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Struggling to Navigate the Current DEI Backlash? Build the Container.

Dear IDEAS Generation Community, 

Amidst increasing anti-DEI backlash, it can be challenging to figure out a way forward. As organizations across the nation consider how to advance Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Social Justice (‘IDEAS’) while addressing what can feel like a legal and political minefield, we believe that ‘Building the Container’ - an experiential, skill-building approach to this work - can provide a viable and impactful alternative.    

Here's why. Too often well-intentioned IDEAS efforts start in the wrong place, beginning with content-heavy topics like unconscious bias or systemic racism that few organizations are prepared to metabolize. This is especially true if they have not invested in the skill-building and practice needed to ensure that those critical conversations are effective. Much like how competitive sports teams require disciplined preparation before a match (tryouts, pre-season training, daily practice, on-going conditioning, etc.), IDEAS work that first builds an organization's skills, capacity, and readiness for such conversations is much more likely to create the conditions for the substantive content of IDEAS to be received successfully and dampen resistance towards future efforts. 

At IDEAS Generation, our Container-Building learning experiences cultivate participant skills and comfort being in IDEAS conversations by first focusing on the context in which these efforts take place. Our series of six workshops focus on the following topics:

  • Relationship Building: ever since the pandemic, organizations that have adopted virtual or hybrid work structures have struggled to create intentional spaces for employee connections and teambuilding. This first Container-Building experience focuses on how we foster connections at work. Sustainable progress around IDEAS is only possible when there is a relational space for us to honor one another’s humanity, make mistakes, share vulnerably, and grow over time. That cannot happen if we only engage with one another transactionally or on a limited basis. 

  • Terminology and Shared Language: without ensuring a baseline understanding of IDEAS-related terms and concepts, this work runs the risk of people using similar language and still speaking past one another. To provide learners with the language and understanding of what IDEAS work is and what it isn’t, we can dispel myths (like those pervading our news sources) and better align organizational change initiatives. 

  • Fostering and Repairing Trust: insufficient trust in an organizational system will likely lead to short-lived and unsustainable IDEAS initiatives. For example, if I don’t trust my colleagues to reliably submit deliverables on time, how on earth are we supposed to meaningfully discuss complex issues like systemic racism? As emergent strategist adrienne maree brown insightfully notes change, ‘moves at the speed of trust.’ Without ample attention on this topic, people will remain defensive and resistant to IDEAS work or any other organizational change process.  

  • Power: understanding how power - and its many facets - moves through relationships, organizations, and broader systems is critical to ensuring that change is comprehensive and intentional. A nuanced understanding of the layers and degrees of power can help institutions clarify roles and responsibilities at both an individual, team, and organizational level.  

  • Trauma Informed IDEAS: providing space for individuals, teams, and organizations to begin building awareness of mental health, wellness, and trauma enables everyone to be better support systems for one another. IDEAS work is particularly difficult because it can tap into unresolved negative experiences that may not be readily apparent to others nor directly related to the organization itself. A trauma-informed approach equips employees to better handle these experiences and support others in doing so too. 

  • Cross Cultural Collaboration: every person in an organization impacts how others experience the culture of a given place. Being aware of our cultural patterns, particularly those that are less visible - such as time orientation, orientation towards hierarchy and structure, etcetera - can foster greater understanding and empathy within and across teams while also providing learners with skill sets to bridge across all kinds of differences effectively. 

Each of these sessions has direct applications for IDEAS work and prepares learners through exposure and practice to create the conditions for more sustainable DEI initiatives. But their benefits don’t stop there. Teams collaborate more effectively in organizations where relationships amongst colleagues are strong. Having shared language and understanding mitigates confusion and streamlines communication. When an organization can cultivate, maintain, and repair trust, it is more likely to be able to weather the challenging moments that the world seems all too thrilled to be sending our way of late. A stronger power analysis can help set expectations of what’s possible and empower individuals, teams, and organizations to live into their full potential. A trauma-informed approach to our work benefits everyone’s mental health. And effective cross-cultural work can equip employees with tools to negotiate conflict and expand their abilities to work with diverse stakeholders. Beyond direct IDEAS work, each part of our container series, which also includes individual and team follow-up activities, can help organizations operationalize their missions and values while driving impact. 

Central to the anti-DEI campaign is the idea that these organizational initiatives are in fact ‘reverse racism’ and/or attempts to promote unqualified people from underrepresented backgrounds. While the work of impactful practitioners will immediately discredit these disingenuous claims, it’s understandable that people may have reservations about engaging in such complex and at times, interpersonally challenging topics, in the workplace. 

Rather than force employees into the proverbial ‘deep end’ and hope that doing so doesn’t elicit greater resistance, a Container-Building approach can enable learners of all backgrounds to find value and inspiration in IDEAS work. We’ve facilitated this approach with dozens of clients who continually share how inviting, gracious, and effective it is. Moreover, starting with a container building approach doesn’t mean we won’t get to more divisive topics like those permeating headlines; but it does mean that when we get there, people will be more skilled and practiced. 

Prioritize building the container. The rest will follow.

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