Diversity and inclusion is the topic of the day, but that doesn’t mean the conversation comes easily. When the subject is broached, people inevitably struggle with whether to feel awkward, whether they are qualified to speak, and whether topics are politically incorrect or insensitive. Chardé Hollins, founder and CEO of Relevant Connections, is on a mission to create safe spaces for these hard conversations.
Relevant Connections is a consulting firm supporting organizations, non-profits, and educational institutions as they increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “We create safe spaces for courageous conversations about diversity,” she says. “Changing a culture to support inclusivity for persons of color is never a simple task, but we have a strategy that works and a proven track record of results.”
The inspiration for Relevant Connections
As a licensed clinical social worker, Hollins spent over a decade working with justice-involved youth and trauma-affected communities. Her background in social work has taken her into schools, the healthcare system, and corrections as an advocate for society’s most vulnerable populations. Eventually, she felt a call to use her training and career experience in a new setting.
When asked why she left social work to found a consulting firm, Hollins says: “Simply put, I wanted to see black people win. As a licensed clinical social worker and grants manager, I constantly saw disproportionately low funds allocated to black agencies and a lack of culturally competent mental health services for the most vulnerable populations. The reason for this is multilayered and systemically oppressive at its core. I countered the barriers by using my skills to support organizations committed to equity. I start the conversations that cultivate anti-racist policies, secure funding, and increase access to competent care.”
Hollins drives impactful change by providing organizations with support and guidance during these difficult conversations. She helps them discuss integrating cultural humility, mental health, and inclusive policies into the very fiber of their customs, services, and missions. Her team educates, connects, and empowers organizations on the path toward transformation. After the conversations, Relevant Connections follows up with project-based support to ensure training and plans remain in action.
Many things make it difficult for organizations and institutions to discuss DEI. Some people feel they don’t know enough about the topic, and some worry about saying the wrong thing. “When you’re working in a diverse environment, it can be hard to know what to say and how,” Hollins observes. “We take the lead and set the tone in the hard conversations. We show people how to step out of their comfort zones, how to ask questions, how to recognize their own unconscious biases, how to avoid assumptions, and how to find solutions.”
How Relevant Connections creates safe spaces for difficult conversations
Hollins’s strategic approach sets up a safe space for everyone as the organization evaluates its inclusion practices and increases its cultural competence. Conversations about DEI are never easy, but she empowers everyone in the room to step out of their comfort zones, ask questions, and share experiences. The goal of the conversation is not to assign blame or even to address the problem; it is to bring people together.
“Facts do not drive change — conscience does,” explains Hollins. “Most experts focus on the problem with their main speaking points. The details they share to support their message only highlight disparities and injustices. I choose instead to utilize my clinical background to center the audience’s lived experiences and how the problem may impact them.”
In Hollins’s opinion, focusing on the problem has two primary disadvantages. First, it prompts a natural human instinct to prioritize self. Second, it establishes an understanding that this problem is and will continue to be awkward. Neither of these outcomes is a catalyst for honest and meaningful conversation as the problem will continue to be bigger than oneself.
Instead of focusing on the problem, Hollins focuses on empowering the audience to move toward a solution. Throughout the conversation, she defines key terms, offers examples for clarity, and sets reasonable expectations for engagement from the attendees. She acknowledges the audience’s readiness levels, commends each level, and encourages them to progress. Finally, she organically models authenticity and self-reflection throughout the presentation, providing an example that participants can mirror.
According to Hollins, addressing DEI without understanding the influence it has on mental health is counterproductive because the two are significantly intertwined. Once attendees become aware of this, their conscience becomes awakened and their willingness to engage and drive change increases. This is what makes her approach unique and grants her the ability to thrive in creating safe spaces and delivering results.
“When you only speak to the problem, people become overwhelmed at the enormity of the change needed and shut down,” says Hollins. “Similar to therapy, we never give power to the problem; instead, we acknowledge its presence, then empower the attendee to produce and utilize solutions.”
In the safe spaces Hollins creates, participants are free to own their emotions, ask questions, and learn from one another. “We all come together with different experiences and perspectives on this topic, and that’s okay,” she says. “The important thing is that we continue to come together to talk and implement meaningful strategies until we find the solutions that make our businesses, schools, and world a more equitable place for everyone.”