Five Ways to Foster Inclusion and Equity from the Ground Up

By Phyllis Barajas, Social Entrepreneur / Founder & CEO, Conexión Inc

This month, we’ve been talking about equity, and the importance of ensuring that all people in our community have equal access to opportunities for success.  We are fortunate to have an expert on this topic in our own backyard, or more accurately, on our Board of Directors.  For the better part of a decade, Phyllis Barajas has helped United Way of Massachusetts Bay define and execute on our mission – always with an eye toward promoting fairness and equity in our work.  In addition to being a long-serving United Way board member, Phyllis is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Conexión, which she created to develop a pipeline of Hispanic/Latino leaders – equipping corporations, nonprofits, and government to effectively address the implications of the nation’s changing demographics and specifically Hispanic Latinos, now the second largest population group in the United States – to the mutual benefit of the individuals, their organizations, and society as a whole. 

We’re so pleased that she agreed to share her expertise about how to foster equity in the workplace.

Diversity and inclusion are not enough.

The United States and the world are becoming more and more diverse as major demographic shifts continue to take place (Brookings – US population projection 2045). Here in the U.S., we must ensure that we continue to tap into and cultivate the best that each member of our society has to offer in order to maintain our role as world leaders.  A big part of making that happen is developing equitable organizational cultures.

Equity– and how it is defined and applied in organizations– is about an organizational culture where people believe that they are treated in a fair and impartial manner.  Where everyone’s contribution is valued and, at the risk of sounding cliché, respected.

Creating Equity Where it May Not Exist

Equity is about creating a level playing field. In many circumstances, the level playing field does not exist.  Some individuals have advantages that are bestowed on them over and above doing a great job. These advantages can often be attributed to the persons’ gender, race, the schools they attended, where they grew up, and their social networks – just to name a few.

Although being really good at what you do is, in fact, important, the idea of a meritocracy and working hard as the way to get ahead, is simply not the whole truth. What differentiates all the hard-working individuals out there who do get ahead?   Opportunity, sponsorship, and the willingness to get outside one’s comfort zone and take some risks.


Be intentional. Go beyond your assumptions, your norms, your standard practice, and your usual networks.  Risk-taking and its benefits fall on the individuals in an organization who speak up, make suggestions, go beyond the confines of their job description. Risk-taking also requires a willingness on the part of organizations to create space for dialogue, for a give and take approach to problem solving. Be intentional in your people practices that foster greater access to opportunities.

Seek out connectors in your own organization. Look around and find individuals in your organization who represent different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives than your own. Take a risk, share your ideas and seek their input. Take an outcome-oriented approach to problem solving and try alternative approaches to achieving those outcomes. Provide opportunities for these connectors to participate in a leadership capacity. It will send a message that diverse leadership is valued too.

Ask open-ended questions. For instance, “What do you think?” “What has worked for you?” “How was it received by the participants?” Encourage an appreciative approach to creating new solutions. Remember, you are working toward a more equitable organizational culture.  An environment that is experienced as fair and impartial. Where people believe their ideas and opinions are valued and respected

Reflective thinking.  We have been focusing on diversity and inclusion efforts for decades in response to the reality that by 2050 the United States will be a multicultural country. No one group will comprise more than 50% of the population (Pew US Population projections 2005-2050).  After a period of thinking of the value of diversity in your organization, the next step is to create goals and expand upon your organization’s mission, purpose, and business practices to incorporate these significant societal shifts and the opportunities they represent.

Equity is critical to leveraging what has been accomplished to date.  Enlightened organizations recognize that to truly benefit from the growing diversity in our society we must demonstrate that we are curious, open-minded and willing to reflect on other points of view.  Fostering organizational cultures that feel equitable will ultimately lead to your organization being the best it can be. Be patient, it takes time to change attitudes and behaviors.  And significant change takes a significant amount of time.