Harnessing the Power of Storytelling to Embolden Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives in Corporate Culture
Ahmed Flex Omar, Emil Aldaddah, Andrew McDonald
Everyone has a story.
Sharing our personal stories and histories is a unique way for people to share, learn, heal, and grow together through the celebration and acknowledgement of heritage, culture, and beyond. Right now, we are living through a moment that demands growth, healing, education, and sharing as we reckon with racism, discrimination, and other forms of inequity plaguing our society.
Prioritizing diversity and inclusion has never been a more prevalent need, nor a more complex and challenging task. This task has proven to be particularly difficult for corporate leaders in the workplace, who are struggling to envision how to incorporate Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI) initiatives into their culture while remaining relevant and engaging to the younger generations quickly filling their ranks.
In this setting, storytelling is poised to be a powerful tool for organic community growth in the workplace as well as an important resource for deepening important discussions about diversity and inclusion in corporate America and beyond.
In 2015 the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA) was formed under the simple idea that stories are a powerful tool for change. Through a network of grassroots community partnerships, MALA quickly built the Muslim American Journeys project, an oral history program whose mission was to record, curate, archive, and celebrate the stories of American Muslims in their own words, and on their own terms. Six years later, MALA has recorded, produced, and archived over 500 of these unique narratives.
However, the innovative nature of MALA’s work comes with how these stories are activated beyond being recorded and archived. After all, stories can only connect and move people, if people are given a space where they can access and process those stories. To this end, MALA regularly hosts public community programs that highlight stories, storytellers, and the communities to whom these stories belong.
From listening parties, to book talks, to panel discussions, to arts performances, the format of these programs is as diverse as the stories they seek to activate. By creating a space for people to share stories, hear others’ stories, and talk about it, MALA has found that activating personal stories is an effective and exciting way to strengthen relationships, build community, and honor diversity.
In this moment, corporate leaders and others are being challenged to think about diversity and inclusion in more profound and complex ways than ever before. New younger generations are entering the workplace at a rapid rate, and bringing with them new perspectives on identity, new experiences, new journeys. According to Built-In, millennials are poised to represent 75% of the corporate workforce by 2025, and are estimated as a population to be 16% more diverse than previous generations.
According to Corporate DEI leader Khalilah Lyons, it is thus not only a benefit but a necessity for corporate leaders to consider and embrace the unique experiences and identities of these incoming demographics:
“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is truly a business imperative. We talk a lot about the value add of diversity, equity and inclusion, but we miss the value loss when DEI is not done right at an organization. Employees that don’t see themselves in the workplace, don’t feel included or that they belong either leave the organization or stay without being engaged. The cost of an employee leaving can range from half to two times an employee’s annual salary…plus recruiting costs. A disengaged employee costs an employer approximately .34% of an employees salary annually or $350 billion in loss productivity across America. These are huge, exponential costs that aren’t included in the data, but are indeed critical points of DEI data.”
Storytelling can be used as a profoundly effective exercise to support these DEI initiatives by giving individuals, particularly young people of color, the opportunity both to tell their own stories and to listen to others’ stories. In the corporate setting, this practice helps to build respect and camaraderie between staff, and also presents an organic way to acknowledge and engage with the different challenges that different individuals and communities face relating to identity and diversity.
Steven Khuong, an innovative proponent of DEI initiatives and CEO of Curacubby shares his experience growing up with a complex cultural identity:
“As a Chinese immigrant refugee growing up in Oakland, CA during the “golden age of hip hop,” I had the unique experience of understanding my identity as multifaceted. I didn’t belong to one race, one culture, or one group. My family of origin was Asian but my family of the environment was Black. My closest friends were of African-American descent, and I remember the often painful experiences of feeling disintegrated, not fitting perfectly in either group. Today I realize how blessed I am because I had the opportunity to live through the struggles faced by both minority populations. My understanding of the world is so much richer and deeper because of it.”
By rooting company culture related to DEI in personal experience and opening up space for listening, sharing, and discussion, corporate leaders can innovate the ways in which Diversity and Inclusion are embraced in the workplace, while also building community and mutual compassion among staff.
Sharing stories in the workplace also holds the potential to nurture a company culture that is more attuned to cultural awareness and a global perspective. During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we are all global citizens, linked to one another if not through culture or geography, then through a shared existence.
When we share stories, we illustrate and observe the different cultures, identities, and experiences that contribute to human-kind, orienting ourselves and our communities toward global awareness and open mindedness.
Today, stories can be activated and shared more creatively than ever with the use of digital mediums and technology. MALA has found great success in activating storytellers through digital storytelling sessions, multimedia story clips, virtual performances, and digital public forums that invite an audience to hear stories from athletes, business leaders, artists, and activists.
In the corporate space, stories can be activated digitally to demonstrate and engage the diversity at a company both internally and externally. This is a useful and organic way to pursue and demonstrate DEI initiatives that employs a lot of depth and sincerity. Stories can be activated in a number of ways, but harnessing tech and digital tools remains one of the most innovative and promising approaches.
The delicate nuances of identity follow us wherever we go. In today’s workplace, ignoring these nuances is not only ignorant and contrary to important diversity and inclusion initiatives, it is a missed opportunity to build robust company culture and dynamic community.
The onus is now on corporate leaders to embrace this opportunity, and to find creative new ways to honor diversity and inclusion. In this pursuit, storytelling is a powerful tool, an unlimited resource, and a broad and malleable platform with vast potential.
After all, everyone has a story.
Reiners, Bailey. “80+ Diversity in the Workplace Statistics You Should Know.” Built In. Accessed June 15, 2021. https://builtin.com/diversity-inclusion/diversity-in-the-workplace-statistics.