Northwest Arkansas Council hosts webinar on DEI, critical race theory

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,012 views 

Northwest Arkansas leaders gathered virtually Wednesday (March 2) to learn about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and critical race theory.

Springdale-based nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council hosted the webinar, Demystifying Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, to provide insights on diversity, equity and inclusion, and an explainer on critical race theory. The webinar had more than 70 attendees.

Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the council, said companies and regions that are more equitable and inclusive perform better.

“In Northwest Arkansas, we’re growing more diverse extremely rapidly,” he said. “How do we continue to make that a strength, not a weakness? How do we grow together so that everyone who chooses to live here has the best chance of success possible?”

He noted this has been the focus of council initiative EngageNWA. But he added that the council needs to do better and is working with equity-focused consultant Prototype Entities, which provide the webinar. The speakers included Mikal Anderson, founder and CEO of the consulting firm, and other consultants, including psychologist Don Trahan Jr. and educator Meghan Raisch.

“Are we doing all that we can in this space to be more equitable and more inclusive, and how do we embed diversity, equity and inclusion into our different workstreams, whether it’s workforce development, our new housing initiative, healthcare and so many others as we try to project out to the region how are we doing on DEI work,” Peacock said.

Raisch discussed critical race theory and how it can be used as a tool to identify policies or practices maintaining racial inequities and from where they are stemming. She noted the importance of homeownership as a path for upward mobility and explained the Philadelphia neighborhoods that were identified as undesirable in the 1930s and how the residents struggled to receive loans to purchase homes. The Temple University professor added that spending per student in schools in the suburbs was $5,000 greater than for students in the city. She said about 80% of the city’s schools, in which she taught for 10 years, comprise Black or Latino students.

“I was teaching in some of the most dilapidated buildings,” she said. “Broken windows…we never had drinkable water… We had almost had no supplies. Pencils were probably one of the biggest barriers every single day to get the lesson started. If I left the papers in my desk over the weekend – shredded by mice into nests. I’ll never forget some of these things.”

Raisch also explained what critical race theory is and isn’t. She said it’s not a curriculum but a theoretical framework used by legal scholars in academia. She said it’s not liberalism but a critique of liberalism ideas of the neutrality of law, colorblindness and meritocracy. She said it’s not a form of Marxism but asks what framework can be established for those who have not had access to the benefits of capitalism, including building credit, buying property or owning a business. She said it’s not a criticism of white people but a way of thinking critically about policies that offer advantages to some groups and disadvantages to others. And, she said it’s not exclusive to the Black-white paradigm but can be applied to Asians, Latinos and Native Americans.

“What I think is most important is we have a level of awareness that this country is designed and operates in a way in which systems drive everything that we do,” Trahan said. “It doesn’t matter what arena you are looking at. It is anything that is happening. There’s an inherent system – even if you think of it in terms of class… that is reinforced based on socioeconomic status or economic stability in this country.”

Trahan said the systems must be dismantled, and he does not want anyone to be oppressed. He added that critical race theory can be used to help identify the systems causing the oppression.

Regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, Anderson said the tough work is inclusion and belonging. In considering inclusion, Trahan asked about the voices that organizations might be missing and have not been heard. An aspect of belonging regards how people who feel cared for can directly relate to work engagement. Equity regards access to opportunities or removing the barriers in place to reach them, he said.

Trahan noted the importance of not trying to implement DEI plans all at once but as something ongoing. He said that’s one of the leading reasons it fails.

“DEI together is the responsibility of every member of the organization,” he said. “When you apply a DEI lens, research has shown very clearly that it enhances the likelihood of you being able to have a better diversity of thought, better outcomes, better performance and from a market perspective, you’re able to elevate your position in the market based on truly focusing on DEI.”