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Many of us are looking at how we can increase diversity and equity in our schools, organizations, or businesses. As a broader culture, many are beginning to see (some for the first time and some with greater clarity) how all the subtle and not so subtle racist and patriarchal norms create self-reinforcing communities of inequity and exclusion. The format and background content of our classes, online courses, training, and onboarding can show and teach us a lot about the subtle power structures and types of thinking that limit our communities.

As a former professor who taught humanities, writing, and narratives of wealth and poverty, and now a founder of a learning design company, it’s often crystal clear to me when an organization is likely to be a really great, diverse organization. It’s like reading a book, because I do read your book – your courses, onboarding materials, documentation etc.  Your “classroom” tells me a ton about what your organization values.

The absolute bottom line is that if training comes top-down, doesn’t allow for dialogue, doesn’t respect employee wisdom, doesn’t use diverse voices as subject matter experts, and is disrespectful of learner time and energy, you’ve got yourself a biased, old school, top-heavy, and maybe dysfunctional organization.  You probably don’t have a ton of innovation going on either, because getting every voice heard is key to innovating.

On the other hand, are your classes offering different formats (audio, or video, or text)? Is there a place for dialogue, chat, and questions – online or off?  Is the training creative and engaging, Does the learner actively create a product, learn a skill, gain a strategy, or develop a solution in the training or class?  Is participation requested, and wisdom of those on the ground respected? Is every voice heard in reaching goals and coming up with solutions? Then you’ve probably got a diverse and equitable situation.

Now, almost nothing fits neatly in one of these two camps. Reading your own course can be hard, but it’s worth it to take a closer look.  And one class isn’t going to change the world. But it might change someone’s day, week, or even month.  Even small shifts could be really helpful to people.

You can look at your course or training as a story, and your format as power relations.

How’s the story?

  • Does it respect the wisdom of people on the ground? Does it glorify the leader? Does it feel inclusive and kind? Does it boss and dominate? Does it assume a certain background or gender? Are all the “heroes” men? Are all the heroes white? It is worth taking a look.
  • Who is talking (and I don’t mean, “are your photos multi-ethnic with gender parity?”) I mean who talks, who shares knowledge? Where did the knowledge come from?

For example, I sat in on a 3-day onboarding training at a tech company in which the main story was the white male heroic founder, and the only speakers were white men who talked a lot about company “culture.”  The message about who owned that “culture” was loud and clear.

Or another: a company being sued for ethics violations issues mandatory one-hour, click-through ethics classes.  Who is being trained?  Those on the ground. Who needs the training? It looks like the managers at the top needed it. That’s the story.

How’s the format? This is your window into power relationships.

  • Are you teaching what learners need to learn? Have you ever asked them?
  • Do you invite and encourage participation from every learner? Do you encourage every voice, and not just those people who are most comfortable speaking or sharing?
  • Do you value connections among learners?
  • Do you teach across cultures, imaging that those of different cultural backgrounds have different preferred ways of sharing information—oral, visual, written?
  • Do you ask for feedback?

There’s a lot we can do for every learner.  Learn more, take a course