Issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been top-of-mind for many organizations over the past several months as the country continues to mourn George Floyd and heal from other racial injustices that have been ever-present in the media as organizations of all kinds sound a rallying cry for better behavior, more inclusion and greater opportunities for traditionally marginalized groups.
That focus, though, says Keri Norris, PhD,JM, MPH, MCHES, Vice President of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion with the National Hemophilia Foundation (NHF), needs to take into account the needs of all employees—including those who belong to marginalized groups.
Dr. Norris has built a strong background in the DEI over the course of her career. She emphasizes the need to find similarities, or shared experiences, to help build relationships and trust. Norris is new to her role at NHF; the role is also new to the foundation.
Norris joined NHF in March 2021. She brings more than 20 years of experience in health equity, public health, and social justice to the position, where she will be charged with creating a health equity framework to integrate into NHF programs and services and to develop culturally and linguistically appropriate programs and services. Prior to joining NHF, Norris served as chief of health policy and administration at The Fulton DeKalb Hospital Authority.
In her new role, Norris says, she is “pretty busy and very much in demand.” It’s a role where she’s able to continue to pursue her passion for equity, people, and meaningful partnerships.
While the work of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) often seems focused on differences, Norris says that she likes to take the approach of finding and celebrating similarities. As she approaches her work, she says: “I do it with two things in mind—thinking about how to get people to respect differences and come together and celebrate similarities. That’s where we can have those critical and courageous conversations.”
Once shared experiences are known and shared, Norris says, the foundation has been built to begin to explore the differences and learn from one another. This also provides a space for meaningful discussions and trust building. Varied lived experiences can lend themselves to spaces of learning, community building and a sense of belonging. “Organizations with employees who feel valued, included and have a sense of belonging are the optimal outcome”, she stated.
A Different Type of ERG
Most people in HR and DEI circles are familiar with affinity or employee resource groups (ERGs). They may not be as familiar, though, with the special approach that Norris brings to the ERGs she establishes.
For instance, at NHF, she recently established a crafting ERG for employees who share a love for crafting, which may include quilting. Members may have a discussion around their interest in quilting, but then also share the unique elements of their own backgrounds and the history of quilting in various cultures.
For instance, she shares, “Native Americans and African Americas use quilting as a means of telling history that gets passed down through generations. It’s not just the craft, but also the story that goes along with the quilt,” she says. “You’re talking about differences, while celebrating something that you have in common.”
That focuses on shared experiences can be more compelling than “another race-centered conversation, or another conversation about why I should value others,” she says. “It’s the inclusivity of everyone—everyone’s voice is valued and appreciated; their experiences are valued because they’re theirs.” This approach, she says, helps to grow the organization’s cultural sensitivity, employee awareness, and emotional intelligence.
Getting to Know People as Individuals
The first thing Norris did when she joined NHF was to reach out to the entire workforce. “The first thing I did when I walked through the door was to open up my schedule and say, ‘okay, there are 80 plus employees here, and I would like to meet with every single one of you if you’re open to it’.” Not, she says, just to learn about their backgrounds and to share hers, but to get to know them as people, as individuals.
“What do you like to do outside of work? What do you value? What’s important to you?” And, then, she says, she also shares—“this is who I am, this is where I’m from, these are my hobbies.” In her case, she says, she loves bad karaoke. It’s that kind of sharing, she says, that builds relationships—and trust.
Norris has a passion for connecting with people and learning what’s important to them. Who are they? What are their lived experiences? What are their hobbies? What kind of music do they like?
“So, if there’s new music that I’ve heard and I know that you like that genre of music, I’m going to send you a link. If there’s a new Netflix series that I think you’ll like, I’m going to recommend this new Netflix series.”
Norris makes it a point to reach out regularly to employees around the organization. “I really care about how they’re doing,” she says. That caring isn’t solely related to the work they’re doing—it’s related to who they are as individuals, what’s important to them and how they need to be supported in the workplace.
Getting to know employees and their interests, Norris says, can also help to connect them with opportunities that may be of interest to them. “Regardless of what team you’re on, maybe you can help with a particular project—there may be an opportunity to do that, an opportunity to be included.” For instance, she says, an employee in marketing may also be interested in fundraising. “People simply want to be valued and heard,” she says.
Diversity From the Board Level on Down
It’s important, says Norris, for organizational diversity to mirror the diversity of the audiences they serve. So, for instance, if an organization serves a specific minority community, it’s important that they have representation from that community at the board level and throughout the organization.
She suggests that companies take a look at their organizational chart and, considering who they serve, determine if they have “representation from the board level down to partnerships.” Organizations, Norris, says, “need to be reflective of the communities they serve.”
Yet, at the same time, she says, organizations also need to be focused on choosing the best qualified candidates. “Don’t just take bodies in because they’re Hispanic, African American or Asian American Pacific Islanders—you need to ensure that those chosen are the best candidates.”
Once on board, Norris believes in ongoing engagement and broad opportunities for input across the organization and employees at all levels and in all positions. Companies benefit from those diverse voices. Employees do too.
Whether coming together around quilting, favorite books, movies or music, shared experiences can lead to opportunities to learn about differences in different ways—ways that serve to engage rather than alienate.