Building Authentic D&I Programming

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Kamron Hack

Building Authentic D&I Programming

This article was originally published by Advertising Week 360 @

Now that we’ve gotten to a place in the corporate landscape where there’s an understanding that having a successful diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy is arguably crucial for a business’s success, what’s next? How can companies make sure their D&I programming is effective? One word: authenticity. 

Have you ever heard a song that has used too much Auto-Tune on the vocals? I’m not talking about the kind that is deliberately trying to sound robotic, but the kind that goes overboard in trying to cover up some slight vocal imperfections. You can usually hear it if you listen closely. The song ends, and you realize that it may not have moved you like music usually does. Something sounds manufactured, lacking in uniqueness and credibility. Even if the lyrics are deep and clever, you don’t get a sense of who the artist is. 

Just as it’s a producer’s job to create a final product that serves the unique qualities of a recording artist, a company needs to create D&I initiatives that benefit the diverse people in its organization. 

How, you ask? Perhaps you need to start with a different question.

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    “Whoooooo are you…who, who, who, who?” — Pete Townshend

    Before launching any D&I initiative, it helps to understand the various aspects of diversity that the people in the workplace identify with—those that might be familiar and those that are beginning to be explored more widely, like neurodiversity. Diversity incorporates aspects of people that we can see and those that we can’t. We must consider the intersection of these factors and how various combinations may contribute to how an individual sees the world—and how they may be uniquely impacted by society. 

    In considering how to approach D&I programming at Firewood, we started by focusing on our people and who they are as individuals. Instead of creating employee resource groups just for the sake of having them, or implementing diversity training without knowing what type of training was needed, we invited our employees to tell us who they are by submitting poems, statements, stories, and pictures that we displayed in an open space to share with one another. This was admittedly a bit of a cautious, low-stakes exercise. However, we wanted to make the point to our people that we value them as individuals, which includes the intersection of the different parts of who they are. 

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      Kimberlé Crenshaw—a professor, lawyer, and civil rights activist—introduced the term intersectionality in 1989 to explain how feminist and antiracist activism wasn’t inherently beneficial to black women because of the unique discrimination levied against this particular group. Though Crenshaw’s initial use of the word was more targeted, the definition adopted by Merriam-Webster allows us to consider the impact of intersectionality in a broader sense. We can use this concept to enhance our understanding of how our employees’ overlapping identities may cause them to experience varying degrees of exclusion in society.  

      As we challenge ourselves to gain a deeper understanding of concepts like intersectionality, we expand our awareness. This helps us to better appreciate the complex identities of our people, while being more authentic in building programs that serve them.

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        “Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!” — George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

        Building authentic D&I programming also requires that we speak a common language around certain topics. Unlike the eminent Gershwin tune, “call[ing] the whole thing off” isn’t an option if we want to be effective and authentic in maintaining an inclusive environment for our employees. The words we use to describe our differences and societal realities actually matter, and we must set a strong language foundation. 

        Do we really understand what unconscious bias is? What does it mean to be an ally? What are the currently accepted terms for various ethnicities, gender identities, and differing abilities? James E. Wright, a D&I strategist, publishes “The Language of Inclusion,” an evolving glossary of terms (this is his second edition) that businesses can use as they explore the deep waters of D&I in the workplace.

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          Being aware and cautious of the language we use is less about setting an expectation of political correctness and more about sharing a common language to respectfully examine loaded topics with onion-like layers of context. It’s about existing in a diverse environment where it benefits us to share a common language so that we can thoughtfully express, discuss, and understand one another. 

          And just as new words are being added to the dictionary every year, the language of diversity and inclusion is also constantly evolving. Change is inevitable, so why not accept it? 

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            “A change is gonna come” — Sam Cooke

            Another reason to aspire to authenticity in D&I initiatives is to account for societal change. An ever-evolving society challenges us to alter our habits when relating to one another. For example, the idea of racial color blindness during the civil rights movement was considered a viable means of reducing discrimination. The idea was that if we didn’t judge people based on their skin color, we could begin to erase the inequalities that people experienced. It’s a nice idea, but there were “social, economic, and institutional practices” that didn’t allow for this result to manifest. Color blindness isn’t beneficial to authentic D&I efforts in companies either. 

            Being blind to our employees’ racial differences denies a very real element of their human experience, especially considering the current sociopolitical climate. If we deny these realities when we’re trying to be authentic in creating D&I initiatives, we’ll surely miss the mark.

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              In her 2014 TED Talk, Mellody Hobson challenges us to shift from being color blind to color brave. When we’re courageous enough to have the tough, sometimes scary, conversations around race, we honor each other and our unique experiences. 

              More evidence of our changing times is that the age-old golden rule is evolving. We used to be taught that we should treat others the way we’d want to be treated. A more recent aphorism is the platinum rule: treat others the way they want to be treated. This brings us back to D&I programming. Recent research by the Boston Consulting Group showed that only about 25% of employees of diverse groups felt that D&I initiatives at their companies were beneficial to them. 

              So where’s the disconnect? Could it be that companies are using golden rule tactics in platinum rule times? Companies are designing D&I programs that they think will benefit their employees without understanding what the people in their organizations actually need. This raises the question: Are they asking them?

              At Firewood, we ask our employees for feedback a lot, and take that feedback into consideration when implementing programs and practices. In a survey we issued last summer that measured various D&I topics, we were happy to learn that the majority of respondents feel that our environment is an inclusive one. On the flip side, we were challenged to increase ethnic diversity on all levels and to be mindful of the kinds of diversity that aren’t always as apparent, like the aforementioned neurodiversity. We also received a handful of requests for mandatory diversity training for all levels of employees. 

              And we will answer the call.

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                “I wanna see you be brave” — Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff

                As Firewood continues to deepen our D&I programming, we expect our training to naturally bring up thought-provoking topics. For some, these topics will feel brand new. For others, these will be topics they’ve lived with their whole lives. Regardless, difficult conversations may ensue. Will we be brave enough to ask questions? Will we be patient enough to allow people to make mistakes as they traverse new territory? Will we be compassionate enough to allow people to express their frustrations? Will we be gracious enough to accept apologies? Will we take the leap and be comfortable with being uncomfortable? 

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                  Because we’ve set an intention of authenticity in our D&I initiatives, we’re bringing in diverse voices from across our offices in multiple countries to influence programming. We’ll continue to listen to their stories and consider their perspectives so that we have a better chance of learning about our people as individuals.

                  And when we embrace our differences with bravery rather than fear, when we allow ourselves to see the value in our different experiences and points of view, we can pave the way for more authentic inclusivity for all of us.

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