How To Start the DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) Conversation in the Boardroom

Questions to Ask in the Boardroom

  1. Each board member has resources to bring to the discussion and interactions of a board.  What ways do board members contribute to the diversification of board discussions?
  2. What concerns do board members express about being a diverse board?
  3. How does telling personal stories about their experiences with DEI help to create an environment where the board members will share more about diversifying the board?


As an Organizational Development professional, I have over 50 years of experience designing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and providing programs for boards and their organizations.  One of the most important actions I can take is to find a thoughtful way to identify how the personal histories of the board members can be a resource in the initial stages of a DEI effort to create a more diverse board.  This article will give you ways to open the discussion about personal histories and resources that are present in your board.

One of the concerns of a predominantly white board is how they can diversify their membership.  Such boards often feel uncomfortable about discussing diversifying the board since they do not know “the best way” to have this discussion.  They are also concerned about how to have this discussion with the least amount of conflict.  Board members have heard the statement that “DEI work is difficult.”  What follows is a discussion, based on my years of practical experience, about how I can help boards overcome these concerns and have a productive discussion about increasing board diversity.

Every board has resources among its members that can help support DEI initiatives.  The stories which board members can share with one another concerning how they learned about diversity, equity, and inclusion as they grew up or as adults in their personal and professional lives often reveal the resources available to support board diversification.  I am often amazed at the discoveries that occur as board members share their stories with one another.  Sharing stories also helps identify the gaps in experience and knowledge board members have about diversity.  An honest and respectful discussion about these gaps helps board members determine how they can find the people or resources needed to fill these gaps.   To facilitate this process, I am usually the first person to share.  This shows the board members that telling their stories can allow them to feel safe to share both what they know and what they do not know.  Telling personal stories not only creates an environment where it is safe for others to share theirs, but it cuts down on debating or arguing since it is impossible to debate or argue with someone about their own story.  

My Personal Story and Why I Provide DEI Programs for Boards

I grew up in a town in West Texas.  People of color lived on one side of the railroad tracks and whites lived on the other side of the tracks, and I attended schools that were racially segregated.  As a young child, I would ask my mother the reasons that some people lived on one side of downtown and some lived on the other.  My mother talked about how some white people feared people that were black or Hispanic and they established the dividing line to show where whites could live, and people of color could live.  My mother made it clear that our family did not believe in or support segregation and the minimization of other people.  This was particularly true in our home.  She made it clear that the woman who cleaned our home was an important person to our family and she was to be treated with respect and kindness.  The housekeeper joined our family for meals, and she and my mother often had lunch together.  I would join them when I was not in school.  My mother also left it to the housekeeper to decide if she wanted to join us for lunch.  The housekeeper knew that she was an important person to the family, and she was treated with respect as a professional that provided important services in our home.

When I was nine years old, both of my parents were ill and were bedridden at the same time.  My parents hired an LVN (licensed vocational nurse) to take care of them - and occasionally me.  Her name was Nedi, and her primary responsibilities were to provide medical care and physical help for my parents, though she also took me to school and picked me up and brought me home.  Sometimes, I had the chance to go to church with Nedi on Sundays, and my favorite times with her were when we went to the movies on Saturdays.  Nedi and my mother explained to me the reason we had to sit in the balcony and ride in the back of the bus going to and from the movie theater downtown.   This led to discussions about the treatment of Blacks and that sometimes Nedi and I had to do things a certain way so there would be no problem for Nedi.

One day Nedi and I got on a bus with an exceedingly difficult driver who said he would not take us to our destination until I came to the front of the bus and Nedi stayed in the back.  Nedi encouraged me to go to the front; however, Nedi could see that I was crying as I went to the front of the bus.  After a while she pulled the cord to stop the bus and we got off even though we were still 18 blocks from home.  Nedi explained that we could walk home, and she would help me since it was such a long distance to walk.  As we returned home, we skipped, walked, and played games.  When we got home, we were both tired. 

I told my mother the story of what happened on the bus coming home, and said I thought Nedi needed a chance to rest or to go home early since we had walked so far.  My mother called Nedi in to talk with her about the bus incident, and then she spoke with my father about what had happened.  The next day, he had arranged for a new car for my mother and Nedi got my mother’s car, which was one year old.  My parents gave Nedi the car in gratitude for all the things she had done for them, and she continued to work to support my mother’s recovery from surgery.  My mother told me that it was unacceptable for Nedi to experience that kind of treatment on the bus and that as a family we did not support what the bus driver had done.

Even though I had many discussions with my mother about the way white people treated Blacks or Hispanics, I did not attend an integrated school until attending the University of Texas in Austin.  During my freshman year, I provided my first diversity program to my sorority.  After the program, the sorority opened the sorority house to people of color.  After I graduated from UT and went on to complete my doctorate, I continued to develop the skills necessary to provide diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.  I became a member of the National Training Lab (NTL) Institute, an organization ahead of its time, that provided diversity and business-related programs.  During my 25 years as a professional member of NTL, I built a strong commitment to address racism, sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia.  I was also involved with the civil rights movement and continue to be a part of organizations that focus on the civil rights of all races.  I dislike and refuse to think we need to maintain racism or any form of discrimination.  I have lived through more years of deaths among African Americans, Hispanics, and other persons of color due to discrimination than I want to experience. 

Comments About the Power of Stories

In my years of professional experience, sharing my story and encouraging board members to do the same, they become more open to the next discussion about determining how to diversify their board membership.   As I support and facilitate storytelling, people begin to realize that they do have something to offer.  Even though some members see they have limited experience with diversified work groups, they are willing to go through ongoing discussions that lead to a plan of action for diversifying the board’s membership. 

More Questions for Board Members to Consider

  1. What story would the board members tell about how they first realized that persons of different races and gender were treated differently?
  2. If they were asked to tell a story about how they learned the importance of having DEI programs, what would they share?
  3. What did the board members learn from Dr. Rainosek’s story and how would that help them to personally share more about how they show respect for difference in their personal and professional lives?


Dr. Jackalyn Rainosek is CEO and Co-Founder of DTP Leadership Group, as well as founder and principal of DTP Business Strategies.  She has worked extensively with a wide range of Leaders as they make strategic decisions in ever-changing circumstances to achieve extraordinary results and increase profitability.  As a senior business consultant and marketing strategist Dr. Rainosek works with business owners and corporate executives to generate optimal results and exponential growth.  Dr. Rainosek guides organizations to develop more appropriate leadership styles, enhance cultural competency (through diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives), and improve levels of trust and cooperation both internally and with the customer base.


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