Jalil Lenore, a summer intern at the Walton Family Foundation, spent time with Tanya M. Odom, the foundation’s program director for equity and inclusion. Jalil, a student at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, talked to Tanya about how the foundation is prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion.
Jalil: Tell me about diversity, equity and inclusion at the foundation – and how your role advances that work.
Tanya: The short answer is DEI leads to greater and more lasting impact for people, teams and communities. This issue is so important to us that we have made DEI a priority in our five-year strategy. It’s one of three shared goals that guide our work. In everything we do, the foundation will act on our belief that more lasting and innovative solutions emerge when people with different ideas and backgrounds are at the table. And to go further, we know that truly embracing those differences enhances innovation, creativity, decision making and better problem solving.
We also know that too many people are excluded from decisions that impact their lives, both historically and still today. For example, Communities of Color often face the first and worst impacts of problems like education inequity and environmental degradation. This work isn't new for the foundation – it has advanced DEI for years. But my role is new. My position was created in order to amplify and magnify what diversity, equity and inclusion looks like to us and to our partners and grantees. By naming DEI and putting it in our strategy, it really puts a stake in the ground. It makes a difference in terms of how we do the work and how we prioritize it.
Jalil: How does the foundation incorporate DEI in its work and its grantmaking?
Tanya: We’ve taken a unique approach. Rather than creating a DEI program or team, we follow three principles – align, embed and amplify DEI in all that we do.
- First, we align our giving with practices that ensure fair and equitable access to funding and culturally responsive evaluation.
- Second, we embed strategic learning in our work so that DEI practices and thinking are integrated into our grantmaking. We also promote an organizational culture that shares knowledge and learning about DEI internally and externally.
- Third, we amplify the value of DEI with our partners to demonstrate how it increases our impact.
In philanthropy, DEI is really important to our work. We look to be partners, not just funders. I think many of us who are diversity, equity and inclusion practitioners in philanthropy talk about the embedding of this work not only in the type of grants we make or in the grantees that we work with, but also in how we do the work that we do.
Jalil: I have heard you say there are visible and invisible ways that the foundation incorporates DEI into everything it does. What do you mean by this?
Tanya: The visible ways are more external and seen by people outside of our organization. Things like:
- Including anti-discrimination language in our grant award letters.
- Conducting a grantee diversity survey in 2021 to learn more about the demographics of our partners.
- Hosting quarterly DEI-focused grantee roundtables.
- Setting guidelines for inclusive external communications practices to better serve diverse audiences and communities, and sharing our practices and learnings with others.
- Increasing accessibility for our internal and external events and programs, including optional closed captioning and transcript views and ASL interpretation.
- Connecting with other DEI practitioners and leaders in the philanthropy sector to share practices, projects and ways to collaborate.
But there are some actions that are not as visible and may even be invisible to certain audiences. Things like:
- Creating internal DEI working groups to provide advice and recommendations on ways to improve the foundation’s DEI practices.
- Holding monthly staff lunch and learns focused on DEI topics that allow us to continue to learn about DEI.
- Establishing a summer internship program in partnership with a Historically Black College or University [HBCU].
Jalil: I’m part of that internship program and here we are on the foundation’s blog. Hopefully, we’re making it more visible! I’ve also been to a few of the lunch and learns. What were some of the topics?
Tanya: As an organization, we're constantly learning. Our lunch and learns are literally lunchtime conversations where we tackle a variety of topics such as structural racism, how to talk to your children about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and greater awareness of the issues faced by People with Disabilities. We’ve talked about anti-Asian violence, the significance of Juneteenth, Jewish-American heritage and LGBTQ identity. The sessions feature guest speakers and sometimes our own staff talking to the rest of our community about their identity. These conversations help us to learn more about the people we serve, but also about the people we work with.
Jalil: How do you bring the vision together?
Tanya: First, with patience. It's important to know that this is a journey and that we will make mistakes. We focus a lot on listening to grantees and partners. We’re learning from them about what they are doing and how we may want to adjust our approach. We’re also serving as a resource sharing what we are learning. As I mentioned earlier, we have convened others in philanthropy who are prioritizing DEI to share best practices, strategies and programs. Our communications department did its own DEI audit and is looking at how we are coming across to grantees and partners in the external world. We want to make sure we speak to everyone in a way so they understand our commitment to diversity and how they fit in. We do not have a template approach that says, “This is the way you do diversity.” But we want to show that we think this is important. That helps bring the work to life and encourages others to continue to do the work, because it's not always easy – but it’s important.
Jalil: Why do you believe that DEI is important in the workplace?
Tanya: I’ll talk about the workplace and then the Walton Family Foundation.
There’s substantial research around the importance of a work environment that supports, respects and embraces diversity, equity and inclusion. It just makes sense, right? If you and I feel included and respected in a space, we feel like our identities are respected, we're going to be better. We'll be better team players. We'll be better connected to people. There’s better problem solving, better creativity, better innovation.
As a foundation, we know that lasting change is driven by the voices of the people and their experiences in the communities where we work. For philanthropy to be effective and to really continue to build trust and maintain trust with the people it serves, the work has to be inclusive of the people who are most impacted and most at stake.
In our grantmaking strategy, we work with organizations from a range of backgrounds. We are committed to having a fair and consistent approach with every grantee and encouraging those we work with to also prioritize DEI in their organizations.
Jalil: In my time here, I can say everybody is very accessible and comes from a lot of different backgrounds. How does the foundation’s internship program help advance your DEI work?
Tanya: I'm so passionate about the internship program! This is our second year. We have interns from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The goal is really to connect our interns to some of the work we're doing and tap into your passion and talents and skills. I think the internship program has brought such light and such levity some days to all of us. I think you all are so creative. You challenge us to think differently. It's literally what diversity's all about. It’s not just that you're from an HBCU, but that you are younger, you come from all different parts of the country and you bring a new perspective to solving the challenging problems we are tackling.
Jalil: How do you believe the workplace changes when diversity is a priority?
Tanya: One of our core values is a belief that all people deserve access to opportunities. If we didn't have programs that focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, we would be limiting the potential for progress and sustainable change. We wouldn't be addressing the historical marginalization and underinvestment that limits opportunities for different groups of people. We wouldn't be using some of the privileges and opportunities that we have to serve others.