Q&A: Is the disability community part of your diversity, equity and inclusion efforts?

Written by: Adam Fishbein

Date: August 24, 2020

Discussing disabilities, DEI and the current moment with Zakiya Mabery

In this moment of racial justice reckoning, it is imperative that philanthropy lift up the voices of all Black people — especially those whose unique challenges may be sidelined because they also co-identify and co-exist as members of other historically marginalized groups.

Like people with disabilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have a disability, making the disability community one of the largest groups in the country. CDC data also show that 25% of adults within this population identify as Black.
Zakiya Mabery knows these stats and experiences firsthand and lives them daily. The founder of B. Global Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Planning, she has spent the last 12 years working with military, government and corporate leaders to help get their spaces to be safer and more inclusive spaces for their employees and audiences.

I asked Mabery about disability justice activism, the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) sector and what the philanthropic community can do to center the disability community in efforts to eradicate systemic racism.

What’s clear is that as organizations ponder how they are showing up in the current moment and reflecting how they can share, build and wield power, they need to center decision-making authority to community voices and engaged experts like hers.

Adam Fishbein: Zakiya, how are disability activists handling this moment of racial justice reckoning?

DEI strategist and B. Global Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Planning Founder Zakiya Mabery.

Zakiya Mabery: Disability activists are handling this racial injustice as well as they can. But let’s be clear – we have 3 major crises occurring simultaneously: COVID-19, the economic crisis and the racial injustice. Each is challenging by itself. Together, even more so.

For example, as we are preparing for students of all ages to go back to school, the digital divide is definitely on my mind. Due to COVID-19, many educational systems are either virtual or utilizing a hybrid method.

Are they making content readable for children with different learning styles and needs? Are conversations being captioned? Are they including ASL (American Sign Language) professionals on screen?

The digital divide makes these issues even greater for Black families, people of color and individuals with disabilities because not everyone has access to the technology for various reasons.

And that just doesn’t affect education.

It can’t be said enough: COVID-19 is affecting the Black community at disproportionate rates. Many individual marginalized communities are at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19 for a variety of reasons.

AF: What can the philanthropic community do to center the disability community in efforts to combat systemic racism?
ZM: What we need to do to combat systemic racism is for leadership in organizations to take a stance of anti-racism. That starts with hiring experienced professionals to train their people about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Effective change starts at the top.

To do this, I recommend more awareness campaigns because there seems to be a real knowledge gap around the issue. There also must be a long-term commitment to addressing the issue internally.

One or 2 trainings will not change mindsets. Organizations need to have a budget for DEI training and understand that change takes time.
Lastly, it should be understood Blacks or minorities do not need to prove racism exists.

AF: What’s been the biggest barrier to doing the work at this moment?
ZM: I have learned in my career that initially getting leadership on board with DEI is no easy task. In many cases, the biggest barrier is getting buy-in from senior leadership in organizations.

It’s critical for them to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion from a high-level overview; seeing how the lack of inclusion is hurting the bottom line.

A potential client I spoke with last week acknowledged there was poor employee morale, performance issues, toxic leadership and communication issues in their organization. However, there wasn’t a budget for DEI training at that time.

AF: Have you been surprised by anything?
ZM: I have been surprised by just how many “professionals” still think it’s okay to post racially insensitive comments on social media, especially LinkedIn. I recently had a post about Black Lives Matter go viral on LinkedIn. Several comments were completely shocking! Some I had to delete due to the offense nature of the comment.

About 90% were positive and supportive, but it was still surprising to see the 10% that were not.

AF: What have you relied on for funding for your work and have you seen or received increased support for your racial justice work?
ZM: I have relied on funding from a few paid engagements. There has been an increase in requests for my services; however, many organizations have said the budget for DEI training has been cut or decreased.

Some well-financed companies even have the audacity to ask for pro bono services. Which is so wrong, on so many levels.

At the very least, it’s an oxymoron: How are you going to have me, a Black Woman with multiple disabilities, speak about intersectionality, pay inequity, and being part of underrepresented marginalized groups – for free?

It’s like I’m living the very topics I am lecturing about in real time. There’s a cruel reality about that situation – but it’s the work that many are living through.

AF: If people want to get involved or learn more about DEI work, what can they do or where can they turn?
ZM: People should start with these 5 things if they want to improve inclusion:

    1. Practice kindness.
    2. Have uncomfortable conversations.
    3. Educate themselves.
    4. Focus on solutions.
    5. Stop exploiting DEI professionals by asking them to work for free.

It’s clear from my discussion with Zakiya that philanthropic organizations should have Black expertw and leaders from the disability community like Mabery involved when they are planning and evaluating how they support grantees and the general public around these 3 crises.

They should also remember that their opportunity to be equitable starts the moment they begin consulting with these individuals, especially as it relates to pay and treatment.

You can learn more about Zakiya Mabery and her work by following here or following her #GameChangerChat on LinkedIn.

Adam Fishbein is NCRP’s membership intern.