Discussions about inequity should not stop because of COVID

By Antoni Lewa

OVID-19 has suddenly changed our lives. Work life, school life, and even our personal lives are not excluded. Millions have suddenly had to reduce their working time, take unpaid leave, or even lose their income completely. Office workers have to work from home. Students have to study from home. Uber drivers have suddenly lost most of their jobs. Construction projects have come to halt. Restaurants, malls, and hairdressers have had to close their shops. This is an immensely stressful time and it is not just stressful financially, but also emotionally. It is also important to highlight that people are impacted, and engage in emotional expression, differently across cultural, racial, gender, and other identities.

As future business leaders in an increasingly diverse and global workforce, it is important to be Equity Fluent Leaders: leaders who understand the value of different lived experiences and courageously use their power to address barriers, increase access, and drive change for positive impact. It is highly likely that you will always be working with people from a background and/or identity that is not similar to yours: your team members, your broader organization, your customers, and the society at large. This is even more critical during public health and economic crises like COVID-19, where the extent of practicing emotional labour is further exacerbated by the disproportionate impact of such crises on women, ethnic minorities, and those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Started in 2017, Dialogues over Dinner is a Haas tradition where students put their learning into practice by facilitating informal discussions with classmates who may have had different levels of exposure to, and comfort with, diversity-related topics. Each semester, these small group dinners in students’ homes are based on new articles or podcasts to anchor a conversation around systemic racism and discrimination. These informal peer discussions serve as an open space for discussing issues relevant to Haas students, as future business leaders who will lead diverse teams, and offer a meaningful opportunity to engage thoughtfully with classmates, learn from each other’s lived experiences, and deepen relationships. This semester, we had to adjust the dinners due to the COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions, but continued our dinners individually and discussed our reflections remotely over Zoom.

Our main objective was to create a brave space to engage in a constructive conversation about race and other DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) topics. This semester, we hoped to answer three main questions in the pursuit of becoming better Equity Fluent Leaders:

  • How can we hold space for our colleagues to show up as their authentic selves and mitigate their levels of emotional labor?
  • How can we cultivate an environment that understands the value of different lived experiences by validating the way those experiences can translate emotionally into the workplace?
  • How can we acknowledge that there exists more than one idea of “normal” — in how we personally cope, and how others emotionally process in response to the crisis? How can we bring this affirmation into the workplace?

In April 2020, 60 FTMBA students from the classes of 2020 and 2021, were split into 10 small group dinners over 1 week. Despite having the dinners in a less-than-ideal situation, both participants and facilitators gave a resounding ‘yes, I would recommend Dialogues over Dinner to other friends” with a strong Net Promoter Score of +55 (as a comparison, in 2020, Spotify’s NPS is +46 while Tesla’s NPS is +37). Participants also self-reported an average score of 6.08 out of 7 (7 being the highest) in agreeing with the statement that “this dinner has motivated [them] to further explore how race impacts society” as well as an average score of 6.11 out of 7 (7 being the highest) in agreeing with the statement that “[they] felt that this dinner provided an opportunity for [them]to talk about race without being judged.” The following quotes further reflected the scores:

“This was really a powerful and unique experience. I’ve never been so proud to be part of this special community. I’m looking forward to reflecting further and hope to feel more comfortable engaging in these environments going forward.” — White Female, US FTMBA 2021

“It is a unique experience in a small group setting to discuss racial issues. One of the main reasons that I chose Haas over other MBA programs.” — Asian / Pacific Islander Female, US FTMBA 2021

“Not just having a space to discuss these types of topics, but also learning how to facilitate and create spaces to discuss these topics has been super rewarding. I never talked about these topics before coming to Haas.” — Asian Male, US FTMBA 2020

Here are three of the key learnings that we took from conducting Dialogues over Dinner remotely:

1. Ensure a brave space within a small, but diverse, group

Our dinners are intentionally held among small (6–7 people) groups to ensure everyone feels heard. At the same time, we ensured every group is equally diverse across five dimensions: gender (between male/female/other gender identities), race (between majorities and URMs), nationalities (US and internationals), class (first and second years), and even each individual’s own rating of their comfort level in engaging in DEI related topics.

We also sent a written facilitation guideline to every facilitator beforehand to ensure that various norms are followed, including the “Step Up, Step Back” norm that is actively encouraged, not only for this event, but throughout the Haas culture in general. This norm is even more important in this format given there are many things that can go wrong in remote discussions: random noise and visual distractions, forgetting to mute/unmute, poor connection, and so on.

2. Use data-driven, research backed facilitation training and discussion ‘anchor’ points

Right from the very beginning, we had active support from Dr. Elida M. Bautista, Director of Inclusion and Diversity at Haas, as well as Professor Kellie A. McElhaney, founder of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL). With direct help from RII Culture Leads, Eileen Ung (FTMBA2021) and Lloyd Johnson (FTMBA2021), we also referenced the Race Inclusion Initiative (RII) Library, which is a research-based student effort to increase the number of underrepresented minorities at Haas and make the climate inclusive for all. When we had to suddenly pivot to COVID-19 related ‘anchor’ points, we were able to do so relatively quickly because we already had some basic frameworks and past data points to guide our decision making.

3. Ensure that DEI-related conversations are active part of your organization culture, and not just a one-off event

At Haas, Dialogues over Dinner is just one of the many DEI related events that students can participate in. As such, it is not a culture shock for students to join these dinners, even when we do it remotely. In fact, the continuity of the discussions are ensured as students can even take DEI related electives or even pursue Equity Fluent Leadership as an area of emphasis.

Personally, as an international student who was born and raised in Indonesia, and having spent most of my career in multicultural Singapore and throughout Southeast Asia, I find it enlightening that I can find many platforms to safely talk and learn about DEI-related topics at Haas. There are many learnings that are also applicable internationally and having this learning opportunity is one of the many reasons why I chose Haas to further my career. I would like to thank Dr. Elida M. Bautista, Professor Kellie A. McElhaney, Alison Gilbert (FTMBA2020), and my classmates Eileen Ung (FTMBA2021) and Lloyd Johnson (FTMBA2021) for making Dialogues over Dinner a reality this semester. I sincerely hope that this tradition can continue for many years to come.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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