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How a Southern California Public Radio task force drove systemic change in diversity, equity and inclusion

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Leverage the tools behind performance-driven change to operationalize diversity, equity and inclusion in your enterprise.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Ashley Alvarado, vice president for community engagement and strategic initiatives at Southern California Public Radio (SCPR), which operates 89.3 FM KPCC and LAist.com. SCPR participated in the Poynter Table Stakes program in 2018-19.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: SCPR is a member-supported public media network that operates across Southern California. We inform and interact with our communities through our radio programming, the websites LAist.com and KPCC.org, podcasts, social media channels and live (and virtual) events.

As with many public radio stations, our audiences have traditionally been disproportionately white and affluent compared with the demographics of our region. The listening audience is more than 40% nonwhite and the average age is mid-40s; it’s younger and more diverse than the typical public radio audience but not reflective of the region. 

We have also spent several years developing an engaged journalism model that has focused, in part, on serving audiences traditionally excluded or underserved by public media. 

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A: In the summer of 2020, SCPR formed an independent diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) task force. The remit was to independently assess where we were as an organization in terms of DEI, engage with the organization to understand where issues and opportunities for change existed, and, finally, to make recommendations to the executive team and the board of trustees on how to move our organization forward.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  The performance-driven change tools developed by Douglas K. Smith that inform the Table Stakes program and the Media Transformation Program, in which I participated 2019-20, were instrumental in the work of the DEI Task Force. As a team, we wove together those tools and practices from engagement (my day job) to determine the conditions needed for our work to be successful, engage key stakeholders, assess the state of DEI in the organization, and to make recommendations that 1) had identifiable outcome goals and 2) were more likely to be adopted by our executive team and board. 

It’s important to stress that we prioritized the problem-definition phase of the work so that we could address existing issues and not rush into actions that would not allow for meaningful change. 

Specifically, we turned to these tools: 

  • From-to: This was a critical tool not only when we met as a group to discuss the ways in which we would experience and recognize change but to root the work itself in an understanding of the existing conditions. What were the “from” statements (existing conditions) that colleagues were expressing through their interviews, survey responses and conversations, and how would we recognize a stronger culture of belonging? 
  • Assumptions-to-knowledge: The assumptions-to-knowledge tool provides a powerful framework for identifying what needs to be true in order to move the work forward, whether that’s digital transformation or DEI work. The results of this thinking showed up in the group agreements the DEI Task Force employed, the assurances that were requested from the executive team and the conditions for the recommendations coming out of the work. 
  • Constituency map: By considering who would be on the constituency map early in the process, we were able to determine not only those who would be instrumental in executing the recommendations from the DEI Task Force but also, and just as importantly, those whose insights we most needed in shaping an understanding of how employees and other stakeholders experienced the organization when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. 
  • The power/opinion matrix: This tool asks you to consider the power each person holds in helping you enact a specific change, and their opinion on said initiative. The power/opinion matrix was a useful tool if, for no other reason, that it reminded us of the importance of knowing 1) explicitly what we needed from each person/team and 2) that everybody has a role to play in supporting DEI.
  • DVP: Like the power/opinion matrix, this tool serves as a reminder that a culture of belonging is not necessarily experienced the same across the board. The tool asks you to consider the dissatisfaction of various stakeholders, the shared vision you’re striving for and the process that will help you achieve that vision. All of that must be present to help you  make change. In the research the DEI Task Force conducted, it also became clear that where there had been clear vision and dissatisfaction in the past, there had to be a recommitting to process in supporting equity and inclusion.  

Q: How did you go about creating the DEI task force?

A:  The DEI Task Force was created with an eye toward reflecting a range of experiences at the organization. Beyond the typical measures of diversity, that meant including colleagues from each major department (administration, events, underwriting, development, operations and content), the SAG-AFTRA members, and with varying levels of trust with the organization. 

One of our first exercises was based on the assumptions-to-knowledge tool in Table Stakes. We identified what needed to be true in order for us to be successful and requested (and were given) the following assurances by the SCPR executive team. 

  • Addressing DEI concerns is a top priority for SCPR leadership, and SCPR leadership is committed to disrupting the status quo in issues around DEI.
  • SCPR will not use the existence of the DEI Task Force and DEI Task Force strategies or images of DEI Task Force members in their position as participants as marketing points without the explicit consent from the DEI Task Force Steering Group.
  • The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force is operating as an independent body in service of improving DEI and promoting anti-racism across SCPR. Its time (five hours per week for each member) is protected and compensated; its initial strategic recommendations will be presented to SCPR CEO Herb Scannell and the board. (As chair, roughly half of my time was spent on DEI Task Force work, and we developed a backfill plan.)
  • The Task Force has the full-throated support of SCPR, including but not limited to access, as needed, to SCPR resources, board members, staffers and data and documents. 
  • This is not performative. 
  • The recommended strategies that come out of this Task Force will be quantifiable and time bound, and will include measures for accountability. 

When the final report was delivered to the executive team and board, it included 44 recommendations. Within Table Stakes, many of these recommendations would be recognized as activities toward a specific outcome goal. Most of those recommendations also included potential or suggested metrics of success. The executive team then developed an implementation plan (with 6-, 12- and 18-month milestones), with specific benchmarks and assigned leads.

Q: How did you measure success?

A: There have been many different ways that we’ve measured success for the DEI Task Force and the work that has followed: 

  • When we were doing the assessment, the DEI Task Force closely tracked levels of participation by staff. More than 90% of current staff participated in at least one aspect of this process. 
  • When the report was presented to the executive team, we looked at the percentage of recommendations that would be adopted: Of the 44 recommendations, the executive team adopted 44 action items. 
  • In the time since, we’ve looked at both the work against those commitments (what’s on time, what’s stalled) as well as specific outcomes goals: 
    • In a January employee engagement survey, more than 95% of participating SCPR staff reported their manager is committed to DEI. 
    • In our first-ever staff self-identification survey (with published results), we were able to identify growing diversity across all staff, including managers. This is a trend that has increased significantly in the last 10 years. 

A chart showing the racial and ethnic diversity of the LAist’s staff over the last 10 years

Q: What change did you all impart?

A: The DEI Task Force made 44 recommendations that fell into five strategic focus areas, from the organization’s mission to the employee experience, revenue, journalism and navigating the organization. 

The recommendations, which were crafted as activities, are in service of broader outcome goals: more diversity across all levels of the organization (staffing, membership, audiences), employee satisfaction and audience experience. 

We have been able to impart significant change. Among changes those are: 

  • Publicly updated mission and values statements
  • Launch and use of public style guide
  • Launch and use of source tracking tool with goal to diversify sourcing to be more reflective of Los Angeles demographics 
  • Redesigned social media policy, including DeleteMe services available for employees 
  • Partnership with community advisory board to support DEI work 
  • Extended formal internship program from summer to all year; increased compensation from minimum wage to a living wage
  • Developed and encourage hiring panels for all director-level and above positions 
  • Overhauled onboarding processes  
  • Relaunching of an internal leadership program 
  • Launch of DEI employee resource group 
  • Launch of employee-led DEI book club 
  • Protected training time for employees each month 
  • Stipend to support participation in organizations like AAJA, NABJ, NAHJ, NLGJA, SAJA, NAJA and more 
  • Conduct and publish annual staff demographic survey 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: The DEI employee resource group and book club launched in the course of the DEI Task Force’s work independent of anything we were doing. It was wonderful to see others take on leadership in this space. 

While I can’t speak for the whole Task Force, I’ll say that I had never anticipated that the recommendations would be accepted at the level they were. 

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: Within the DEI Task Force, we learned a lot about what it means to navigate the experiences of others as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion. Were we to do this over again, two things we’ve discussed would be 1) better preparing ourselves for the emotional work associated with this assessment and 2) moving up conversations on legal responsibilities of members of the Task Force for anything we might hear. 

It’s also clear that supporting diversity, equity, inclusion and a culture of belonging requires ongoing work. There’s no resolution to an issue. Instead it requires an organization-wide resolve to stay in the work and to stay accountable and agile. 

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Culture change is hard, critical work. It demands an unwavering commitment to process and, when it comes to DEI work, a willingness to sit in discomfort. 

If your organization is looking to do this kind of work, I would recommend: 

  1. Form and support an independent task force that has agency; the full-throated support of the organization’s leadership; a budget to operate and make its own decisions; open channels of communication with key stakeholders (employees, past employees, board members, executive team members and related organizations); access to legal counsel; access to emotional support; and protected, compensated time to do the work. 
  2. Do not start from a fixed point of view. Deep listening will undoubtedly result in surprises that will allow you to do more meaningful work — if you’re willing to go there. When we really listened to what employees were saying, it was clear just how important onboarding and annual review conversations are. Those had not been immediately obvious issues to us when we started out. 
  3. Develop group agreements for how the task force will work with one another, organization leadership and with colleagues. 
  4. Commit to process and communication. During the course of its work, the DEI Task Force shared updates with staff every Friday at 9. This provided incremental updates, different opportunities for people to get involved and a space to share early wins. A note on communication: We offered various ways for staff to get involved (surveys, group conversations, one-on-one conversations, and third-party surveys and facilitators); this was designed to support different communication currencies. 

Q: What are the biggest takeaways from this work so far?

A: While the DEI implementation plan has 6-, 12-, and 18-month benchmarks, there is a shared understanding that this work is never done. It’s also not the work of any single one person or team. The organization can and must support diversity and equitable practices, but inclusion is the work of every person involved.

More on diversity: How the Detroit Free Press uses an annual impact report to show how its journalism drives change