Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Such continual learning describes Arkansas BlueCross BlueShield, Thaden School and USAble Life Insurance – three organizations that, like more and more, have been embracing the seemingly unwieldy principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
While tempting to assume initiatives involving these concepts might just be the latest buzzwords in work or education, they actually result in a professional genuineness that’s refreshing. These principles, integrated into institution-wide policies, promote services that are employee-centered, and by extension, customer-centered.
To help illustrate what DEI initiatives involve, AMP sought insights from experts at these three institutions who are leading by example.
Arkansas BlueCross BlueShield
Stephanie Floyd, Director of Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer and Chair of InBLUEsion Steering Committee of Arkansas BlueCross and BlueShield, said the company’s relationship with DEI began long before DEI had even been a designated initiative.
“ABCBS has a long-standing reputation as a good corporate citizen. I believe this is because we always strive to do the right thing for all of our citizens, and that begins with doing the right thing for all of our employees.”
Extolling ABCBS’s being supportive of its employees from the top-down as a defining feature, she noted Inclusion was but a natural outgrowth of that support. Their employees complementarily have a terrific track record of engagement.
“We’ve always been inclusive – because that’s how we work. Over the years, we’ve gotten awards for not just being a great place to work but a great place for women to work. That tells you about how we are,” Floyd shared. In fact, as she points out, the company is demographically over 70% women.
“I’d had conversations over the years with Curtis Barnett, our CEO, about the diversity in our company,” she continued. “I have researched about why diversity is important to organizations – for morale and employee engagement. Over the years our employee engagement surveys, for instance, showed how diversity makes a difference – as far as women in leadership, minorities – people being recognized for their specific talents, experience in collaborating, being on various teams. This information makes better business decisions that coincide with and support the needs of the communities we serve, as well as our internal employees.”
Before 2021, for example, from such surveys, leaders in the company learned from their African American employees the value of observing Martin Luther King Day as a company holiday – the only federal holiday, Floyd observes, that honors an individual for all he stood for in our country.
“To me, this speaks volumes to the value our company places on all people, as we all know Dr. King lived and died for the civil rights of all people,” Floyd said.
Max Greenwood, Vice President of Government and Media Relations at ABCBS, reiterates this idea of a professional environment based on listening.
“Stephanie has spoken a lot about how she, and we as a company, listen. That’s really an extension of what we do with our customers, members and our providers. We are constantly reaching out to both our customers and the providers in the state to make sure that we are listening to their concerns, their needs, their problems. So what Stephanie and this initiative has done is basically taking that external practice that we’ve had for many, many years and, she has supercharged it internally throughout our company, which impacts everyone we touch,” Greenwood said.
“To implement [the formal DEI Initiative], in January 2021, we partnered with a third-party vendor whose expertise is diversity, equity and inclusion. They organized a number of forums and focus groups. About 40% of our employees participated in both. The vendor made recommendations. And by June, we quickly went to work on them, fully launched it, and were expanding the initiative. Our methods were communication and education, because the two are its keystones.”
Some important findings came from their employee resource groups (or ERGs – a primary feature of DEI initiatives) were concepts or ideas that occurred around the importance of certain holidays to particular ERGs. ERGs, as per Great Place to Work, are “voluntary, employee-led groups whose aim is to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with the organizations they serve.”
“We gave them opportunities to share and made it safe for them to share their stories around Juneteenth, Pride Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and so on.” These particular groups’ communicating the meaning of these holidays, has followed with education in Arkansas BlueCross.
They also emphasized the importance of education through courses which simulate unconscious bias and develop awareness among employees. Employees are able to develop vocabulary around biases which allow them to help one another and reduce unconscious bias’s negative effects. These trainings are essential and ongoing to an effective DEI environment in which all feel truly welcomed and safe.
When citing a challenge that comes with undertaking ABCBS’s title of the initiative, called ImBLUEsion, Floyd observed her company is approaching its 75th year in business.
“As the state’s largest and longest-serving health care insurer, we have deep roots in the history of Arkansas and with its people,” she explained. “Our state’s conservative values must always be considered as we make policy decisions in all areas of our business.” Floyd and other leaders consider their needs holistically, based on continuous research regarding best practices: “Our organization from the bottom up or the top down – if you will – has changed demographically. It’s a natural kind of a progression, as much as it is intentional.”
When she considers what originally drew her to the health insurance company, Floyd reflected, “Our slogan was ‘We care about people, Arkansas People.” When I think about that, I think about that how the faces, races, abilities, faiths, lifestyles and virtually every facet of existence for Arkansas people have changed. Inclusion becomes our culture.”
(Some actual names of minors have been changed for their protection.)
Another institution that has set these Diversity, Equity, Inclusion – and Justice – principles deep in its founding tenets is Thaden School in Bentonville, which was recently named the No. 1 private high school in Arkansas by Niche.com.
The desire for a school like Thaden was first made clear from community feedback. Dr. Lisa Herschbach, Executive Director of Community Relations and history faculty member, sat down to share some of the thinking behind the Thaden School. “A feasibility study in 2015 conducted by the Walton Family Foundation helped to gauge the level of interest in introducing an independent school. Unlike Little Rock, where you have a number of independent schools, here there really was only one secular independent school option, and that is in Fayetteville.”
Thaden was then founded in 2017 and now serves grades 6-12. The school seeks diversity of all types, crossing ethnic, cultural, political and socioeconomic boundaries. Having expanded gradually from 50 students in 2017 to 304 today, as the Thaden website reports, 33% of students are of color and 80% of families receive need-based, indexed, income-based tuition. Over 1 in 5 faculty are people of color, as well.
“Our approach hasn’t just been a matter of ticking off boxes or meeting quotas,” Herschbach clarified. “Rather our mission itself assumes that we’re a school educating young people for the future to function in a pluralistic and multicultural society. We see the value of a Thaden education as being inextricably tied to the diversity of our community. Thaden equips young people to navigate, understand, and contribute to that world.”
Herschbach explained the school’s structure impacts students’ worldviews in numerous ways.
One feature involves economic access. Herschbach explained, “We have a sliding scale for tuition, in which 80% of families participate. Our classrooms are small, and we aspire to achieve parity and balance in the perspectives and viewpoints around the table, as well as in the curriculum. That’s the educational promise that we’ve made to our students.”
But the heterogeneity does not end there. The architectural design of the school, class lengths, breaks between classes, and intersections among class disciplines all are fashioned with opportunities for meaningful conversations among both faculty and students.
“Our daily schedule also has what I like to call ‘ventilation,’” she continued. “For example, we have a full hour for lunch, eat family style, and have ten minutes between classes – so students are not just running from class to class. We recognize our daily schedule needs to include open time for students and teachers to come together; it is necessary to fully leverage the value that we’ve been able to attract.”
The campus includes ample room for such interactions, with nearly 150,000 square feet of building space, and includes many open areas – both indoors and out – for the school community to gather and interact formally and informally. As Herschbach said, “You can build a diverse community, but if you don’t also pair that with plenty of time and space for people to actually interact with one another, the value of that diversity is arguably much diminished.”
Thaden teachers foster these ideals with learning models and curricula which present multiple voices, perspectives and approaches to understanding topics. In Herschbach’s case, in teaching history, she introduces varying narratives around, for instance, “manifest destiny” and how that idea presents only one interpretation of Western expansion in American history.
“We’re learning about all the excitement, beauty, symmetry and purity that European colonists saw in this concept of manifest destiny,” she said. “But we’re also learning about what that meant on the ground when it came to Indian Removal, and what that looked and felt like for the sovereign tribes who lived on the territorial lands. If you review our course catalog, you’ll see that it is interdisciplinary, multimodal, and responsive to the representation of diverse voices and experiences.”
Another defining feature of their curriculum involves interdisciplinary study, to develop understanding how, say, a reading of historical fiction can augment the understanding of history.
To help further illustrate this DEIJ in action at Thaden School, Herschbach suggested inviting a student to gain her perspective. Mattie Smith, a junior, reflected on her experience. She has been elected to represent her peers on the 11th-grade student council – an honor that reflects her being well-equipped to represent her peers with regard to DEI concerns.
“I have been going to Thaden since 7th grade and have had a lot of first-hand experience with the DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice) efforts within the school,” she explained. “I identify as a woman of color (with South Asian descent) – a big part of who I am. Being a woman has pushed me to think a step ahead, but being of color has molded me into thinking a certain way. When considering who I am at Thaden I think of: being a varsity student-athlete, a minority, a woman, someone who always tries to make everyone feel included.”
Smith identified one of the school’s virtues as the support she feels from faculty in her being a student-athlete, which is striking compared to the lack of sensitivity she remembers experiencing at public school. That no one is excluded from playing sports or is cut Smith considers a DEIJ success. However, she does not always observe a true sense of justice when it comes to addressing student feedback. If a white student raises a concern to the administration it seems to be taken seriously, even if from prior years; whereas current concerns by students of color seem heard with no clear response. In this regard, the leadership does not yet truly seem invested in feedback from students and could improve in better listening and taking appropriate action.
Expanding further on discomfort in being a person of color in minority, Smith explained what she’s been able to do about it at Thaden.
“When thinking about something that used to be worse and is now getting better, I think about the diversity,” she said. “When first attending Thaden in 7th grade, I felt like an outsider because of my skin color and the fact I didn’t see too many people who looked like me. This was very hard because I came from a very diverse public school in Fayetteville. I know I never want anyone else to feel that. To help, two Thaden seniors (Nadia and Jackson) and I are starting the ‘Student of Color Affinity Group’ to help others who may be struggling with this, feel more comfortable, and know they are not alone. When I was younger I wish I could have had this group to go to, and find comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one.”
“Last year, two other students started a Latinx affinity group, but, after they graduated, it has died down,” she said. “By starting up SOCAS, we hope future affinity groups gain momentum for even more people to feel this inclusion. I am also attending SDLC (Student Diversity Leadership Conference) this year, a big conference with different types of people, in which you get to talk about personal experiences and problems. Thaden has saved at least three spots from which students get selected. I think this opportunity in itself is huge on diversity and experience.”
Being such a unique school comes with its own hurdles.
“This kind of work is always ongoing,” admitted Herschbach. “A very real challenge was managing the COVID pandemic. Our intentionally created community, which celebrates and insists upon many perspectives, was facing a public health crisis. Finding agreement was hard in determining the right steps to safety while also building consensus and trust. Whereas Gov. Hutchinson could direct district schools, Thaden had freedom to decide for themselves, but this hasn’t always been easy. “We were such a new school – that hadn’t yet graduated our first senior class – that developing a sense of community amid that crisis proved more challenging still.”
With such challenges, along with others, Thaden ultimately turns to their mission to mediate those concerns via their long-term goals for the school.
“We are accountable to both our funders and our creditors and aim to show that not just our student body reflects the level of diversity to which we aspire,” Herschbach said. “It’s our teachers, our staff, anybody who’s part of our community.”
Moreover, Herschbach ties the demographics of Bentonville’s larger community in with some of the obstacles inherent in reaching Thaden’s ideals. “It has been challenging at times to retain people. The themes of belonging and inclusion, as observed in Crystal Bridges, the Momentary, TheatreSquared, are constantly sounded in very intentional ways one might take for granted if coming from a very heterogeneous metropolis like Boston or Los Angeles.”
Thaden exists within a community in transition, from being pretty rural and agricultural and not very diverse or with pockets of diversity to its moving into having greater heterogeneity. Herschbach notes the Spanish-speaking population that thrives in Springdale which has emerged from economic opportunities with the protein industry and the relocating of many Marshallese people to the United States as contributing to Bentonville’s adjustment to new diversity. It is so important to have these cultures “be seen and valued in a reciprocal new sort of culture by the wider community.” Thaden is responding to that call.
Rich Macy, President and CEO-Elect for USAble Life, also provides candid insight into the DEI initiative with respect to the needs of communities within his company.
“The practices that USAable has embraced in the past few years are moving us forward from an inclusion perspective. For instance, we have embraced a flexible work environment and only require a handful of roles to be in the office. As we know, underrepresented groups are better able to participate in the workforce when there is flexibility in work locations, hours and not being forced to conform to the historical expectations of in-office work. Our embracing a work-from-anywhere approach has made us much stronger – and national.”
In elaborating on how a remote work environment can help with principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, Macy observed how Zoom reduces the instances of microaggressions in the workplace.
As explained in the Harvard Business Review, these microaggressions “are statements or actions that feel hostile or offensive to some aspect of our identity – and can target many aspects of who we are. They can be related to someone’s race, gender, sexuality, parental status, socioeconomic background, mental health or any other aspect of our identity. Most often, microaggressions are aimed at traditionally marginalized identity groups.”
A specific example of a microaggression, as Macy explained, is the term “grandfathering.” Awareness about the offensiveness of this term emerged from their ERGs. Its historical meaning pertains to early voting rights for African American men after the 15th Amendment’s ratification to the Constitution. But the term was actually employed to disenfranchise new voters, limiting voting rights to only those slaves whose grandfathers had had the right to vote (which of course were almost none). Using “grandfathering” in other contexts can thus be interpreted as deeply offensive and contrary to the often benign intention around, for instance, bringing “grandfathering” in new persons into insurance policies based on parental or relational connection.
Often these sorts of comments, that start with generalities such as “these people…,” are curtailed in the more formal video meetings. Macy further noted that reducing the number of microaggressions enables the groups targeted in such remarks to better engage in the work and expend less energy tolerating them. Not surprisingly, therefore, Macy explains that DEI needs to be a multipronged effort that not only enables work in a distributed environment but also continues to educate, train and reduce microaggressions regardless.
A “work-from-anywhere approach” also allows people with disabilities to accommodate their work environment at locations where they’re most comfortable and effective and can be assessed solely on their work contributions. As Macy noted, that flexibility also allows employees with childcare needs to more easily handle them by eliminating commuting time. It’s an equitable solution for diverse populations.
Another facet of USAble’s DEI initiatives regards ERGs. Macy added, “Our inclusion efforts, primarily through our Employee Resource Groups, have raised the level of dialogue among our diverse groups to improve understanding of differences. For instance, we had a particularly good session on neurodiversity and how neurodiverse individuals have a variety of ways they like to be referred to and spoken to.”
Macy explains the result of the ERGS and other DEI conversations have actually helped the organization adopt a more balanced approach to lesser discussed political differences. Citing the often politicized interpretations of COVID precautions as an example, he stated the importance of people with varying viewpoints in being able to have respectful, meaningful discussions about these differences.
A challenge toward making strides in these areas, Macy actually referenced himself: “I personally think that ‘discomfort’ has been the greatest challenge. It is not easy – for anyone, especially managers – to be comfortable having conversations about race, gender, LGBTQ+ and disability issues. There has always been caution in having conversations on these issues. Overcoming the discomfort in talking to one another will take time but is very much necessary.”
As progress at USAble Life, Macy points to their improving employee engagement survey results. Macy explained, “Our Black/African-American engagement scores from our 2018 annual employee survey showed that we had work to do with that specific community. This survey was the impetus to the start of our formal Inclusion Program as a company scorecard item and led us to hiring an external consultant and forming our ERGs. Another critical step we took was to expand all our policy language on harassment/discrimination be expanded from the more historical dimension (age, gender, race and religion) to include national origin, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, and veteran’s status.”
USAble’s success in DEI efforts has been due to honest communication. “Communication is the essential component, as is clearly communicating why we are focused on inclusion. This is followed by training and knowledge expansion that takes many different forms including forums led by our ERGs on specific issues or training for managers on how to better manage a diverse workforce in our now normal virtual working world.”
Macy further emphasized the ongoing nature of effective inclusion. He reported, “I don’t think you can stop at creating and achieving an inclusive environment that strives to eliminate biased processes, microaggressions, and personal preconceptions. That is the essential first step. But the second step is making sure you provide the support mechanisms that enable everyone to comfortably be themselves so that they can more fully participate at work as themselves.”
Part of an effective strategy for implementing DEI tenets is to connect to an organization’s already existing defining values.
“There are two aspects to our connection strategy,” said Macy. The first is connecting to our value of Being a Great Teammate. Our Inclusion efforts make each of us a better teammate through broader understanding, respect, and appreciation of differences. The other aspect is that all companies are faced with resource challenges. Removing barriers enables individuals to participate more fully which boosts our productivity. We saw this when we went fully remote at the beginning of the pandemic. An unexpected, but very logical, benefit that we experienced was the 15% of employees that already were fully remote were much, much more engaged because now they were on a level field with everyone else. Through our Inclusion efforts, we are experiencing additional engagement of all employees, which definitely contributes to our long-term success.”