Representation Matters: Diversity in the Workplace Course Showcases Relevance of DEIB Work to Students (Part II)

Conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) are common across colleges and universities not solely because of current events. Industry is demanding that college graduates possess an awareness and vocabulary around DEIB in the workplace. The question higher education now grapples with is, how can we prepare the next generation of business leaders to tackle the hard and contemporary problems of the present day?

Phil Wagner is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Management Communications at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business. He is also host of the podcast, “Diversity Goes to Work.” And recently, he created a new DC-based version of his “Diversity in the Workplace” course. This 10-day immersive class was designed to give William and Mary students an opportunity for immersive and experiential learning in the DEIB space.

“In the business school, we talk a lot about wicked problems which are these dynamic and complex issues that need to be addressed but there are so many different perspectives on how to do it. There’s no right or wrong – well, that is precisely what diversity, equity, and inclusion are to most organizations. The goal here was full-blown, non-stop experiential learning to increase our understanding of the best—and most sustainable—DEIB work,” Wagner said.

Part I of this series recapped the people, organizations, and programs that students engaged with during the course. Part II looks at how the Diversity in the Workplace course partnered with museums, restaurants, and individuals to emphasize why representation matters in diversity and inclusion work.

Learning from the Past

On days five and six of the course – the halfway point - the students visited two DC landmarks to learn more about historically marginalized groups and how it affects the DEIB work that’s done today.

First, they toured the Museum of African American History and Culture located on the National Mall.

“The museum illuminated the origins of discrimination in the nation and contextualized many of the lessons we had learned about the importance of diversity in the workplace. We digested many powerful reasons why we need to improve workplace climates,” said Kavi Shah, ‘24. “While adequate representation for minority groups in the workplace is certainly a great first step for companies to take, changing harmful cultures within companies takes much more profound work than elevating and hiring diverse faces.”

On the following day, the students met virtually with Dr. Rebecca Carter-Chand, Director of the Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. She was joined by Program Coordinator, Julia Liden.

Carter-Chand discussed how the German churches wove between complacency, enthusiastic adherence, and rejection of the antisemitic policies of the Third Reich. She outlined the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism, and explored the decisions of individual leaders.

“The focus was on religion and identity, with a particular role of acknowledging painful realities and the potentials of a hope-filled future,” Liden explained.

Wagner notes that the goal was to show how where we are—despite decades of progress—still holds remnants of the past. Though uncomfortable, these are important realities for DEI practitioners to grapple with. After the presentation, the group toured the museum, which had a significant and lasting impression according to Lesley Sun, ’23.

“It was disorienting and so impactful, and the tour brought me deeper into the tragic history. The museum has done incredible work of immersing visitors in the horrid events of the Holocaust. I think everyone left a little shaken that day.”

Influencing the Present

Throughout the course, students discussed the concept of identity through different lenses including socioeconomic, cultural, racial, ethnic, and the disabled. But perhaps one of the most unique perspectives students gained was related to gender and sexuality, and their intersection with prejudicial and intolerant behaviors in the workplace.

Dr. Deborah Fabian, ’79 and her wife Leslie joined the students for a conversation about Fabian’s male-to-female transition and the overt discrimination she faced.

“The way in which they have supported each other through their many challenges was truly inspiring,” said Caroline Brickley, ‘24.

Sun agreed.

“They really illustrated the complexity and nuance of gender and sexual orientation. But they also reminded me of the messiness of DEIB, but that it should not deter us from having the courage and persistence to pursue one’s authentic self,” she said. “DEIB takes courage.”

The students were also educated on the importance of representation through a series of conversations over meals, or “Chat & Chews.” The group sought to explore the intersections of culture, hospitality, and inclusion and did so while breaking bread at the DC’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl. The space is significant given its role in uniting protesters and police during the 1968 race riots. The group had an opportunity to hear from Chopped Next Gen Champion and Executive Chef of The Gathering Spot, Chef Martel Stone on his perspective of racial realities in the hospitality industry.

And nearly every student who agreed to be interviewed for this story said the insights shared by Patrice Cleary, owner of the renowned Filipino restaurant Purple Patch, impacted their views on the importance of representation. Cleary’s restaurant was vandalized during the 2020 wave of Asian hate crimes, and she shared how she exposed the unfair treatment of the DC Asian community by the police.

“That meeting was a profound experience. She overcame adversity in many ways, including persevering in the wake of anti-Asian American violence,” said Brickley.

Pietro Marino, ‘23 noted the conversation about advocating for underrepresented groups opened his eyes to how this work can transcend efforts made in an academic or professional setting.

“Our time at Purple Patch was an important reminder of the incredible grassroots work community leaders can cultivate to instill positive change beyond the workplace,” he explained.

Changing the Future

Cleary’s story resonated strongly with the group; several cited her words about the importance of “disrupting with tact” as a key lesson from the experience and plan to apply it to their respective diversity and inclusion work in the future.

“I learned creating a more equitable and fair work environment neither starts nor ends inside one’s workplace, rather it is a continuous process that requires fundamental changes to ourselves as we diligently work to reconstruct how we approach our professional careers,” said Marino. “Part of my on-going education with diversity and inclusion is recognizing when to be an educator versus when to be a listener.”

The idea of continuous improvement to diversity and inclusion initiatives was brought up numerous times throughout the 10-day itinerary by multiple guest speakers and partners. Brickley explained that Nathan Chin, ‘08 from Cvent mentioned the struggles his own organization encountered when implementing new DEIB programs.

“His organization took a long time to implement diversity and inclusion initiatives, and even then, they required a lot of revision. He said the process “is a journey” and that phrase stuck with me,” she said.

Overall, the entire course left the participants with some incredibly valuable takeaways they plan to instill in their professional work – DEIB related or otherwise – at the companies and organizations they join following graduation. Through this experience, they acquired the knowledge, vocabulary, and first-hand perspectives of different underrepresented groups they may encounter in the workplace.

And contrary to popularly held belief, Shah says, “Being an advocate for DEIB work within the workplace does not make you anti-business or anti-productivity.” Wagner couldn’t agree more. “We’re here to make organizations better. Data tells us that inclusive organizations are successful organizations.”

But, says Megan Johnson, ‘24, the key is “you can never be an expert in DEIB work. The best DEIB professionals are those that stay curious, listen to others stories, and constantly challenge their own perspective.”