With over two decades of experience in DEI leadership development and intercultural learning, Shilpa Alimchandani, author of Communicating Development Across Cultures: Monologues and Dialogues in Development Project Implementation, is a leadership coach, instructional designer, and facilitator.
In her independent consulting practice, she is passionate about helping her clients tackle issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion to achieve transformational change.
In this third episode of our seven-part series on the learning business in disruptive times, Celisa talks with return guest, Shilpa about DEI, including what it is, ways it’s being impacted by disruption, and how it relates to implicit bias. They also discuss the importance of unlearning and what learning businesses need to know about supporting DEI and succeeding in these disruptive times.
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[00:18] – Introduction to Shilpa Alimchandani.
Make sure to check out our previous interview with Shilpa about unconscious bias.
[01:34] – Tell us a little bit more about the work that you do.
Shilpa shares that throughout her career, whether it was in higher education, nonprofit, government service, or in the private sector (where she’s doing most of her consulting now), she’s always been really focused on helping people to build bridges and to be their authentic selves in all of our complexity as humans.
She recognizes that each of us brings so much of ourselves to our professional world.
So it’s not just the degrees that we have or the skills that we have. Shilpa says it’s all of our background, history, and identities—and that’s a beautiful thing.
But it can also be a source of misunderstanding and of conflict so she thinks it’s really important to facilitate conversations and learning so that people can really be their authentic selves.
[02:47] – When you think about what you’re living through, what you’re working through now, what comes to mind? What are the kinds of disruption that you’re experiencing?
Shilpa admits the list is almost endless during this time.
But the most obvious one (as someone who does a lot of facilitation and training around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion), is that a lot of the work that had traditionally been done in person, is now all virtual. So that is a big shift and change.
And at the same time, she’s been really heartened to see just how much and how deep the learning can be using virtual tools and platforms.
So she doesn’t feel that we’re behind or not able to do the kind of work we want to do in the learning space, just that we’re going to have to be more creative in that process.
DEI: A Shift from the Individual to Systems
[04:21] – I hear you speaking to one aspect of the pandemic—the need to shift from that live, in person training to making use of these virtual tools and needing to learn around that. What other types of disruption are you dealing with? And I’m thinking again of the fact that you’re emphasizing DEI, things that there’s just been a lot happening in the United States in particular recently. Is that part of what’s going on in your work and your personal life?
Shilpa says yes and that the growing movement in the US—and in fact around the world—for racial justice has very much impacted what she does, the organizations with whom she partners, and the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion, in general.
What she sees as one of the shifts happening in regards to training in the DEI space is that it tended to focus a lot on what individuals could do to change their own behavior and attitudes to be more inclusive/fair and what organizations could do to attract talent from different backgrounds.
But now she’s happy to see a shift from that individual focus to one that is really looking at systems.
And there’s a big educational and learning component to this because, as Shilpa points out, there are a lot of people who aren’t really paying attention to broader systems like patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, etc.
So there are all of these systems at play and we are operating within those systems.
If we actually want anything to change in our lives, in our organizations, in our communities, in our country, then we’ve got to be able to see those things. And that disruption is so welcome. It’s so necessary for things to actually change.
The Importance of Unlearning to See Change
[06:50] – Given the types of disruption that we’ve been talking about with the pandemic, with the increased calls for racial justice, what are you seeing as the impact on learning and learning businesses and how are you responding?
Shilpa explains that many individuals and organizations see learning as an important part of how we move forward.
But if we’re going to see changes in society around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion – and right now, very specifically around racial justice – there’s not just learning to do, there’s a lot of unlearning to do.
As we know, as learning professionals or people in the learning field, unlearning is a lot harder than learning. There are so many things that we have been taught. And there’s so many systems…that actually need to be unlearned to make space for new ways of doing and new ways of being with one another that are more fair, that are more just, and that allow everyone to thrive as their authentic selves. But there’s a lot that gets in the way of that.
She further discusses how things we’ve been taught (or haven’t been taught) about our history, how those omissions, and even sometimes lies that we have grown to believe over time, need to be unlearned in order for us to really see transformative change.
Threats for Learning Businesses in Disruptive Times
[08:55] – What are the threats of these current disruptive times? And I’m thinking in particular of organizations in the learning business. What are the things that worry you the most about what we’re experiencing now as disruption?
Shilpa shares that there are organizations who are putting off important discussions because they believe they need to have face-to-face dialogue. But she worries because timing really is everything.
We really need to pay attention to the current state of affairs, what learners need, and how to meet their needs now, rather than putting it off because we are virtual.
She also worries about the desire for quick fixes.
There’s a great sense of urgency that many people are experiencing around trying to address issues related to systemic racism.
They think if they do a community conversation, town hall, workshop, or something on unconscious bias then that will solve the problem.
But Shilpa stresses that’s not how this work is effectively done. It is a long-term investment to see the change that we want to see.
[11:03] – What’s going on these days that most excites you? Where are you finding hope, energy, or enthusiasm despite the disruption?
Shilpa is finding hope specifically around issues of racial justice in that more and more white people are seeing the importance of addressing these issues.
She discusses how many people have said, “None of this is new. What’s different now? Why so much emphasis now?”
Her answer is that there are a lot of things that are different.
One of the big things that is different is that white people are using their power to shine the light on injustices that have existed for hundreds of years.
There’s a worry that attention will dwindle away but her hope is that it won’t.
Another thing that gives Shilpa hope in these really uncertain and disruptive times is around technology and the tools that are available to us as learning professionals to creatively engage people.
This gives her hope because there’s still opportunities to connect, learn, and grow despite our physical distance from one another. So we need not, like she said before, put it off until another time, just use what’s available to us now.
Defining DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
[14:19] – What is DEI?
Shilpa explains that DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Diversity is simply all of the various identities that make us who we are. And she says you can have a long list of those things.
The first that usually come to mind are around race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, socioeconomic status, ability, disability, etc.
Equity has to do with fairness.
Shilpa notes that it’s very purposeful in this work that we don’t necessarily use the word equality because equality means sameness, treating everyone the same.
But equity has to do with fairness, which may mean differences in people’s experiences, what they need, what they have access to, and how we treat them. So that equity piece is quite critical because it is about fairness.
Inclusion has to do with creating an environment where people’s contributions are not just welcomed, but truly valued in the decision-making processes.
Shilpa adds that there’s sometimes an alphabet soup when it comes to talking about these issues because it started with diversity and then it was diversity and inclusion. And now you see equity in there. Sometimes you even see justice being paired with these other terms.
But she stresses that each of those additions to the lexicon around these issues is purposeful.
So with DEI, you really need all of those components together to really see change inside of organizations and educational institutions.
Implicit Bias and DEI
[16:40] – I know that implicit bias is an area of interest in work for you as well. How does that fit in with the DEI?
Shilpa explains that bias gets in the way of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Bias is a function of the human brain and we do need to be able to discern information to really focus and be able to make choices.
But those choices are influenced by the programming—the cultural programming—that we’ve grown up with.
That programming is riddled with bias, stereotypes, and with things that are just simply not true about entire groups of people. And like it or not, Shilpa says we act on those biases.
To understand that they are within us as human beings, no matter what background we come from, is just the first step in then being able to disrupt bias in our thinking and in our decision-making.
She says that’s then what makes way for things to be more equitable and inclusive.
If we’re not looking at bias, then despite our best intentions we’ll default to what’s comfortable and what we’re used to, which is bias—and that’s grounded in our cultural programming.
Shilpa points out that we’ve got to bring that to light and actually address it.
We can’t erase the cultural programming and we can’t erase the bias. It will be there. We can notice it. We can interrupt it. We can make different choices. We can in that pause between the thought and the action, choose a different way. And we can look for how bias lives in our systems.
She explains that bias is something that can influence how we interact, but it is also something that lives in how promotion decisions are made inside of an organization.
So it’s important to look at ways to make those systems more fair so that bias is not what drives the decision-making.
Listen to Shilpa and former colleague Howard Ross talk more about bias in the Cook Ross Pause to Disrupt Bias video series below:
How These Disruptions Will Impact Us in the Future
[19:15] – What lasting changes do you think will come of these current disruptive times and are those changes good, bad or something else?
Shilpa thinks there are a lot of opportunities for lasting change.
First, is the flexibility of working from anywhere.
She hopes that having more human-centered policies and practices for organizations will also be a lasting impact.
So the recognition that people are balancing/juggling, many different responsibilities simultaneously, which she notes isn’t new necessarily because of the pandemic.
But it’s certainly amplified and Shilpa describes how she’s experienced a lot more grace in regards to this.
Advice for Learning Businesses
[21:26] – What words would you have for those in the learning business about how to do right and thrive in this moment? They could be words of advice, caution, or courage.
Shilpa thinks there’s an opportunity now to really reflect on our own power, privilege, access to resources, etc., on a personal level, but also on an organizational and community level.
If we are now paying attention to these issues and really are more aware of where the gaps are and where the injustices live in our society, she thinks there’s an opportunity in the learning business to apply that learning to what we do.
What do learners need? How do we meet those needs? How could we be more creative in the way that we address those needs? And what’s some unlearning that we need to do in order to make space for new ways of being within the learning business?
When talking about systems and about the way things have always been, Shilpa thinks this is an opportunity to change those going forward. We need to know where we have room for that kind of change within our own businesses and within this field of learning.
Being a DEI Consultant in a Time of Disruption
[23:16] – What is it like to be a DEI consultant at this moment in time?
Shilpa admits it’s overwhelming and that there’s a lot of demand for this work.
But there’s also a lot of reason to be hopeful that things can change because of the attention being paid to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and specifically to issues of racial justice.
At the same time, she says it’s challenging and that she’s had to turn away clients/projects because the requests felt superficial or it didn’t really meet her standards around integrity to truly make change.
She recognizes that there’s so much more to our lives than our work and that she only has a certain amount of time and energy that she wants to spend on this, so she wants it to be meaningful.
If there’s an opportunity to engage in long-term change and really build a partnership and deepen learning, then Shilpa says she’s in and it’s a good time to be a DEI professional.
How Learning Businesses Can Support DEI
[25:50] – What steps and actions do you recommend for learning businesses who are looking to meaningfully support DEI? What should they do?
Shilpa first recommends that you look inward and ask yourself:
Who are the individuals that you partner with? Who are the people doing the training and the teaching and what are their backgrounds? And who’s missing? Whose voices are not an active part of the people you engage with as educators, as learning professionals?
Second, she suggests looking inside of your own organization because there may be issues of equity and inclusion within.
Shilpa discusses how there’s an opportunity to really highlight those issues and make changes in your organization because that’s directly tied to how well you serve the communities, learners, and the other businesses you work with.
When you are actually helping people inside of your organization bring their best selves to work and not have to cover who they are, you really have an opportunity to bring diverse perspectives together. And that’s going to benefit everyone that you work and partner with outside of your organization.
But she points out that it’s an investment and it’s not easy.
Also, the research tells us that diverse teams without a real focus on inclusive leadership and culture change actually don’t do that well compared to homogeneous teams.
But diverse teams that actually have the supports in place to really make sure people’s contributions are valued and that they can bring their authentic selves to work with the kind of leadership they need are more innovative, more creative, and they’re more in touch with what’s going on outside of the organization. And it actually becomes an advantage for organizations who do that.
[40:15] – Wrap-Up
Shilpa Alimchandani is an instructional designer, a learning facilitator and a coach. Drawing on her deep knowledge of learning modalities, intercultural leadership development, and human centered design, Shilpa works with her clients to address diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations to make a lasting change. She is the author of the book, Communicating Development Across Cultures: Monologues and Dialogues in Development Project Implementation. Find Shilpa and connect with her on LinkedIn.
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[30:26] – Sign off