

Sarah:

I did want to get to small businesses, because I’m a small business and there are so many small businesses out there, many of which are unfortunately closing right now. but there’s still many out there. How can small businesses start to think about these things, even if they may not be able to afford a system like Learning Snippets?

Melissa:

To me if you’re a small business, it should be accessible to you. We do a lot of work with big corporations, but we work with small non-profits as well. I think that it needs to be affordable for everyone. If you’re a small organization, even if you’re a solopreneur, you have to think about how you can support diverse solopreneurs. So, who do you partner with? Can you share services if you’re being asked for something that’s not necessarily in your wheelhouse? Look into the community, because I’m sure there’s tons of folks in your community that you could partner with. Or, say you’re at networking events – there’s tons of cringe-worthy things that I can think about having seen in that setting that can in fact impact your business as well.

You just don’t know who is out there. So in terms of all your business engagements, the way that you present yourself online, who you follow, who you don’t follow, it’s important that you’re thinking about inclusivity as a small or medium sized business as well. Even if it’s just three employees, you still want to be thinking, “How can we be more inclusive in our interpersonal interactions with folks?”

Sarah:

I’ve been really open about how I want to be called out for things. I want somebody to say, “This is not appropriate.” I encourage all small businesses to put that hat on and be open to people in your community or your employees saying, “I don’t feel comfortable,” “that’s not okay.” Or, for example, I’ve written something that I thought was great and then somebody said, “This isn’t about you.” I love that. This is such a good learning opportunity for business owners, big or small, to be better people. I had a good conversation with my running partner this morning about kindness and how that plays a role into this – empathy is trying to understand where the other person is coming from at the end of day.

Melissa:

I think the first question I want to go back to is, what do two middle-class white girls know about DEI? I think what those of us with certain privileges are being asked to do is really step back, examine, and learn. We know that we want to be called out, but the other thing that Learning Snippets does is that it helps you to identify those moments. One of the most common microaggressions is, “Oh, you’re surprisingly articulate!” It’s important to go back and think about those times where you maybe have said that about someone. You need to go back and really reflect on those times when you weren’t as inclusive as you thought were.

Melissa:

There’s a lot of learning – it’s a lifelong thing. I’ll share one of my own experiences. As I mentioned, I did my PhD in the US. Here in Canada, we’ve got this really nice narrative that we’re “the great white North.” We welcomed enslaved persons via the underground railroad, and so we’re not like the US, right? But we don’t talk enough about how our country was built upon the work and labor of enslaved Africans, and the theft of indigenous lands. When I was down in the US it used to be my thing to say “Well, I’m Canadian, right? So, it’s okay. I get a free pass.”

Melissa:

It was like a running joke. But upon further reflection, it’s not right. We don’t get a free pass in Canada. We don’t get a free pass just because we see ourselves as allies. It’s a daily commitment that you have to make, and you are going to make mistakes. I think owning up to that and being brave enough to apologize when you recognize it’s an appropriate moment is important. Because as a result of the power differential, not everyone’s going to be willing and able to call you out on it. Going back to think about these interactions, and white people checking other white people, is key. There are ways that you can participate in it. You can say, “I used to think like this as well, but I’ve learned, and this is why it’s not okay.”

Sarah:

Yeah, I love that you brought up the Aboriginal issue in Canada, because we had another Instagram live (which you can go back and watch, actually) where another agency owner and I were talking about the course we were taking on Indigenous Canada. It’s a topic that isn’t taught in school: that our entire nation was built on the theft of Indigenous lands. So yeah, we don’t have a Get Out of Jail Free card in Canada. It’s just a different type of systemic racism.

So, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground here, and I wanted to ask if there is anything else that you wanted to add? I feel like we could probably keep talking for hours and hours on this, but I just wanted to throw it back to you and ask, is there anything else that is important to this conversation?

Melissa:

The key is just to keep learning, and to keep seeking out information and opportunities where you can make a difference. I’ll plug Learning Snippets. You can come over and check out our inclusivity 101 for free: there are three Snippets, so you can check out our anti-black racism course. We’ve got a ton of content out there. And don’t be afraid if you’re a small organization to please reach out, because we’d love to work with you and help you as well. But I think the one key thing is to keep having these conversations, and act when you can use your position of power and privilege to empower and support other folks.

Sarah:

Amazing. Melissa, thank you so much! This was great. I’m so excited for this, and it was such a great conversation.

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By Sarah Kiriliuk

  • December 7, 2020

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