Steps Towards Building an Inclusive and Equitable Organizational Culture: A Conversation with Krystal Clark

By: Callie Verderosa

The practice of inclusion in the workplace, classroom, and community is not new. Though, recent social unrest and concerns across the United States have quickly sparked a fire in many communities and organizations to have diversity, equity, and inclusion as a more prevalent part of the culture in which we live and work. The act of dismantling systems and policies that are inequitable and exclusive can seem daunting and overwhelming, so I had a conversation with Krystal Clark, M.Ed., a champion for inclusion and equity, to better understand ways organizations can integrate inclusive practices and equitable systems into everyday interactions and environments. Clark generously shares her lived experiences and offers ways to make inclusion and equity both approachable and consistent. 

Clark is the Director, Employee Learning & Organizational Effectiveness at Vanderbilt University. In her professional role, she oversees employee engagement and performance while driving growth in diversity and inclusion initiatives and innovative learning solutions for Vanderbilt. Clark is a first-generation college student, a member of Tri Delta Fraternity, a higher education professional, Chair of the National Panhellenic Council (NPC) Access and Equity Advisory Committee, and the first woman of color to serve as the president of Junior League, Nashville. Through the identities she holds and accolades she’s earned, Clark is a genuine educator who makes inclusion and equity focal points of her experiences and involvement. At the heart of all of her work, the themes remain the same: diversifying physical and social spaces to gain valuable perspective, proactively addressing exclusive barriers, and equipping people with the tools and tactics they need to be successful. 

Clark’s personal mission to “equip others to thrive,” while transparent in her career, community work and inclusive relationship building, started in her young adulthood. While serving as a tour guide at her alma mater, The College of William and Mary, she met with potential and admitted students who felt marginalized in their social identities and were apprehensive and nervous about finding their niche and place to belong on campus. Clark inspired confidence in these students and shared with each of them, individually, that they’d too thrive, find belonging, and ultimately be awesome.She actively used her role as a tour guide on campus to serve as a direct invitation to those potential students who questioned their belonging and ability to succeed due to their social identities. And while today, she shares, “I live my life this way,” Clark’s practice of inclusive and welcoming leadership all started when she was in college. 

The road to belonging and bringing others to the table wasn’t always easy. Clark shared that within her first year at William and Mary she was faced with the challenge of choosing which of her social identities she would prioritize, and ultimately, decide who she was going to be as she had to make the difficult decision to choose between attending two events scheduled the same day: formal sorority recruitment and the annual Black student and alumni event. As a first-generation college student, the Panehellenic experience was interesting to her, but wasn’t financially accessible, or something she wholly understood. She ultimately chose to attend the Black student and alumni event. Both events aimed to bring students together to develop relationships and connections, but the overlapping scheduling meant having to choose between two important opportunities to find belonging on campus. This crossroads, so early on in college, was a defining moment for her to consider how to navigate the college experience, and find her own belonging.

Today, Clark still uses her undergraduate experiences coupled with her graduate and professional training, to challenge students, professionals, and community members to think about inclusion and equity in their commonplace interactions.

As Chair of the National Panhellenic Conference’s Access and Equity Advisory Committee, and the former President of Junior League of Nashville, she’s demonstrated just how crucial it is to address head-on the real and imagined barriers of organizational membership to create an equitable experience for all. With her leadership, both organizations have been able to transform their ways of thinking as they diversify membership, broaden accessibility, reimagine membership  requirements, such as legacy sponsorships, recommendation letters, and financial commitments. Clark shares:

 “As professionals we have to identify processes that are not welcoming, consider how we change them, and how we are helping leaders in organizations create inclusive environments…and ensure that it is the environment where any woman feels as though she can be a part of it if she’d like to.” 

True inclusive practice within organizations requires examining how the organization operates at all levels, starting with how members join and are introduced to an organization. 

Clark knows that diversity, equity and inclusion shouldn’t and doesn’t fall on one team member to implement in an organization, but in processes, systems, and is a part of all of the puzzle pieces that members contribute to organizations. As she explained to me:

 “If we’re not practicing equity and being inclusive, we’re not always getting the best people in the role and at the table. Talent is universal but opportunity is not. We leave so much talent out there in the world because of inequitable processes.” 

In other words, it’s up to every member of an organization or group to implement inclusion into our work, because without it, people are intentionally left out of conversations that could make our organizations and our work better. 

Through her innate empathy, understanding, and relationship building skills, it is apparent that Clark deeply cares about those around her while also considering who else should be in the room. There’s no doubt we’d all like to have her on our team helping us consider what we can do to be inclusive in our biggest and smallest interactions. Clark offers some tips to get comfortable practicing inclusion and committing to equity in organizations and in our own lives. 

  • Getting comfortable asking questions. Asking yourself and your colleagues a handful of questions anytime you walk into a room is an easy way to begin conversations about inclusion:

 “They’re not hard questions, but you have to do the work of checking in with yourself and asking: Who is missing from these conversations? Who isn’t here that should be to get additional context and experiences into the discussion? If applicable, why do we all look alike, and who isn’t represented by nature of our similar social identities and lived experiences in this space?” 

Asking questions like this is an entry way into creating an environment that fosters belonging, values the diverse experiences of others, and lets others feel valued. 

  • Intentional scheduling. Making sure the voices that need to be in the room are actually in the room is an important step: 

Calendaring is a simple way to engage in creating inclusion.”

Her crossroads with formal sorority recruitment and the Black student and alumni event scheduled for the same day could have been solved if the departments had intentionally scheduled those events, and considered how these events, on the same day, could affect students. Identifying any major scheduling overlaps can break down the barriers that exist for students and organization members. Professionals should share important dates, collaborate with one another, and be flexible when able, instead of working as departments or teams in silos. A focus on intentional and inclusive scheduling can ensure important events, gatherings, and meetings are accessible for everyone to attend.

  • Listen to one another. Gaining perspective, and understanding how to act comes from active listening: 

“Our students are so vocal, they are all over social media, and sometimes we get upset with them. We need to just listen to them, because they are telling you exactly what they want and need, and you may not always agree with them…but just listen to them, because what they are saying isn’t wrong.”

This not only applies to organizations and institutions serving students, but coworkers, colleagues, and team members too. What could initially be perceived as a complaint from a coworker or colleague might actually be a factor of the organization that is a significant barrier for inclusion.

  • Set aside egos. It is really easy to tell another professional that they should know better when they’re not practicing inclusivity. The reality is, leaders have to learn to set aside egos and have educational conversations with one another if we want to advance as a community, together: 

Bullying and shaming one another are not effective social justice tools and it’s not helping people (colleagues, and students for that matter) learn”. She continues, “We have to educate one another, even if it’s challenging.”

Organizations are built on human interactions and truly practicing inclusion requires working together to grow and become educated on important diversity and inclusion concepts. 

Inclusivity cannot be just a checkbox in a strategic plan. It’s a way to allow people to be themselves, grow personally and professionally, and allows organizations to grow and learn from many different perspectives. Importantly, Clark shares,

 “If people don’t feel included at work, they’re going to suffer, and you’re not going to get the best out of them. When they are valued as they are, they respond to you as a person, and they get their work done which ultimately benefits the organization.

An important step in practicing inclusion is taking the time to learn and identify a productive path as a leader and member of an organization. Plaid is proud to provide an online training course focusing on inclusive practices for college student learners. Our online inclusive practices course discusses actionable tactics and provides skill-building opportunities including understanding allyship, navigating difficult conversations, recognizing intent and impact, and exploring mechanisms to introduce inclusive practice into daily interactions on campus and in organizations.

Further, if you’re as inspired by Krystal’s experiences and insights as I am, you can connect with Krystal on LinkedIn or follow along as she shares resources on Instagram

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