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Finding Success in DEI Training

Carrie Heron on DEI training

Carrie Heron is a Therapist, Facilitator, Consultant and Coach. We first met 14 years ago when she was working for Casey Family Programs and I was the training director at the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association. Carrie was training some of my colleagues and me on an initiative focused on racial and ethnic identity development for foster children (and those who work with them).

Through activities and discussions focused on concepts of racism and privilege, I can honestly say it was one of the most personally impactful training programs I’ve ever experienced… although looking back on it, I’m not sure it moved the needle very on the inherent racism and issues of equity in the foster care system.

Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Carrie about her experiences and perspective on what makes for the most “successful” diversity, equity and inclusion training.

“Training”, she quickly noted, doesn’t work. At least, training in isolation of a broader initiative, doesn’t work. Following is our complete conversation. As you may note, this is longer than our typical Train Like You Listen podcast… then again, this is a very important topic with no easy solutions, so we didn’t mind releasing this episode in its full, 20+ minute glory. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and then share your thoughts in the comment section.

Transcript of the Conversation with Carrie Heron

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. 

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I’m Brian Washburn and I am with Endurance Learning. Today I am joined by Carrie Heron, who is a therapist, facilitator, consultant, and coach, and we’re going to be talking a little bit about the potential and the limits of DEI initiatives. And Carrie, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Carrie Heron: Yeah, you’re welcome. Good to be here talking with you. 

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: Before we get started, as we like to do with all of our guests, we like to have people introduce themselves using exactly six words and their six word biography. When I think of DEI initiatives, oftentimes, I would sum up my own biography in six words by saying: “I’m kind of walking on eggshells right now”. How about you, Carrie? What– how would you introduce yourself in six words? 

Carrie Heron: My six word biography is “human beings are messy, myself included”. 

The Importance of Defining Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 

Brian Washburn: It’s a great introduction because I think that when we talk about DEI, we need to scan the landscape, and also we need to think about ourselves, right?

And what’s our role? But, before we go any further in this, I want to just make sure that everyone has the same concepts in their mind as we’re talking. So can you explain a little bit about what DEI means? And what the differences are between the D, the E, and the I?

Carrie Heron: Yeah. And I love that you said, you know, just to make sure everybody has the same concept in mind, because I can almost guarantee that everyone actually has different concepts in mind every time we’re having a conversation about anything, but especially this.

Brian Washburn: Which is fine, right? So everyone kind of–. But in order to have a conversation, we need to be talking about the same thing. So whether or not people use these terms, like you’re about to share the definitions with, outside of this conversation, just so they can understand this conversation, let’s kind of set the landscape a little bit.

Carrie Heron: Yeah. And I highlighted that because that actually is one of the core concepts of successfully navigating any conversation with other messy humans, right? So, it’s great to define terms. And even when I give my definitions, people will understand all of them differently. And so just knowing that– like, that’s the context.

So if this work feels real hard and like you’re walking on eggshells, that’s because it is. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

The Definition of Diversity

Carrie Heron: So, that’s why I wanted to just name that. So yeah. Diversity, equity and inclusion. They mean different things to different people, for sure. It’s always a good place to start in an organization is getting some clarity of like, what is DEI? What do we even mean by DEI? In general, I think of diversity – Diversity means difference; right? So in a DEI framework, we’re thinking usually about differences around social identities; knowing that the various identities that we hold in a society, in a group, impact our life experience, right? 

The Definition of Equity

Equity is about fairness. So equity is the practice of ensuring that everyone gets what they need, which is different from equality, which is ensuring that everyone gets exactly the same thing. 

Brian Washburn: Right. 

The Definition of Inclusion

Carrie Heron: Inclusion is about creating a culture that supports its members to be able to engage authentically, feel like they belong, rather than they’re just like a guest or a visitor, who’s like, “yeah, it’s okay if you’re here”. Right? Inclusion is actually like, “No. I belong here. Like I am part of this”. Right?

Brian Washburn: Right. Yep.

Carrie Heron: And I say, I’m using inclusion and belonging kind of interchangeably and some people really make a distinction between inclusion, which suggests that “you are invited into my space. I’m including you,” versus belonging is like, “this is our shared space that we all belong in”. And that’s fine. It’s a useful distinction and I find that I often use belonging when I talk about inclusion. So, it’s just one of the ways that people can think about it differently. 

Brian Wasburn: Yeah, it seems like it’s hard to talk about one without the other. Yeah. I think that with a lot of these things, there’s a lot of–  it’s human beings, we want to have something that’s neat, right? But as you started by saying, this is messy and in order to engage in conversation, we need to, A, accept that fact and, B, kind of embrace it, even if we have to hold our nose. It is. It’s messy. It’s not going to be neat. 

You know, when something happens across racial lines, a lot of times, the most immediate proposed solution is that, I’m putting, I’m using air quotes here, “diversity training”, right? This happened with Starbucks several years ago and a really high profile case. They shut down all the stores so that their employees could go through this diversity training. It happens with companies all the time when they’re facing EEOC complaints.

Based on your experience, what would you say diversity training or, you know, DEI workshops is kind of the more contemporary way to frame it, or even training on unconscious bias. You know, based on your experience, would you say that these training workshops work?

Does DEI Training Work?

Carrie Heron: Well, it depends on how you define “work”, right? 

Brian Washburn: I see more air quotes.

Carrie Heron: I use a lot of air quotes. So the simplest answer, no. And it’s not just my experience saying that. There’s a lot of research that suggests that when it comes to actually thinking about changing a culture, changing people’s behaviors, changing the way people experience being in an organization, whether the people are customers or employees or– right? Diversity training, DEI training, unconscious bias training, sexual harassment training, all of the trainings about how to do and “behave better”, in air quotes, they’re just not effective. And, like, I want to normalize that a little bit by saying that’s not unique to this space of DEI or diversity or harassment or unconscious bias. It’s pretty well established that what training, what workshops, what learning sessions, like what that modality is really good at, is building knowledge, awareness, and maybe some skills if it’s done really well with some practice sessions.  However, very little of that tends to translate into using new behaviors on your job with your team. 

Brian Washburn: Why do you think that– because I love what you just said. Training, whether you’re talking about diversity, DEI, sales, you know, anything, training itself is an event that people look to as a solution, but doesn’t necessarily always have impactful results unless there’s other pieces that are built into it, like you said, practice and things like that.

Why do you think that the category of DEI workshops gets more scrutiny, perhaps, than other things, when it comes to, is it impactful or is it working? 

Why Do DEI Workshops Get Scrutinized More Than Other Training?

Carrie Heron: I think this topic is so emotional, right? So, sales training– People might have some feelings about, like, their sales numbers are improving or not, but right?

But, okay? That’s just kind of part of the business. Whereas diversity and equity and inclusion, like these are, A, a lot of us feel like we’re not good people, right? Like, so our sense of self-worth is connected to: Can we do this right? Can we do this well? Or if we’re in a group that is mistreated and marginalized in an organization, and we feel that sense of being other, feeling discriminated against, feeling like interactions with our co-workers or managers are off, like that is such an uncomfortable place to be. So, whichever kind of experience you have, and most people at various times experience both of those versions of feeling uncomfortable with this. Part of how human brains are wired is we really do not like discomfort and we want to find a way to get that discomfort to stop as soon as possible. Like this is a very simplified kind of– right, but like bringing it down to the baseline of each individual human wants to find relief from discomfort as quickly and efficiently as possible. And then when you multiply that, it’s not just one individual human it’s, you know, 50 or a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand who are experiencing different kinds of discomfort. But it all is somehow under the umbrella of DEI or diversity or unconscious bias or whatever you want it. The other thing that human brains want is: we want a solution and we want it fast. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

Carrie Heron: Right. And so, it’s kind of like that, you know, like thinking about an adaptive challenge, right? So there isn’t a simple solution, right? It’s like– But we still want a technical solution. We want an answer and training is an answer. I can say I did it. I can check it off the list. I can point to people and say, “but it’s not my fault”, if I’m the leader, “we did the training”. And so we told people how to behave. 

Brian Washburn: You know, it seems like racial inequity in the workplace especially is a truly intractable problem and it’s just, it’s begging to be solved. It’s there, people know about it. Why is it still a problem, is one of the things. You know, there’s a lot of smart people who’ve tried to address it in various ways. In your experience, what do you think has been the most effective, and I’m going to use the word initiative right now.  Not training, but initiative, right? So, it’s kind of a bigger, more comprehensive effort where training may be a component, but going beyond that. What has been the most effective DEI initiative that you’ve worked on and what made it so effective or successful? 

How Can a DEI Initiative Be Successful?

Carrie Heron: So one thing that is a little bit, perhaps, unusual given my line of work and, you know, probably does not make some people happy to hear when I say this is: racial inequity is an intractable problem in workplaces because racial inequity is an intractable problem. Gender inequity is an intractable problem in our globe. There is no culture in our planet that doesn’t have gender inequity. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Carrie Heron: But, I mean, like, really think about that. Like that is a statement and throughout time that has been the case, right? Like there isn’t– we can’t point to something like, “Oh, well they figured it out”; right?

Brian Washburn: Right. 

Carrie Heron: So no one has ever figured this out. So to think that some, like, capitalist company is going to be like, “We’ve got the answer to inequity and it’s, you know, it’s like this”. So I approach it with: Organizations have a hard time figuring this out in part because they are microcosms of the larger country, the larger city, country, planet that they’re– right? So part of me, just like– my context for viewing the challenge is this initiative is not going to solve oppression, writ large, mistreatment, writ large, humans interacting with each other in messy ways. Like it’s out of scope, it’s beyond our sphere of influence. 

Brian Washburn: It’s similar to what I hear you say, it’s similar to even at a company like Amazon, as big as it is, solving global climate change, right? So it’s in, or, you know, a one country saying, “I want to attack, well, you know, global climate change” when it’s the whole thing and the same thing here, right? So, we’re operating within the larger system. An organization, yes, can do things, but it’s also part of the larger system that isn’t doing things. 

Carrie Heron: Right. And so, for me, part of the way I tend to be like a systems thinker and a micro, right? So I kind of go back and forth between micro and macro. And so, one of the things that I always start with and what I have seen be effective in working with organizations is first, like you did, let’s actually define what we’re talking about and define our scope.

And that means sometimes some things are out. And in my experience with people who are really passionate about this and almost everyone is really passionate about this, who isn’t engaged in it in any way. Right? Because these issues are so widespread and global, there are literally billions of worthy things to do. And so it can be super hard to say, “no, we’re not going to do that” when somebody brings you, “but you know, neurodiversity is important”. Yes, it is, and I’m going to say no to that. Like, that’s hard. Is that– am I not being inclusive? Am I not– is that not equity? Right? So it’s very easy for just like the scope to be huge and huge and huge. And trying to solve anything that huge, you know, it’s almost impossible. So I always– when I consult with organizations, I always start with, let’s get really clear on what do you want– what are you trying to accomplish? Like, what is your goal with this and why is that your goal? Right? So given who you are as an organization and what your mission and why you exist as an organization, like what actually is in your sphere of influence, what makes sense for you to tackle? Whether that’s externally focused or internally focused or both, but like, we need to have something to kind of, to focus on. Right?

And then from there, there’s an assessment process around what’s already happening? What are our current dynamics? What do we already have in place? Where can we build on our strengths? Where do we need some targeted skills building? Where do we need to create some different group norms? And I cannot stress this part enough: accountability processes, right? Because humans are messy. We have great intentions and then we don’t follow through on them. Right? If we could just decide, “Oh, I know what to do. And I want to do it”. If that were enough, no one would smoke. No one would eat fast food, everyone to floss their teeth every day, everyone would exercise, right?

Brian Washburn: Yeah. I feel like you’re talking right to me. 

Carrie Heron: Right? It’s like we’ve proven again and again and again, it takes more than knowing what you should do and wanting to do it in order to change behavior. And so this is the same. And so what I have seen as effective initiatives is really like getting clear: this is the culture we’re trying to create together. Everyone on the team is engaged in creating it, and it has to be led by the leaders of the team or the organization. And that can’t be that the leader says, “yeah, I support that statement that you’ve made about diversity, equity and inclusion. And now I’m going to delegate actually leading this work to human resources or to my assistant” or too often a volunteer group committee that is made up mostly of women BIPOC folks and or queer folks who are doing it as their third job, right, but don’t have any institutional power and are asked to solve all the problems. But meanwhile, the leaders, they don’t role model the new behaviors because why would they? They also don’t necessarily hold their direct reports accountable for using those targeted behaviors. So then there’s this disconnect, right, between behaviors– between what we say and what we do, which does not increase the sense of belonging in my experience. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And so what I heard you say is that it’s important to be very clear and you’re going to have to say no to some things. And just because you’re saying no to something today doesn’t mean it can’t be something that we put back on the table, you know, next month or next year, whenever it might be, but we can’t do all things, right. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good and we need to, kind of, focus on one thing.

Before we finish up here, Carrie, I have a couple of questions because this work is really hard. And normally my speed round questions are a little bit lighter or getting people to get to know the guests a little bit more, but this is heavy stuff. And so, I’m going to change my questions here a little bit to fit this topic here. 

And the first question I have for you, with knowing that this is work that is messy, that it’s hard, it takes a ton of energy, people get tired of it – Who or what inspires you to stay engaged in this work? 

What Inspires You To Engage In DEI Work?

Carrie Heron: So, I have two grown sons who are biracial. They’re black and white. They identify as black. And so for me, interrupting racism has always felt very personal. So I’m white and it is not a small thing for me when a young black man is killed, right, because that could be my kid. 

Brian Washburn: Absolutely.

Carrie Heron: So that feels always inspiring and motivating. And they’re delightful. And they’re grown and they’re both very aware of racism and sexism and heterosexism. And they live their lives in ways that they’re not going to let any of those things hold them back, right? So having that personal connection and also seeing like, yeah, I know that the context we live in is so hard and so painful and also we have an opportunity each one of our messy, beautiful human selves. We do have a sphere of influence and we do have choices in our individual actions and I see both of those things in my boys, men.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely. What advice would you have to other white people — you identify as white, I identify as white — other white people who are newer on their DEI learning journey? 

Carrie Heron: I think that the keys to the castle, for white people, for everybody, but especially for white people, is finding ways to practice getting comfortable with discomfort. And especially for white people, because we’re– we are– we tend to be socialized to see ourselves as individuals, right? And we tend to mostly be able to operate in mostly white spaces, right? Most of our schools are white culture. Most of our workplaces are white culture, etc. So it’s very rare for us to be in situations where our cultural norms are not the norm, not correct, not right, right? And so when we do engage in multicultural, multiracial conversations, etc., it can feel like an actual threat to our nervous system. Like that’s how our nervous system responds is like, “Oh, this feels weird and uncomfortable, like I’m being attacked”. So finding ways to settle the nervous system, Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands has some practices. Any kind of trauma-based yoga or mindfulness, like, that has kind of a trauma lens. It helps to find ways to settle our nervous system so that we can actually stay fully engaged and take in that person’s way of thinking or that person’s answer or solution or idea is completely different from mine. And I can hold it as completely valid at the same time. Whew- so uncomfortable. So uncomfortable and necessary.

Brian Washburn: You know, Carrie, I met you in 2007, just starting to do some of this work and here we are 14 years later. It’s still uncomfortable for me.

Carrie Heron: It’s still uncomfortable.

Brian Washburn:  And I think the one thing that has changed is that I know that discomfort is coming. And so that definitely helps me to stay engaged a little bit more. I love that advice though, is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. What makes you feel hopeful? 

What Makes You Feel Hopeful?

Carrie Heron: My kids, yeah, and how they have stepped into their full selves. And also like conversations with this. Like, I have the privilege of working with a number of people who really do want to engage and are willing to experience discomfort and stay in it and that just, yeah, that fills me with– that fills my heart with hope and love and joy and all kinds of those good things.

Brain Washburn: I think that’s really important that people can still feel hopeful after having gone through the, you know, kind of been on the front lines of the work that this involves for years and years. So Carrie Heron, thank you so much for joining in this conversation. It’s a little bit longer of a podcast than we typically do, but I think it’s such an important conversation to have.

Carrie Heron, and is a therapist, facilitator, consultant, and coach. And I’m Brian Washburn from Endurance Learning. Thank you all for listening. You can find us on Spotify, iHeartRadio, on Apple, or anywhere where you get your podcasts. Feel free to subscribe and if you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating because that’s how people find us. Until next time, happy training everyone

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up below for a free demo.

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