DEI: More than Checking a Box
by Frankie Sapp (he/him)
I remember my first week as the new Program Director for the Pride Center. It was fast-paced and, honestly, a bit overwhelming. I was meeting a new team, learning a new role, and the Center was busy with clients and community members in and out and all wanting to say hi to the new Director! Of course, these are all good things, but it was a lot to take in. Simultaneously and unexpectedly, I received personal emails and held private conversations with staff and community members who shared what it meant to have “someone like me” in a leadership role.
Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Frankie Sapp, and my pronouns are he/him/his. I am a Trans multi-racial Filipino disabled person living with multiple chronic illnesses and chronic pain. I use visible mobility aids and some of my disabilities are invisible as well. As I like to joke, most of my medical forms are checked “all of the above”! After I accepted this role, several individuals confided in me that they cried when they received the news that I was hired. They, too, were either disabled or Filipino or Trans or living with chronic illness and/or all of the above. The fact that someone “like me” was hired in such an esteemed position was the first time they felt hope that one day, they might be too. In my earlier years, when I was first learning strategies around community organizing, so much of our fight was for more visible representation. After a burst of these messages, I too cried when I realized suddenly, I had become the representation for which I once so desperately fought.
For the last couple of years, the culture and climate of the nonprofit industry have been manufacturing the product of “DEI” and it really upsets me. Not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I don’t think many nonprofit leaders believe it’s important enough. It feels like a cash grab, the latest gimmick, a catchphrase, and the latest trend. One good thing that has come from this is the growing number of resources dedicated to truly implementing DEI policies and practices. I wonder, though, whether people will actually put them into practice. Policy is only ever as good as its implementation.
My career has been infused and informed by and with people with lived experiences paired with evidence-based practices. For me, this is the best application of research. We take what we know is proven to work best and adapt it in a way that will best meet our clients’ and community’s needs. The latter can only be done by listening to each unique person seeking our support and services. They know what they need. They know what will help. They know what will work best for them.
How does this translate to DEI? In every possible way.
Let’s zoom out and look at the surface first. Think about your identities: race, ethnicities, gender, etc. When you enter a room, a job interview, a meeting, or a social space, take one piece of your identity and imagine that room filled with entirely everyone except that identity. If you identify as a woman, you’re probably already familiar with the fear of walking into a space dominated with men.
In the case of race, I’ve mentioned I am Filipino. Assuming you are not, imagine you’ve entered a space solely for and about Filipino people and culture. Yet, this isn’t an environment about learning. Instead, this is an environment where you are expected to have pre-existing knowledge and language from the start. I imagine you might feel uncomfortable and unprepared. For this exercise, imagine being the outsider in this space and the feeling of not belonging. Try to conjure what it would feel like to question if this space was meant for you, designed for you, and wondering if you were set up to succeed here. And then imagine living with those doubts every day. For many of us, these are our current lived realities. And that’s what needs to change.
As a person of color, I have been interviewed by all-white job hiring committees more times than I can possibly count. Yet, when is this questioned? As an interviewee, my immediate assumptions are:
- The organization’s staff are not diverse enough to comprise a multi-racial hiring committee; and/or
- Those forming the hiring committee lacked the forethought to create a diverse committee.
Both above concerns are a problem if true and provide enough reason for me to not accept a position with that organization if offered one. By the way, if you are actively working to address diversifying your workforce but are still relatively homogeneous, I suggest naming it. Transparency and accountability matter too.
While our team at the Pride Center is extremely diverse, we know we still need to improve, especially when it comes to providing more programs and services in multiple languages. However, because of our diversity, our programs reflect different cultures, and our diversity is reflected in the demographics of the community we serve. We all gravitate to those with whom we feel safe: people who “look like us” because we might understand what they are going through.
As an LGBTQ+, ethnically diverse, and differently able-bodied staff, we have been able to:
- Upgrade the Pride Center to be more accessible to Older Adults, people living with disabilities, and our most vulnerable populations.
- Provide more programming for folks of color, including Outlet starting a Queer, Trans, BIPOC group, hosting a Filipinx Pride Month, and beginning an LGBTQ+ AAPI processing group to support service providers during a time of heightened anti-Asian American hate crimes.
- Create a Trans 101 and Pronouns 101 training to prioritize the needs of Trans and Gender Diverse folks and better educate service providers.
- Launch the Resource Roadmap to help transgender and non-binary individuals navigate gender-affirming resources, such as housing, healthcare, employment, legal aid, transportation, and more.
- Be more collaborative and diverse with our monthly event programming. We worked in partnership with the Health Equity Initiatives across San Mateo County and with community-based organizations and local committees.
Some service providers may have an idea of what their clients are going through (e.g., homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, or “all of the above”), but it hits differently when you’re working with someone who has lived it. Representation matters.
How can we get to representation without authentic efforts to integrate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices? The true outcomes intended when DEI is implemented won’t manifest if it continues to be treated like the latest fad.
I will ask you to participate in one last exercise. A lot of us are rightfully angry about the wave of laws being introduced and passed across the country that are anti-LGB, anti-Trans, and that attempt to control others’ bodies. If we continue to think of DEI as simply the latest trend or the next box to check, how will our representation in the governing bodies that create these enraging and unjust laws ever change? Imagine if those councils were even half women or half LGBTQ or half people of color or half “all of the above”; do you think lawmakers would present these bills today? Would we even be engaging in these political debates? Would we live in this world today?
Do you think DEI really matters?
Because I really do. And so does the community we serve.