APU Careers Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Steps for Making a True Commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Podcast featuring Dr. Aikyna FinchFaculty Training Developer, Center for Teaching & Learning and
Dr. Darrell Burrell, Faculty Member, Business, Florida Institute of Technology

Many organizations are saying the right things when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, but are they actually making a true commitment? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Aikyna Finch talks to diversity professional and scholar Dr. Darrell Burrell about the steps organizations need to take in order to have true diversity within their organization. Learn about the importance of addressing biases, evaluating the “whole person” during the search and hiring process, and understanding the concept of privilege. Also learn what job seekers can do to make themselves valuable and valued by employers, increasing expertise, skills and knowledge, pursuing education, and building a strong community and network of supporters to help them along their path. 

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Dr. Aikyna Finch: Greetings, greetings, greetings, everyone. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch, and I would love to welcome you to the podcast. Today, we are going to be talking about what real commitment to diversity and inclusion looks like with Dr. Darrell Burrell.

Dr. Darrell Norman Burrell is a visiting scholar at Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute of Leadership, Equality, and Justice at Rutgers University. He currently serves as an Associate Professor of Business at the Florida Institute of Technology. Dr. Burrell has two doctorate degrees and five graduate degrees. Dr. Burrell received his first doctorate degree in health education from A.T. Still University in 2010. He completed all of his education while working full-time and has over 100 academic publications. Welcome, Dr. Burrell.

Dr. Darrell Burrell: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here. Very excited about this conversation today.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes. Yes, as I am as well. We both share a love of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And, my goodness, I know that they’re going to love this conversation today. So, let’s get started. Can you tell us a little bit about your background in this field?

Dr. Darrell Burrell: So, besides being a certified diversity professional, I’ve got a certification in that field. My first Master’s degree was in Human Resources where I actually took some classes in diversity inclusion. And then throughout my career, eight years in the U.S. federal government, I worked on diversity and inclusion programs.

A lot of my research as an academic are around: How do we make places more diverse? How do we leverage diversity for the benefit of the organization? How to recruit? How do we create cultures? And my most latest publication is all about creating psychological safety for African American men in the age of George Floyd and COVID-19.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: My goodness, what a repertoire of information. You know, you’re going to definitely have to share that with us. And so what brought on this passion and/or commitment for diversity and inclusion?

Dr. Darrell Burrell: Well, one of the realities, a lot of times when you’re a person of color, diversity and inclusion is actually your life. I mean, you’re spending a lot out of your time trying to find your place in the world and navigate your place in an environment that may not embrace you.

An interesting story I’ll try to share is I used to travel to Huntsville for work several times a year each semester, and I happened to meet a gentleman who was a senior manager at a large Fortune 500 company.

Of course, I’m African American, he’s Caucasian American. And we are having some discussions, and after a few beers he felt comfortable to have some discussions with me that bridged on politics and race. And we had a discussion about privilege. And one of the challenges he said, “Well, I’m not privileged. I’m blue collar. I’m first generation to go to my family. I served in the military. How am I privileged?”

And I explained to him that privilege has nothing to do with money. It’s not really driven by that. It’s not this whole concept that you have a silver spoon in your mouth, and that’s what makes you privileged. Privilege is the ability to navigate and have certain advantages that are a result of your birth and who you are. At first, he didn’t really get it. But for me to help him understand it, I said, “Where you work, you’re a senior vice president.” I said, “How many vice presidents look like me?” And he says “one.”

And I said, “Okay, tell me where you live.” And he lived in the community, gated, golf course. I said, “How many people on your street look like me?” And he said, “One.” I said, “Where do your kids go to school?” Kids go to a very affluent private school. And I said, “How many kids there would look like they would be my kids?” And he said, “a very small percentage.”

And I said, “So, I’m going to explain to you what privilege is.” I said, “You can work at the best company, your Fortune 500 company. You can live in the best neighborhood here in Huntsville, and your kids can go to the best school, and you never have to be a minority. You never have to navigate the world. You never have to navigate my world. But if I want that same life for me and my family, then guess what? I have to navigate your world.”

And that’s a essence of what the power of privilege all is. You never have to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation where you’re a minority. Where for me to have all those things that you have, which could be perceived as the best, I have to find a way to navigate your world, and be embraced and be included.

And so the point I’m trying to make is, a lot of times, as people of color, we don’t have a choice. If we’re trying to navigate environments, or we’re trying to be impactful, or we’re trying to work in the best environments, or companies, or situations, then, of course, we can’t really shed our background and our makeup. And so, we have to be passionate about it because if we’re not passionate about it, then we can’t thrive and succeed.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Very valid points. Very, very valid. Can you give us a blueprint, if you will, on a real commitment to diversity and inclusion?

Dr. Darrell Burrell: One of the things that’s kind of happening right now, is we had Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter, these different sides about Colin Kaepernick. Should he stand? Should he kneel? And so, a lot of people are trying to say that they really want to make a commitment to diversity and inclusion. One of the conversations people talk about is, “Oh, I’m woke now.” And so what a lot of organizations have done is gone out and hired a lot of diversity and inclusion folks, gone out and put these grandiose statements on their websites, and gone out and created these activities.

But the reality is not to include activities with results. It’s great if you have a great website, but if you’re hiring someone, and, in a lot of these jobs with diversity inclusion, there’s a lot of tokenism. There’s this thing. Well, we have this problem with sexual harassment. Dr. Finch, you’re a woman, so we’re going to make you the diversity inclusion person, because as a woman you understand.

The problem with that is, this work requires a level of expertise that just because somebody fits the group that’s being discriminated against, or marginalized, or is not fully represented in an organization doesn’t mean they’re equipped with a background, and skills, and expertise to do this work.

Think about public speaking. Just because you have a voice and you could speak doesn’t mean that you’re a great public speaker. And so one of the things that’s real important is we got to make sure that we’re hiring people that are trained and then when they’re trained, we got to make sure that they have the resources.

Tell a true story. I recently had a conversation with a university about diversity inclusion, and they’re in a process of interviewing and they bring a candidate in, and they have four or five Zoom interviews. And they say in the job they want the person to have a master’s degree, a doctorate degree preferred. And then they want that person to move and go down there. And then they tell that person that they had budgeted $75,000 for that job, but they are happy to give that person $90,000. And that person has no staff and no dedicated budget.

Now, on the surface, they posted that position, so they have a diversity inclusion position that never existed before. They’re asking someone to come in, be underpaid, understaffed, with no budget, and basically turned water into wine. I don’t consider that a true commitment to diversity, and the fact that they weren’t willing to pay that person a comparable salary also speaks to their commitment. And the person went back and said, “Listen, these are some salary data, six-figure salary, to say that $90,000 was way under what should be paid. The average was about $121,000.” They said, “Well, maybe I don’t have to move, maybe I could work remote.” And there was no negotiation. It was basically good luck and move on.

And the point that was trying to be made to this organization was: If you’re not going to pay well, you’re setting that person up for failure. Or you’re going to get someone without the experience who’s going to come in and use that job as a stepping stone or bridge job to their next opportunity. They weren’t hearing it.

In their minds and their eyes, “Yeah, we have a commitment diversity. Maybe we really didn’t want to have this position, but we have it now. Basically, you should be happy and glad.” But that’s more of a superficial. When we start to talk about real commitments to diversity, a real commitment is different than just checking the box, or window dressing, or saying that you have these things in place that are really not funded, or supported, or given the authority to be able to do what really needs to be done to change the culture, or to make the environment more inclusive.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Dr. Burrell, you were just mentioning about what the commitment looks like, the blueprint, if you will. What are some of the red flags that you see when you’re speaking about diversity and inclusion, or when you are going to consult?

Dr. Darrell Burrell: One of the big red flags now is an unprecedented amount of people of color are having access and opportunity to get doctorate degrees. And I see this a lot in academia, because there’s a lot of non-traditional universities that were out there. If you went 20 years ago, there were only a handful of non-traditional programs where someone could get a doctorate degree and be in academia as a faculty member, or do this kind of work, or be an administrator, or even go in the corporate world.

As these things are opening up, now there’s this new layer of status and stratus that still continues to keep people out. Years ago, it was, “Do you have a doctorate?” Now, it’s “Where is your doctorate from?” And you’re having these situations where even though people are graduating from accredited institutions, people are saying, “Well, I don’t like that program because that school is online,” or, “I’m not going to embrace you, because that school is for-profit.” Or some people’s view of diversity is, “I’m a white guy. I went to Stanford. I want a Black guy that went to Stanford that had the same life I did.”

And there’s this natural assumption that pedigree, because you went to this top-notch school, then you’re the best. And those people that didn’t, are not the best. And so one of the flaws in terms of how people are engaging diversity inclusion is they still have those same biases and paradigms where they’re looking at schools, and they’re looking at certain things about people, and they’re making assumptions that may not be based on any validity.

Part of the conversation I have a lot of times is, for many people of color, they might not choose a school or an institution the same way someone who is caucasian who’s fifth generation to go to college. There are some people that might pick an institution because a colleague went there. It’s convenient to them. I’m told this story all the time that an African American young man that had an opportunity to play at Alabama, which everyone knows “Roll Tide” to the college football fans, chose to go to historically Black college in Virginia.

Now, when he graduates, that degree from Alabama might be perceived more prestigious than the historically Black college he went to in Virginia. But he went to that college because he was raised by his grandmother. He lives in Virginia. And had he gone to Alabama, his grandmother wouldn’t have been able, or had the ability or affordability to go to his games. And so some people would look at his resume off the top and make an assumption that, okay, because he went to a small historically black college instead of Alabama, that there is something wrong with him. Or that he wasn’t good enough to go to that institution. Does that make sense?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes, it does. Yes, it does. What are some of the changes that you would like to see as far as making a commitment?

Dr. Darrell Burrell: Well, I think we need to start looking at the whole person. The first thing is if you want to hire diverse people, you have to make the search committees diverse. And then I think you’ve got to include your diversity and inclusion people in all your hiring that you’re doing as an organization. Again, we got to look at the whole person. Not just where they went to school, or not just looking at their background, and things, and making assumptions. Just getting to know them up front.

Because at the end of the day, you’re hiring a person. You’re not hiring a piece of paper. There’s a lot of people that I’ve met that look great on paper, but don’t treat people with respect, are unreliable, or not professional. But yeah, they want to Princeton, or Harvard, or Yale. And people need to get away from just ooh’ing and aww’ing over that. It’s a great thing to go to those schools, but I think we really need to have some conversations and really get to know the whole person.

One of the other dynamics coming out here is conversation about whitewashing your name and doing certain things on your resume. There’s a lot of studies out there that say that if you have an ethnic-sounding name, or a name that sounds a certain way, that there’s this automatic perception about who you are as a person or what you represent. And so you’re having people actually change their name, or do certain things with their name, to make their name seem more mainstream, or perceived as more mainstream than maybe what their parents intended. These are all these dynamics that people are having to do just on the front end to get an interview. And then when they’re getting an interview, are they given a fair shot? Are they viewed fairly? Are people taking the time to really get to know them as the whole person? Not just their perception, or their views, or their biases based on an early view or observation of a person.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Let’s say a person is going through what you discussed. They are not feeling valued, they are being discriminated against. They don’t feel like they are equal, and that they’re not in a diverse area. Can you give us some pointers on how this person could go to leadership or what have you, and start making a change?

Dr. Darrell Burrell: One of the things that I think about and I always say, regardless of my conversation here, education opens doors, it opens opportunities. Now, education doesn’t have to be doctorate degrees, education will be a variety of things. But the first thing for you is you need to have a skill that’s of value that people really need.

And then the second thing is it’s not just, “Oh, I got a degree. And yeah, I’m fine.” You need to develop yourself to be an expert in your particular field. It’s a conversation I have with my students all the time. “Do you want a job, or do you want a profession?”

If you want a job, anyone can replace you on a job. But if you’re a professional or expert, your hard to be replaced. We live in a knowledge economy right now. In spite of discrimination, racism, challenges that people of color face, people with expert knowledge will be valued. They just have to find a place that values them. If you become an expert or you become knowledgeable on a particular area that’s in need, guess what? There will be people that will find a way to pay for your knowledge, and you’ve got to find it.

The second thing that I think is critical is network. Social capital drives a lot of what happens out here. A large reason why a lot of people of color are not able to navigate worlds is a lot of times their parents can’t pick up the phone and call a CEO, or the vice president, or the university president, or the dean. Because many of us are first generation, second generation to go to college, and you’re out there competing against people where they’re fifth generation to go to college, and they have these networks. And it gets back to the conversation I had about the gentleman who was a VP at Lockheed Martin.

Because he’s lived in a certain world, a certain environment, he has contacts that maybe I don’t have, or my parents didn’t have. And so a lot of times for him, he’s not applying through the job website. He’s using his network. And so things like LinkedIn, where you’re building networks, you’re building connections are important, but you got to be willing to invest in development of those relationships.

A lot of times people connect with me on LinkedIn and they immediately come to me and say, “Can you hire me?” Well, I don’t know you. You haven’t invested in a relationship. And so, the network, and building that network, are some things that I think are critical in getting that education along the way. And also, becoming an expert in what your field is or what your area of expertise is. I mean, it’s a long drawn out answer, but it’s a complicated question.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: You’re correct. It is a complicated question, because most of our journeys are complicated. And you have to learn how to navigate through the complications. Would that be a fair statement? And so, with that being said, how would you tell people, as we close today, how would you tell them to navigate through those complicated things to get to the victory, as we say? That real commitment to equity and inclusion?

Dr. Darrell Burrell: Well, again, I don’t want to offend everyone, but I think you have to have a strong level of faith. And I think you need to surround yourself around good people. Not just because someone can hook you up.

One of the conversations I have many times with my colleagues is, if you’re not around with the climb, then you can’t really be around when I celebrate when I get to the mountain top. And so you’ve got to really find real people that are there for you and around for you. I told people, you’ve got to have a good circle, because you’re going to need support systems, you’re going to need people that you can bounce things off of.

I have several colleagues that I talk to several times a week, where we just—it’s almost like when you see people in the park paying chess with each other. I’m saying, “Well, I’m thinking about this move. What are your thoughts about that? Well, I’m thinking about this. What are your thoughts about that?”

And I think part of it is being humble and grateful. The story I tell people is, my first doctorate took me three programs and 10 years, and I took courses in two other programs. I really did not have my breakthrough until I realized it wasn’t about me. It was about how I can take my knowledge and skills, and share it with other people.

And once I didn’t make it just about me and what I needed, what I made it about is how I can share, and give, and provide blessings to others, blessings came back to me. And so, it’s a long answer to try to say that you got to be humble, you got to be vigilant, you can’t give up. But you got to surround yourself by good people. And sometimes, that good people might not be your family. It might be people that become pseudo-family members to you. But you need a circle of people, and you need a strong sense of faith, and a strong sense of belief in yourself.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Thank you so much, Dr. Burrell, for chatting with me today, as this has been an amazing, amazing conversation. I’ve learned so much, and I know the audience has as well.

Dr. Darrell Burrell: Well, thank you for the honor to be here. It’s a tremendous opportunity. We live in very divided times. We live in very challenging times where people are all just trying to find their way. And I just think we just need to continue to push, continue to drive. And then when we’re in environments, we need to find constructive ways to challenge those that aren’t inclusive. We need to find constructive ways when we get in these diversity, inclusion roles. If you were hired because you were token, or because you were a Black, or a woman, now the onus is on you to be self-directed and make sure you learn the job. Read books. Do some things so that your knowledge is up. And then when we get in these roles, we can’t be afraid.

Part of the reason why we’re in this role is not just to be there. It’s to make a difference, and to bring other people in, and to open the door for people where the door’s been closed for them. And so we can get to these levels, and make good money, and have a job. We still have a responsibility to those that come behind us to try to bring them in and bring them along. And as long as we maintain those perspectives and keep our eyes on that, then I think we will continue to make progress in this realm and we’ll continue to grow. So, thank you.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Thank you. And to the audience today, I hope you got from this conversation the fact that, to make a difference and to make a change, educate yourself. Build a strong circle, and then build a community that is not about you, but about others. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch. It has been a pleasure. And remember, be safe and be well.

Dr. Aikyna Finch is Faculty Training Developer in the Center for Teaching & Learning at American Public University. She received a Doctorate of Management, an MBA in Technology Management and an Executive MBA from Colorado Technical University. She has an M.S. in Management in Marketing, an M.S. in Information Systems in IT Project Management from Strayer University, and a B.S. in Aeronautical Technology in Industrial Electronics from the School of Engineering at Tennessee State University. She is a podcaster, social media coach and speaker. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and a contributor to Huffington Post, Goalcast, Forbes and Thrive Global. She can be found at DrADFinch on all social media platforms.

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