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Equal Justice Works: Evolving our Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

By Janie L. Payne

Vice President of Administration

Equal Justice Works

Why are we prioritizing Diversity Equity and Inclusion at EJW?

Imagine a country where the term “underserved communities” ceased to exist, where every person living in our country could participate fully in all aspects of the ” American Dream “; this is the mission of Equal Justice Works(EJW).

Founded by law students in 1986, Equal Justice Works is a nonprofit organization composed of law students, lawyers, legal services organizations, and supporters to engage in public service and bring lasting change to underserved communities across our country.

The Equal Justice Works Mission links inextricably to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) . At EJW, the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than just words – they are actions. As a strategic priority, we are passionate about ensuring that the DEI values are ingrained throughout our organization’s culture. We have developed Foundational Elements that articulate our future state: a DEI business case, vision statement, and organizational definitions. The foundational elements are crucial in developing a shared understanding of why diversity, equity, and inclusion, matter at Equal Justice Works.

How do we define DEI at EJW?

  • Diversity is the valued representation of unique experiences, backgrounds, identity, cultures, and personal traits at EJW reflected in the composition of our staff, Board of Directors, Fellows, and the communities we serve.
  • EJW defines equity as an approach taken to ensure that all employees have the opportunity to grow, contribute, and advance while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of communities that suffer disproportionately.
  • EJW defines inclusion as a continuing effort to create a supportive and respectful community where all staff can authentically participate and embrace and value their differences.

Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Journey

Starting with our Board of Directors, we committed to making diversity, equity, and inclusion a deliberate strategic imperative in support of our mission. In 2019, we further illuminated these shared values by including the principles in our strategic plan.

Food for the Journey: Knowledge

As we strive to create a work culture where Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is the fabric of our operational DNA, the first step in our journey begins with perspective. Just like food is nourishment for the body, knowledge feeds the organization.

For Year 1 of the strategic plan, we focused on understanding the current state of the organization. We achieved several milestones to include conducting a cultural assessment and creating a DEI framework to structure a two-year plan. We conducted a series of meetings that enabled dialogue and training with all levels of the organization to outline the work and take some initial steps on our journey. The vision statement serves as a guiding light to move the organization towards the future state. Evaluating the vision against the DEI cultural assessment’s realities leads to the development of priorities and benchmarks to keep us on track and hold us accountable for change.

Rules for the Road: Commitment

We are on a journey, ensuring that every member of our workplace’s contribution is valued and workplace policies and procedures are created and implemented through a DE&I lens. We know that this transformation will not happen overnight but requires sustained efforts.

A colleague once said that reliability builds trust, and over time that trust evolves to respect. There are steps that we can actively take to progress towards a more equitable society and workplace. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are crucial foundational elements in creating a basis for a healthy, welcoming, and productive work environment.

We recognize that embracing diversity is a success principle as different voices and perspectives contribute to the organization’s success by increasing productivity and team morale and creating stronger relationships with your clients and employees.

The Road Less Traveled: Participation

Given our work over the past year, I believe there is no single employee who does not understand the significance of moving the DEIJ strategic priority forward. The tragic slaying of George Floyd ignited a new awareness of the importance of social justice for Black people. Our Executive Director, David Stern, has communicated both internally and externally ‘ ‘EJW’s anti-racism ideology. I co-facilitated an employee listening session with a member of the Board, and during this powerful session, employees shared heartfelt emotions about what was happening in the world and within Equal Justice Works. EJW employees are modeling their commitment to social justice in and outside of the workplace by participating in protests, donating funds, organizing informal sessions, and sharing resources with staff members to understand the importance of diversity and anti-racism further. While there is an external movement, there is an internal movement as well.

The Road Ahead

We dedicate ourselves to evolving how we engage as an organization to demonstrate our commitment to DEI. To do so, we must be reliable and consistent in our actions and behaviors. By aligning HR policies and procedures through a DE&I lens, EJW ensures that every workplace member’s contribution is valued.

We know education, training, and skill-building are essential to developing the level of understanding and emotional intelligence it takes to evolve to conscious competence. We focus on finding effective resources and development opportunities to continuously improve our internal capacity and culture to act consistently with our DEI values.

Organizational change requires personal assessment, as well as policy and procedural evaluation. We also plan to formally assess our progress by conducting another cultural review to measure change. There must also be full participation at every level: from the planners and workers to the directors and stakeholders. Our Board remains engaged in the journey through a newly established DEI and Culture committee that provides oversight and ensures sustainability through business, social, and economic change.

While we are proud of our accomplishments, we realize that much work lies ahead to achieve an entirely equitable workplace. However, we also know that there is a promising future ahead that will elevate diverse voices.

About Janie L. Payne

Human Resources Executive and Change Agent, Janie Payne has a strong business and operations background in multiple sectors. She has worked across sectors to include for-profit, government, and not-for profit domestic and international organizations. Janie is an innovator who combines the right mix of ingenuity, passion, personality, and resiliency with action orientation.

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