Driving inclusion and belonging at Warwick Students’ Union

Charity Learning Award winner Natasha Patel shares how she has woven EDI into learning and development at Warwick Students’ Union. 

Natasha has a background in psychology and her gentle, very human approach is a large part of the success of this case study. Increasingly, it seems in learning development (L&D) that we benefit from understanding more about how humans work and how their behaviours manifest.

Setting the scene

Starting out as an L&D Advisor at Warwick Student’s Union (WSU), Natasha wanted to get a sense check of the pulse of the organisation. She carried out a training needs analysis and what came out of that was what was happening within the L&D space but also what was not happening within the EDI (Equality/Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) space.

Member fact file:

Warwick Students’ Union has been a member of the Charity Learning Consortium since 2022 and uses the eLearning and learning management system that we provide.

The analysis pointed to the fact that across senior management there was an appetite for EDI and an understanding of what that looks like. People recognised the importance but didn’t really know where to start as EDI is such a huge, even overwhelming topic. The leadership just didn’t feel like they had the answers.

The analysis also showed that there was a lack of psychological safety across the organisation which created the feeling that people simply could not talk about EDI related matters.

Natasha joined the organisation at a time when many organisations were reviewing their approach to EDI, following Black Lives Matter. She was determined that this work was not going to be a bandwagon tick-box exercise. Rather, EDI had to be mainstream, woven into L&D across the whole organisation.

The solution

1) Change the language

We all know the story in the third sector of doing a lot with a little. This was certainly an eye-opener for Natasha. Coming into the charity world for the first time, the limited resources brought out her creative side as she began the journey of leading her organisation through EDI. This prompted Natasha to really get to know her organisation. What was holding people back from discussing and learning more about EDI? What was inaccessible? Why? As a consequence, the daunting language of EDI got a reframe to be called Inclusion and Belonging (I&B) with WSU. By settling on wording which suited the organisation context, something which had felt hard to grasp, no matter how important the senior team accepted EDI to be, became accessible and understandable. Context and language are really important to successful solutions.

2) Face the fear

“The biggest thing for me was to take small steps. You will not get it right the first time round, the second time round.” Natasha’s pragmatism steered her well. Acknowledging this situation would not be a quick fix, or a one stop course was absolutely spot on. Cultural and behavioural change does not happen overnight with any one single intervention. On the back of the training needs analysis, Natasha sat down with several of the stakeholders including directors, managers and members of the I&B committee and probed a little bit more to really seek to understand. Utilising those kinds of soft skills that we talk about all the time – such as active listening, compassion, and empathy – Natasha helped the senior team face their fears of saying the wrong thing, of not understanding, and of knowing how to move forward with a positive EDI agenda.

3) Prep the environment

Candid conversations don’t happen by accident. Natasha had to work hard on creating a safe space to be able to get things wrong, to be able to say it as people wanted to, to be honest and own their fear. That fear had previously compelled people to not do anything nor take any action. So, she had to ensure that the environment for learning she was creating was honest, open and free from judgement. In this safe space thinking could move on, questions could be asked and answered, and co-creation of the future of EDI at WSU could be safely determined.

Beyond the conversations what came to fruition was the set-up of a new Inclusion and Belonging Committee, with wider representation from across the organisation. The committee worked on bringing Inclusion and Belonging to the everyday. This cemented a clear message that it was Natasha’s job to do something tangible.

Business benefits & impact

What Natasha has done so well at Warwick Students’ Union is that she has focused on doing the right thing.

Language matters with everything in business, but particularly with EDI. Helping people to feel included, belonging requires a genuine understanding of what they belong to. Natasha and the senior team at WSU have clarity on their language, their behaviours and actions. Whilst still a work in progress, they can welcome people to WSU with more confidence and less fear of getting it wrong,

With EDI, often people get bogged down with fear and language questions, or the details of what to do and whether it is the right thing. What Natasha focused on was cracking on with the permission and opportunity to get it wrong within the committee, with the intent of getting it right. Conversations with the university and other organisations enabled shared learning and discussions on what an inclusive organisation would look like.

Natasha hosted a series of workshops with committee members which were nonjudgmental, offered a place to ask all the questions and produced a list of behaviours enabling the Committee to put together their own Inclusion and Belonging Principles. These are foundations which as an organisation they are now striving to become, with their mission to be ‘instinctively inclusive’. Without doubt, creating a safe encouraging environment enabled previously stilted and avoided conversations about EDI to actually happen. Additionally, collaboration and openness in those spaces gave rise to real movement on the subject of inclusion and belonging. The committee is ambitious for being ‘instinctively inclusive’ and that is an ambition shared by the whole organisation. This is a significant cultural shift both on an individual level and organisationally; from fear to action.

Top tips

List EDI on meeting agendas. This is one way in which conscious steps can be taken to open conversations, unearth bias and own the journey towards being ‘instinctively inclusive’.

Remember that Inclusion and Belonging is for everyone and covers all protected characteristics. This helps move the conversation outside of only race, for example, and raises questions on talking about disability in the same vein as other characteristics. Inclusion is for everyone.

Take small steps to bigger conversations. This can help create a safe space.

● Reflection plays an important role. Ultimately this is about a shift in mindset. The first step is acknowledging the issues, and then thinking about them from all angles, before considering what needs to change and what we are going to support each other to do about it.

This case study was written by Michelle Parry-Slater, following her conversation with Natasha Patel for Learning Now TV.

You can watch the full interview here… 

 

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