Operationalizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with Special Guest Ms. Sudie Whalen

Welcome to our discussion on operationalizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion beginning on October 13 and 14. Our guest expert Ms. Sudie Whalen, will be providing insight and practical strategies for implementing DEI into our programs. 

Ms. Whalen has extensive background in adult education and diversity, equity and inclusion. Currently, she serves as a technical assistance consultant with the American Institutes for Research. Additional areas of expertise include career and technical education instruction and  integrated education and training.

Getting Started: 

DEI should be a foundation for all programs as we seek to ensure fairness and impartiality. Programs with solid and actionable items as a part of their overall processes increase employee satisfaction and retention. Students enrolled in programs with strong DEI protocols are more likely to remain engaged. 

To begin, let's set the stage by asking our guest questions and sharing ideas and information with your colleagues.

Kathy Tracey



Good morning colleagues, 

Welcome to our first day of the Operationalizing DEI discussion with special guest Ms. Sudie Whalen.


Ms. Whalen, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is not a new concept, but we are discussing it more frequently. Why do you feel this is now seen by many as a priority? 


Good morning! Great question, Tracy. I think many, if not most, educators have always aspired to embrace diversity, push toward equity, and create inclusive environments. This is especially true in adult education because our population is naturally diverse in terms of socio-economic demographics. But the willingness to discuss DEI wasn’t always there, so many attempted to do the best they could within their spheres of influence without discussing it too much for fear of making others uncomfortable. However, we all saw in 2020 that moving DEI forward in our silos simply wasn’t working. 2020 shined a glaring light on systemic inequities. Many people who always wanted to move the needle forward thought to themselves, “I can’t do this on my own,” and realized it takes transformational change at the programmatic and systems levels and commitment from leaders and those leaders need to be supported.  We have become more comfortable within our moments of discomfort because we now realize that’s where the change takes place, and that’s where learning happens.

While embracing DEI and overcoming bias is largely an individual journey, creating educational systems and schools that genuinely embrace DEI requires program managers and influential change agents to lead from the front and guide schools in the right direction. While 2020 was a challenging year for many, especially educators, the beauty of it is we saw many who felt empowered to no longer stay silent when they saw inequities and instead started talking about necessary change. We also saw school leaders who are not only making a commitment to equity because it’s the right thing to say but acting on it. They are discussing what needs to happen to influence change, and they are planning and acting. I’ve watched school teams, including teachers, administrators, and classified staff, go through professional development specific to DEI and have honest conversations in breakout rooms about what they see and hear that needs to change. These were uncomfortable but necessary conversations. I’ve also seen schools look at various forms of data to identify equity gaps and act on what the data shows them.

I think this is taking priority now because so many feel empowered to become change agents, which is fantastic. Many realize we have to change things, bridge the divide, and support our students before the equity gaps become gaping holes we can no longer fill.

I agree that we are in a time that allows great discussion and action stesp related as to DEI and the sense of empowerment for change agents is vital to the sustainability for DEI initiatives. However, as we work toward operationalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion, I feel a great start may be defining diversity, equity, and inclusion as it relates to both the work and classroom spaces.

Sudie, could you define Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion? 

For our community members, can you share any of your definitions for DEI? 


I’m so glad you asked this because having a shared understanding of what these concepts mean is an integral part of discussing these topics. I’m going to share the definitions I utilize provided by U.C. Davis’s wonderful DEI Glossary in addition to what these terms me to me. I’m also adding one more definition because I think cultural competence is a huge part of this conversation.

Diversity: The variety of personal experiences, values, and worldviews that arise from differences of culture and circumstance. It is the variety created in any society (and within any individual) by the presence of different points of view and ways of making meaning, which generally flow from the influence of different cultural, ethnic and religious heritages, from the differences in how we socialize women and men, and from the differences that emerge from class, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability and other socially constructed characteristics. https://diversity.ucdavis.edu/about/glossary

What Diversity Means to Me: Diversity is the beautiful tapestry of varying individual backgrounds that makes up our adult learners and the adult education field.

Equity: The guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all students, faculty and staff, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups. https://diversity.ucdavis.edu/about/glossary

What Equity Means to Me: Providing each of our adult learners and adult education teachers, administrators, and staff with the tools they need to succeed both in the classroom and beyond based not on assuring everyone has the same thing but that everyone receives the support they individually need.

Inclusion: The act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported and valued as a fully participating member. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and offers respect in words and actions for all people. Inclusion integrates the fact of diversity and embeds it into the core academic mission and institutional functioning. https://diversity.ucdavis.edu/about/glossary

What Inclusion Means to Me: Assuring that all students and staff feel seen, heard, and respected. This includes, but is not limited to, the demonstration of student work, the curriculum and books we choose, selection of marketing materials and imagery, and listening to those whose perspectives may differ from ours.

Cultural Competence: A set of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that help organizations and staff work effectively with people of different cultures. A set of academic and interpersonal skills that allow individuals to increase their understanding, sensitivity, appreciation and responsiveness to cultural differences and the interactions resulting from them. The particulars of acquiring cultural competency vary among different groups, and they involve an ongoing relational process tending to inclusion and trust-building. A set of skills or attributes that allow a person to respond effectively and appropriately to a particular situation or circumstance. Cultural competency involves an ability to increase one’s awareness about personal biases, assumptions, attitudes and worldviews; specific knowledge of cultures, history, worldviews, languages, and diverse experiences; and a repertoire of skills that allow one to effectively intervene in personal and professional domains. https://diversity.ucdavis.edu/about/glossary

What Cultural Competence Means to Me: The ability and willingness to understand how varying cultures shape individual perspectives and respond appropriately to those variances without dismissing or diminishing the lived experiences of others. This does not mean a culturally competent individual knows everything about every culture that exists – none of us are all-knowing – but that when they don’t know, they are willing to learn and develop understanding.

" respond appropriately to those variances without dismissing or diminishing the lived experiences of others"  That is so key.  I don't think people realize that they are being dismissive.  I think in adult education we are often guilty of being dismissive of our learners- partially because we value our expertise, but also because of the biases that we hold against folks whose educational backgrounds and income levels don't match our own.  Any time we make program-level decisions without including our learners, we are dismissing their lived experience, and the expertise that they could provide.  

I love these definitions and thank you for including cultural competency. This is a wonderful start and the definitions give us a shared vocabulary to build on. But before we look at steps for operationalizing DEI, can you also speak to potential DEI blind spots and biases?

Additionally, as we think about our own blindspots, can you speak to how they impact our ability to build strong, effective, and meaningful programming built on  DEI principles.

Program Management Community of Practice members, what questions do you have? 


I think one of the biggest biases I have seen working in adult education, K-12, and higher education is affinity bias- where we are drawn to folks who are most like us.  I think that affinity bias is so ingrained that it is barely detectable.  I have seen search committees give no consideration to qualified candidates of color to hire candidates who were less qualified because they were "a better fit."  That leads to a lack of staff diversity, which makes it easier for blind spots to persist, and more difficult to build programs built on DEI principles. 

Thank you for joining the conversation! You are absolutely right. One of the common misconceptions about bias is that it’s always a negative feeling toward a specific group, but it can also work in reverse. Like in the example you shared, holding an affinity bias toward a specific group enables one to positively interact with or provide opportunities to members of that specific group.

Regarding hiring through a DEI lens, one of the reasons hiring staff that represents the population served or diversifying staff fails is because we aren’t taking steps to seek out diverse talent; we’re simply posting jobs through our usual methods and hoping for the best. There are a lot of professional organizations for specific demographic groups that leaders can work with to help diversify staff. Many of these organizations are happy to pass along job postings, and some even include spaces where you can post jobs directly to their websites. Here’s a great list of organizations: Diversity Professional Associations & Organizations.

I think we have to push the discussion of equity one step further, because what is more important than having equitable support is ensuring equitable outcomes.  For example, we can look at hiring, and see that every candidate has to follow the same process, and maybe there are supports in place to help candidates of color, but if that process no matter how equitable does not result in hiring staff of diverse backgrounds then the outcome is not equitable.  The same is true with student achievement. If we look at program data despite supports and are still seeing different rates of completion, transition, etc., then we still have not achieved equity.  So then we have to re-examine the supports that we are providing. 




Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I literally sat back when I read your comment about outcomes not being equitable - and thought, "Wow, I am very guilty of focusing on the services and supports that I didn't take time to think about the long term outcomes'. 

This comment will make me re-think and review what type of equity work that is happening so thank you!

Exactly! I addressed the hiring issue in another post but want to discuss the focus on outcomes. One of my favorite articles on this topic is titled Peeling Back the Wallpaper. In the article, a superintendent seeks to find out why some demographic groups are outperforming others, and she does this by looking beyond test scores. She investigates behaviors, interactions, and trends to identify the equity gaps. She then helped establish systems to help with ongoing data monitoring and analysis to assure the continuous momentum toward equity which ultimately led to better outcomes. We have to be willing to pull back the wallpaper, even if what’s underneath might be ugly and uncomfortable. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

Before I jump into what implicit bias is, what we can do, and what to avoid, I want to assure our discussion does not add to the proliferation of the term “implicit bias.” Many critics of implicit bias do not criticize the existence of implicit or unconscious bias but the use of these terms as an excuse. It’s worth noting that aggressions (micro and macro) and acts of inequity are not always caused by implicit bias. One cannot use implicit bias to excuse bad behavior when one is well aware of their dislike for specific groups. It is also worth noting that we all hold some form of bias; we need to identify those biases to ensure our own bias does not become a barrier to DEI work.

With that being said, let’s first look at what implicit bias is. The National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University states, “implicit or unconscious bias operates outside of the person’s awareness and can be in direct contradiction to a person’s espoused beliefs and values. What is so dangerous about implicit bias is that it automatically seeps into a person’s affect or behavior and is outside of the full awareness of that person.” The U.C. Davis glossary I mentioned earlier uses a similar yet more simplified definition describing implicit bias as “Subconscious attitudes or stereotypes, both favorable and not, that affect our understanding, actions and decisions.” In short, implicit biases are biases we don’t know we hold but impact how we behave toward specific groups.

So, how do we find out if we have an implicit bias, and what do we do about it? The book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013), written by two of the founders of  Project Implicit, is an excellent resource for understanding implicit bias and how it impacts us. Project implicit contains several Implicit Association Tests (IATs) that help individuals identify their own implicit bias. The IATs range from bias based on ethnicity, sexuality, and gender to disability, appearance, and careers. If you want to try an IAT but aren’t sure how it works, try taking the flowers versus insects practice IAT to get started.  

After taking an IAT and identifying a bias, you might be left wondering, “now, what do I do?” One common method is to simply get to know people within the groups for which you hold bias. This can be done at a distance by watching movies or documentaries about group members that are positive or counter-stereotypical and reading about the groups in which you hold bias. This can also happen on a more personal level by increasing your interactions with those groups positively. However, it is important not to expect people from those groups to be responsible for educating you. For example, if you have a bias against people with tattoos, it might not go over well if you expect them to explain to you why tattoos aren’t bad; a better approach is to simply to get to know a few people with tattoos and learn for yourself that they aren’t bad people.

Let’s move on to what to avoid. When trying to close equity gaps, the most significant things we, as adult educators, must avoid are confirmation bias and letting our biases impact how we interact with and instruct students.

In 2014, as part of the Yellow Paper Series by Nextions, a study was conducted to identify how law firm partners scored written legal memos. Each partner was given the same memo with the same 22 errors. The only difference in the memos was that half of them were attributed to a Black author named Thomas Meyer. The other half were given memos attributed to a White author, also named Thomas Meyer. Now keep in mind that Thomas Meyer was a fictitious name unknown to any law firm partners. The partners were asked to evaluate the memo as part of the writing analysis study. But the real purpose of the study was to determine if they would score the White and the Black authors the same way. They found that more mistakes were attributed to the Black author than the White author even though they were the same memos.

A 2015 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that participants predicted diminished performance for Black students in two separate studies but not for White students. The researchers found that “instructors’ implicit bias affects their lessons and their students’ subsequent performance irrespective of instructors’ explicit prejudice.” This tells us that people who hold bias toward specific groups are less effective in teaching those groups resulting in the underperformance of students. Identifying implicit bias is important because we can’t avoid and overcome a problem we don’t know we have. To avoid making the same mistake the study participants did, you first need to identify if you have a bias, then be intentional with not allowing that bias to insert itself into your work.

From a programmatic perspective, this means regularly evaluating data for trends to identify if specific groups are routinely underperforming and finding out why. Focus groups, observations, and surveys are helpful mechanisms to help identify if equity gaps are caused by bias. Additionally, looking beyond surface-level data such as attendance and grades but diving deeper into interaction and counseling logs, utilization of support services, and to whom those services are offered, also helps identify equity gaps. Also, keep in mind, when looking at things through a DEI lens, if you find an equity gap is caused by bias, it must be approached with kindness if you want to influence lasting change. The goal is to help people learn and do better, not shame them – that will only result in an unwillingness to listen and learn. Always lead with kindness!

Thank you all for joining us on our first day of Operationalizing DEI Work. 

I hope you have all experienced at least one aha moment - I certainly did as we looked at moving beyond supports to considering outcomes. Certainly there is more (and better) work to be done. Continue discussing these important foundations, definitions, and blindspots tonight and get ready to move from understanding key principles in DEI to operationalizing the work. Tomorrow, will continue to unpack the important work of DEI and look at promising practices.

Thank you, 
Kathy Tracey

Weclome back to our second day of our DEI focused conversation. Today we are welcoming back Ms. Sudie Whalen as we move our discussion from understanding DEI to operationalizing DEI. 

From one of our participants in yesterday's discussion, "The same is true with student achievement. If we look at program data despite supports and are still seeing different rates of completion, transition, etc., then we still have not achieved equity.  So then we have to re-examine the supports that we are providing."

Today, I'd like to open the discussion with the supports - or strategies.  Where would you begin to effectively incorporate DEI practices at the program level?

Hi Sudie,

Thank you so very much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom related to operationalizing DEI in adult education.  I love your definitions and feel like it should become a document that we share with states, programs and classrooms across our field.  And the literature shared are also great resources.  My question, if you just had three suggestions/tips/best practices for someone who wanted to improve their efforts in this area with something they can start tomorrow, what would that be?


Hi, Cherise; good question! I posted several actions programs could take in another post, but let's narrow that down to three steps for programs and individuals.

For Programs

  1. Hold conversations with staff to inform them of the commitment to DEI, gather their feedback, and include them in the DEI planning and implementation process.
  2. Do the investigative work to include gathering student feedback to identify equity gaps in your program. I shared some questions programs can use to get started in another post. You are essentially conducting an equity audit to identify areas of growth.
  3. Investigate your state DEI plans, policies, and recommended practices; many state education agencies not only have committed to DEI but also have specific plans for improving DEI.

For Individuals

  1. Identify bias.
  2. Check your cultural competence.
  3. Check your classroom inclusiveness.

Great question! There are three things I would focus on to begin effectively incorporating DEI practices at the program level, 1) student support and access and 2) hiring and staff support 3) state efforts in DEI. Making statements or aligning your mission and vision to display a commitment to DEI is not enough; we have to be intentional and put those words to work. This means actively looking for equity gaps in your program, ensuring equitable hiring and retention practices for staff, understanding your state’s DEI efforts, and assuring your program supports that effort. When it comes to these focus areas, you need to first look at what is currently going on in your programs to identify needed changes.

Student Support and Access
There are several data points to begin looking into areas of change for your program regarding student support and access. Of course, there are the usual data points – student attendance and performance outcomes – but other forms of data help to dive deep into what may be missing or can be changed. A great example of this can be found in the article titled Peeling Back the Wallpaper.

Student feedback is a considerable part of information gathering; focus groups and surveys are great. You can also establish a student DEI committee that works with school leaders to provide input from the student’s perspective.

Again, going beyond surface-level data is huge, so you want to take the time to look at a few different things and ask yourself some investigative questions. Below is a list of questions by topic to get you started.

  1. Student Demographics
    1. What are the rates of participation by gender, race, age, and socioeconomic status?
    2. Do your student demographics align with community demographics? Use census data to find out.
  2. Student Support and Counseling Services
    1. Who utilizes them?
    2. How are students informed?
    3. Are technology supports provided, and is there equitable access to technology and technology support?
    4. What are the barriers to the utilization of support and counseling services?
  3. Pathways to College and Careers
    1. How many students are actively on pathways?
    2. Are all students informed of pathway options?
    3. What are the barriers to pathway participation?
  4. Marketing and Outreach
    1. How are students represented in marketing materials?
    2. Do the marketing materials represent the population served?
    3. Are the marketing methods reaching appropriate demographic groups and areas?
    4. What languages are included in your marketing and outreach materials, and do those languages align with languages spoken in the surrounding community?
  5. Displays
    1. Does demonstrated student work represent all program areas and the diversity of your student population?
    2. Are displays representative of your student population?
  6. Policies & Procedures
    1. Are any of the policies equity barriers? An example of this would be attendance policies that penalize working students or parents.
    2. Are classes scheduled based on student needs or program preference?
    3. Are programs offered based on community needs or program preference? You can use the PIACC Skills Map to identify numeracy and literacy levels in your state and county and census data to identify English language acquisition needs in your area. Additionally, you can use labor market information to determine programming based on areas students can be employed in that are in-demand.

Hiring and Staff Support
Dr. Stewart brought this up yesterday and made several valid points regarding hiring practices through a DEI lens. She was right in pointing out that we need to avoid bias in hiring practices. She wasn’t speaking about negative bias towards specific groups, but affinity bias, in which we hire staff from groups we are comfortable with. It’s not unusual or abnormal to feel more comfortable with people who look like us and whose beliefs align with ours; however, when it comes to hiring, our personal affinity biases should not impact our hiring choices. If you want to diversify staff, consider reaching out to one of the many states and national professional organizations that can help you with this. Check out the list of diversity professional associations and organizations to get started.

A conversation must occur to get staff prepared for and involved in the program’s commitment to equity so they know what is happening and why. Here are a couple of ground rules identified by Jorge Valenzuela for Edutopia about approaching said conversation.

  1. Ensure everyone participates; commitment to DEI shouldn’t be something staff can opt out of. This might mean having more than one meeting if your program is large so that everyone has a chance to participate and provide feedback.
  2. Don’t expect people of color or in minority groups to share their traumatic experiences or expect them to be the ones to lead the work simply because of the demographic group they may belong to.
  3. Speak and listen from the heart and be open to feedback – you might experience some growing pains here, but that’s okay. Feedback from staff can help identify areas of growth you may have otherwise not considered.
  4. Assure the conversation is safe; that means what is said during the discussion stays there. Staff needs to be comfortable asking questions and saying how they feel without worrying about blowback because they were critical of specific practices or policies. Staff also need to have space to learn; they may say something off-putting, but that can be used to create teachable moments – but remember to lead with kindness.

State Efforts in DEI
National demographic data provided by The Education Trust identified that 47.2% of students are people of color, whereas only 18.5% of teachers are people of color.  They established five criteria with best practices identified for each to identify which states are succeeding in prioritizing teacher diversity and equity. Those five criteria are as follows:

  1. Make educator diversity data visible and actionable to stakeholders
  2. Set clear goals at the state and district level to increase student access to diverse educators
  3. Invest in educator preparation programs to increase enrollment and improve the preparation of teachers of color
  4. Target resources to districts and schools to support efforts to intentionally recruit and hire a diverse teaching workforce
  5. Invest in efforts to retain teachers of color, including improving working conditions and providing opportunities for personal and professional growth for teachers of color

To see the best practices listed under each of these criteria and learn more about diversity efforts in your state, visit https://edtrust.org/educator-diversity/#BP.

Sudie and all, 

Thanks for the wonderful information - there's a lot to unpack. We are starting this work, prioritizing the efforts, and looking at outcomes - but do you have any tips or strategies to sustain this important work and keep DEI as a priority? 

Thanks for any insight you can share. 

To the Program Management Community of Practice members, do you have any additonal comments or questions for Ms. Whalen.


In the words of the great philosopher Dory of Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming.” The work needed to assure programs are committed to DEI is ongoing and not something you do only once. The biggest thing to remember when trying to sustain DEI efforts is to reevaluate your programs regularly and act on your finding; this ensures your DEI efforts don’t diminish over time and remain a priority. Anticipate that everything won’t be perfect immediately and prepare yourself and your staff for the ongoing work required to evaluate and sustain DEI efforts.

It’s easy to lose momentum; it might sometimes feel like it’s too high of a mountain to climb. But this is work worth doing. Please don’t give up; keep going, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable.

Lastly, take time to celebrate the small victories and share those successes with staff and stakeholders. Sometimes, simply knowing our efforts influenced positive change and celebrating those wins is all it takes to find the motivation to “just keep swimming.”


I’d like to thank you for your time and expertise in this very important work. Do you have any final thoughts for our community members as they continue the work with DEI in order to have a lasting impact on their work cultures and program design? 

To our community members, let's continue this discussion. How are you operationalizing DEI work at your program? 



Thank YOU, Kathy, for initiating this discussion.

Final Thoughts
If you’re reading this, you’ve already taken the first step by seeking out information about incorporating and committing to DEI. You’re probably already doing some level of thinking, planning, and work in moving DEI forward. Thank you. Thank you for being a change agent and working toward creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces for your students to learn and thrive. Take care of yourselves, and remember to lead with kindness.