Karith Foster: Taking the Division Out of Diversity Training

Philanthropy Roundtable recently spoke with speaker and comedian Karith Foster, owner of Inversity Solutions, a diversity training program designed to revolutionize and transform the way companies and institutions of higher education address diversity and leadership. In this Q&A, she explains the way INVERSITY™ uniquely works by focusing on what unites people rather than what divides them.

Q: Please tell us the story of how you came be involved in the diversity and inclusion space.

It wasn’t initially by choice. I was brought on to be co-host of the “Imus in the Morning” show after the controversy surrounding radio host Don Imus’s remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. He wanted someone to help him have a national conversation about racism in America, and as a nationally headlining comedian who had multiple radio hosting positions under my belt — and an educated Black woman — I was in a position to engage in that dialogue. It was no small task for one person, let alone a radio and television show. I put my life, safety and reputation on the line to help foster compassionate conversations on this topic and move America to a place of social healing. That was essentially my introduction into the world of diversity and I soon became enlightened as to how these conversations were happening across the country, in companies and at schools. 

Not long after, there was another incident involving a Rutgers University student. A young man, Tyler Clementi, took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after being outed by his roommate and other peers who secretly recorded him in an intimate situation. That story broke my heart. No one should feel that alone or isolated for whatever it is they believe sets them apart from everyone else — be it their sexuality, their ethnicity, their religion or their socioeconomic status.

The question I asked myself was, “How can I help? What can I do?” I realized the tools in my arsenal were storytelling and humor — universal ways to bring people together. I initially designed a diversity program called Stereotyped 101 that blended humor, audience participation and personal stories to engage people on sensitive topics. It has since evolved into INVERSITY™, the inverse of the word “Diversity,” which has divide/division at its root. Division is exactly what we see happening when diversity is done poorly — that includes checking a box, wagging a finger or placing blame and shame. My goal is to take the division out of diversity by shifting the focus from what separates and divides us to what we have in common, how we can be inclusive of each other and become more introspective — understanding our value, our worth and our connection to humanity.

Q: How do you apply INVERSITY™ with clients, and which type of clients do you typically serve?

My clients range from institutions of higher education and school districts to corporations. I offer a number of programming options, including keynotes, workshops, consulting, online learning and executive leadership retreats. A high priority for me is to offer support for those who have been thrust — and I do mean thrust — into chief diversity officer positions. Many of them were “panic hires” where companies felt compelled to hire into these positions as a defensive measure. These people found themselves in their role because they come from a “marginalized group.” Without much background or training, they are automatically expected to know how to change and influence a company culture. The problem arises when they adopt diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices that have fallen short for decades. This is where the adoption of the INVERSITY™ methodology and philosophy helps them to thrive in their influential positions.

Q: Please walk us through what a typical workshop looks like with INVERSITY™.

I lovingly refer to the workshops as “keyshops” because they’re part keynote, part workshop, complete with engaging lessons and fun activities to give people the opportunity to explore the multiple facets of who they are. We address the concept of bias and unconscious bias, and how to be proactive in creating a healthy, compassionate environment where personal responsibility plays a vital role. Our mission is to impart critical skills for professional and social interaction. In other words, I teach the skills of actively listening with awareness and forming responsible reactions, so that if a situation arises, it doesn’t escalate to a powder keg that destroys a company’s morale.

Q: What do you typically ask an organization before pursuing training with them? Do you have a “checklist” of questions for leadership?

The first thing I want to know is why they want to hire me. What has been happening within their institution or organization that motivates them to incorporate INVERSITY™? This is so important to me because there are still organizations that are looking to merely check boxes with regard to diversity. Even if they don’t admit that, I am quite sensitive to that energy.

I also ask, “Are you looking to be reactive or proactive?” I assess whether or not leadership is going to be fully enrolled and active, or if they want to be hands-off. Because of the way diversity training has been handled for so long, there is genuine fatigue around DEI. A lot of people are just plain tired of it.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can remove the victim and the villain from this conversation and still talk about harsh truths and real events that happened. We also are making the distinction that not every individual is responsible for certain aspects of history. Yes, it is imperative we look to history and learn from it. We must also live in the now. We have to operate from the present if we want a better future. We must also expand the idea of diversity to include diversity of thought and ideas.

Q: You emphasize the importance of diversity of thought. What do you mean by that?

A lot of us get caught up in certain narratives and stereotypes. For example, you can’t be Black and conservative or gay and Christian. Free speech is only for entitled white guys. If you’re a liberal, you have to be in line with all things Democrats tout. That’s nonsense! The idea within INVERSITY™ is to, first, stop pigeonholing people and then, understand that what makes us diverse isn’t just what we see from the outside. If you’re operating from the traditional DEI standpoint, it can be quite limiting.

Q: What are some areas where the typical DEI approach falls short?

So much of the traditional DEI approach seems to be about penetrating the mind from the outside, and changing the way somebody thinks, feels and believes. Instead, the goal of INVERSITY™ is to honor, recognize and celebrate all that we bring to the table — our background, our heritage, our identity — without letting those things completely run the show. 

I am teaching people a new way to approach diversity, so this important conversation doesn’t end in a stalemate or create more division and vitriol. My approach empowers us to move forward. We may not leave a “keyshop” holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” but we can certainly develop a new level of respect for one another and gain the ability to see others as worthy humans who want the same thing that we all do: to be heard, loved, respected and valued. That compassion component is really what’s lacking in the traditional DEI work. We think this work is a two-way street when it’s actually a six-lane highway.