EDI From A Harm Reduction Approach

Is it time to rethink EDI? We think so.

At Anima Leadership, we know that shame and blame are not the most effective motivators. Instead, our approach to EDI is rooted in compassion and the careful development of equity literacy.

Equity literacy emphasizes, wherever possible, calling people in instead of calling them out, naming solutions instead of shaming mistakes and helping people learn instead of punishing them for what they don’t yet know.

When we allow ourselves to rethink how we teach equity, diversity and inclusion, we can use best practices and frameworks from other fields like psychology, behavioural science, and even harm reduction to find new approaches that can have a lasting impact.

What Is Harm Reduction?

The harm reduction approach developed as a support for persons affected by habit-forming substances such as drugs or alcohol, is about seeing the potential for harm and stepping back to consider what we can do now to create safer conditions for those involved. 

And, the harm reduction framework isn’t new, in fact we use it everyday. Imagine every time you drive a car: we know that we can’t avoid all car accidents, but we can use seatbelts and airbags and kids car seats to reduce the risk of harm when or if they happen. This is harm reduction! A harm reduction framework is also used for those using substances to promote safer use when abstinence isn’t possible. For example, someone may choose to use a patch instead of smoking a cigarette, or use drugs in a supervised space rather than on their own.

In EDI, we can borrow some of this approach as we acknowledge that relationships, too, carry inherent risk. There is a risk we may unintentionally hurt someone we love with a careless comment, just as there’s a risk we may only recognize our own bias after we’ve said or done something that causes harm to a marginalized colleague, employee or friend.

EDI as Harm Reduction

We can also consider systemic racism in the frame of harmful bias “habits” that manifest across sectors and institutions. Thanks to historical and current day policy, practices and behaviours, racism can become implicit, hidden and compulsively repetitive. 

Tackling this injustice—one that disproportionately impacts minoritized communities—is at the heart of equity and human rights work. But the approaches we employ, especially in EDI education, are different…and these differences matter. Research has proven that judgment and shame from others do not help people with addictions engage in treatment and get better; these same negative attitudes do not help people learn to identify and break our prejudice habits associated with systemic forms of discrimination.  

EDI work is complicated, nuanced, and far-reaching. It can feel impossible to imagine a future where we’ve eliminated all bias and discrimination! But if we try to reframe EDI work through a harm reduction approach, we can acknowledge the difficulty in totally eradicating all harm or micro-aggressions while also focusing on reducing the harm we cause to others and ourselves. This allows us to learn to be in better relationships across difference and make repairs when needed…even if we’re not perfect.

And while more ideological equity frameworks encourage us to tip-toe around our every word and action following strict roles and scripts, this often leads to inauthentic relationships, performative activism and still does not reduce all possibility of harm.

If we imagine equity, diversity and inclusion as harm reduction, we can more accurately reflect what we’re working towards in justice work. If we know that we can build more inclusive spaces by working towards LESS risk and LESS harm…even if we’re not at NO risk and NO harm just yet—or perhaps ever—we can give ourselves space to learn and grow without the pressure to be perfect.

Next Steps for a Harm Reduction Approach

We may never be able to truly eradicate microaggressions, bias and inequality in all forms, but—just like with a harm reduction approach to addictions—we can reduce their impact in a variety of ways.

We can learn about other cultures so we can reduce the risk of causing upset through a culturally insensitive comment. We can take time to understand how many of us are socialized to embody behavioural habits and biases that disadvantage others, while creating policies that reduce our potential to cause systemic harm for marginalized groups. We can build our own equity literacy skills with courses and coaching to better serve our communities and everyone in them.

Embracing a harm reduction approach to EDI work makes space for us to engage in authentic learning and real relationships while understanding that sometimes there will be mistakes, there will be disagreements and there will be hurt.

But when we release the pressure to perform, we can remember that it’s much better to make progress doing good work than it is to use perfection as a reason to not do any work at all.


Anima Leadership

Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.

Since 2007, we have worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations teaching, consulting and coaching transformative change. Our award-winning training programs and innovative measurement tools will help us journey with you from diversity basics to advanced belonging.

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