The ongoing pandemic and social unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd sparked a greater emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training within organizations. As the demand for DEI trainers continues to rise, many lack a clear path for making progress and must learn on their own without clear guidelines. Maria Morukian, President of MSM Global Consulting, authored the new book Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Trainers: Fostering DEI in the Workplace, to create a guide for trainers to develop the skills needed to deliver sustainable change and unpack their own biases.
For Maria, DEI is personal and is largely influenced by her upbringing as a first-generation American: Maria’s father, Val Morukian, had a bi-cultural identity. He was an Armenian whose family fled Istanbul during the Armenian diaspora and he was born in Cuba to a single mother of three. Maria opens her book by sharing how her father embodied the old adage, ‘looks can be deceiving.’
“I would say people looked at my dad as this small in stature, older, hard-of-hearing guy with kind of a funny accent who always looked a little disheveled and like he was lost,” says Maria.“But the truth was that he had had this incredible life and so many rich and sometimes hard- to-imagine stories…looking at what was on the surface, if people just saw him or knew this one little bit of the story, they would never know all of the richness that was underneath.”
As a young man, her father was enlisted in the U.S Army, during which he was shot in the line of duty. Val was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for saving members of his battalion. He went to college after the army and became a Detroit public school teacher for nearly 40 years, and at various times was a bartender, a carni, and even a security guard for Jimmy Hoffa. Maria’s father’s life inspired her to become a diversity trainer and educator.
In this episode of Break the Bias, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal (virtually) sits down with Maria, to talk about her journey and the power that DEI training, when done right, can have in the workplace. They cover:
- Why blame and shame aren’t effective for creating change—and what is
- How to encourage people to look at the world from others’ perspectives
- The most essential skills diversity, equity and inclusion trainers should have in order to make a real impact
- The next frontier of DEI training in the workplace, and much more.
Listen to the full conversation here, and read below for some key takeaways.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Ashish: What made you decide to write Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Trainers?
Maria: “I want to give people the tools to be able to sit down and have open, thoughtful, heartfelt conversations where they share more about themselves. They’re willing to become a little bit more open and vulnerable, and they’re also creating space for others to do the same. The real work is helping to create a space where people can recognize, can elevate their consciousness when that’s happening and can have the willingness to override it. And so, what that looks like in dialogue settings is having people sit down and diving into those very polarizing conversations, but doing it with the intention to share and to learn from each other.”
Ashish: Why do you think words like ‘privilege’ are sometimes polarizing and controversial and almost build walls?
Maria: “I think it can strike a chord with a lot of people, especially those who have a great deal of societal privilege—such as white, cisgender, heterosexual men, in particular—because, oftentimes when people are not aware of the impediments that others have experienced because of some aspect of their identity, it’s just that blind spot. For them, it almost feels like a slap in the face. They may feel, ‘You don’t know me, you don’t know my story. If you are telling me, I have privilege, what I’m hearing is that you think I have never suffered.’ No one has a monopoly on suffering or joy. I think that people need to understand that privilege is not about a lack of suffering, or that your life is not hard.
There’s such an emotional reaction that comes to that because people immediately feel like you don’t see them for all that they are. That’s why I think that focusing on dialogue and giving people an opportunity to share stories and listen, and explore beyond that one-dimensional character that we often get categorized into, is so important for this work.”
Ashish: What have you found to be some of the most common challenges when it comes to DEI practitioners?
Maria: “Stop playing the woke Olympics. We need to all stop being in competition with each other about who is more ‘woke,’ because it’s causing this unnecessary divide among people who are all trying to achieve a common goal. For me, that means constantly questioning myself or just checking myself when I start engaging in that, ‘Oh, I can’t believe they said that,’ or, ‘I can’t believe that they’re not advanced enough to have an understanding of this.’ Because at one point, I didn’t know those things either; I had to learn them. So just putting aside the whole sort of ‘holier than thou’ approach to this work is really important.
The second thing is, it’s really important to know when to take a step back and give ourselves some breathing space. That has been something that I’ve observed and experienced myself and within my community of DEI practitioners. You know, people feeling really burnt out, but ‘burnt out’ doesn’t even describe it. We’re giving so much emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually when we’re engaging with people in these conversations, as practitioners, just making sure that we are really engaging in self-care beyond taking a little break in between sessions, knowing that we are doing that in service of coming back better and serving our clients and our learners.”
Ashish: Where do you believe that we are more effective as organizations: the diversity part, the equity part, or, the inclusion part?
Maria: “I don’t think that we’re effective in any of them! I think that part of the problem is the focus for so long has been on the diversity part, because it’s immediately visible and feels more tactile. Hire more people who don’t look like the people who currently work here, and we will have solved the problem. These are complex challenges, and so we have to look at trends and have honest conversations about the equity and inclusion piece to ensure the retention of a talented workforce and also to make sure that the organizational culture is continuing to evolve with the needs of the evolving workforce.”
Related: Understanding DEIB in the Workplace
Ashish: What do you think the next frontier of DEI training should be in the workplace?
Maria: “What I’m hoping and anticipating is that there will be more of a focus on this idea of small group dialogues, but at a macro level. And dialogues not just for the purpose of doing listening sessions with no action, but dialogues that actually lead to different ways of being with each other by different behavioral norms. I think in the future, if we want DEI training to be effective and sustainable, it has to be tied with strategic goals. It has to be just baked into the entire learning fabric of the organization. So rather than doing one unconscious bias training for two hours and then thinking ‘we’re done,’ It needs to be about making these concepts a core part of the entire learning curriculum—whether we’re talking about leadership development, communication skills, conflict resolution, or even financial management.
Trainers and talent development professionals have such a core opportunity here to make this sustainable. That’s what I’m hoping we see as we move into the future. I want to see it as more of a focus on dialogue interaction, people coming together and creating some norms for how they’re going to work together and building those connections. But also that we take DEI deep and we make it just embedded into our entire learning culture.”
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