The limitations of privilege: how diversity, equity, and inclusion are crucial to solving the challenges of climate change

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) doesn’t just happen. It has to be intentional. It has to be embedded. It has to be given space to thrive. But without actively embedding it in our day-to-day interactions, we won’t be able to solve the sustainability challenges we face.


I am not an expert in diversity, equity, or inclusion.

Of course, I am aware that they are fundamental parts of healthy human interactions. I’m eager to learn more about them. I am constantly amazed at how much I don’t know. Not knowing a lot, I have learned, is linked to my privilege of being a white, relatively affluent, straight woman in America.

What I do know a lot about is organizational behavioral change. I know the importance of process to help reduce the many barriers to individual and organizational change. I know that visions, missions, and value statements are only valuable if they are transferable day-to-day, meeting-to-meeting, and person-to-person.

So why would I write a piece on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?

Toward a culture of DEI

Recently, I realized that I wasn’t practicing what I preach when it came to DEI. To me, in my work, it was a value statement. It was something that I personally, and the company I work for, strive to have. And that was that. Luckily, over the past few years, I learned that DEI was interconnected to my work, but I was having a hard time knowing how to actively practice it.

But then this past winter, I had the opportunity to meet Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity at Princeton University. She gave a presentation with her colleagues Shawn Maxam, Assistant Director for Diversity and Inclusion, and Shana Weber, Director of Sustainability, about the connections between sustainability and DEI.

What stood out to me most was the importance of the process to establish a culture that is dedicated to addressing DEI. It doesn’t just happen. No presidential letter, formal commitment, or dedicated department can, in itself, turn the tide of current cultural norms. It has to be intentional. It has to be embedded. It has to be given space to thrive.

Hearing this was a lightbulb moment for me. Being intentional. We want to be sustainable. We also do not want to be racist.

But living in a society that exhibits both unsustainable practices and racism means we need to take intentional action forward—towards undoing the damage that has been done through centuries of activity. That is behavior change.

Changing our behavior takes work. It takes ongoing effort, energy, embracing vulnerability, and most importantly, continuous learning in addressing what we don’t know by learning together.

I need to take intentional action to find ways to embed new behaviors in current routines. Providing space for dialogue and growth. This process mirrors what I try to accomplish in my work with clients—whether it is facilitating retreats or supporting sustainability and climate action strategic plans. I just never thought to apply it as a way to advance DEI beyond a value statement.

The limitations of privilege

In my work, have I thought about the value of different perspectives? Yes, absolutely.

That said, I have usually approached my work through the lens of psychology. I would think about each individual who shows up to my meetings as having their own history, their own knowledge, and their own behaviors. I would prepare my agendas to account for a group of individuals to create a space where, I felt, they could communicate freely and with respect in order to problem-solve collaboratively. My insight stopped there.

Blinded by my expertise in psychology and behavior change, I was unaware that my tools for engagement are based on my reality—one of whiteness, of native-English-speaking privilege. I started to realize that I have often missed the nuances of race and cultures different from my own and how that can silence people in meetings and interactions where we desperately need everyone’s voices.

I have learned—and winced from embarrassment—that some of my good intentions in meeting facilitation have had unintended consequences: alienating instead of uniting, silencing instead of amplifying. It was an important lesson for me, one that I am taking seriously. It is the reason why I am writing this post: I want to use my strengths in creating process and structure for organizational change, and I want to adapt it so that DEI is no longer a value statement, but foundational to how our work is done.

Complex problems like climate change need everyone’s input

We can’t solve for complex problems with only the voices of a few. We can’t have a strategic plan that strives for DEI if it was not operational in the planning process itself. We can’t have a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization if these are only words on pages and matter to only a handful of messengers.

For us to reap all the benefits—and there are many—from just, equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplaces, we must start with acknowledging where our deficits lie as individuals and as teams. I’m taking this step to admit how little I know, because I want to know more. This conversation is just the beginning.

So where do we go from here?

We all have varying levels of engagement and reach at our organizations. I work with sustainability and facilities staff that engage daily with campus partners from all different departments. It is easy to focus on your task at hand and forget about the breadth of reach you have. Every meeting you run, every event you host, any process or policy you have a hand in creating is an opportunity to set the tone for the culture at your institution. These are the opportunities to incorporate DEI into your work.

This is where I’ve begun.

  • I’ve gotten curious and have taken a learning stance. I am choosing to learn more. There are lots of resources out there with people who are experts in the field. Important conversations are happening every day. I have found it empowering to understand my blind spots better and to engage in how to start seeing better. I’m trying to be honest about what I don’t know and would like to learn.
  • I’m taking responsibility for my part, even if it is small. I’ve been reflecting on my work and looking for small changes I can do to integrate DEI into how I do my job. I’m not waiting for someone else to figure it out for me.
  • I’m asking for feedback and adjusting. Even writing this article has been a collaborative effort! I advise everyone to be open to asking for feedback to find ways to improve, and I especially hold myself accountable to the same. The best way I do that is to start back at step one: get curious.

As soon as I started showing curiosity, people have been thrilled to share resources with me. I want to pay it forward and share these resources with you too (see below).

I also want to hear from all of you: What resources do you recommend? How have you used your role to practice DEI in your day-to-day engagements with the many stakeholders you work with?

You can send a direct message via Talk to Us or join a larger conversation with me and others on LinkedIn.


Some resources:

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