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Alumna Tyhisha Henry: The Value of Belonging

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is having its moment. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other powerful movements for justice, a growing number of organizations are embracing individuals’ uniqueness, reckoning with past inequities, and striving to bring more voices to the table. Tyhisha K. Henry NCAS’02 is looking to improve upon the acronym by adding a fourth letter: B for “belonging.”

She made DEI her way of life long before it made headlines. For more than 15 years, Henry—who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University–Newark and a master’s degree in counseling and psychological studies from Seton Hall University—has provided mental health services for youth and families in the education and nonprofit sectors. Her former roles include social worker, case manager, school counselor, and counseling supervisor—all of which grappled with injustice and uplifting the dignity and well-being of the people she served.

Today, Henry is the assistant director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) at Kent Place School, a girls’ college preparatory school in Summit, New Jersey. “Last year, my title was assistant director of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she says. “This year we did add the B, which stands for belonging, because that is what we are striving toward: to make sure [everyone feels] that sense of belonging.”

In this Q&A, Henry shares why this distinction is important to her—and how any business can infuse a sense of belonging into its DEI strategy, too.

Why do you feel that “belonging” is a vital addition to a DEI strategy?

It helps to explain the difference between “inclusion” and “belonging.” Inclusion deals more with the policies and practices—making sure that all are included in activities and invitations—whereas the B is the actual feeling of belonging and making sure that team members, students, and so on feel they are welcomed, respected, and valued.

Do you think others will start embracing the idea of DEIB?

[Injustices pertaining to diversity] have been in existence for many years, and to know that there is conversation about how to handle them and attempt to resolve them is great progress in our country. I feel that more people are using their voices, taking up space, while having a seat at the table. And among those at the table now, I see an array of individuals. So I’m very excited about that. I expect organizations to start to look beyond DEI and embrace the idea of belonging as part of their approach.

How would you define a robust DEI+B strategy for the workplace?

I would describe it as one that is reflective—reflecting on practices within the organization. One that is creative—creating a community and culture for all employees to grow. One that ensures that diversity begins with leadership roles. One that gives reasons as to why this is a great organization or company to work for. And one that also speaks to creating a safe environment. [Many] people are at work more than they are at home, so we want to make sure that it’s a safe environment for all.

What is the role of leadership in driving these actions?

A leader’s role, to me, is to be an advocate and role model by being an active participant in DEIB. In many instances, you may have some leaders that like to just delegate, but leaders must also be a part of DEIB-related actions. What that looks like is participating in professional development with employees, engaging in conversations with them, and identifying what will work best for your specific organization by assessing the current climate and culture.

Where is there a disconnect in some leaders’ DEIB strategy?

A common disconnect may be the lack of asking for information from employees about their personal experiences. In many instances, leaders speak to managers or supervisors about what’s going on, as opposed to speaking directly with the employees. It’s best to find out directly from the employees about their experiences and what they have encountered, both positive and negative. This will help provide crucial insights into some of the needs of the organization.

What bold action can leaders take to drive DEIB?

A bold action would be instituting mandatory trainings pertaining to DEIB. And why that is bold is just because of the key word: mandatory. You are bound to receive pushback and not get full buy-in right away. Once the training is carried out, and the team sees the benefits and the gains of understanding why this must take place, it becomes much better for all.

How else can leaders embed DEIB in their company culture?

First and foremost: communication. When you communicate with the entire organization that we’re all a part of this work, what it might look like, and the plan that will be put in place—that is powerful. More respect comes with proper and timely communication.

I would also say assessment—assessing the organization to identify the areas that need growth. Identify what is working and what is not working. In those areas that are working, continue to see how they can be enhanced even more. And for those areas that are not working, strategize a plan with a team of individuals that are willing to lead.

Providing resources through trainings would also be very beneficial. All employees should be held accountable when they receive trainings. It’s one thing to attend a training, but then what do you gain from that training? How will you embed this in your daily work and who will provide you with guidance while you’re embedding this work?

My last tip would be the I and the B: inclusion and belonging. It’s very important to work one on one with employees. In many instances, organizations work with the department, but it’s very important to talk directly to employees about their experiences. You must ensure that you have willing participants to bring forth the work.

How did your time at Rutgers prepare you for today?

Being on a very, very diverse campus has helped me tremendously. In many instances, you are going to encounter individuals of different races, different genders, different socioeconomic statuses—and you need to know how to respond in different situations. Being at Rutgers definitely helped me with that, and I am very grateful that I am using some of the skills that I learned years ago to be able to deliver back to the community.

 

This story originally appeared on the Rutgers Alumni website

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