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Rethinking Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion through History, Storytelling, and Experience

Nina Burke, Senior Project Associate | 11/01/2016

Last month, the Rippel and ReThink Health teams participated in a two-day, all hands-on-deck Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) training which proved to be a fresh and necessary experience for all of us.

The training grounded us all in a common EDI language and in the history of EDI in the U.S. We were reminded of, or perhaps enlightened by, pieces of U.S. history that often remain unsurfaced, as we would rather not acknowledge parts of our shameful national past. But, this past still haunts us because dangerous and discriminatory laws and policies have lasting and detrimental effects on our society.

Our first day together allowed us to start from the same place of learning and grow together over the course of the two days. The facilitators were able to spark frank, curious, and generative conversations that were free from judgment. Toward the end of day one, we began to identify ourselves on various levels of privilege and oppression, which proved to be an important exercise in thinking about how the collective privilege that Rippel and ReThink Health staff possess has impacted our past work, future implications of this privilege, and where we have the responsibility to use our privilege as power to influence systems.

The EDI stories that we shared in small groups were powerful personal pieces told from the heart and from experience. It is safe to say that our second day together had a dramatic impact on our understanding of one another, and with that understanding came greater respect and appreciation. We hope to collectively make the time and space for these stories to continue to be told and acknowledged, so that we can work together more boldly and have a greater impact on our work. I felt privileged to hear the stories of my colleagues, and much gratitude for the openness. Listening is a gift.

I also appreciate those who listened to my own EDI story, one that is not unique, but one that I work through regularly. Looking at me, others see a white, young professional, hopefully stylish, likely holding a smartphone, female. And if you had a brief conversation with me, it’s likely you could tell that I am also college educated, am solidly employed, am a native English speaker, and am physically active. In sum, on the exterior and at first chat, I ooze privilege. What you can’t know by looking at me is that for the first 15 years of my life, I grew up in a single income household (my dad is a postman, and my mom quit her breadwinner job to raise us kids), and I pay almost as much in student loans per month as I do on my rent. Growing up, my family’s household income was just high enough that we did not qualify for assistance, but low enough that I know what leftovers taste like four days later.

I went to college (by way of federal student loans and a financially savvy mother) at a very wealthy institution, Boston University. I often felt that it was assumed that because I am white and was at a prestigious private university, I must indeed be wealthy. It was hard for me to speak up for myself when assumptions were made about my family’s finances, and I am not really a timid person. I recognize the privilege I carry with me through life by being a white, college educated, native English-speaking American. Even though I am paying off college debt, I am grateful for having the many opportunities in life, many of which had no dollar sign attached, that allowed me to propel myself forward financially and professionally, and taught me the values that drive the work I do today.

We closed our training by putting EDI concepts into practice. We collectively generated concrete ways to integrate EDI into ReThink Health and Rippel policy, practice, and programs. As lovers of brainstorming and flip charts, we flooded the pages with ideas! We ultimately arrived at a 7-day, 30- day, and 90-day timeline for implementing our organizational EDI priorities (a small one being the completion of this blog post!). Of course, EDI is not time bound and must remain integral to our work. As an organization seeking systems-level change, we have such potential and privilege to embed EDI principles into the foundation of our work. We also cannot overlook the internal opportunities for equity, diversity, and inclusion while trying to influence the field.

Our priorities set at the training are in full swing, and I am proud to work at an organization that shares in collective learning, and also shares the notion that we cannot afford to wait to improve our EDI practices. They are vital to our ability to stay on the leading-edge and truly enact long-term systems change.

For more on this topic, Natalie Burke (no relation to me), who was one of our fabulous facilitators during the training, recently wrote a companion piece: Why I Won’t Give you Ten Tips to Manage Your Privilege