Yiselle Santos Rivera
Yiselle Santos Rivera

Growing up in Puerto Rico, gender and socio-economic inequities pervaded my life, but I experienced little cultural differentiation: To oversimplify it, you either loved the beach or you didn’t. It wasn’t until I attended graduate school in the continental U.S. that I realized culturally I was different—and that I was a part of the minority.

I became drawn to firms and organizations that advocated for diversity and led causes that strived to move the needle of inclusion forward for all minorities. Through continual self-analysis on my own journey as a woman, Latina, and a member of the LGBTQ community, I realized that I had moved into another “bubble,” in that I lived in a very liberal city and worked with like-minded colleagues and supportive leaders.

When I started looking at nationwide studies of firm leadership demographics, such as that by AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design committee, I saw a profession whose future was hampered by the lack of a common language to talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and one that often confused EDI with human resources.

This is the challenge that EDI leaders face: How do we create awareness beyond those already embedded in the conversation? How do we expand the conversation to those who naively believe and say things like, “I don’t see color” and “We are waiting for the women to be ready”? How do we show that the lack of gender data in research has promoted bias, and how structural inequities in society have distorted the so-called path to success?

How do we expand the conversation to those who naively believe and say things like, “I don’t see color” and “We are waiting for the women to be ready"?

When my firm’s strategic plan outlined a vision for EDI, I realized that if we didn’t follow through and invest in this, our firm would become obsolete. As its inaugural director of EDI, I hope to help positively affect our promotion, recruitment, and retention processes, as well as to educate others about the legacy systems that perpetuate inequities across sectors. We need to look beyond the qualifiers that have been set in place by a homogeneous and monochromatic leadership. We are not about promoting a race or a gender in lieu of merit, but we need to acknowledge that different viewpoints and aptitudes can enrich our conversations and our work in ways that a conventional skill set may not.

I envision the EDI movement rising from discrete offices worldwide, with issues addressed locally and regionally. Though the composition of our practices can vary significantly, the goals are the same. And in every case, EDI is a candle that must burn from both ends: from the top leadership to the workforce whose journeys we empower to effect change.

This will require empathy, humility, and vulnerability. As leaders, we must understand that not everyone arrives at the table with access to equal resources in their lives—as such, we must not expect everyone to perform the same, particularly at the start of their journeys. We need to be responsible for providing development opportunities that can create an equitable workplace. Yes, we may have to allocate resources differently and no, we cannot expect one process to uniformly suit thousands of individuals.

My new role also shares goals with my professional growth as a medical planner. I want to strengthen community wellness, as it provides a platform of empowerment and supports a culture of respect and empathy that leads to innovation. By the next decade, I hope that we will be at a place where we are all held accountable for the spaces we create around us, where we are acutely aware of and celebrate our differences, and where our workplaces foster a sense of belonging and safety that allows us to be our genuine selves. And I hope that my role as an EDI director is no longer needed.

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