A case study
I worked at AWARE, Juneau's main domestic violence/sexual assault agency, as a DEI researcher and coordinator from October 2019 to April 2020. I was tasked with researching and reimagining the way that the organization thought about equity, from the way it hired staff to the way it provided shelter to survivors—a huge task for a singular person with a tiny team. I started the way I thought best: by getting on the ground, listening to the experiences of people affiliated with the organization, to see what trends and new directions of inquiry emerged.
The research project was envisioned to include three phases: Discovery, Design, Iteration. The first (discovery) was the data collection phase that lasted 3 months. The bulk of time was spent conducting and analyzing interviews for about 30 employees, and I made sure not to speak to all the people of color or other historically marginalized folk (of which there were only a few).
The big research question: How might AWARE replicate the inequitable processes found in its broader social & historical environment—and how does this manifest in company culture, leadership structure, and internal policies and procedures?
I didn't come into this project as an unbiased researcher. My job was to help make AWARE a more equitable organization by asking hard questions to provoke real change. This purpose guided what questions I asked, how I analyzed the interviews I conducted, and how I communicated my findings. My research is "objective" insofar that I try to balance the realities of my own subjectivity, the personal experiences of those I interviewed, and the interests of the organization. Qualitative research is a complex art (and science!) that doesn't have the "hard-fact" quality that quantitative research is renowned to have, but it has the explanatory & narrative power that can be incredibly powerful to inform and move people to action.
Interviewing, transcribing, coding
The main method I used was open ended interviewing (which I called "tea-times"), and I recorded all the interviews with consent. Because I wanted to know some very sensitive information—including people's relationships to their supervisors, their thoughts on with race & equity, and their experiences with discrimination—I needed to make sure to approach everyone with great care. This is where the "tea-time" framing emerged, to encourage people to be more relaxed and open, and I made sure to let everyone know that the only person with access to the interviews was me, though I communicated that any findings would be communicated anonymously.
Using AI transcription software (Otter.io), I was able to then code the interviews according to both pre-determined themes (such as views on leadership) and themes that emerged more organically (such as experience of racial discrimination or discomfort), leading to the themes in the final report.
Review of internal policies and procedures
I worked closely with another staff member who was tasked of reviewing and updating old policies to look for outdated language that should be scrapped or replaced. Many of the documents hadn't been updated since 1996, and reflected bureaucratic and restrictive processes that impeded people's sense of agency. This internal review helped round out the arguments made in the final report, given as inequitable processes often also are derived from outdated official "rules" and memos.
I was not only interested in the content of such documents, but also what wasn't written down, as well as the accessibility of such documents. In itself, inability of staff to easily access and understand organizational procedures is a barrier to equity.
Stakeholder involvement — collaboration over top-down implementation
This project could have easily provoked a lot of defensiveness, denial, and a refusal to acknowledge existing problems—this was prevented by a deliberate effort to build relationship and goodwill across departments. It was important from day one to have people on onboard, especially leadership. I was lucky to be couched in a team that was excited about the research, and worked early to get allies and advocates for the project. We made it a point to be transparent and communicative with the project to all staff from the beginning, and had regular check-ins with management so that they were never surprised or shocked by anything we did.
The report was made available to every single person on staff, rather than just leadership, in the spirit of transparency and equity. And all the strategic planning which came after its release was done in the spirit of collaboration and the input of everyone's voices, rather than top down change.
Actionable steps for moving forward