Moving Beyond Conversations to Address Systemic Inequities

by Saray Lopez, Dr. Christina Neider and Tondra Richardson

As calls for social reform persist, people continue to look to leaders to champion a more diverse, inclusive and equitable society. A critical first step is to create safe spaces for conversations to promote an overall understanding of the impacts and outcomes of systemic inequity. But it’s time to move beyond this. It’s time to implement solutions. 

While it may be attractive to jump in with action plans that show the world there is commitment to the ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion, the true best beginning is a solid understanding of the challenges facing our culture and each organization — where we are and where we want to go.

Then, when determining “how to get there,” it’s necessary to craft initiatives that truly support diversity, inclusion and equity in ways that are meaningful, specific and actionable. It isn’t enough to issue a press release or statement of support. It isn’t enough to have an office of diversity or appoint a chief diversity officer. It isn’t enough to check off a box to show an organization employs a certain number of people from a diverse population. It must go beyond that. And to ensure an organization’s commitment to social justice goes beyond words on a page, the initiatives must be crafted to be measurable. 

Unraveling the threads

It’s important for leaders to help their teams understand what systemic inequity is and what it looks like. This can be approached using the metaphor of an old, tattered sweater taking up space in your closet. You recognize it is in a state of disrepair. You attempt to aesthetically improve it by sewing on a different sleeve, but you quickly recognize the random sleeve doesn’t make the sweater more attractive or less threadbare. It draws attention to the new sleeve, but it doesn’t address that the true issue lies within the fabric itself.

In the metaphor, the sweater represents an organization or institution, and the threads are the processes that lean inequitably toward the privileged, often excluding populations that are marginalized based on race, class, gender, disability status and more. The sewn-on sleeve represents a partial — or misunderstood — effort to change. Although it is a visible change, the bulk of the sweater remains as before.

Like the sweater, we must unravel the threads that have held the inequities in our systems in place. We must unlearn behaviors and relearn best practices so we can provide future generations with the tools and access they need to thrive. To begin this process, organizations need to look inward.

Start with a Needs Assessment

Once there is an understanding of what systemic inequity is, organizations can begin assessing themselves through the lens of a needs assessment. Depending on the nature of the business and services, the details of this exercise may change, but the structure is applicable across industries.

  • Do the leaders/employees understand the organization’s philosophy and culture on diversity, equity and inclusion? Where does the company stand? Is there a mission statement that includes its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion? Does the leadership know and understand the demographics of the company’s employees and customer base? Does the company offer any current trainings or development opportunities specific to cultural sensitivity? Do employees and customers have a mechanism for communicating with leadership?

It’s important to be honest in approaching this exercise. It’s better to understand reality than to pretend the company is actively achieving goals that have yet to be set. 

Companies can start by listing steps that have been taken to encourage open conversation and understanding, as well as which structures exist to foster equity in areas throughout the organization. Use focus groups or climate surveys to allow participants to respond to questions related to the company culture, cultural sensitivity, perceived bias in organizational processes, promotional opportunities and product development. Take a look at departmental diversity, and consider whether hiring, promoting or transferring employees could ensure better representation of diversity in gender, ethnicity and culture, as well as diversity in thinking.

  • Does the organization/leadership team/institution have access to the necessary tools and resources to best serve our employees/customers? This requires defining the resources and tools and who is responsible for ensuring they are available and understood within the organization. It’s also important to look toward implementing ways employees can demonstrate an understanding of these resources and tools.

One way to do this is through training sessions that include learning assessments the participants complete prior to the session and again afterward. These assessments challenge the participants’ personal awareness with questions such as, “What is my personal ethnic and racial background (or roots) within a socioeconomical and historical context?” and “What are my personal values, beliefs, biases and assumptions?” Harvard University’s Project Implicit ( includes its Implicit Association Test, which is often used to start DEI conversations. 

Consider tiered trainings that focus on a different topic or angle related to diversity, equity and inclusion each time, so the learning is ongoing and valuable. Some examples, adapted from the Inclusive Classroom Series developed at University of Phoenix for faculty professional development are “Dissecting the Language We Use,” “Race, Power and Privilege,” “Conflict Management: Managing Sensitive Topics” and “What Does It Mean to be Anti-Racist and Culturally Competent?” 

Ensure new hires and seasoned employees alike participate in the trainings and offer touch points between sessions to encourage dialogue and communication.

Implement and Measure

Now it’s time to take action. And it’s important to keep in mind that every action should have a measurable outcome. What can’t be measured, can’t be supported. Companies, therefore, should plan to follow up with participants at a designated time to gather data related to the outcomes. Here are some examples of initiatives that can be applied to many types of businesses and industries:

  • Employee resource groups. An important aspect of diversity is how people relate to one another. Employee resource groups provide the opportunity and space for individuals to connect with others to work together to help drive change. This model can be tailored to professional development models as well.
  • Conversation spaces. It is critical to create a space to have conversations, promote cultural understanding and provide thought leadership relating to equity and inclusion in the classroom, workplace and our communities. At University of Phoenix, we created the Inclusive Café as a safe place for faculty and staff to connect and build community, drawing on the diverse perspectives of the participants to explore powerful and effective responses as we face this new reality together.
  • Professional Development and Training Materials. Employees should be offered workshops and materials related to cultural sensitivity that reflect the topics and initiatives identified through data collection. The data collected can inform the direction of these trainings, in addition to the latest research and educational best practices.
  • Culturally Sensitive Vocabulary. Apply gender neutral pronouns in the human resources processes, in branding and marketing, and in all forms of communication with employees and customers.

Organizations need to create both a plan and a timeline to meet its goals. To facilitate this, they should identify a point person from each area within the organization’s structure to ensure all departments and employees understand the guiding philosophies and goals. The organization also should provide guidance for departmental goals that align with those of the institution.

Remember that when an organization makes a statement in support of social justice, there must be follow-through. Organizations must hold their leaders accountable, and they must be willing to be held accountable to do what they say they will do. This will foster an inclusive workplace culture. Stakeholders, partners, clients and customers are watching to make sure these statements of support do not become empty promises.

It is crucial in this time to make concerted efforts to move beyond conversation and understanding. It is time to take action to create an environment within our organizations that will best support our employees, our customers and our communities by addressing the various inequities that exist within our culture.

It is a living, breathing process that should be ongoing and sometimes uncomfortable. But we have to be willing to be uncomfortable to learn and grow.

Saray Lopez is the director of Educational Equity at University of Phoenix, where she brings her experience in building and designing competency-based education programs in a private liberal arts college and a community college setting. She has an MBA and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change. Her community involvement includes serving on the Arizona Multicultural Education Conference Committee.



A U.S. Air Force veteran, Christina Neider, Ed.D., is dean for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Phoenix, where she is responsible for overall leadership and oversight of strategy, operations and academic functions within the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and leads the development and implementation of the college’s strategic plan.



Tondra Richardson is the director of Student Diversity & Inclusion within the Office of Educational Equity at University of Phoenix. She holds a Master of Business Administration specialized in Human Resource Management. With numerous certifications in Diversity & Inclusion, she sits on the Education Committee for the Diversity Leadership Alliance and Arizona Multicultural Education Conference Committee.  

Read the other articles that are part of this “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: The Time Is Now” cover story.

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