Fostering Diversity: When Good Ideas Lead to Bad Places pt. I

It’s a progressive staple: increase the diversity of all the things. It’s not a bad idea. In fact, it’s a great idea. Increasing diversity everywhere is absolutely something we must continue to fight for and practice in our own organizations. It helps generate new ideas, generates additional buy-in from a wider coalition of people, and is good for group dynamics.

The challenge is: how do we increase diversity without engaging in negative actions that are counter productive and often damaging in the long run. These negative actions are wide ranging, but all amount to a similar result of sending the wrong messages.

The goal of any organization should be to increase diversity and equality across the board and avoid any situation that amounts to ‘turning the tables’.

The Progressive Stack

The Progressive Stack is one such area where, if the practice is instituted correctly, the desired affect will be achieved and negative affects will be limited. If you’re not familiar with The Progressive Stack, it is a method of ensuring a diverse range of voices will be heard by asking individuals who wish to speak to signal that they wish to do so, and a moderator will rank them and call upon them in an order determined by a variety of factors, including whether or not they are a member of a group typically marginalized, and their level of participation. The goal of Progressive Stack is to increase the diversity of voices participating in discussion.

The Progressive Stack has the potential to be either very effective in increasing the diversity of discussion, or, becoming very divisive and counter productive.

First, let me discuss for a moment where Progressive Stack isn’t appropriate. Progressive Stack isn’t appropriate for very small groups (>=~5), instead a facilitator should work to ensure all voices are being heard and specifically ask individuals for their input. You wouldn’t want to institute Progressive Stack in such a small meeting as it’s not an efficient way of getting everyone at the table engaged and involved.

Once it’s decided that Progressive Stack should be used, the goal of the organization should be to ultimately not have to use it, especially if the organization using it is comprised of largely the same reoccurring members. Public bodies may need to keep it going perpetually. For those reoccurring groups, it should be used to foster discussion and help bring people to the discussion with the goal of over time becoming less and less necessary: that people will be comfortable speaking that the issue of diverse voices at the table becomes less and less of an issue. I will get into why later.

When using Progressive Stack, the typical notion is to use visual cues to determine if someone is part of a minority group typically marginalized. This is often the first failure, as visual cues aren’t entirely reliable nor do they identify everyone. A religious minority, for example, may not be apparent. Large public gatherings may not allow for other identification to take place, at which point it may be necessary to further modify the rules for engaging or use another method entirely. If it is feasible to do so, a facilitator at the start of a discussion may wish to ask if anyone needs to identify as a ‘typically marginalized minority’. There is no need to ask what that is, they can determine that for themselves: if they’re LGBTQ, a Religious Minority, have a disability, etc. While this is potentially subject to abuse, you’ll see in the next few moments how this is quickly squashed.

Once those who will be offered prioritization in discussion are identified, the facilitator should keep a running note of prioritization, meaning counting the number of times that individual requests to speak and are prioritized. At a certain point, if the person is engaging frequently in the discussion, they will become less and less prioritized with individuals who have not engaged regardless of minority status being offered future priority.

The reason for this is to avoid sending the message to the ‘traditionally dominant group’, e.g. your cisgendered heterosexual white males, that their voices and opinions don’t count. They do count. In the interests of diversity, other voices are given temporary priority to ensure a wider spectrum of participation, however that priority is temporary. In other words, if Mary engages frequently in the discussion, she no longer gets bumped up in the stack due to her level of engagement: she obviously feels comfortable participating and can be stacked more randomly.

Again, the goal of The Progressive Stack is to increase the diversity of engagement, not punish those seen by the Progressive community as holding privilege. If Progressive Stack is implemented poorly, that is ultimately the message that is sent. I have been a part of discussions where that message was sent loud and clear, and actually verbalized by the facilitator at one point as “you’re a cisgendered white male, your opinion doesn’t matter”. This creates immediate hostility, ultimately leading to disengagement and eventually the loss of those voices. Diversity isn’t having a table that is only ‘traditional minorities’ and cisgendered white men nowhere to be found. Diversity is a table where everyone is included.

This is why reoccurring bodies should seek to move away from Progressive Stack. If equality is the goal, eventually all voices must be seen as equal and given equal weight, and when everyone is equally comfortable with speaking up in the group, all voices will have to be treated as equal. The decision should be made democratically by the members of the organization when they feel the time is right to do so. Until then, using a method to bring more diverse voices to the table will be needed to help foster this feeling.

A facilitator should make a simple tally sheet and either pre-identify all participants, or if the group is too-large to create a roll, identify individuals as they request to participate. As the facilitator creates the stack per discussion, the focus will become less and less on the individual’s minority status and increase more and more on the level of participation of the individuals. And yes, that does mean if you have a cisgendered white male who does not speak for several rounds of discussion, and finally wishes to engage, they receive a Priority Point as they’ve not spoken yet.

This implementation self-corrects for abuse. Whether someone disingenuously identifies as a non-obvious minority to gain priority or someone is a minority but outspoken becomes a moot point: once it is obvious they are willing to participate in the discussion and do so without hesitation, they’re randomized but monitored to ensure they aren’t pushed out of participation.

Eventually the participation tally will be the guide as the discussion evolves, where speakers are ranked by how much input they’ve had and not by any identity. At that point, all participants are being treated equally and being ranked equally.

True equality moves us beyond being judged by our identity groups. It is important for us as a society to acknowledge that sometimes increasing the diversity of voices in discussion requires using methods to help facilitate that. However, steps must be put in place to ensure that the end result is not the alienation of a group of individuals due to historical power imbalances. Equality isn’t merely flip-flopping the balance of power and making the subjugated the powerful and vice versa, it’s eliminating subjugation all together. Failing to do so risks pushing people to a very dark world and making them an enemy of equality and diversity.