Designing a World Where Differences are Valued
In part two of my interview with author Minal Bopaiah, we take a deeper dive into her recently published book, Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives.
Minal Bopaiah: Founder, Brevity & Wit. Author of Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives.
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What question is at the heart of your book?
It's really about how we see the system and how do we scale diversity, equity, and inclusion. For too long, the approach to scaling diversity, equity, and inclusion has been reliant on the inner personal realm of trying to get people to care about this work.
I think it's important that leaders care about this work, but I don't think you can actually scale how much people will care about this work. When you operationalize the behaviors, that's when you can get to scale because it's no longer an argument about whether or not you agree or disagree with this mindset. It's now a matter of “this is what I expect to see for you to be considered competent at your job.”
What prompted you to write the book?
My husband is a firefighter and a paramedic, and I talked about this in chapter one of my book. We joke that his job is the opposite of diversity, equity, and inclusion some days. It's such a different vantage point. I would come home with all these ideas that I had learned about at work, and he would flatly tell me that would never work in his workplace.
And yet, he and his colleagues are out there -- particularly as paramedics -- dealing with really different people every day who are really in trouble and having the worst day of their lives. And my husband and his colleagues are able to be professional and show compassion towards people who are really different and really in strenuous circumstances. And so I felt that there was something that we miss when we make DEI very intellectual. I often say that the Achilles heel of a lot of this work can be intellectual snobbery. If we're saying that you have to read all these books and have all these deep conversations, we lose out on many people who are not oriented that way.
My husband would never want to have a one-hour conversation about gender fluidity, but we have family and friends who are trans. He has no problem using the pronouns that they choose. He would fight for their right to be treated with dignity and decency in public spaces. So what are we saying when we say that you only have to do it this particular way to be considered a good person? I want to make it easier for people to be good based on how they are and how they show up rather than saying you have to fit a specific mold to be considered a good person.
What are the top takeaways you'd like readers to get from reading the book?
I want people to start to see the system. I think that has not been focused on enough. The big myth out there is that hard work = success. But really, the equation is hard work + system support = success because there are plenty of people who are working hard, but who have no system support, and therefore aren't very successful. And unfortunately, because we think hard work equals success, when somebody is unsuccessful, or poor, or suffering in any way, we blame them and say that they're not working hard when that is not true. So I want people to see the system and attribute what parts of the system contributed to their success.
And then, I want people to be able to operationalize their DEI work. We need to get down to the level of what are the observable behaviors you want to see in your organization. Stop making this so abstract and make it more concrete for everybody because that will make it easier for people to opt into it.
What has been the most intriguing feedback you've received about the book?
A wonderful media professional, Kathy Lu, posted that reading the book was like seeing the Matrix. She could finally see the system, and that was probably the most intriguing feedback I've received.
How do you define equity, and why was it so important to write a book about it?
I tend to define equity in relation to equality because I think people need to differentiate these two things. Equality is when everybody gets the same thing, equity is when people get what they need according to their differences to thrive and participate fully.
Now that doesn't mean that equality is necessarily bad. There are times when equality is the right option, and there are times when equity is the right option. For example, in the LGBTQ community about a decade ago, there was a mix of people advocating for marriage equality and people advocating for civil unions. Civil unions were considered a different form of legally recognized relationships that could address the needs of the LGBTQ community. However, as a community, they decided that only marriage *equality*-- having the same actual institution apply to same-sex couples -- would ensure that they had their full rights as married couples. In that instance, equality was the better way to enshrine the dignity and rights of populations marginalized and discriminated against.
On the flip side, equity allows educators to meet the needs of their students differently. For example, if your child has dyslexia, they would be entitled to extra time with the teacher to read at the level of their peers. And so that is a different resource that's given to a child based on their difference that gives them equal access to opportunity.
Equity embraces difference and says you are not faulted or wrong or a broken human being for being different. This society has been designed with primarily one identity in mind: cisgender, white, and able-bodied men. To accommodate your differences, we need to be willing to change the system around us to respond to your needs, not just the needs of that one identity.
How do we best understand someone else's point of view?
— Minal Bopaiah, Equity
That statement nicely summarizes the work of a behavioral scientist named Nicholas Epley, who wrote an article about how we talk a lot about empathy and perspective-taking, but what the social science research has found is that if you have not had an experience of being homeless, or being a veteran with PTSD or being suicidally depressed, or being black in America, and you try to take the perspective of people who have had those experiences, you are most likely to engage in egocentrism and stereotyping. You are actually more likely to be wrong in your understanding of that experience. And so, a true empathy for someone whose life experiences are so radically different from yours involves being able to listen to their experience and to believe them.
For a long time, I have said that when we talk about racism and similar systems of oppression, I don't actually need somebody who's white or of a different race to feel what I feel. I need them to believe me when I tell them what this experience was. There's a lot of gaslighting when people of color call racism out. There’s a standard response of “No, that wasn't about race. It was about class. Or it was about gender. Or it was about your personality.” People of color know what's up. And so that's really an unempathetic response in my mind.
The most empathetic response would be to listen to what this person has to say and thank them for sharing that even if you struggle to believe it. Even if you can't relate to it, you can respond with, “I'm really glad you shared that experience, and I'm going to allow myself to think about that and believe that that is true because you said it is true.”
What is our true objective when designing for equity?
— Minal Bopaiah, Equity
That quote really came out of my belief that DEI work is nonpartisan. I talk about the four Ds of DEI work. Number one, invite difference. People get to be different. That's what the diversity part of this work is. People get to be different, but the line that we draw is dehumanization. Number two, we're not going to dehumanize anybody.
Both political parties in the US are guilty of dehumanizing. I might say one more than the other, but I think they're both guilty. And so you can say, we can be nonpartisan, but we're not going to support in any way the language or policies that dehumanize people.
The third D is to combat disinformation. There is a profound amount of disinformation in the US, particularly around slavery and white supremacy. We mask it to the point we don't even recognize this disinformation because it's so just prolific.
Then the fourth D is to defend democracy. In the US, we have conflated capitalism and democracy. They are not the same thing, and they're not even necessarily symbiotic because you can have capitalism without democracy the way Russia, China, and Turkey do.
For decades now, both political parties, particularly the Republican Party, have advocated for policies that promote capitalism but erode democracy. We really need to start defending democracy instead of capitalism. So that quote is speaking to the idea that you can have different political views, but if your political views are engaging in dehumanization, disinformation, or the erosion of democracy, then we have a problem because that's where, as an organization, the leadership needs to draw a line and say we're not going to engage in that.
How important will it be for organizations to pursue equity in the 21st century?
— Minal Bopaiah, Equity
I don't think DEI or DEIA, as I call it for accessibility, is a “nice-to-have” anymore. I think it's a must-have. I think the demographics of the US are changing. We live in a globalized world where the global majority looks more like me than you. And so, if you are a leader who wants to survive in the 21st century, you got to be able to talk about identity. You got to be able to talk about differences and embrace differences and skillfully bridge across differences, and manage the conflicts that come from putting different people together.
How important is it to consider the role of systems in our pursuit of equity?
— Minal Bopaiah, Equity
It's really unique writing a book about equity because I think equity, in the shortest way to define it, is really about fairness. Yet as a human being, I'm the first person to admit that life isn't fair. Even if we got rid of all the man-made injustices, people die tragically, people get incurable diseases, or less tragically, the people we love don't love us back, and that's not fair. Life throws you things that are not fair that you don't deserve. I don’t believe everybody gets what they deserve. Actually, I think most people don't, good and bad. Most people don't deserve all the wealth they have if they're super-rich, and most people don't deserve all the suffering they have if they're incredibly poor. That is just true for me. So then that begs the question, why am I writing about fairness in an unfair world?
I think it's because it's so clearly a universal human value. There's such a desire for fairness that we want to believe in it so much that we almost try to delude ourselves into it. I think the Prosperity Gospel and The Secret are like two sides of the same coin that are trying to say that good things will happen to you if you do things right.
I've often experienced as a Hindu and a Buddhist people whitesplaining karma to me by saying that it means that if you do good, good, things will come at us. That is not the doctrine of karma, and you have completely misunderstood. I talked to a Swami once about it. He said 90 percent of Indians even misunderstand karma. The doctrine of karma is almost an agricultural analogy. If you plant seeds, crops will grow. However, you also need to have enough humility to understand that you are not in charge of the weather. If the monsoons come or not is not up to you. If a tornado blows through or an earthquake rumbles through and ruins your crops, that is not on you. And more importantly, the monsoons fall on everybody's head. It doesn't discriminate between who was good and who was bad, who planted seeds, and who didn’t.
And we saw that with the pandemic. The pandemic didn't target morally wrong people to get Covid. That's not how this works. I really want people to understand that, even though life is unfair, we have this internal desire for fairness just like we have an internal desire for beauty and truth. And so, that expression of fairness and willingness to try to design a fair system is an expression of our humanity. Because to just say that life is unfair, and therefore I'm not going to try anything, is to dehumanize ourselves and cut ourselves off from our soul's desire for fairness. But that soul's desire for fairness needs to be executed in a wise way that doesn't negate the unfairness that people are experiencing.