Q&A: Talking DEI in tech with Ann Arbor-based Emergence Collective

We spoke to two local business consultants about the challenges they experience in doing DEI work in all industries – and the specific challenges of Ann Arbor's tech industry.
This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
 
The Ann Arbor tech industry has a long way to go to address major diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges, and Ann Arbor-based Emergence Collective is one resource helping local companies move through that work. The women-owned firm offers consulting services to help businesses and nonprofits improve organizational culture. Emergence Collective's inclusive, participatory consulting approach engages voices that are often left out of strategic problem-solving. The company believes that organizational culture and evaluation are closely connected. It also strives to emphasize DEI in its own organizational values through a shared ownership model and open management approach.
 
We spoke to Emergence Collective consultants Lauren Beriont and Laura Urteaga-Fuentes about the challenges they experience in doing DEI work in all industries – and the specific challenges of Ann Arbor's tech industry.
 
Our interviews with Beriont and Urteaga-Fuentes have been combined and edited for length and clarity.
 
Concentrate: What are the biggest challenges that you currently face in doing DEI work?
 
Beriont: I think there are two main challenges. First is the willingness of companies and owners to put people in front of profit. Second is to recognize where they're complicit in the system. Because we all exist within the system, we are all complicit in some way. To acknowledge that can be really challenging for some people, especially in some of the organizations that we work with that are more minded towards missions and social good. It's such a strong identity to say, "I'm trying to make a difference in the world," but then also hold the truth that there are things that are in your control and some things that are out of your control that make you complicit in why there's inequity in this world. I think that there can be real dissonance between that "we're doing good things" identity, and yet there are still things that I need to work on as an individual.
 Emergence Collective consultant Lauren Beriont.
Urteaga-Fuentes: One of the things that is really hard is working with data sets that inherently have bias, based on policy and systemic racism that's just embedded in all areas of government assistance. If you're thinking about data sets that are available to use as evaluators for communities trying to make decisions about resource allocations, it becomes really complicated when you think about it. 
 
Take for example the U.S. census. When Native Americans were first added to the census in the 1800s, they really were only counted if they had renounced their tribal status and were paying taxes. There's a lot of holes in the story of who's represented in America. When you're thinking, "Okay, we're just going to use the data to determine resource allocation," that gets really difficult. You might not be seeing a clear picture.
 
Concentrate: What do you see as the Ann Arbor tech industry's main DEI challenges?
 
Beriont: White liberals, in my experience, are the hardest to wake up to what's happening because there's such a strong identity of “I'm a good person”. One of the challenges I see that is not unique to Ann Arbor is that there's such an emphasis on the individual level, and not our organizations and structures and systems. When we are putting attention toward places where we see inequity in our work, a default reaction we see a lot is that people are taking it very personally. But what we're pointing out is that it's not about this individual, it's about a larger system or structure. There's just a lot of investment in that individual level.
 
I think part of that is because some businesses don't feel like the context in which they exist is relevant to the equity work in their organization. We live in Ann Arbor, and housing is out of control, and part of that is because we have these well-paying tech jobs. There's a lot of challenge, then, in being a business and saying, "I have a stake in this larger issue of inequity that we're playing into, but it's not really directly related to the kind of work that we do." So I think it's easy for people to distance themselves from it.
Emergence Collective consultant Laura Urteaga-Fuentes. 
Urteaga-Fuentes: Ann Arbor tends to think we're extremely progressive and we're all moving in the same direction and we're really inclusive and diversity is everywhere. But it's really just not so when you're looking at, for example, the crazy racial divide that happens along US-23. Poverty levels, life expectancy rates, and reading levels aren't all the same. People that work in Ann Arbor cannot afford to live there, necessarily, if they are working in a service industry or they're a teacher. The disparities are crazy. 
 
Concentrate: What are some of the common misconceptions about DEI work?
 
Beriont: There's a lot of focus put on hiring. If you are talking about racial equity in an organization, people try to hire more people of color. There's a lot of focus put on attracting new talent and not enough on the organizational culture that exists and whether folks see themselves as part of the organization in the long term. Hiring and organizational culture are these sort of reinforcing pieces, in some ways like the chicken or the egg. There needs to be an organizational culture that embraces a more multiracial team, while also building that team to represent the multiracial team that you're hoping to have. It's not just about hiring. It's also about organizational culture and how these different pieces are reinforcing each other.
 
Urteaga-Fuentes: I think a lot of people think that data can speak on its own. If you're saying, "white people graduate at this rate but Latinos graduate at this rate," it just sounds like you're kind of pitting races against each other. But if you put it in terms of bridging an educational ethnic gap so more people can compete and prosper in the global economy, we can really tell more of the story with the appropriate context of what's going on in our system and policies that are at play. Everyone wants this data visualization that's very pared down, but I think context is really missing. Data can tell the true story, but can it also be solution-oriented?
 
Monica Hickson is a freelance writer currently based in Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in 2020 and is the author of a book, "The COVID Diaries." You may reach her at monica_alexis@yahoo.com.
 
All photos by Doug Coombe.