Equity: How can we design organizations where everyone thrives?
Equity helps leaders create more inclusive organizations using human-centered design and behavior change principles. Farra Trompeter talks with Minal Bopaiah, founder of Brevity & Wit and author of “Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives” about her passion for equity and why it is critical for nonprofit organizations.
Sarah Durham: The first episode of The Smart Communications Podcast aired back in 2018, and since then, we’ve released almost a hundred podcasts on all sorts of communications topics. All of our podcasts strive to develop the voices of determined nonprofits, people like you. And if you’ve been listening to our podcast for a while, you may be used to hearing my voice, in particular. I’m Sarah Durham and I created this podcast so my colleagues at Big Duck and I would have a way to celebrate, share, and learn even more from incredible nonprofit communications leaders, and to celebrate the third birthday of the show, we’ve decided to add a new layer of dimension into it. I’ve invited a number of my colleagues to conduct their own interviews and solo casts for the show, so we can broaden the depth and breadth of perspectives and voices we share with you even further. So get ready to hear more Smart Communications insights from even more voices and as always let us know what you think by emailing us at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.
Farra Trompeter: This is Farra Trompeter, chief growth officer and partner here at Big Duck. Today. I am delighted to be joined by Minal Bopaiah. I first met Minal at the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference from NTEN. There Minal was co-presenting a really interesting session on disrupting unconscious bias as we grow our brand. So of course, you know we were intrigued. I’ve since had a chance to get to know her personally and professionally. She is lovely as you will soon learn if you have not met her yourself. She’s also the author of a brand new book called “Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives.” And in fact, that is what we’re going to talk about today. But before we dive into that subject, I want to tell you a little bit more about Minal. She is the founder of Brevity & Wit, a strategy and design firm that combines human-centered design behavior, change science, and the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility to help organizations transform themselves. And in the world, Minal has written for the Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Hill and has been a featured guest on numerous podcasts, not just this one, including the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU. Minal has also been a keynote speaker for many conferences, inspiring thousands with her credible, authentic, and engaging talks. You can learn more about her and her new and exciting book at TheEquityBook.com. Minal, welcome to the show.
Minal Bopaiah: Thank you, Farra. It’s so lovely to be here.
Farra Trompeter: Many people have been talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in recent years, also accessibility. And one of the things I really appreciate in just the summary of your book is this line: “Even the most passionate advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion have been known to treat equity as the middle child–the concept they skip over to get to the warm, fuzzy feelings of inclusion.” So let’s just start there. Why did you write this book and why did you focus on equity?
Minal Bopaiah: I’ve been really passionate about diversity, probably for most of my life, even though I didn’t enter it until later in my career. And what I’ve noticed is that inclusion is really important, but it can focus too much on the interpersonal. In doing so, it misses some of the structural roots of inequality in our society. And I think we’re starting to develop language as a country about how racism, yes, it’s interpersonal, but the systemic institutional policy-driven racism is far more harmful than the interpersonal version. And that’s true for all systems of oppression. But there’s really this system and this structure, which can seem cold and can make your head hurt when we start to think about it. But if we really want to change society, then we really do need to think about it and address it. And so that’s why I wrote the book.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. Yeah. We at Big Duck have done a lot of training and conversations with the folks at Race Forward, and one of the things I really appreciate about their training and approach is to acknowledge, yes, there are many levels and the interpersonal, but we really need to go into, and the individual levels of racism, but let’s really talk about the systems and the structure. And I’m glad to see that you’re talking about that as well.
Farra Trompeter: I also understand that you wrote this book to help leaders create more inclusive organizations using human-centered design and behavior change principles, which obviously is also connected to the work you do at Brevity and Wit. And I’m just wondering if you could share one or two human-centered design and behavior change principles and just kind of, how do those principles connect to organizational culture? Right? This is one thing when we think about design and the work that we both do in communications and branding, how does that then come back to how we’re thinking about our organizations?
Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. So it’s important to note that the system didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, it was designed by the people who came before us, whether we’re talking about our country or whether we’re talking about the founders of our organizations or the leaders of our organizations current day. What we do in addition to graphic design and communications design is organization design. How do we design our organizations to make it easier to be more equitable? Now we use a human-centered design approach, but there have been some critiques of human-centered design, or as it’s also known design thinking in that, given that it was primarily a sort of advocated for and promoted through IDEO and Stanford, that there has been very much a white lens and a white gaze on how we’ve approached human-centered design. And particularly around this idea of empathy. There’s been this assumption that as a human being, I can step into anybody’s shoes. That needs to fundamentally be re-thought. Which is not to say that empathy isn’t important, but there’s also a need for some amount of humility because what social science has shown is that if you have not had the experience of being homeless, or suicidally depressed, or a veteran, or a Black person in America, then you are likely to engage your stereotypes in any practice of empathy. And you’re actually likely to be more wrong about the assumptions you might make about somebody’s experience.
Minal Bopaiah: And so instead of what’s called perspective-taking, we encourage people to engage in what we call perspective-gathering. And that’s really about asking people about their experience and believing them when they tell you. And there’s a great example from the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. So during the Obama administration, the administration was really considering on moral grounds whether to repeal “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” in the military. And at the time there were, I think, over a thousand retired military leaders who wrote a letter saying that given their past experience as military leaders, it would really hurt morale, discipline, unit cohesion, and military readiness to repeal this law. At the same time, the Pentagon took a different approach and asked soldiers their opinion directly by serving 115,000 soldiers and over 40,000 of their spouses.
Minal Bopaiah: And about 70% believe that the appeal would have no effect or that it would have a positive effect on the military. And more tellingly about the same number said that they had already worked with a gay service member and that it had no effect on the unit’s ability to work together. And this even led defense secretary Robert Gates to conclude that the appeal would not be this dramatic change. And it actually was sort of like a no-effect change in the military when this went through and the Obama administration repealed it based on the Pentagon’s ability to actually gather the perspectives of the servicemen who were serving. And so that is an empathy that is based on perspective-gathering rather than assuming that people who have spent the longest time in the military could possibly put themselves in the shoes of the people who were serving now.
Farra Trompeter: I love this idea of perspective-gathering, I read an article in Fast Company a few weeks ago. I don’t know if you saw this but we’ll link to it in the show notes, the article was called “The most popular design thinking strategy is BS.” And what they basically said in that article is that a lot of design thinking sort of leads with how might we do x and what it should really do is focus in on who should we talk to and why are we doing this? Asking the who and the why, not the how, and this idea of perspective-gathering, I think is really a great example of that.
Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. But really having the humility to understand that you can’t understand everybody’s lived experience and you’re not meant to, and that’s okay, but then just have the humility to ask them. And then the second part of that is this behavior change principle about diagnosing obstacles. So once you identify what’s the behavior you want to see in your organization, any behavior change specialist will tell you that for behavior change communications or behavior change in general, it’s not enough to tell people what they want to do or motivate them to do it. You also have to diagnose for the obstacles. So I often say that, if the information was enough to get people to change behavior, everybody would floss every night and exercise three times a week and not have any credit card debt. And whenever I ask this question in an audience, there’s usually one or two superhuman people who do all those three things. And then the rest of us mere mortals are like, okay, like we need to hack our brains, cause clearly knowing that we should do this is not enough.
Minal Bopaiah: And so what gets in the way? For me, flossing, I hate how you get those little specks on the mirror, that is what stops me from flossing every day. It is not a lack of information or motivation. It’s the “ick factor.” How would you design around that? And so those are the sort of principles that we need to bring to this work that make it much more pragmatic and much more centered on the lived experiences of the people who are most affected by systems of oppression.
Farra Trompeter: Thank you. I will start flossing every night after listening to this podcast. And I share that “ick factor” with the mirror.
Minal Bopaiah: There’s just got to be a better method than the thread. I was like, really? This is what we’re at in 2021?
Farra Trompeter: Maybe at some point, a robot will do it for us. I don’t know.
Farra Trompeter: We both have the pleasure of working for organizations who really work hard to make the world a better place by working with different types of organizations out there. I think you described them as “socially-conscious organizations” over at Brevity and Wit, which I really like a lot. And I’m just curious if you can share an example of a socially conscious organization that you know has applied these ideas, and of course, bonus points, if you have any examples connected to communications.
Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. So one of the things I often have to speak about is the fact that being a nonprofit or a social good organization doesn’t make you exempt from having engaged in a system of oppression, or racism or misogyny. And I think sometimes people really think like, well, we’re doing good work, so we can’t be racist. And I was like, that’s not really how it works. Let’s unpack that. And part of that is often because I have a marketing and comms background speaking to fundraising teams. One of the things I have really started talking to nonprofits to, and I am happy to say that there are a number that are starting to at least adopt this and try to put it into practice is the fact that if you are interviewing and using your beneficiary stories for fundraising, you need to pay those people for their stories and their time.
Minal Bopaiah: That is basically their IP that you are using to generate your salary. And more importantly, you need to give them some agency to be able to like revoke the right to use it if they’re ever in danger and don’t want to be on the internet. And you need to pay them the way you would pay a Deloitte consultant, this is not pizza and beer money that you’re paying them with. One of the organizations that really has implemented that is Communities in Schools. And my friend, Sarah Boison, who actually presented with me at the NTEN conference where we met.
Farra Trompeter: That’s right. And I spoke to her recently, and I’m trying to get her on the podcast. So maybe the three of us will do a follow-up.
Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. Maybe. Yeah. I think she’s actually left Community in Schools since.
Farra Trompeter: Yes, she is at The Climate Reality Project now. So shout out to Sarah we’ll link to your organization too.
Minal Bopaiah: Sarah is just fabulous. Yeah. But she shared with me how Communities In Schools has started paying its beneficiaries. Communities in Schools basically is a program to make adults, and resources, in the communities, available to school children in order for them to have more success in schooling. Basically, they have a program that a lot of kids go through and are alumni of that program. Some of their beneficiaries have been invited to their board and actually their current CEO, Rey Saldana is an alumnus of their program and is now their CEO. So they have really been able to center their beneficiaries and how they’re now running their organization and in paying them for their lived experience as a form of expertise that informs their work.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, that’s great. I know that has come up a lot, particularly in fundraising where stories are often shared. And not just selling stories of dignity from a place where we’re really acknowledging and compensating that person for sharing it. So I appreciate that example.
Farra Trompeter: Well, before we go, I always love to make sure we’re giving practical things that folks can do and apply. As they’re thinking about these ideas. I’m curious if you have any ideas for what people can do if they really want to center equity and make their organizations places, like you say, where everyone can thrive. So can you share an idea or two with our listeners?
Minal Bopaiah: Yeah. I think the hardest part about equity is that it requires being able to see the system, which not everybody does naturally. I think it takes a little bit of learning to be able to see the system. And so one of the things that I often encourage people to do in order to see the system is to do the research to be able to retell your own personal story of success. So for example, I run a business now and I have a book coming out and a lot of people love to sort of congratulate me on this sort of entrepreneurial “hustle and grind” philosophy that they think must be the secret behind what we’ve accomplished in the last year.
Minal Bopaiah: But the fact of the matter is I’ve always sorta wanted to be on my own and couldn’t do it because I was single. I didn’t get married till I was 41. When I did get married, I was on my husband’s health insurance, and I had a three-month buffer where we had a second income to lean on it. Wasn’t a big buffer, you know, neither one of us was independently wealthy, but it was just enough for me to be able to turn a profit. On top of that, while I was writing the book, my husband is really supportive and did all the housework, and we don’t have children. And so we really live in a country where unless you are financially independent and wealthy, or you have the benefit of two incomes, it is almost impossible to start your own business. And so when I tell this story of Brevity and Wit’s success, it’s important to mark that there is a system of marriage and the way that our health insurance is doled out that supported. And also the way that we think about parenting and caregiving by one opting in to get married and then opting out of parenthood, and having a husband who did enough work to not be threatened by a wife who makes more money, is what supported my success.
Minal Bopaiah: And that doesn’t mean that I haven’t worked hard, but a lot of people are working hard and not getting places. So we have to start talking about what is the system doing in addition to your hard work that is lifting you up? And if leaders and people in organizations can begin to tell their stories more honestly and authentically in that manner, by crediting how the system has supported their accomplishments and success, then we will be able to start to teach everybody how to see the system and really change things.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I love that. I can see organizations going back and revisiting their origin stories and re-looking at their messaging. “How do you explain who you are and how you got there?” as a result of this idea of retelling your story of success. I love that idea. I just want to give you a shout-out. I got married at 42, so, you know, here’s to getting married in our forties.
Minal Bopaiah: It was the best idea. You know, I feel like it was a good decision at 41. And thinking about who I was dating in my twenties, I stand by that too.
Farra Trompeter: I was with my wife for 15 years. So we did meet when we were in our twenties, but, you know, good things come to those who wait.
Minal Bopaiah: Some people have those stories, which I think are great too.
Farra Trompeter: Minal, thank you. I really enjoy this conversation. I always really love everything you have to share. If you haven’t already connected with Minal and her company on Twitter, follow them at @brevityandwit. Make sure you can also check out their website at brevityandwit.com. I’m a huge fan of their e-newsletter and often tweeting out the articles that you highlight there., so thank you for that. And of course, you can now order Minal’s book and really learn more about this topic at TheEquityBook.com. And Minal, thanks again for being here today.
Minal Bopaiah: Thanks so much for having me.