April 15, 2020
“When we talk about equity and inclusion, they’re not just nice notions, they’re an imperative that we must embrace.” —Mayor Lori Lightfoot, on the disproportionate number of Black people dying of COVID-19.
>> TWEET THIS
As COVID-19 leaves some organizations scrambling to go remote and others struggling to stay afloat, diversity and inclusion is likely the last thing on leadership’s mind. But according to D&I consultant Janice Gassam, “now is not the time to put [D&I] on the back burner.”
For one thing, maintaining a focus on D&I can prevent losing progress on initiatives already implemented within organizations. For another, people of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because of systemic inequities. As Gassam points out, understanding the impact of this issue on your employees is “imperative to fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging.” Developing COVID-19 workplace policies with equity in mind can go a long way in boosting employee morale (and health).
Gassam also reminds us that this crisis coincides with a loneliness epidemic. Employers who foster a “sense of togetherness” now will help employees and clients feel connected well after this crisis subsides. And the switch to working remotely makes it a great time to engage the services of D&I experts, many of whom are offering virtual learning options.
In a period of such extreme stress and uncertainty, many employers may be thinking primarily of their organization’s day-to-day challenges. It may be difficult to consider diversity and inclusion in the face of a global pandemic. But as Gassam outlines above, keeping D&I in mind can help foster the level of inclusion and belongingness that allows organizations to weather crises and flourish beyond them.
Consider your organization’s policies surrounding the COVID-19 crisis and ask yourself if they foster a sense of inclusion and belongingness. If the answer is no, what can you do to foster community within your team or department?
It’s becoming clear that while the virus doesn’t discriminate, past and present policies do. States that report racial data are already showing that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Black people make up 26% of Milwaukee County’s population, but as of April 3rd, they made up almost half of the county’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths.
Similar patterns have been observed in Michigan and Louisiana––states with virus hot spots and large Black populations. As ProPublica outlines, African Americans are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 because of a legacy of discriminatory policies that have “compounded for generations.” Policies like segregation, redlining, and mandatory minimum sentencing lead many Black people to have less income and generational wealth. In turn, Black people often turn to middle-class jobs that offer stability, in fields like healthcare, government, transportation, and food supply.
These are the very jobs that are considered essential during the pandemic, resulting in higher exposure. A combination of limited medical care, stress, poverty, and segregation also places Black people at higher risk for chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. All these conditions make COVID-19 more deadly.
Figuring out how to target discriminatory policies can feel overwhelming. But we have to remember that it’s our votes, volunteer efforts, funding, and messaging that work to replace discriminatory policies with inclusive ones.
Members of organizations and institutions can find ways to challenge policies that leave communities of color in the cold. As Dr. Camara Jones writes, “COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation...This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty…It’s because we’re not valued.”
Nicole Cunha, a public services librarian, focuses their work on building disability-consciousness in libraries. Cunha reminds librarians that people with disabilities are experts in what they need, and stresses the importance of representation and creating a welcoming atmosphere. They explain that for patrons with disabilities, seeing librarians with disabilities invites trust “on both sides of the desk.”
Cunha suggests that librarians remind patrons who complain about others who “may have verbal tics or not hear how loud they are” that “the library is open to all patrons, regardless of ability or neurodiversity.”
Cunha cites an additional reason to hire more librarians with disabilities: “We are problem- solvers by nature...we notice things that enabled folks may not notice.” As we’ve explored in other posts, people with disabilities often drive innovation. We would add that this is a reason to hire people with disabilities across all industries.
Think about how you can apply Cunha’s advice to your own work. Remember that most people with disabilities know what they need and that all you have to do is indicate willingness to listen and respond. Work with them to increase representation and make your atmosphere more welcoming. And if you are a person with a disability, Cunha has advice for you, too: “Question society’s perception of you.”