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Real diversity

An exploratory how-to guide

By Eboni Bugg

Recently, “diversity” has become a catch-all phrase to describe any number of initiatives and strategies that aim to alter the makeup of businesses and organizations. Given shifting demographics and recent events in our community, issues related to diversity have become particularly salient. Many organizations, both public and private, are grappling with how best to navigate them.

In Charlottesville, leaders in the corporate and nonprofit spheres alike are being tasked, perhaps for the first time, with leading their institutions toward outcomes that are driven as much by profit as by social good. For some, “diversity” conjures mandatory cultural sensitivity or implicit bias trainings, which may or may not have lead to tangible benefits. For others the word represents a new opportunity to move into better alignment with mission and vision.

Whether the motivation for diversity efforts stem from a response to social pressure, market forces or perceived stagnation, the ways in which businesses pursue solutions can either result in innovation and high levels of employee satisfaction, or lead to increased marginalization and reduced productivity.

While there is no shortage of articles devoted to the benefits of diversity, there are few road maps for leadership and success. Here are several key considerations when working toward building a more authentically diverse business environment.

Alignment with values

Most strategic goals focused on changing workplace composition and dynamics will alter the status quo, so they require significant resources and stakeholder buy-in for success. Rarely do such endeavors prevail when they do not embody the ethos of the organization, while also allowing cultural shifts to occur to accommodate new perspectives and information.

Therefore, when embarking on structural changes within organizational and business environments, it is important that diversity initiatives reflect and inform institutional values. An authentic investigation of values may mean acknowledging when long-held beliefs and norms impede or conflict with valuing diversity. It may also illustrate ways in which diversity is valued but not acted upon. Rather than viewing this dissonance
as untenable, executive leadership is encouraged to see this as an opportunity for strategic action.

The intersection of equity and inclusion

There is much debate about whether initiatives driven by profit or those driven by social good have greater merit or garner greater success. This debate occludes the fact that authentic diversity is impossible to achieve without also addressing equity and inclusion.

Personal and professional experiences demonstrate the tendency for some diversity initiatives to tokenize members of historically underrepresented groups. Tokenism happens when what we actually need are sustainable, institutionalized structures that generate ongoing opportunities for mentorship, advancement and leadership. Tokenism not only creates significant emotional and professional burdens for minorities in business, but also limits productivity and creativity.

In order to address this, many organizations are moving away from “cultural competence” and “cultural sensitivity” frameworks to embrace cultural humility, which recognizes intersectional identities, the centrality and relevance of culture and the need for redressing power imbalances to achieve authentic diversity. While research indicates that implicit biases can be mitigated by counter-typical exemplars, it is important that we move beyond mere representation as a benchmark for success. Investigating who holds power, who makes decisions and who has mobility might be additional ways to holistically assess diversity.


Many successful businesses are driven by clear strategic plans that reflect their mission, vision and values. Outcomes are typically judged against baseline measures based on data and evidence. But how does one measure diversity?

When conducting a survey of available diversity data, especially on the local level, there is a significant dearth of information. When moving from tokenizing to inclusion, from optics to transformation, it becomes incredibly important to develop more granular metrics and means of accountability. Data dashboards that look beyond aggregate population data are important tools that can drive the refinement of strategic goals and strategies.

For example, what might we find if we look at the intersection of gender and leadership hires, or sort intervention outcomes by neighborhood? According to the Virginia Employment Commission, four of the five largest employers in our community are public organizations. Accountability is inherent to the social contract that affords these organizations’ funding.

In Charlottesville, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate the systems of inequality that not only hinder human potential, but also stifle creativity and the full capacities of businesses and organizations to achieve success. Recognizing methods for growing a more authentically diverse workforce is more than good for business—it is good business.

Eboni Bugg, LCSW, is the senior manager for Diversity, Inclusion & Global Outreach at Mind & Life Institute.

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