Higher Achievement’s DEI Journey

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion.

Too often, these words are merely that – words. I get it. Organizations often struggle with imagining what a shift toward being intentionally diverse, equitable, and inclusive looks like. It can be even more daunting to begin to make changes to longstanding policies and procedures. After all, a change in those policies and procedures requires a reorientation of an organization and its people. Organizational leaders might fear how such a change might impact organizational culture and climate. There is no doubt that the initial phase of DEI work can feel downright messy. Change is messy – and hard.

I have seen organizations attempt to avert the mess by singularly focusing on the writing of diversity statements and the revision of oppressive policies. (By the way, I am in favor of the writing of diversity statements and the revision of oppressive policies.) However, organizational leaders must think beyond what is written and consider what is actually happening. One would think that, at each of the organizations that make public statements and amend organizational policies, there would be significant positive trends in data. However, that is not always the case. Diversity statements and policies are only effective when the people charged with implementing and upholding them engage in the self-work required to understand why and when they are even needed. This is why DEI work is often referred to heads, hearts, and hands work. This work requires a comprehensive and strategic approach, which includes space to learn, and time to reflect.

With DEI work, it is the relationships, the trust, and the space to build relationships and trust that make all the difference. Also, it is in those spaces, intentionally created for people to feel safe enough to make mistakes and brave enough to admit them, that learning is shared and deep reflection leads to lasting positive change. Policies do not enforce themselves. Therefore, organizations must invest in providing opportunities for individual and shared learning so that people may actively be part of sustainable positive change.

At Higher Achievement, our DEI journey has been one that resembles a web or, at the least, a collection of overlapping circles, more than a line. We do not consider our DEI journey one which takes us from Point A to Point B. Instead, we understand that we must actively and continuously work to get from Pont A to be closer to Point B (or, simply, further from Point A). We recognize that there will always be work to do. Although our commitment to DEI is unwavering, how we demonstrate that commitment will evolve as we continue to learn, reflect, and challenge ourselves to grow in new ways.

The past few months at Higher Achievement have been exciting to witness and be part of! We have begun to provide structures that more effectively support shared facilitation of DEI work, rather than the responsibility resting in the hands of a few. For example, through our new DEI project application process, staff members may propose DEI-related initiatives that support our DEI plan and mission. (There are currently two DEI-related initiatives underway as a result of this process!) Also, we learned that, in addition to the collective organizational DEI journey, individuals at Higher Achievement wanted to be supported on their personal DEI journeys. Therefore, we launched a DEI course catalogue with options for deeper learning and reflection around a variety of topics people expressed an interest in. Importantly, the offerings also include a variety of ways to engage with the topics, from one-time workshops to multi-session cohorts and book clubs. (These are all opt-in sessions comprised of cross-departmental groups and people at all levels of the organization.)

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

These words of the late Frederick Douglass ring loud and true. DEI work is happening at Higher Achievement and… we have a long way to go. The more we learn about challenges faced by our scholars, staff, and communities we partner with, the more we will be called to learn more about our work and its impact. Yes, we will face struggles along the way, and we might not always get it right. However, the beauty in a journey lies in the opportunities to make different choices, given different information. At Higher Achievement, we have always known that opportunity is not everywhere. Yet, as we take steps to “walk the talk” with our DEI efforts, we are actively prying open spaces and creating opportunities for us to be more inclusive and collaboratively work to bring about equitable outcomes for our scholars, communities, and staff.

If you would like to learn more about Higher Achievement’s DEI plan or the work underway, please email Dr. Toni Woodlon at twoodlon@higherachievement.org.