How much time do you spend making sure your meeting is as inclusive as possible? Do you think about diversity when you’re forming your planning committee? Your list of speakers? The vendors you use? If not, diversity experts say you may be missing out.
Consciously and proactively embracing diversity—and not just in terms of race, but also gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability status—doesn’t just attract more attendees. It also makes for a richer, more enjoyable and memorable experience for everyone.
RECOGNIZING IMPLICIT BIAS
To pull it off, you first need to recognize your own implicit biases. “Acknowledging them is a bold step,” says Elmer Dixon, president of Executive Diversity Services Inc.http://executivediversity.com in Seattle. “Beyond that, digging a little deeper and understanding how those implicit biases affect your decision-making will really help someone looking to be inclusive.”
Having biases doesn’t make you a bad person, Dixon says. We all have them, and they are usually unconscious. “Research says we tend to migrate to similarity because it’s comfortable,” Dixon says. So it’s no surprise that the people you gravitate toward working with will probably be a lot like you. Whether it’s recruiting speakers or forming your event-planning committee, Dixon says it’s worthwhile reaching outside of your comfort zone.
Lonnie Lusardo, owner and principal consultant of Seattle-based The Diversity Collaborative, says that, when creating a request for proposal for workshop leaders or speakers, include an element that allows them to talk about their race, ethnicity, religion and gender. Encourage speakers to identify themselves when they are part of a group that isn’t apparent, such as religion or sexual orientation. “People in marginalized communities will always feel safer when they are in a diverse environment,” Lusardo says. “If you have an apparent lack of diversity on the podium, it will be noticed,” he says. “An absence of diversity sends an unspoken message to attendees that this might not be a place where differences are valued or appreciated. Conversation will be stifled. And the consequence is rather than discussing how to address cultural variables (like race, ethnicity, [or] sexual orientation), the issues are avoided.” The goal isn’t to pretend we are all the same, he says. “You can’t celebrate differences if you don’t recognize differences.”
Lusardo also encourages planners to work with session moderators as well as speakers to make sure they are thoughtful and aware. “You need to create a space in which white men are not always the first to respond to questions and give input. And the moderator has to control that or the speaker has to control that.” If that pattern seems to be developing, moderators should feel free to try to break it openly. “Say, ‘I’d like to hear from women in the room, or people of color, or I’d like to hear from non-Christians in the room.’ It sends a tacit message to the audience that differences are valued.”
VENDORS & VENUES
Beyond the dais, planners can embrace diversity by looking to the vendors they use. “People tend to look for their own in the vendors they choose. Women choose women, people of color like to choose people of color,” says Lusardo. There’s nothing inherently wrong with working with vendors you are comfortable with and trust, but it can keep you from making some exciting and valuable new contacts. When you can, “be sure to include vendors who acknowledge their cultural background,” Lusardo says. “Many vendors who prepare boxed lunches will include a business card that somehow reflects their culture.” And when it comes to food, make sure the nonmeat choices aren’t just an afterthought.
The venue itself can also send a message of inclusion, says Vicki Nakashima, leadership council member for Portland, Oregon’s Partners in Diversity. “A lot of it is visual. Rarely anymore in a public space do you find offensive materials. The biggest issue is sports mascots that are offensive to Native Americans.” More often, she says, it’s a subtle feeling of exclusion, like a venue with pictures of people on the wall who all look similar. “That is not making it very welcoming.”
And while public buildings should all be handicap accessible, there are degrees. A venue where people who use wheelchairs or other mobility assistance have to enter through the back or use a service elevator sends a message “that you’re a second-class citizen,” Lusardo says.
Denise Ker Waldron is president and CEO of Viva! Events, an event-planning company in Portland, Oregon. She also happens to have a hearing impairment. Waldron says looking at the acoustics of a room can help planners make an event much more enjoyable for those with difficulty hearing. But most important is providing microphones that are appropriate for the room and demanding speakers use them. She says that’s not always easy.
“What I find is that people have this sweeping level of confidence when they come into a room that everyone can just hear them, and they potentially don’t even need to use a microphone,” she says. “They think they can just talk really loud. There’s an aversion people have to wearing a microphone. I don’t know what that’s all about because they are definitely needed.” A typical scenario might be a U-shaped seating arrangement with 30 people. “They assume everyone can hear,” she says. “But what happens when you don’t have that amplification in any size room setting is, I’m spending so much of my energy hanging on every word … it’s difficult to process it and take it in.”
Because she understands it firsthand, Waldron is adamant that speakers use microphones at her events. “They can’t just brush it off. You don’t know who is in your audience; potentially your most important audience member is not able to hear, and sitting there with that level of anxiety can ruin the whole experience for them.”
Waldron also recommends reserving seating up front for people with a hearing impairment, as well as using closed captioning for any video presentations, along with paper handouts and ASL interpreters, if possible. Those accommodations can be helpful to more than just those with permanent hearing loss. “Someone could just have a cold and can’t hear very well,” Waldron says. Lusardo also suggests asking speakers to be conscious of what they are asking attendees to do. “When you ask everybody to stand, well, if somebody’s in a wheelchair they may not be able to stand.”
For attendees traveling from out of town, Nakashima has produced resource lists that include various places of worship as well as contact information for LGBT and minority business groups, newspapers, sororities and fraternities, along with nightclubs, restaurants and entertainment options. “Make it part of the goody bag,” she suggests.
Because the Pacific Northwest isn’t seen as racially diverse, planners should be focused on celebrating differences even more. “What will set us apart, even though we’re not very [racially] diverse, is to be more friendly and welcoming,” Nakashima says. “It’s not going to be because we have that diversity built in. It’s going to be because we’ve made some effort to make people feel like they’ve had a different experience than what they’ve expected.”