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DEI Training for Social Workers
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 4 P. 10

For meaningful learning to happen, diversity, equity, and inclusion trainers must know not only their topic but also their audience.

For many organizations, including nonprofits and social service providers, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become a strong focus over the last several years. Through DEI initiatives, companies aim to create a workplace that is safe and equitable for all employees. Attaining that goal could lead to better productivity, more positivity, and, for providers, greater quality services. After all, when a workforce is composed not only of diverse individuals at all levels but also of individuals who feel safe, seen, heard, and valued, that workforce is better able to serve others.

How organizations approach DEI varies. Some reach for the bare minimum, issuing a statement of intent or support without putting in the work required. Those who are earnestly committed take more evident actions such as issuing surveys, assessments, action plans, and, of course, training.

A key component of DEI initiatives, training aims to provide all employees with the same foundation of knowledge and engage them in DEI goals, preparing them for changes, allowing for their input, and opening the door for more work moving forward.

Core Components
While the specific components of DEI training may vary depending on audience and who (internal or external) is delivering the training, the core aim is similar. “DEI training should cover the diversity of the human experience, how we can work to make sure we live in a more equitable society, and that our systems and programs provide equitable opportunities. It supports the notion that individuals should be fully included in the program and communities they find themselves in,” says Nellie Galindo, MSW, MSPH, senior product marketing manager at Relias, a learning and development platform for health care and human service providers.

To accomplish that, David Patrick, MSW, LMSW, cofounder of the Racial Equity & Justice Firm, implements social work modalities in his workshops. “Things are very strength based and solution focused,” he says. “Regardless of what your missteps are, your expertise, we meet organizations where they’re at.”

For Patrick, this means eliminating blame and guilt from his workshops. While he may discuss topics that could put some on the defense, he does so in a way that opens the room to learning and honesty. For example, he notes that many associate privilege with specific identities. Patrick contradicts that by talking about his own privileges, while also discussing the ways in which facets of his identity have made him a target.

Beyond the approach taken, the specific topics of DEI training may cover a wide range, from the definitions of DEI to implicit and explicit bias to harassment and microaggressions.

Galindo notes that DEI is a larger concept than many first assume. “It’s much more than just race, ethnicity, and gender. It’s crucial that you are applying whatever frameworks your DEI training uses to ensure that any person or population you support is fully included. That includes people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, different neurotypes, and different functional support needs,” she says.

Given DEI’s vastness, determining what to focus on means having a solid understanding of those attending and, if possible, including them in the planning process.

For example, six years ago, the Boston College School of Social Work began examining equity, justice, and inclusion within the school. The effort featured input from stakeholders, students, faculty, alumni, and community partners. “We addressed it by asking everyone via focus groups, individual interviews, and surveys what they thought were our DEI challenges, and also how best to address them,” says Rocío Calvo, PhD, an associate professor and assistant dean for equity, justice, and inclusion at the Boston College School of Social Work. “The key to this process was that everybody was welcomed and that we guaranteed people confidentiality to ensure candid participation.

“One of the challenges and opportunities that came up was training,” she continues. “People identified the need for more training but wanted workshops, seminars, and continuous education that targeted the needs identified in the community assessment. Rather than deciding how to proceed to design such training, we once again invited the whole community to design the training.”

The community selected the topics that mattered to them and helped determine how and when the content would be delivered. “In other words, both content and format were decided by the community who was going to attend the training and stemmed from what people had identified as needs. So the training was tailored to people’s priorities and scheduled around people’s needs,” Calvo says.

Tailored Social Work
For DEI trainers or organizations working specifically with social workers, the same concepts and approaches for structuring a workshop apply. However, a social work audience does allow for additional tie-ins stemming from the profession itself and its models of care.

For example, Galindo stresses the value of linking DEI training to NASW’s Code of Ethics. “We are ethically bound to practice in a culturally competent manner and to ensure that we are advocating for the full inclusion of any person or population we are working with into greater society,” she says.

When training social workers specifically, Patrick works from a trauma-informed perspective, something he would not necessarily do with other professionals. “The expectation for lawyers [for instance] to work from a trauma-informed model is maybe well-intentioned but not well-placed,” he says. “With social workers, there’s the expectation that they have done some of this work. They most likely get more of the advanced concepts—not just cultural awareness but the components of equity.”

However, prior understanding of DEI and its more advanced concepts could lead to a more challenging audience, particularly if they believe they are already well-versed in the topic. For Galindo, breaking through that confidence to reach meaningful learning means reminding social workers that they’re human. “It’s important to remember that even within social work, we have our own battles with implicit bias and discrimination,” she says. “No matter how much training you receive, there will always be more to learn and more biases to unpack, and that’s OK.

“As a profession, we still struggle to reach full equity in our programs and organizations. The majority of social workers are still white, cis, able-bodied women, and the majority of the leaders in our profession are white, cis, able-bodied men. So, as we work to create more equity in the communities we work in, we also have to recognize that the work has to be done within our own professional communities as well.”

That’s not to say that social workers should start fresh at every DEI workshop they attend. Rather, they can pull from the foundational knowledge they already have to better examine themselves and their own biases, and to help foster a more meaningful learning experience for the group.

Peer-to-peer training leads to better engagement and learning, says Patrick, whose firm reaches out to administrators and respected employees at organizations during workshops. “We ask them to come in not as cofacilitators but as leaders. Instead of disengaging from the conversation, we ask them to step up and lead conversations by modeling previous knowledge and education because there’s already trust and rapport [established with the other attendees],” he says.

Promoting Buy-In
No matter the audience, engagement at a DEI workshop requires buy-in from those attending before, during, and after the training.

Therefore, Calvo says, community involvement is vital when creating a DEI training program. “People are more open to attending DEI training that addresses specific needs identified by themselves because they are useful,” she says. “Inviting communities to identify what they need, tailored to their specific context and circumstances, helps overcome reluctance. Moreover, it moves the needle toward seeing DEI as an integral part of the community that benefits everyone.”

When individuals come to training with that mindset, they are more prepared to learn and ready to share their own thoughts and experiences. But that is only half of the battle. Presenters must find ways to keep trainees engaged throughout the workshop, whether in person or online.

Involvement is key. Patrick utilizes attendees as peer leaders and sets expectations for engagement. This is particularly important when learning is taking place through an online platform such as Zoom.

“We set communal expectations,” Patrick says. “It’s easy on Zoom. There’s an expectation that you’re going to be present. That means having your camera on and being unmuted unless there’s some unnecessary noise in the background or feedback. It means setting expectations but also empowering participants to feel safe in the space, establishing what the space is intended for.”

Patrick acknowledges with the group that at a DEI workshop, mistakes will be made. However, within the space of that workshop, there will be room to discuss and unpack those mistakes and better understand something that has been misconstrued.

He also makes sure to apply the concepts he’s teaching throughout the workshop. A DEI workshop is not meant to be PowerPoint slides and a lecture. Every concept should be applied to the practice setting so that attendees can start thinking about solutions to challenges and changes that can be made.

Similarly, Galindo sees value in simulation training. “I think many of us have experienced the stagnant, slideshow-type e-learning where you simply click through pages and read, and you don’t get much engagement out of the course,” she says. “Online content that can simulate a real-life situation or environment that a social worker might find themselves in is one way to move beyond that traditional, click-through learning. Using videos or even gaming elements to simulate a client session, making a safety plan, or de-escalating a crisis situation creates a hands-on practice experience without actually putting real-life people at risk, which is a great benefit.”

Buy-in from employees after a DEI training or workshop requires meaningful action and follow-up from the organization itself, as well as the individual. After all, what good is knowledge if it’s not utilized?

“There can’t just be statements that aren’t accompanied by tangible steps. Oh, you’re supporting diverse employees and individuals from diverse backgrounds? OK, what is your [human resources] department doing to ensure diverse candidates are interviewed and retained,” Patrick says. “Do you have a workplace that would be safe for someone from the LGBTQ community or someone who might be neurodiverse?

“Taking one training isn’t going to address all of the different challenges and areas that need to be addressed for equity and inclusion,” he adds.

He encourages organizations to evaluate their mission statements, vision, and values and to look for opportunities to implement positive changes.

Having policies in place not only makes action more likely but also allows for organizations to plan their response to individual employees—for example, for those who are not working in a way that exemplifies DEI values. What that response may be will vary depending on the employee, their behavior, the steps already taken, and the company itself. It is best practice to have protocols and procedures in place for such instances, crafted by a cross-functional team of professionals within the organization.

As for training, it should not be one and done but rather a continuing education format, according to Calvo. “Our training is now planned as continuums where groups of people (faculty, staff, students) come together as a cohort to learn together, over time, about the specific needs identified by the community,” she says. “Training occurs over time, where groups of people learn from the facilitators but also from each other—not only during the training but during their day-to-day work together. The process is fluid and gets transferred to the life of the school organically.”

On an individual level, Galindo says social workers should look beyond what their organizations offer. “Don’t just stop at the company training or required CEs. Find other avenues to continue the work and continue learning wherever and whenever you can. This might include taking more elective e-learning courses, but it could also include listening to podcasts, reading books, sharing articles among your coworkers, and following a diverse range of influencers on social media,” she says.

For example, Galindo takes to Instagram to get a little dose of DEI. “I try to follow influencers who are from different ethnic and religious backgrounds than me, LGBTQ+ influencers, and disability activists.” She also recommends group learning through activities such as book clubs and discussion panels.

Overall, the message is to keep learning and don’t be discouraged by the idea that there’s no set end to the process.

“DEI work is, by definition, work in progress,” Calvo says. “We must always strive to do better.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.