The next time you plan a meeting — whether it’s an internal meeting or a full-blown conference — take a minute to think about how people of color will perceive your efforts.
It may not seem as if diversity plays much of a role in meeting-planning, but you’d be surprised.
Check out Association Meetings magazine’s cover story this month, titled “Bias? What bias?”, in which the editor was kind enough to include some of my thoughts on the subject.
So, what are some things you should not do if you want to make people of color feel included at your meeting?
1. Create a discussion panel that is a veritable diversity ghetto
Another common way associations attempt to diversify their meetings is to include what Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of New Demographic, an anti-racism training company in New York, calls “the panel of marginalized people.” This is a panel that features, for example, a black person, a Hispanic person, a young person, and a person with a physical disability put on display to discuss their issues as members of a specific group. Instead of creating “the ‘diversity ghetto,’ planners could include those issues in the main topics of the conference.”
You have no idea how many conference organizers have asked me to be on their diversity ghetto panel. And this doesn’t just happen at conferences where the organizers are mostly white — Asian-American conferences are often guilty of this too. Many a time I have found myself, The Half-White Asian, on a panel along with The Bisexual Asian and The Disabled Asian. Of course no one used those labels explicitly, but it’s what the audience was thinking as they looked at us.
2. Force the person of color to talk about race and nothing else
And include minorities among your mainstream topic speakers, she adds. “It’s more powerful if you have a panel of top executives that includes a person of color discussing a business issue, than it is to just plop that person of color up there to talk about their race.” The Association Forum of Chicagoland, Chicago, is very attuned to this, says vice president and COO Pamm Schroeder. But, she adds, it takes more work to find new, diverse voices than it does to just fall back on speakers you already know and have good evaluations for.
Organizations have a tendency to think of diversity as a thing that is wholly separate from the day-to-day matters of business. So instead of thinking “Joe has some great ideas about where our industry is headed, let’s make sure he speaks,” the meeting planner thinks: “Joe is black, let’s show some diversity by having him speak about what it’s like to be a black man in this industry.”
3. Don’t reach out to people of color because you assume that your industry “just isn’t that diverse”
…Another common misperception made by dominant-culture planners, says Van Kerckhove, happens when people look around at a meeting and, seeing that there are few people of color, assume that it’s because there are few people of color in the profession or interest group the meeting serves. In fact, it may be that “many of the people organizing the conferences haven’t stepped out of their comfort zone to do a more thorough search to find people who are different from the mainstream” of attendees, she says.
Just because there was little diversity at every other meeting you’ve been to doesn’t mean that there’s no diversity in the industry. It could be that people of color are turned off by the meetings and opt to stay home. It’s up you to create an environment that’s inclusive to all people.