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Building Diverse and Inclusive Communities

The Sisters in Law and the League of Lady Lawyers joined forces for a candid discussion about building diverse and inclusive communities. It was the third event in our series on diversity, inclusion, and retention. Inclusion is the catalyst that transforms short term diversity initiatives into long term retention, and it is a pathway towards a more equitable and compassionate society. Our panel comprised of: Tessa Jacobs, Partner at Husch Blackwell; Sylvia James, Chief DEI Officer at Winston and Strawn; and Mindy Gulati, Founder at Fundamental Advisory, a consultant agency focused on equity and inclusion in the workplace.

The following is a partial transcript of the February 24, 2021 panel moderated by Dominique McLeggan-Brown and Danielle Gilbert. Some of the responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is an Inclusive Community?

Sylvia: None of us, regardless of who we are, bring our whole selves to work, so I think that [saying] is a little deceptive. Everyone masks and covers just a little bit in the workplace. But I think inclusion is when you feel like you don’t have to hide something that is a big part of your identity and that you’ll be welcomed.

Mindy: For me, inclusion and an inclusive work environment means a place where we have access and agency. A place where we don’t just have a seat at the table, but where our voices are heard. For companies and organizations, it’s about utilizing the amazing talent you have at that table and letting them be a part of the process. If you focus first on inclusive environments, people from diverse backgrounds will naturally want to come there. The ultimate inclusive environment is one where we bring out the best in people and utilize their talents. It is also where they can thrive, so I look for where people are thriving. It is hard to measure inclusion sometimes, but I say, are they thriving, are they progressing in their careers, are they engaged, do they ask tough questions?

Does Diversity = Inclusion?

Consensus from our panelists was, no, not exactly. Although one panelist pointed out that in earlier decades that was the original understanding.

Sylvia: Years ago, we were defining diversity to mean inclusion. Diversity meant not just bringing difference together, but creating an environment where that difference can thrive. Diversity meant all of those things in the 90s.

Mindy: Law firms and businesses say let’s have diversity and that’s just a numbers game - a metric - something to measure quickly. However, if you have diversity without inclusion people don’t want to stay and you’re not utilizing and bringing their talents out.

Tessa: As a partner I can get diversity easily, but inclusion means pulling people all the way in. I remember [as an associate] being put on teams, but I was given a discrete assignment and that was about it. Now as a partner, when I think about making an environment feel inclusive, it is about bringing people all the way in. I’m not just giving them a discrete assignment, I’m asking are they part of the strategy sessions, the discussions with clients, the one-off lunches? Because you don’t feel included when you’re left out.

How do we move past performative allyship and turn it into genuine effort to build inclusion that will have lasting impact?

Sylvia: The conversation of allyship and being an inclusive leader is on a continuum. We’re not at the same place on the continuum depending on the issue. Maybe I’m a great ally when it comes to LGBTQ status, but not disability, which is why we must all come to this [topic of allyship] with a certain amount of humility. I feel like the word “allyship” is being co-opted to be a conversation about allies to Black people and race. Everyone who is talking about being a good ally to Black people, should ask are they being a good ally to the AAPI community that’s facing discrimination. We all have to realize that we need a lot of humility on this because we’re strong in one area and can be better in another. We should all conduct constant re-evaluations when it comes to allyship.

Mindy: One of the frameworks I like to look at for allyship is: knowledge, empathy, and action. The critical piece is action. Allyship is not passive; allyship is not reading a book or donating a few dollars. It is really about how you integrate day to day anti-racist philosophies, and how you actually create inclusive communities where you are. A lot of that means having difficult conversations with yourself and digging in deeper. Allyship means taking action, having cultural competency, empathy, and cultural humility – which is the idea that we are never going to know what someone went through… that we have these gaps, but we can use empathy to overcome that. Unfortunately, for centuries and 12 generations in the United States we had racial oppression of Black folks and for 12 generations that instilled something in our collective consciousness and that’s not easy to overcome. However, this year, I have seen people dig in in a way that I have not seen in previous years…and I don’t think that but for this cataclysmic event of pandemic and George Floyd… look people like George Floyd have existed for hundreds of years, but there was this moment where all of this came together that really shook people. If you were shaken, don’t forget that feeling and continue to move forward. Creating inclusive cultures [and communities] really starts at home. For those of you who are parents - doing anti-racist parenting and starting to teach your kids this – this is the way forward.

Tessa: [Following up on parenting] With my daughter and her friends, I say, “you guys are doing all this great stuff and I know you’re showing your support [through social media], but I’m looking around the table and I don’t see anybody different from you. It’s nice to have that hashtag, but what are you doing to make people at school feel included?”

Mindy: One of the disconnects I see in this work [corporate DEI] is that we go into these work spaces and talk about allyship, or inclusive cultures, or diversity, but the people I’m speaking with, in their private and personal life, do not have an inclusive group of friends – do not have diversity. When I think about how can I be a better ally, a lot of it is building a diverse community around you and taking a hard look at yourself. Sometimes I’ll tell people think of the 10 people you spend the most time with right now as a grown up. Do they all look like you? Are they all the same religion as you? Are they all the same socio-economic class as you? Are they all the same educational level as you? Look at your group. If that is a homogenous group, then you’re getting a homogenous perspective. Part of the disconnect I see in the work of DEI in the corporate and governmental sphere, is that we don’t talk enough about what are we doing at home. When you have a diverse group of people you spend time with and you have authentic relationships with them, it adds to your [cultural] competency and your knowledge base. The question becomes how do we make sure that we are filling our lives with different perspectives?

End transcript.

Building communities that are both diverse and inclusive requires intentionality. It takes conscious effort to build inclusion at your dinner table, in your neighborhoods, schools, and workspaces. We all have work to do when it comes to this and we must recognize that the work is continual. The moment you stop actively working on being inclusive you’ve lost some of it. Take action, make an effort, reach out, and enrich yourself with different perspectives.

keep rising,


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