Wearing a mask in public has become our most effective means to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and is now a standard expectation for anyone entering a retail store. It is likely to become an essential part of our daily public wardrobe for the foreseeable future. For the same reasons, nonprofits will also need to establish clear guidelines for those entering their spaces.
Yet mask-wearing has placed an unanticipated burden on the deaf community. For those organizations providing personal protective equipment (PPE), securing masks that enable lips to be read is essential. Any time a staff person must remove their mask to speak to a deaf person or a person who has difficulty hearing, it places both parties at risk. Deaf people should not have to risk their lives to communicate.
This is just one of the many adjustments—some widely anticipated and some maybe not—that diversity, equity, and inclusion in our COVID-19 environment will require.
As states across the country reopen their economies, the inevitable realization is dawning upon us that there will be no “business as usual” to return to. This was true even before protests erupted nationwide in revulsion to the murder of George Floyd. At a time when essential workers in various sectors have had to strike to secure appropriate PPE, the worry now is that other worker essentials will be unmet by a corporate sector desperate to make up for lost profits.
In the nonprofit sector, the need for us to get it right is even greater as, more often than not, staff and volunteers will be working and advocating to see the economic, political, social, and health-related issues addressed for those on the front lines.
The national tendency has been to discuss this pandemic as though all workers have been impacted equally. Yet this virus has laid bare the social inequalities that exist within our nation and disclosed the deadly effects of multi-generational marginalization and neglect. Access to sufficient health care is just scratching the surface of the concerns many families continue to face.
In this time of COVID-19, work itself is a health risk. Nonprofit organizations are challenged to respond in ways that meet that level of risk with a competency and commitment that is as cogent as this crisis.
As states begin to reopen their economies, nonprofits would do well to reconsider their policies, practices, and expectations, and to set in place guidelines that will be considerate of, and responsive to, the particular needs of their staff. Diversity is more than ensuring that the organization is representative of the communities from which it draws its staff. Diversity is about creating and maintaining environments where all people experience the support they need to excel.
Of all the communities impacted during this pandemic, the African American community is weathering a storm that is cataclysmic, with repercussions that will linger long after this virus has passed. With a death rate that is double and, in some regions, triple or even quadruple that of the general population, there is no one study that will be able to diagnose the emotional, psychological, and physical toll this has taken on the Black community.
The trauma of not being able to say goodbye to loved ones dying in hospital beds alone, or even mourn losses with other family and friends due to the quarantine orders, has compressed a generation’s worth of misery into weeks. These virus-related conditions are compounded by the structural racism African Americans were already experiencing. Although all staff will be returning to the office riddled with anxiety, African American staff are returning to work with a grief and distress that will require an organizational response that meets the institutional racism they face every day.
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This reopening process has been anything but smooth and coordinated. This lack of clarity and cohesion has created chaotic circumstances for families with children and ramped up the anxieties they are already experiencing. Some states have permitted and even promoted the reopening of the business sector while schools, daycare, and youth centers remain closed. This has led to a dynamic where parents are forced to choose between returning to work or taking care of their children. In this pre-vaccination moment, sending one’s child to any place outside of the home is a risk parents should not be made to take.
One appropriate response to this would be for organizations to consider whether certain positions need to return to the office. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it most certainly has shown that many positions can function just fine from home. For those positions where that is not an option, supervisors should be in conversation with staff with children to determine how best to support them as parents.
In addition to these measures, organizations should be reviewing their healthcare plans. Does your plan provide adequate coverage for all staff in this new COVID-19 era? Beyond coverage, do your organization’s policies provide adequate sick days and time off for staff to attend to virus-related matters on the home front? If not, this is the time to see those gaps addressed.
As organizations review their health plans, they would do well to also look at how their plans meet the needs of their LGBTQ+ staff. Addressing issues of privacy, gender identification, and medical need are vital for an organization that is intentional in honoring LGBTQ+ staff.
Achieving an organization whose staff operates at full capacity and productivity requires a work environment that respects staff. Respect is the primary root in motivating and maintaining staff success.
Nonprofits should also appreciate that one size does not always fit all. Working to meet the needs of those most impacted and disproportionately affected does not take away from others. In fact, when done right, such efforts actually work to ensure that all staff have their needs addressed in a way that leads to a culture of shared community.
On the flip side, to not implement such practices maintains a status quo of disregard that is the seed of all discrimination. Equity is the organizational effort to be responsive to the specific needs of staff toward achieving equality in the workspace. Diversity awareness is only an initial step.
The most effective organizations in this new COVID-19 reality will be those that are ready, willing, and capable of responding to the particular needs of their staff and volunteers. These will be the organizations best prepared to lead our society toward greater justice and parity, compassion, and security—all of which are essential in a pandemic-stricken world infected with inequality.
Ewuare Osayande is the Chief Diversity Officer with the American Friends Service Committee. The author of several books, he is presently working on a book addressing organizational racism. Learn more about his work at Osayande.org.