Aman Goyal, associate director of undergraduate student life, writes about creating a more inclusive work environment through the Wharton Intergroup Dialogue & Inclusion Team (WIDIT).

Three years ago, my colleagues from the Wharton Undergraduate Division attended a conference, where they were introduced to the importance of intergroup dialogue. The concept of intergroup dialogue proposes that conversations between members of a social group should create stronger relationships and mutual understanding. They knew this would be something I was interested in as well, having expressed interest in community building around diversity and inclusion topics. Director of Research and Scholar Programs Utsav Schurmans and I were inspired by the concept and began to think — how could such a space be created at Wharton so that staff could dive deeper into topics on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI)?

After consulting with Wharton Prof. Rachel Arnett and reading more from thought leaders like Prof. Stephanie Creary on diversity in the workplace, we found partners in the Wharton Human Resources department and Dean’s Office to help create the Wharton Intergroup Dialogue & Inclusion Team (WIDIT).

We faced a few immediate challenges. How could we create a safe space for people with different comfort levels and discuss topics like microaggressions, belonging in the workplace, and racial literacy without jeopardizing the collegial atmosphere? We started by identifying our goals.

Building a Network of Support

Wharton already had resources for students and faculty, so there was one audience that needed to be served: Wharton staff. 

After identifying the audience, the goals for the group were established. WIDIT is aimed at helping staff (1) learn and develop their knowledge around JEDI topics that are current and necessary to support their clients in a holistic way and (2) network with other staff and feel supported knowing that everyone is on a journey of learning together.

Once our goals and audience were identified, we brought our motivation to Wharton Human Resources, where we gained the support of senior leadership to create WIDIT as an employee resource group. Through the support of Wharton Human Resources, we also established a co-chair on WIDIT: Olivia Wilson, associate director of Wharton HR.

This is still our approach and our goals for WIDIT three years into programming — a part of every session is focused on information, and the other parts help build community through shared dialogue and reflection on the topics.

Zoom screenshot of WIDIT team
The Wharton Intergroup Dialogue and Inclusion Team (WIDIT) team in a Zoom meeting.

Creating Relevant Programs

In 2019, WIDIT held brainstorming sessions among the planning committee. We identified topics that we thought would be most valuable, or topics that someone within the network of the committee could speak on. This led to a few sessions including:

  • “Microaggressions in the Workplace” led by Assistant Dean for Student Services in the Graduate School of Education, Dr. Ann Tiao
  • “Terminology in the LGBTQ Community” led by the director of Penn’s LGBT Center, Dr. Erin Cross
  • “An Introduction to Racial Literacy” featuring the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education, Dr. Howard Stevenson

As racial inequity awareness arose and the Covid-19 pandemic surged in the summer of 2020, we felt that it was important to highlight departments around Wharton that made a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This manifested in a new series called “Departments Doing the Work” for which we’ve had five departments present since the summer of 2020. In these sessions, various department leaders talk about a task force, program, or strategy in support of equity and inclusion at Wharton, and share information with staff across the School who might be looking for resources to get started. This series has been particularly successful in helping to showcase the work each department is doing, create connections for collaboration, and cause tangible change between departments.

In the past years, we disseminated surveys to understand staff needs and assess the efficacy of the various programs that have been offered so far. On average, 87–95% of participants agree or strongly agree that the programs held by WIDIT have helped them learn a new concept and feel more connected to Wharton as a whole. 

These surveys continue to provide new ideas for programs, and assist the WIDIT committee in recruiting speakers. For example, our sessions on anti-Asian racism and disability and neurodiversity at work were drawn from these surveys.

Applying WIDIT to Your Workplace

It just takes a few passionate people and organizational support to create a space where important topics find room to be discussed, and these spaces have power for those who choose to be involved.

It is often the case that equity and inclusion must start at the top for systemic changes to take place. However, there is something undeniably powerful about colleagues coming together to discuss how JEDI plays an important role in their work and personal lives. WIDIT creates an environment that allows for our colleagues to learn how to build inclusive environments, not just for ourselves, but for those we serve. To anyone looking to start a group at their workplace for professional development and comradery, here is our advice:

  1. Listen for those who share your passion for these topics at various meetings. Reach out to them to chat about how they feel about the importance of these topics and how they manage diversity and inclusion efforts. This is a good starting place to understand if there is a need for this kind of group and JEDI topics within your department.
  2. Get support from senior leadership. Get started, set up meetings, and ideate on what this could look like at your organization, but you will need to gain support. It is important to share here that in order for a group like this to be successful, you will need to gain support whether that be from a senior leader within your department or a senior leader within your organization.  
  3. Involve your HR team. They may tell you about resources that exist that you may not be aware of, or they may know of a group that has tried to do this before and other ways that group could have been successful, or others in your organization that might want to help.
  4. Identify your key values. Is it merely to bring in experts to talk about topics? Or do you want the added layer of trying to build a dialogue and community aspect to the group?
  5. If your organization values data, see if you can do an informal survey to see if there is interest for such a group. Luckily for us, we were able to create something and then edit it to meet the needs of our population better, as opposed to being expected to have a perfect educational workshop. It helped to have the space to fail and try again.

— Aman Goyal, Associate Director of Student Life, Undergraduate Division, The Wharton School

Posted: September 30, 2021

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