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EDI at Loughborough: Creating a Compelling Vision for Organisational Change

3 March 2021

8 mins

In her 2012 book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed recounts the story of a university diversity worker who described their experience of doing their job as “beating their head against a brick wall.” When I read this book during my PhD studies, I had no inkling that less than a decade later, I would find myself involved in similar work. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) – the terms, and the organisational change work, both conceptual and practical, to which these terms refer, has become mainstream in academia, and in many other industries. Yet, the glacial pace of change is one that continues to confound and frustrate both dedicated EDI workers, and those whom this attention to social marginality and protected characteristics is intended to benefit.

One of the key tensions that slows down the pace of change is the sparkle of the promise inherent in adopting EDI as an organisational goal. Institutions that seek to champion EDI satisfy multiple objectives: it makes intuitive sense, because who doesn’t want to work in and for a fair and equal institution? and it also makes the organisation look good. However, its social appeal obscures the fact that it is actually extremely challenging to develop meaningful, impactful and effective policy and practice in this space. Good practice requires not just lived experience, but study, humility and openness to getting it wrong and doing better, and continual learning from experience and dialogue. Although EDI is orientated towards a simple aim – creating an organisation from which no member is excluded, and in which no one suffers disadvantage because of their identity, social positionality, personal characteristics or differential needs – achieving this at an institutional level is a nigh impossible task, and yet one towards which it is imperative that we continually strive.

We can unpack some of the complexity in this work through examining EDI’s chronology and evolution in the world of activism and the workplace. It is a composite acronym made up of three separate terms – equality, diversity, and inclusion, all of which have different meanings, intentions and effects. Equality was the demand of marginalised people who first fought for equal recognition under the law. This evolved over time into diversity, a managerial move that sought to help organisations recognise the value of employees of diverse backgrounds. Finally, there was a call for inclusion, or the creation of environments in which all can participate fully – however, even the notion of inclusion has been questioned, as my friend and colleague Deborah Brewis asks: who is being included, into what systems and structures are they expected to adapt, and who, despite these efforts, may remain excluded?

In many organisations, EDI work is driven by those people who have been negatively affected by structures of exclusion that have affected them personally: women fight for gender equality, people of colour (BAME) fight for racial equality, LGBT+ people challenge homo-, bi- and transphobia, disabled people push for accessibility, and people from religious backgrounds challenge the stereotypes that they face. However, because of typical exclusionary institutional systems and processes, people from these backgrounds do not often hold the positions of power needed to enact change from the top down. Thus, it is incumbent upon others who do have privileges, platforms and power to echo, amplify and champion the asks of marginalised communities, and if there are no seats at the table, to support them, a la Shirley Chisholm, to ‘bring a folding chair’.

Furthermore, the genuinely diverse nature of these concerns means that advancement in these areas can become haphazard, or worse, provoke the dangerous and damaging ‘oppression olympics’. To counter this, alignment needs to be crafted through the careful and caring development of inter-group communication and solidarity, and reflected in meaningful changes to policy and practice emerging from a deep and broad institutional commitment to EDI work, incorporating all protected characteristics, and recognising diversity within each grouping, especially as it relates to intersectionality, the Black feminist social theory explaining the interplay of multiple aspects of positionality and identity at once, resulting in complex experiences of oppression and/or privilege.

Angela Dy and colleagues seating during a discussion
Dr Angela Martinez Dy sits with participants at Building the Anti-Racist Classroom Inaugural Workshop, Oct 2018. Photo credit: Adrianne McKenzie.

An organisation with such a commitment should strive to develop a comprehensive, ambitious, yet elegant EDI strategy that takes into account the learnings from and progress made by people taking initiative within the organisation at a grassroots level, centring and empowering those most affected and/or most marginalised in decision making in the relevant area. Leaders in organisations with a newly developed awareness of the need to ‘manage EDI’ should prioritise listening, learning and reflection, with a focus on building trust between themselves and communities that may have   suffered under their watch, before implementing policy and practice that may inadvertently cause more harm and/or erase the work that has been done by marginalised groups for years.

I am pleased to be a part of the burgeoning EDI movement taking place at Loughborough University. I write this blog to mark the launch of the LEADING Network, initiated by Professor Liz Peel, that gathers together academics studying issues related to EDI. I am part of the 100+ member EDI Community mailing list, which includes many with institutional expertise in the Advance HE Athena Swan Charter, and sit on the action and working groups driving LU’s participation in the Race Equality Charter.

As Advocacy Lead of the BAME Staff Network I re-ignited an institutional conversation around the need for an EDI committee to help govern the proliferation of both formal and organic EDI activity happening across our committees, staff networks, schools and departments. I will chair an emergent EDI Advisory Forum, to help gather concerns and establish priorities from across groups with protected characteristics and beyond. I have also proposed a long-term LU Race Equity Strategy (LURES), co-developed with my colleagues in the BAME Staff Network and with support from senior university leaders and members of Human Resources Committee, that has been approved for further development. As an example of incorporating work from the bottom-up, members of the BAME Staff Network and I developed a set of Guiding Principles for Race Equality Work which we intended to support all those who are asked to take action in the area of race equality, and address the wide variation in understanding around race that currently exists across the university, keeping in mind that a full programme of organisational learning in this space is yet to come. These have been approved by the Race Equality Charter Action Group and will be disseminated through various university channels as a guide and learning resource in due course.

I would not be able to do this work with the confidence and clarity of vision I now have had it not been for my years of experience as a community organiser and social justice worker with arts collectives in my youth, and for the past four years as a co-founding member of the Decolonizing Alliance and the Building the Anti-Racist Classroom Collective, with whom I have developed innovative and collaborative anti-racist pedagogy and practice for higher education. This collective work, alongside myriad other excellent efforts and initiatives in this space, builds on decolonial, intersectional, and indigenous feminist frameworks, decades of critical race theory, and the scholar-activism of the Black radical tradition, a legacy so powerful the current government continually seeks to delegitimise it.

We must not shy away from the fact that we are living in a complex and challenging time of anti-intellectualism and racist conservative backlash, in which critical consciousness-raising efforts are dismissed as ‘wokeness’ and accusations of harm are demonised as ‘cancel culture’. At the same time, contemporary anti-racist movements of Black, Indigenous and people of colour, often led by queer and disabled members, are advocating for a new abolitionist feminist vision of an accountable future, based not around isolation, cancellation and punishment, instead centring care, relationality, pleasure, and transformative justice.

Working together with LU senior leadership, the BAME Staff Network, the new Allied Anti-Racist Advocates group, and the emerging LSU BAME Student Council, we are formulating a compelling vision for race equity at LU, and are excited to work with others who care about EDI across the university to join up all of our important work. We recognise that EDI work is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. But it is imperative that we who are committed to it continue to make the effort, and encourage others to join us, in order to sweeten the pot for all.

Dr Angela Martinez Dy
Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship
Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Loughborough University London

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students

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