Editor’s note: Many organizations want to improve diversity and inclusion, but they don’t know where to start. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is one such organization, and members of the organization’s in-house committee have provided this report on the first year of their program in the hope that other organizations can learn from their experience.
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, located in Hatfield, Massachusetts, has a mission to feed our neighbors in need and lead the community to end hunger. In Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties in Western Massachusetts, approximately one in every eight people suffers from chronic food shortages or needs emergency food assistance. In some areas, rates of hunger and food insecurity are more than six times higher than the Massachusetts statewide average.
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has included both diversity and inclusion as values that we as an organization uphold. Our Diversity Committee (made up entirely of in-house staff) is dedicated to supporting and advocating for those values. Our ad-hoc group of eight works to “ensure that our organization continues to remain in line with our mission and values in a variety of ways.”
Our focus for the last year has been on providing trainings and discussions to our entire staff on diversity-related topics and issues in an effort to raise awareness of these issues within our organization, foster an understanding of diversity (and a lack thereof), and show how it applies specifically to individual positions both inside our Food Bank and in relation to our suppliers, donors, volunteers, and clients.
After a number of brain-storming sessions in the late summer and early fall of 2016, the committee devised an outlined plan of delivery that included a process of interactive staff education, training, and feedback (see chart).
A three-hour training, mandatory for all staff, was conducted by external consultants. This established a baseline of knowledge and understanding of basic diversity-related terms and concepts, which we could then use as a jumping off point for a yearlong series of trainings, discussions, and activities. Our intention was to focus on one topic each quarter, presented in engaging, innovative, and explorative ways, highlighting myriad perspectives.
The original design for the progression of activities was:
- Another mandatory training for all staff, this time 1.25 hours instead of three full hours. These trainings would include lunch, as feedback from staff indicated that a sense of community and opportunity to interact with colleagues from other divisions of the organization was highly valued at our first all-staff diversity training. At the end of this training we asked participants what questions they still had about the topic; we used that information to help us plan the next activity.
- During regular divisional meetings, diversity committee staff led a brief interactive discussion and review of key terms, encouraging employees to think critically and specifically about how they see these issues at play in their work. Working in smaller groups, we hoped staff would be able to have more of an opportunity to be engaged in the discussion and feel more comfortable asking clarifying questions or expressing opinions.
- A more interactive and voluntary brown bag “lunch and learn,” also designed and facilitated by Diversity Committee members, explored the quarterly topic further. Having multiple conversations about one particular topic and reviewing the topic in a variety of ways allows differing learning styles to fully grasp concepts. It also opens the door for asking questions and having an ongoing conversation about diversity and how it may impact one’s daily life in the community – be it at work, at home, or in any social setting.
The first workshop series topic was gender diversity, which is present at all levels of our organization. After our recent transition to “all gender” restrooms, we felt it would be relevant for our staff to have some clarity on the difference between gender expression and gender identity, or be familiar with preferred pronouns and nonbinary gender roles. Given that a significant number of our staff interact with communities in all four counties of Western Massachusetts, it is imperative that we all are able to treat individuals with respect and dignity by using proper terminology.
In the hopes of engaging staff and focusing on issues that everyone wants to hear about, we surveyed staff anonymously about topics they might want to explore. Feedback was overwhelming following the training, with comments such as “Coming from [outside of New England], this conversation doesn’t happen often so honestly hearing all this was very hard to take in, but thank you for helping me open my eyes!”
A survey indicated that participants rated every activity as “Good” or “Excellent,” and we were delighted to see a large turnout at our voluntary lunch and learn. On a budget of only $2,000 for the year and a committee made up entirely of volunteer in-house staff, mostly coordinator level individuals, we were able to complete our first series. Naturally, there were a few kinks to work out as far as timing of each activity, but we are aware that this is trial and error as was our staff.
Our colleagues seemed to appreciate having multiple discussions to process information and reinforce ideas. In fact, a number of survey respondents indicated they felt we should spend MORE time on the initial training where we introduce the topic for the quarter.
As we proceed into our next topic, we will take what we have learned from our training on gender and be able to make any necessary adjustments. Staff has indicated they are looking forward to upcoming series and that they are eager to learn more. We are extremely pleased with this feedback from staff and look forward to continuing our journey together as we strive to support the mission of The Food Bank.