Ep. 181: Kristen Donnelly - The Never-Ending Journey of DE&I

May 02, 2022 | 26 Minutes

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) can mean different things to different people. And this can be a problem, even when people are trying to do the right thing. Dr. Kristen Donnelly joins IMA’s Adam Larson to discuss her work as an empathy educator and important lessons for leaders and organization from her celebrated TedX talk: How Embracing Tolerance Has Failed Us.

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Full Episode Transcript:
Neha: (00:05)
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. This is your host Neha Lagoo Ratnakar, and we are now starting episode 181 of our series. Today's guest is Dr. Kristen Donnelly. Kristen is a celebrated TEDx speaker and founder, and one of The Good Doctors of Abbey Research. Join Kristen and my co-host Adam, as they talk about her work as an empathy educator and how companies and leaders can become more inclusive. So keep listening as a handover with the mic to Adam.
Adam: (00:47)
So Kristen, as we get started, I think it would be best for us to define some terms that our listeners may think they understand, but you know, they really may not. Things like diversity, oppression, equality, equity, tolerance, and privilege. These are all terms that we hear in the media a lot. And I think people, they think they understand what they mean, but maybe you can help us by level setting.
Kristen: (01:08)
I would love to break that down. So in order to do that though, allow me to kind of set the stage a little bit if you wouldn't mind. Of course. So one of the first things to understand is that the world is set up for some people to be the default definition of human and all around the world, infrastructure, laws, education systems, inventions are all unless, you know, otherwise determined, honestly set up with the default idea that humans will be male. They'll be probably middle to upper middle class. They'll be fully able bodied. Most likely they're gonna be white. They're gonna be cisgendered. Which means that their gender identity matches the sex their body was born with. They're going to be heterosexual and their life goals are going to include things like a mortgage and a partnership and children. Generally, that's the default.
Kristen: (02:10)
So when we make working hour laws, we assume that it's a man with a partner at home. When we make cell phones, the only hands that Apple ever tests cell phones on are male hands. When we talk about, you know, what we should pay people. When we talk about how quickly you can pay back your student loans. When we talk about lots of things, whether we realize it or not, we are assuming that the people we are talking about is that category I just defined. So anyway, in which you line up with any of those categories, if you're a male, if you're white, if you're able bodied, if you're middle to upper middle class, if your BMI is socially acceptable, if you're cisgendered, if you're heterosexual, generally, what that means is that you have privilege. Privilege means the system is designed to work for you because you were what they had in mind.
Kristen: (03:07)
When they designed the system, there is no shame or judgment or moral imperative that comes with that. There is just, the system is designed to work for you. If you're thinking the, and you're like, that's not true, cuz blah, blah, blah. It's probably cuz you've never seen the system because the system is designed to work for you. So then where oppression comes in is any way in which you don't line up with those systems, the degrees of oppression and privilege vary from category to culture and everything else. The other important piece to understand in this conversation is the phrase, "intersectionality". Intersectionality is a term coined by Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw back in the 1980s, she's a legal scholar. And now she's known often for being one of the four thinkers in critical race theory, which is not what we are teaching children in school.
Kristen: (03:59)
I will just simply say that here. It's I have a PhD in sociology and I didn't learn critical race theory. So I promise that fifth graders are learning something a little bit different, but Kimberly Crenshaw came up with intersectionality to acknowledge the fact that while all women are oppressed on some level black women experience oppression at a more significant level than white women do. And essentially what it has come to real mean as social scientists is that we are all a lot of things at once. I am not just a woman. You are not just a whatever you are. I am not just white. I am not just middle class. I'm not just educated. I am all of these things and they come together in very specific ways. It's kind of like the back of a cross stitch. We're all kind of, we're all just a lot of things to make up who we are in the front of the cross stitch.
Kristen: (04:49)
Every society has different priorities in terms of which of those threads are privileged and not. I say all the time, like, you know, we, we can add in othering and normal as well for the phrases of privileged and oppressed. If you're normal in your society, you are privileged. If you are othered, you are oppressed in some way, but again, your mileage may vary. Degrees vary here. I have oppression as a woman, for sure. I don't have the same level of oppression in the United States as I would have in Saudi Arabia. But that doesn't mean that I don't have oppression in the US. So the, so there's that. So there's privilege there's intersection, there's othering, there's oppression. All of that. What I like to say is that meaning that everybody is all those things all at once. Actually means that we're all diverse creatures as it is.
Kristen: (05:45)
So none of us are one thing which means that you can't create diversity within your organization or your family or your social circle because everyone is already diverse. What you need to do instead is create inclusivity. And inclusivity is the decision to let everybody show up on their own terms and not determine the shorthand for who they are. And we get that shorthand through using tolerance and tolerance is simply saying you are alive because I cannot kill you. That's it. Tolerance is drilling everybody down to the easiest, common denominator that we can see when we look at them and putting them in categories that are easy for us to interact with it denies people, their personhood and their complications. It allows us to say, well, I can't ever know that person, cuz they voted for someone different than me. I can't ever know that person because they're gay. I can't ever know that person because they're evil. And instead if we eliminate tolerance, which is one of my life missions and we understand that everybody's already a diverse person in front of you, you're diverse, I'm diverse. We're all diverse heyo. What we're actually trying is create inclusivity. Then we can have the hard conversations about how to do that. But let's eliminate the myth that tolerance gets us anywhere.
Adam: (07:12)
Wow. So you've covered a lot of things and I wanted to kind of circle back to where you started, where you were talking about the ideal human, right? Mm-hmm, so if you don't meet that criteria, you become an other.
Kristen: (07:24)
In some way.
Adam: (07:25)
In some way, right? So a lot of times when we get separated and we try to find others who have been othered, who are othered like us and we come together because we wanna feel comfortable with somebody who's been othered as well.
Kristen: (07:37)
Adam: (07:38)
But is that so bad that we do that?
Kristen: (07:41)
No, if that's, if it's the end goal and you stay in that group, maybe.
Adam: (07:46)
Kristen: (07:46)
Or if you all pretend that the only thing you are is that thing you got othered for. Then I think it gets limiting. That is a weird word. I like to talk about limiting more. So if so, let's say that you and I really bonded over the idea that we were both, let me pick something. That's kind of silly. We really, really loved brussels sprouts as kids. Kids don't love brussels sprouts. No, but let's say that Adam, you and I were super into brussels sprouts when we were little. And so they would serve brussels sprouts at the cafeteria and we would have to sit at our own little table because nobody else wanted to talk to us cuz nobody else wanted brussels sprouts. So if you and I only we ever talked about our love of brussels sprouts and all we ever were to each other was the only person, the other person that loved brussels sprouts. We'd be missing a lot.
Adam: (08:33)
Kristen: (08:36)
So instead we should use it. What is best practice of humanity if you were, is I say, okay Adam, I love brussels sprouts, but I am also chronically ill. I am also somebody who has seen what addiction looks like. I am also somebody who does all these things. So now you go through your life and you're like, so I had this friend in elementary school who really loved brussels sprouts. And through that bond, I learned from her what her experience was life being chronically ill. And now I see the world just a little bit through her eyes of what it must have been like to both love brussels sprouts and be chronically ill. And your world view gets bigger.
Adam: (09:20)
Kristen: (09:21)
You see the world in a different way because you and I took the time to take 30 seconds and talk about something beyond brussels sprouts
Adam: (09:30)
And then circling back to inclusivity. Our table would be maybe other who would join in saying, Hey, you know what? I've never had a brussels sprout, but let me sit with the brussels sprout people and learn from them. And that kinda brings everybody together. And
Kristen: (09:43)
We don't say we don't make the rules that like, okay, well, you know, what we really need at this table is we really need somebody who also loves brussels sprouts and carrots. And so I don't wanna talk to anybody who doesn't also love brussels sprouts and carrots and we just say, Hey humans, how do you wanna come here? Do you wanna come here? Because you don't know anything about brussels sprouts or even better. You hate brussels sprouts, but you're cool with sitting with us who love it.
Adam: (10:10)
Kristen: (10:11)
Cool. Let's all move forward from there. And you get to show up on your own terms still within the social contract, still within boundaries that we set you don't get to show up as an asshole.
Adam: (10:24)
Kristen: (10:25)
We have the right to kick you out if you're an asshole, we don't have the right to kick you out just because you like carrots or don't like carrots.
Adam: (10:33)
So when we look at the term DE&I, you know, diversity, equity and inclusion, a lot of people think that the E is for equality, but it's equity and like, why is that? Like, what's the difference there?
Kristen: (10:45)
That's a great question. I mean the most common answer you're gonna get is that baseball fence analogy, picture that everybody gives you. What I really love to do is equality is great. I'm a huge fan of equality. Equality just says everybody should have equal access to resources. Yeah. Done. Yay. The issue is we can't really stop there because the world is the world. And so what equity does is take history into account. It's a quality with context. So when we're talking in the United States about housing, for example, let's, let's talk about housing. There has always been some group of people in the United States who has been denied housing based on their race. Always. Since before there was a United States. As soon as white folks showed up on this land, we started denying housing to people based on their race. So if a conversation about equitable housing, doesn't include historical systemic oppression of people not getting house cuz of the color of their skin, what are we doing? We've gotta rewrite some systems to make things equal. Equity is saying, we've gotta do some extra work to get to equality. That essentially equality is the thing that we all want. We all want equal access to resources. That's Nirvana, that's utopia.
Adam: (12:06)
Kristen: (12:07)
But we don't just get there by holding hands and wishing we could get there. There's some stuff that's happened in the last 65,000 years of human history that we've got account for. In Northern Ireland, for example, which is where my husband is from and where my PhD is. The civil rights movements in Northern Ireland started over housings. Because if you were baptized Catholic in Northern Ireland, you either could not get a house. Or it was very, very difficult to. Priority was always given to those baptized Protestant. So Catholics in the city of Derry or London Derry, depending on your persuasion started protesting for housing rights. It was about a lot of other things, but fundamentally they wanted housing rights. So now when you look at the charter in Northern Ireland for government housing, you have to say how you were baptized because they wanna make sure that there's equity in there. A lot of the funding of the peace projects was put towards communities that had been notoriously under resourced because we're trying to eliminate the things that kept us different and that kept people from using the system to their advantage. Is it perfect? Absolutely not.
Adam: (13:20)
Kristen: (13:21)
Is it weird? Is it now hard for people who grew up in Northern Ireland or wanna move to Northern Ireland and government housing and have no baptismal status? Yeah, that's real hard. But in 1998, the main issue was this. And so we addressed this main issue, but part of equity is saying, okay, we addressed that. We're doing okay on that. But here this solution introduced all of these other so problems. So let's keep working. My issue with DE&I work is that people assume it is an end goal. That is achievable. It's not, it's a process we keep doing because every time we include one group of people or one category or one idea we're gonna find ones that we didn't because humans are complex tapestries of all of those threads.
Adam: (14:05)
Kristen: (14:06)
And so it's a continual journey, a continual process that we intentionally engage in towards allowing people to be their full human selves.
Adam: (14:17)
That kind of makes me think circle back to when you were talking tolerance. When I asked you the first question and how you're saying that it, we need to get rid of it. This it's almost like you have to get rid of a tolerance to get to that equity and equality that you were just talking about.
Kristen: (14:35)
I think so, because it allows us an out. Tolerance lets me say, we can coexist. I also hate the coexist bumper stickers don't get me started, but like we can coexist without knowing each other
Adam: (14:47)
Kristen: (14:48)
And my point is like, you know, for audio listeners, this is where I gesture wildly to the planet. That's what's gotten us here. Yeah. Where no one knows people who think differently than they do or even worse. And this is what I think is even more endemic is that we know people who think differently than we do, but we don't know they think differently than we do because we haven't done the work to be the person in that they disagree with.
Adam: (15:11)
Kristen: (15:12)
We just say, oh, the minute it's uncomfortable, we're gonna shut that conversation down. Or the minute someone disagrees with me, they are the enemy and I'm not gonna talk with them about it. And that's what's gotten us here. And so my, my contention is we're here and none of us are very happy with here, so if we want somewhere new, we've gotta try new things. And I think new is getting used to the idea that even people who drive you insane are humans. As much as we don't wanna talk about it right now, Vladimir Putin is a human Adolf Hitler was a human And we have to wrestle the person who voted for the candidate you did not is a human. That the bully that you have to deal with is a human. I am absolutely not saying be in toxic relationships. But I am saying we have to start with acknowledging that every person is a human being.
Adam: (16:16)
That's not easy to do, especially if that human being is hurting you greatly.
Kristen: (16:20)
100%. It is. It's why I always joke. If somebody gives you five easy steps towards practicing empathy, like five easy steps, they are literally selling you something, like, because it's so, and like, sometimes we are the person that's selling you something, but it's really simple. It's really straightforward, but it's really hard.
Adam: (16:40)
Kristen: (16:41)
Holding the humanity and the dignity and worth inherent in every human person in tension with, you know, they're factually wrong or they're being abusive or they're just being a dick. Many things can be true at once. They can be a person and also be a pain in your ass. Those things can be true. And this is kind of where we have to start talking about boundaries about like where, you know, but I'm a big believer in informed choice. And so eliminating tolerance and leaning towards inclusivity allows us to make an informed choice about the person. Okay. I don't, I'm not gonna do a relationship with, not them because they're black or they're gay, or they voted for the other guy. I'm not gonna do a relationship with them because they are a toxic person in my life.
Adam: (17:26)
Kristen: (17:27)
And I'm gonna set that boundary. That's hard, it's work. And it's movable. We really like to categorize people and keep them in those boxes. It's safe for us biologically. And we love safety. Our brains are always averse to things that aren't safe, even us risk takers. There's something in your brain that's gonna try to keep you safe. But that doesn't mean it's not worth it. And doesn't mean it's not possible,
Adam: (17:50)
It's like we, humans have been putting ourselves in categories for, you know, 65 million thousand years that humans have been around. Like we put ourselves in categories. So it's gonna take a long time to get ourselves out of that, to actually see each other as humans in a lot of ways.
Kristen: (18:06)
For sure. And I don't think we have to, like, I'm not somebody who's like, okay, we have to eliminate all categories. No, no, no, no. There are like, there are categories. Like we gotta do it. What we need to realize is that people are always more than what they're presenting you with.
Adam: (18:17)
Kristen: (18:17)
There are always many categories. So instead of putting somebody in, like I joke, I joked a couple weeks ago on a podcast that like, instead of seeing somebody as a box from Amazon, what you need to understand is that everybody is the shipping crate that all those boxes came in.
Adam: (18:31)
Kristen: (18:32)
And that we're all, all of our things. And some of those things include a lot of trauma. That mean that we can't do relationship with this category of people. Yeah. I have a really hard time doing deep, intimate, personal relationship with, with people who, you know, there's a couple different categories of life that I'm just like, I can't do intimacy with you, but I can get a drink with you. I can work on a committee with you.
Adam: (19:01)
Kristen: (19:02)
I can acknowledge that you're a person and that you have the right to those opinions. Even though they damage me. It doesn't get us anywhere to demonize people because of their beliefs. It just doesn't.
Adam: (19:15)
Kristen: (19:17)
And I hear folks being like, well, that's really easy for her to say, cause she's this white lady and all this other stuff, I'm not, again saying it's easy. I'm just looking at human history and realizing some, some changes we might need to make.
Adam: (19:31)
Yeah. So as we kind of wrap up the conversation, one of the things that I've heard you mention in your Ted talks, is to decenter our worldview. So maybe we can talk about what are some, what are some steps? Here you go. Some steps that you can take to decenter people's worldview and start listening to each other.
Kristen: (19:50)
Gosh, there are so many, so let me say again, let me caveat this with two things. So first of all, please hear me say that you right now are doing a great job at being a human. It's real hard. It's real hard. And none of us actually get educated in how to human. We learn by doing, we learned by doing it together. And we, the, one of the worst things that happened is we got sold in that at some point we are done. You're never done, you're never finished. You're always a creature in motion. So picking an area to grow in doesn't mean that you were a failure or wrong or evil or something before, or that you were bad before. This is just the area in which you're growing now. So do what you can to relieve yourself of the guilt, of not knowing things and then pick a thing.
Kristen: (20:50)
So decentering your worldview is a constant process, and I'm not saying decenter yourself because we need to be priority. But how we see the world doesn't necessarily need to be. The story I frequently tell is that in 2001, after the Atlanta terrorist attacks on the Asian spas, my best friend and business partner and I realized that we didn't really know a lot about the Asian American experience. Neither one of us was in deep personal relationship with an Asian American immigrant. We didn't really know a lot about it. And so we realized that that was an area in which we could grow. So I emailed a friend who was married, who was a white American, married to a Cambodian immigrant. And I said, Cheryl, like, where do I start? How do I know? What do I learn? You know? And she said, well, I'm sure you've seen the PBS documentary.
Kristen: (21:35)
And I was like, mm, come again. And she was like, okay, start there. It's six hours for Americans. It's free until 2033. It is six hours of the six biggest Asian American immigrant groups and the story of how they came to America, how they assimilated, what, what we did to them as a nation, what it looks like. I learned about things like the Chinese exclusion act and the true impacts of Japanese internment camps and why there are so many like people from Thailand that do nails, all of these things were covered in this documentary and it took six hours of my life. And so now I can, as I'm going through the world and sitting back, it didn't make me feel done. I can't speak for the entire Asian American experience, but I learned what the phrase bamboo ceiling means. I learned a phrase I learned about the not your model minority movement.
Kristen: (22:35)
And so now when I encounter, and when I hear about anti-Asian American hate crime, I have some context to put it in. Took six hours of my life. They're even shorter ones. If you don't know, if you are not in a close personal relationship with somebody who is physically disabled. I highly recommend the documentary Crip camp. It was nominated for academy award two years ago. It's the story of the Americans with disabilities movement. It tells you exactly what the ADA is and what it isn't. Because by the way, if you are an American with a mental health documented issue, you are protected by the ADA. Did you know that? I didn't.
Kristen: (23:13)
So what it does, the ADA actually mean? That's an hour and 45 minutes of your life. And then you, you know, you diversify who you follow on social media. If you're on Instagram, make sure you're following like organizations that you don't really know a lot about. And just listen. There's lots of small ways. If you're a sports fan, oh my gosh. Find a sport that you know nothing about. One of the best ones I can recommend is, is hurling. H U R L I N G. It's an Irish sport that doesn't really happen off of Ireland or outside of the Irish diaspora, but it's the fastest land sport on the planet. Google hurling, watch some videos, get to know it, dive in and learn what Gaelic sports are.
Adam: (23:57)
That's pretty amazing. I went into YouTube spiral once watching it so I can attest.
Kristen: (24:02)
Oh my gosh. It's like my husband's mother played it. She played Camogie, which is the women's version of it. When she was growing up in her teenage years. And that's how I learned about it. If you love food, pals, let me tell you, that is such an easy way to learn about, about like, if you are in a fairly adventurous eater, find a restaurant of an ethnicity that you've never eaten head in, say, Hey, I've never eaten here. I don't know your food, but I really love these flavors. Can you bring me something? Get humble, admit that you don't know things, start asking questions and continue the process. It becomes a discipline in a way, and it becomes like knee-jerk, but it takes a lot of work at first to remember that how you do humanity is not the only way to do humanity and you can have a richer human experience by learning how others do human.
Outro: (24:57)
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard, and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.