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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

4 Steps to Create a Shared Language Around DEI

This is a guest blog by The Acacia Company.

If you were to ask everyone in your team to define diversity and inclusion, how would they respond? What if you asked them to differentiate between equity and equality? Are their answers aligned? Now, what if you were to ask your entire organization? Having a shared language around DEI is important because it sets the stage for productive conversations and reduces the chances of misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and miscommunication. Helping everyone at your organization align on key DEI terms and concepts will set your organization up to create an intentional, informed, and sustainable DEI strategy.

There are a variety of different ways to approach creating a shared language in an organization depending on which stage of DEI development your organization is at, your current needs and gaps, the size and capacity of your DEI team, the time and bandwidth of employees to receive training, and of course, your budget for DEI.

Here are 4 steps to intentionally create a shared language around DEI:

Step 1: Assess current knowledge levels for core DEI concepts

Start by assessing your employees' familiarity with key DEI concepts. Ensure that everyone in the organization is included in this process, regardless of their department, level, or location. Be sure to ask for their burning questions and about which topics they are most curious to learn about. 

If you’re wondering which topics should be included in a learning assessment, here is a list to start with. While this is not a comprehensive list, it is a well-rounded base of knowledge that is helpful for folks implementing DEI in workplaces. 

DEI Competencies


Core concepts focused on establishing a base for DEI knowledge.

  • Diversity and representation

  • Inclusion and belonging

  • Equity

  • The benefits, opportunities, and relevance of DEI


Topics that create deeper self-awareness and the impact they have.

  • Your personal connection and why for DEI

  • Social identity dimensions and intersectionality

  • Bias and judgment

  • Privilege, power, and positionality

  • Advocating for your needs and boundaries

  • The unique way you can contribute to advancing DEI


Concepts and skills for navigating interactions with others.

  • Cultural awareness and understanding

  • Practicing empathy at work

  • Inclusive language and communication

  • Giving and receiving constructive feedback

  • Microaggressions and subtle acts of exclusion

  • Conflict management and resolution

  • Recognizing and eliminating tokenism

  • Building psychological safety, trust, and belonging

  • Being a supportive bystander

  • Allyship


Topics for operationalizing DEI in the workplace and creating systemic change.

  • Identifying and removing bias in systems

  • The impact you can have toward DEI within your role at your organization

  • Equitable process and policy design

  • DEI strategy and long-term planning

  • Setting goals for DEI

  • Tracking metrics for DEI progress

  • Building transparency into organizational culture

  • Building accountability structures into organizational and team culture

  • Allocating responsibilities and setting job expectations in a way that is fair

  • Recognizing, rewarding, and compensating contributions in a way that is fair

  • Recruiting and building a diverse team

  • Creating an inclusive team culture

  • Change management in organizations


Context for understanding the dynamic landscape and reality of DEI. 

  • Historical context of DEI at various levels (global, national, regional, local)

  • Present day context of DEI at various levels (global, national, regional, local)

  • The four levels of oppression in our society

In addition, it could be helpful to gather insights into employee attitudes and perceptions around DEI. These insights can help inform your learning and development plan and methods of communication down the line. 

Step 2: Set learning and development priorities

After assessing the knowledge gaps and interests, prioritize the topics you want to cover in your learning and development plan. Consider analyzing trends by groups, such as location, department, or role.

People tend to be more curious about things when they are immediately relevant to their work and life. Focus on the intersection of foundational DEI topics, the most significant knowledge gaps, and where people are excited and curious to learn. 

As you kick off the program, prioritize the people who hold the most power in your organization, such as the Board of Directors or Senior Leadership. This will ensure decision makers are knowledgeable and informed about how to support their teams and the organization better. If your organization has a DEI committee you might consider including them in the early stages of learning and development for DEI.

Depending on the nature of your organization, there may be specific topics to prioritize as well. Be sure to ask yourself what these might look like. For example, if your organization has a culturally diverse workforce and/or operates in or serves in more than one country, you might prioritize cultural awareness and understanding. 

Step 3: Determine the structure of your learning and development plan

Now that you have determined which topics and people to prioritize, you can start mapping out the pace and budget of your learning and development plan. At this step, it's essential to get a clear picture of what resources are available to you and how fast you can realistically implement your plan.

If you’re working with a small budget, you might slow down the pace of programming. Don’t fret about needing to have a training every month. Consider internally-facilitated discussions where relevant or sharing resources like articles, books, or videos. If the budget is small today, create a plan to expand your budget in the future. Track metrics such as attendance and response rate to demonstrate success and be able to advocate for budget expansion. 

If you have more wiggle room in your budget, prioritize sourcing expertise. This expertise can come from within your organization if it exists. Otherwise, consider looking externally. And if you have a big budget… do it all! Have as many touchpoints as you can without overextending your employee’s bandwidth to receive new information.

Most importantly, always center the employees and avoid centering what is easiest for you as the creator of the program. Get a sense of what their needs are and what will support them the most in the long run.

Step 4: Ensure the approach to building a shared language is inclusive

Consider using various methods to ensure all employees can access the content, regardless of their learning style, location, or work schedule. Methods can include in-person training, webinars, podcasts, newsletters, and self-paced online courses. Also, consider providing employee resource groups and other support systems for employees to share their experiences, learn from each other, and build community. Information should be shared across various channels and with multiple touchpoints to ensure everyone has access to it and has time to grasp it. 

In conclusion, creating a shared language around DEI is crucial for any organization committed to fostering a culture of inclusion and equity. By assessing knowledge levels, setting learning and development priorities, determining the structure of your plan, and ensuring inclusivity, you can create a foundation for a sustainable and impactful DEI strategy. Remember that this is an ongoing process, and every organization's journey is unique. Start where you are, and commit to continuous learning and growth.

To continue your learning and growth, here are 5 books we recommend to start with as well as our breakdown of foundational concepts and key terms like diversity, equity, inclusion and more.


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