Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at USA Swimming, Leland Brown III talks with Sylvia Dahlby, DE&I Champion at SmartSearch about understanding, leveraging, and activating diversity, inclusion, and equity – and the practice of  turning these Nouns into Verbs for more effective actions.

This interview is part of an ongoing series of video conversations on smart practices in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Watch the conversation here or read more for the synopsis.

What is diversity in practice?

When we talk about diversity in practice, understanding that every word has power and meaning, you must use it effectively to engage with others and educate them. And so the words Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are critical. Diversity, in its literal sense is a noun. When you tell people, “We’re here to do diversity; we’re here to champion diversity,” the challenge right away is you can’t “do” a noun.

Diversity includes external differences, and there are internal differences. And the external difference is easy to see short, tall, big, small, white, black, brown. It’s not so easy to see internal stuff. If you use the definition of diversity as a noun, you can’t activate it to find the deeper diversities you can’t see.

“Diversity is nothing if you’re not Connecting with people to understand who they are, deeper than just what you can see.” 

The word that I’ve coupled with Diversity to find the diversity inside of everyone and that includes everyone is to Connect with them. To connect is to bring together, question, listen, and go deeper than just the skin and the surface value.

What would inclusion be in practice as a verb?

To include someone, you have to Accept the things that they like, their lifestyle, the way that they live —Subscribe to SmartInclusion by SmartSearch although you may disapprove of it — it’s still something that has to be Accepted for you to include the person truly.

There’s a difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance means accepting that someone’s belief, opinion, or explanation is valid or correct. This means someone who believes something totally outside of what you think can still be true. For example, I love pineapple on pizza. You hate it. Both opinions are perfectly valid and correct.

“Inclusion is also a noun. The action behind Inclusion is that in order to include others, you must Accept them.”

This verb, to accept, helps us understand that to include others, to bring them to the table, you have to accept that their brain is as intellectual as yours, as witty as yours, as caring as yours. If we include people who are different than ourselves, what we’re doing is accepting that no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, no matter any of these diversities that I see externally, I’m still going to include them and accept their voice.

How do you define Equity as a verb?

Two things define Equity. First, it’s fairness in competition, and second, it’s money or shared values in a company.

Both of those things have a connection, money and fairness. In this space, equity is fairness, and equity also is providing for the people. Provide is the verb here. You don’t get equity without Providing what people need to succeed.

“There’s a difference between equity and equality. Equality is giving everybody the same thing. Equity is providing every individual with what they need based on where they are.”

In my work at USA Swimming, I’ll give a swimming-related example of what I mean by Equity and Providing.

Let’s say there are three people in the water drowning. One can hold their breath for five minutes, another can hold their breath for three, and the third one can only hold their breath for 30 seconds. If we were being equal, we might say we’re going to help them all at one minute; in that case we’re treating them equally but one person loses their life. An equitable approach would be to provide assistance for each person when they need to be supported. We can help the person who breathes for 30 seconds first, next go to the three-minute person, and then we help five-minute person. The equitable way to provide assistance is to help each person based on where they’re at and their individual capacity.

Equity is to Provide what someone needs and is specific to where they’re at and what their needs are.


The formula for DEI success:

Diversity = Connect + Inclusion = Accept + Equity = Provide

You start acting on diversity initiatives by Connecting with people, and understanding who the individuals are. Then with Acceptance, you can better include diverse people in your processes, policies, organizational values, culture, etcetera. Now we can work on Providing for them. These things are chronological. They’re built upon each other.

“I ask people to think about doing one of these things or doing all three of these things formulaically every day. If you connect with one person, you accept something new. You accept someone new, an explanation, a lifestyle, accept it as valid, and then you provide for one person.”

What can you do if you do one of these things daily? At the end of the year, you’ve connected with someone and accepted 365 new things. You’ve also provided 365 new groups, new communities, and new people.

And so, if we have individuals that are more connected with each other, more accepting of each other, and providing for each other, just taking this C-A-P formulaically daily, then what happens is our culture changes individually and organically. Our values become intertwined with each other. Our proficiency and productivity rise because we can trust and feel motivated, and be confident in our organizational mission or values.

This D-E-I to C-A-P formula, turning the nouns into verbs, is a way for me to take action and recognize that I am taking small steps daily.


About our speaker: Leland Brown III is the first Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at USA Swimming.  A native of Galveston Island, Texas, Leland’s professional career centers around creating access to higher education and self-empowerment for traditionally underserved, undervalued, and marginalized communities. His work includes creating access and equity policies and capacities with the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Cincinnati, Promise Prep Indianapolis, and the NCAA.

SmartSearch can help you put diversity, equity & inclusion into practice:  As we develop our HR technology platform to support diversity in recruiting and employment equity, we’re talking with our clients, vendor partners, industry advocates, and thought leaders on trends, challenges, and solutions to create a more inclusive workplace.