Critical Foundations in Building Community: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

By: Maddie Russo from our partner, 31 Marketplace podcast team

Understanding the building blocks of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is perhaps the most critical foundation to building a thriving business. Those who don’t intentionally build DEI into their organizations will lose market share, talent, and eventually the business itself.


I had the honor of being joined by Desiree Adaway, founder and principal of one of the nation’s premier DEI consultant facilitators the Adaway Group, to discuss how leaders should be thinking about DEI and what they should be doing to achieve a truly equitable organization.

Sharing a Common Language

Desiree shared that there’s a lot of variation between how different groups (and even individuals) define diversity, equity, and inclusion. Before diving deeper into the discussion, it’s essential to lay out definitions of these terms so we can work from a shared understanding of their meaning.


Diversity speaks to the amount of variety within a certain group when it comes to categories of identity. It does not, however, speak to the quality of the experience someone is having within an organization.


We practice inclusion by “enabling people who carry different social identities to lead and succeed in different, self-determined, and authentic ways.” This involves actively creating environments where an individual or group of individuals feels respected, supported, and welcomed and can participate in ways that result in shared leadership.


Equity is “that fair and just treatment of all folks,” acknowledging that systemically we all have very different access to opportunities.  Because we have different access to opportunities, we each require different resources to be successful. It is important to remember that equity is NOT synonymous with equality, which requires we treat everyone the same, regardless of disparate access.


Intersectionality comes down to understanding that we all have multiple identities and different experiences through systems due to the ways these identities intersect. To create equitable organizations, we must understand how different identity categories function both separately and in conjunction with each other to shape an individual’s experience.

“Diversity is something you count. Inclusion is something you feel. Equity is how you build and sustain inclusive, courageous, and diverse cultures.”


Auditing the Organization

So, how can companies measure where they are on their DEI journeys? Desiree shared a few things she looks for when working with clients to determine areas of improvement moving forward, starting with an audit of the organization’s practices from the ground up.


  • Employee manual. What are the organization’s values? Are they laid out in an expansive way?
  • Leadership. What does the makeup of leadership look like? How comfortable is leadership addressing difficult topics around identity? If leadership is not currently diverse, does it have a plan in place for becoming more so?
  • Pay. Is compensation generally competitive? Is it equal across different identity categories?
  • Partnerships and community building. Is the company in partnership with the right people? How is the company as a partner? Does it leave room for others’ voices and help build up less-established partners in the community?


After completing the audit, Desiree conducts a survey of internal and external stakeholders to gauge how employees and partners truly view the organization’s DEI efforts. Using this insight as a foundation, Desiree then works with the team to lay out a specific and actionable roadmap for how the organization is going to live its values.

Building an Equitable Culture

As leadership works to create a more equitable organization, Desiree provided some tips that can help the process unfold more smoothly and successfully.

Realize It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Through DEI work, we’re addressing decades of inequities and deep-seated biases. It’s important to be realistic that achieving equity does not happen overnight, but is instead a continuous process that will require a long-term commitment to deep culture work. 


In fact, simply jumping into action can cause more harm than good. Instead, the most successful leaders will have a roadmap for change that includes lots of education, training, and room for difficult conversations around what it means to give up and share power.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Because this is a long-term process and progress will happen slowly, leadership should be as open as possible about the DEI work undertaken so employees understand why change is taking time. Leaders must not only be fully transparent about the current shortcomings of the organization but also outline the concrete steps they will take to get the organization to where they want it to be.

Give Yourself Grace to Mess Up

To engage in DEI work, we must all be skeptics – always open to learning, questioning, and evolving. Throughout this lifelong work, it’s inevitable that we’ll mess up.


Shame, blame, or guilt will stop DEI work in its tracks. Instead, focus on taking accountability, apologizing, and having a plan in place for repairing harm so you can learn from these mistakes and move forward better.

Avoid the Proximity Trap

A common mistake that many people make in their DEI work is claiming they understand an experience based on having a close relationship with someone living that experience. Proximity trapping is one of the most offensive ways you can approach someone, and it perpetuates tools of supremacy by betraying a sense of superiority (“I don’t have to do the work, because I already understand this experience.”). Remember, only those who have lived that experience get to speak to that experience.

Be Relational, Not Transactional

DEI work is all about deep relationship-building, not quick wins and transactional behavior. 


​​“If you are not building deep, right relationships with your partners and your colleagues, you’re actually losing at this game,” said Desiree.


Focusing on relationships demonstrates your genuine investment in marginalized communities. It will also help you when you do inevitably mess up; when there’s a history of action and commitment to point back to and people in the community are personally connected to you, they will be much more likely to offer grace and vouch for you with others.

“I am transactional with systems. I am transformational with people.”


What Equity Looks Like

You may be wondering: how will we know when we’ve achieved a more equitable culture?


Said Desiree, “When I think about what that looks like, it means people with the most marginalized identities have a say in the systems that guide their lives.”


In action, this looks like not only creating more expansive systems that protect the most vulnerable in our society, but also taking intentional steps to repair past harms.

“Our policies and practices are our values. Are we living them?” asked Adaway. “When I think about what racial equity looks like, it actually looks like us living our values.”



Ready to do the work, but looking for some extra support? Connect with Desiree on Facebook and Instagram or via email at

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