Discussions about inequity should not stop because of COVID

By Antoni Lewa

COVID-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.

  • 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?

“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.

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.

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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