Creating a more diverse workplace, raising awareness about unconscious biases, providing advancement opportunities for everyone—these initiatives have long been part of LEARN’s DNA. But in 2020, with heightened awareness around social disparities in our country, the company’s employees, supported by leadership, decided to formalize and flesh out these goals with the launch of LEARN’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Plan. While DEI committees formed and started working in the summer of 2020, LEARN chose February to announce the plan publicly in honor of Black History Month and the United Nation’s World Day of Social Justice on February 20.
“We’re in a unique moment in this country,” says Justin Funches, the president of LEARN Autism Services and chair of the DEI Leadership Committee. “As a black man and as a leader in an organization with incredible diversity, I recognize the great opportunity and responsibility our initiative presents. And I know that better outcomes—for both our clients and our teams—come when we include more voices and better understand each other’s experiences.”
As a first item of business, LEARN’s DEI committee drafted an official statement and established five priorities:
The Sum of All Parts:
LEARN knows we’re not all the same. Recognizing differences and tailoring our approach is at the core of what we do. That’s why we’re committed to fostering a culture that embraces what makes us each unique—be it race, ethnicity, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disability/ability, and socioeconomic background. LEARN aims to acknowledge the lived experiences and diversity of perspectives among our staff and the children and families we serve. We pledge to create a community centered around trust, respect, tolerance, and empathy. Together, we’re better.
Our priorities on this journey include:
Positioning LEARN as a diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization.
Creating policies and practices that are culturally sensitive to differences in our staff and clients.
Equipping teams with the tools they need to navigate the myriad inequities in our society.
Actively embracing the diversity of the communities we serve.
Building leadership teams that are diverse and provide opportunities for typically underrepresented populations.
LEARN also created internal communications—a monthly digital newsletter and web portal—for employees to share news related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. With systems and priorities in place, the real work began. Teams of staff from across the country solicited feedback, brainstormed ideas, and asked the hard questions.
One activity involved a series of forums that brought together Black behavior technicians from across the country to “speak with candor as they shared their stories and experiences of being Black in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA),” says Brandon Whitfield, Clinical Director of AST’s Learning Center in Beach Cities, California. “Their stories were heartfelt, gut-wrenching, and awe-inspiring.” The next steps, says Whitfield, who serves on a DEI committee and co-hosted the forum, are to analyze the data collected and use it to shape future leadership practices and inform new programs and policies.
One such program was announced to employees last month—a partnership with National University to fully support tuition Black or African American staff members to complete National’s ABA master’s program. In addition to tuition support, LEARN will designate a mentor to help each recipient with coursework, career planning, and the behavior analyst certification process. Once certified, recipients can oversee applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to children with autism.
“Right now, the percent of Black behavior analysts working in the ABA field does not reflect the percentage of African Americans in the population of the United States,” says Whitfield, who spearheaded the partnership with National University. “Our new program is a step to change that.”
As LEARN’s DEI committees continue to push forward their goals, employees say they’re thrilled to join the effort and see the organization back these critical initiatives. “As a woman of color, I’ve always been acutely aware and passionate about the ways in which barriers affect education access in minority and low-income communities,” shares Margarita Mesa, Director of Program Quality and Operations for LEARN It System’s Academic Services and a member of a DEI committee. “I’m confident that this committee of intelligent, forward-thinking colleagues will offer creative strategies and purposeful ideas to make strides in this ever-important arena, and I look forward to the thoughtful dialogue as we collectively work to better understand and support the diverse communities in which we work.”
Stay tuned for LEARN’s series of blog posts and podcasts to raise awareness about ABA as a social justice issue and to highlight Black professionals working to make a difference in the lives of children with autism.