What is DEI all about?

Written by: Derek DeBruin

Over the last few years, the AMGA has placed an increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE) in our association. We ultimately do better as an organization and in our work in the field when we are culturally competent and strive to be respectful of others’ beliefs and identities. A solid group culture is a key element of success in any endeavor, and steep ski descents or icy summits are not fundamentally different from our national organization in that regard. Despite this, it can be  difficult to have conversations about the varied experiences of those with a different life trajectory than one’s own. Topics like unconscious bias or systemic inequity can feel out of place in the mountains. The intentional conversations required to create positive group interactions among clients and students can feel challenging, but having the language needed to maintain a respectful environment helps. Common definitions of key terms can move conversations forward from a place of shared understanding. Below are three key ideas defined as well as a simple directive for practical action.

Diversity means the differences between individuals, which can cover a host of characteristics and identities, many of which are legally protected statuses. Current thinking around diversity might reference biological sex, gender identity, race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, veteran status, age, legal status, education, marital status, or language. Diversity is not necessarily a goal for its own sake, but rather a way to create equity and inclusion, and vice versa. For example, an affinity group such as Brown Girls Climb might specifically strive to create a space for people who share certain identities. Similarly, a religious gathering is often expressly aimed at its adherents. In either case, others may be welcomed, but the need for these protected social spaces should not be overlooked. Contrarily, a diverse group does not directly imply equity or inclusion among its members. Group members may tokenize individuals who represent some form of diversity. These individuals may be perceived as representatives of an entire group of people, asked to speak on behalf of that entire group, and may otherwise be treated disrespectfully or have their voice or experience minimized by dominant group members. However, when all group members are respected, diverse groups create the opportunity for equity and inclusion, and create possibilities for differing life experiences, world views, and factual opinions to inform a group’s collective knowledge.

Equity is fair treatment, opportunity, and access to resources according to individual need. Equity is different from equality. Equality implies all people start from the same social or economic position, while equity acknowledges that historically many groups have been intentionally disadvantaged. Implicit in equity is also the understanding that disadvantages can persist into the present, whether intentional or not, and therefore result in systemic, structural, or institutional processes that cause differing outcomes for differing groups. Addressing these concerns requires strong efforts to examine outcome disparities and their causes. Slavery is a blatant example of historic inequity. After the abolition of slavery, various social systems enacted in its stead continued to perpetuate inequity, including Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan lynchings and other violence, militarized suppression of the Civil Rights Movement, and de facto neighborhood and school segregation that continues in many communities to this day. Equality recognizes that everyone should have the same opportunity to succeed, but equity further recognizes that the starting line may be in a different place for different people.

Inclusion is the intentional creation of an environment where any person can feel welcomed. This necessarily implies diversity of identities, characteristics, and ideas. Often, an inclusive environment could be described as “psychologically safe” where group members feel free to be their authentic selves without risk of negative social repercussions or loss of status. This relies on trust and is evidenced by groups who spend equal amounts of time listening and speaking and whose members are concerned about others’ emotional state. Whether it is an AMGA course or exam, three weeks with teenagers in the Rockies, or a Himalayan expedition, a psychologically safe environment goes a long way to maintaining a physically safe environment. When group members feel psychologically safe, they are willing to take the social risks associated with learning (since learning often means making mistakes), resolve disagreements amicably, and raise critical concerns or question group plans, which helps manage risk for the whole group.

However, as noted above, a diverse group is not necessarily inclusive or equitable–certain members may not be fully valued, respected, and supported. This can be particularly challenging as both equity and inclusion can be thwarted by cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is a typically unconscious belief or behavior that results from one’s perception or interpretation of a situation, as opposed to an objective or factual assessment of the situation. In the mountains, we often call these “human factors” or “heuristic traps”. We want to believe the wide-open 40-degree north-facing slope covered with fresh powder is safe to ski, so we look for reasons that it might be. Similarly, we might want to believe that  the “mountains don’t care” who you are and serve as the great equalizer, even if there are significant barriers to entry for some people to get to the mountains in the first place. Consequently, our biases may lead us to believe we are acting in an inclusive and equitable manner when this may not actually be the case. This can create a difference in our intentions and the actual impact of our actions.

What does all this mean in a practical sense? I think this maxim sums it up nicely:

Assume positive intent. Own your impact.

First, when interacting with one another, strive to assume positive intent. This is as simple as giving the benefit of the doubt. It is easy to stumble over words in a difficult conversation and taking umbrage at genuine attempts to communicate only serves to create division. Believing that your colleagues are putting their best foot forward and doing their best builds a solid foundation for relationships.

Second, own your impact. Despite our good intentions and attempts to understand, our behaviors may produce unintended consequences. The impact of our words and actions may be accidentally divisive, exclusive, negative, or damaging. When engaging with difficult topics, we will make mistakes. We need to step up and own these mistakes. Error correction is a crucial part of guiding and instructing and is just as applicable to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Often all that is required is a recognition of one’s misstep and a genuine apology, especially if all parties assume positive intent. With practice, these skills become second nature and help us craft experiences that have positive impact for all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.