How to Add Belonging to Your DEI Strategy

When past inclusivity workshops weren’t inspiring, the Burlington Performing Arts Centre tried something new
(Photo: Vanessa Hill)

About three years ago, the Burlington Performing Arts Centre (BPAC) realized there was a discrepancy between who was engaging with and participating in art and what the community of Burlington, Ont., actually looked like. To remedy this, BPAC started hiring external organizations to conduct annual diversity, equity and inclusion workshops with the goal of helping the centre learn how to better reflect the city’s diverse community.

But the workshops weren’t as inspiring as they’d hoped they would be. The presentations lacked the emotional hook needed to spark real, lasting change, leaving the centre feeling like it was taking baby steps toward meaningful inclusion. Participants also struggled with the facilitators’ attitudes. “Last year’s DEI training was delivered in a really judgmental way,” says Tammy Fox, BPAC’s executive director. Rather than engaging with staff’s experiences and questions, the facilitators focused on BPAC’s mistakes. “You can’t help but get your armour up, and then you’re not listening actively—your mind is busy defending yourself rather than taking in the message.”

Layne, founder of Impact workshop, stands in a pink blazer and printed shirt wearing a pin that says they/them
(Photo: Vanessa Hill)

Looking for a solution, Fox turned to Layne, a self-described “philanthro-tainer” who has helped raise $40 million in the past 14 years as a charity auctioneer. Back in 2020, Fox saw Layne speak on a panel at a women’s empowerment conference and was impressed by their ability to discuss serious subject matters in an engaging and entertaining way.

In January, Layne, who is non-binary and uses a mononym, launched Impact Workshop, a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, or DEIB, program that facilitates dialogue around gender barriers in the workplace. For Fox, Layne’s inviting presentation style seemed like the perfect approach to make BPAC’s DEIB training finally stick.

“Belonging” has been a staple part of DEI workshops since 2020, but what sets Layne’s program apart is their ability to create a space where colleagues can be vulnerable—share their pain, explore their differences, make mistakes and learn from one another through a combination of role play, group discussion and video content. The workshop is broken down into three modules: understanding concepts and definitions, learning inclusive behaviour and practising active allyship. Unlike previous workshops, Fox says, BPAC’s experience with Layne was a dialogue rather than a scolding.

Related: How to Navigate Conflict at Work

an illustration of two people supporting a third who is wearing a trans flag pin on their shirt
(Illustration: Soña Lee)

But convincing colleagues to open up is easier said than done. “You can’t create change by lecturing,” Layne says. “You have to get people feeling something.” To build trust during the workshop, Layne began with stories about themself—moments when they felt hurt or misunderstood, such as the countless instances when they’ve been misgendered at work. Layne used their stories to delve into LGBTQ2S+ concepts, like what it means to be non-binary and how to best communicate pronouns at work—all with the goal of building empathy among the BPAC staff.

Despite there not being any out non-binary individuals at BPAC, the discussion resonated. “While I couldn’t relate to the stories per se, I could relate to the hurt those experiences caused Layne,” says Fox. “That’s what made the workshop so impactful.” Staff immediately applied the lessons about inclusivity, suggesting to leadership that the centre change its performance greeting from “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen” to “Welcome, everyone” and relabel its accessibility washrooms to be non-gendered.

To maintain this new culture, employees need to feel like they can bring their whole self to work, Layne says. They suggest setting up regular team-bonding activities, such as a lunches where staff can share their cultural or family-favourite meals and stories about them. “Fun events like this bring teams closer by helping them find common ground and learn about their differences.”

For companies that are still overwhelmed by the idea of DEIB training—and knowing which topics to prioritize—Layne recommends starting with LGBTQ2S+ inclusion. Since queer individuals encompass a range of intersecting identities, including race and gender, it naturally leads to other topics. “The heart of the matter is empathy and embracing differences,” Layne says.

Andrew Cruickshank
Andrew Cruickshank
A freelance journalist based out of Edinburgh, U.K., Andrew’s spent the past decade scribbling notes on everything from failing banks to real-estate booms to European holidays. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Cottage Life, TraveLife Magazine and TVO, among others.