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Geometric shapes on a wooden background. Microlearning. Diversity. Building Blocks.
ATD Blog

Building DEI Acumen in the US Coast Guard

Thursday, August 4, 2022
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The role of the US Coast Guard, as both an armed service and humanitarian service, is to aid people in distress or impacted by natural and man-made disasters and enforce maritime laws. This mission drives us to be a center of excellence for diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging (DEIAB). Therefore, we need to develop officers, enlisted members, civilians, and auxiliarist members to live our core values of “honor, respect, and devotion to duty” and uphold the talents, perspectives, and contributions of the individuals who serve in our community.

A diverse and adaptive workforces has been more important than ever as US Coast Guard members perform vital missions to safeguard our nation. To remain the world’s best Coast Guard, we recognize that we must treat diversity and inclusion as an operational imperative. If we do anything less, we will fail to garner the talent, innovation, creativity, and performance necessary to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex maritime operating environment.

Indeed, progressing DEIAB is the foundation to building an innovative workplace culture and for mission execution. One of the Coast Guard’s first steps toward becoming more inclusive was to boost every member’s DEIB acumen. Below are the strategies we used to execute this initiative.

Develop a Common Lexicon

As we tackled the development of DEIB acumen, we quickly noticed that our workforce of approximately 60,000 members had a wide variety of interpretations of D&I efforts; for instance, many Coast Guard members thought diversity was solely focused on the recruitment of women and underrepresented minorities. This lack of a consistent definition led the service to develop a common lexicology of DEI terms.

Let’s take a closer look at how the Coast Guard defines DEI:

  • Diversity refers to the variety of similarities and differences among people, including but not limited to: gender, gender identity, ethnicity, race, native or indigenous origin, age, generation, sexual orientation, culture, religion, belief system, marital status, parental status, socioeconomic difference, appearance, language and accent, disability, mental health, education, geography, nationality, work style, work experience, job role and function, thinking style, and personality type.
  • Equity is defined as the guarantee of fair treatment, access and opportunity for advancement for all (employees) while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding unbalanced conditions is needed to assist in fostering equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups.
  • Inclusion is a dynamic state of operating in which diversity is leveraged to create a fair, healthy, and high-performing organization or community. An inclusive environment ensures equitable access to resources and opportunities for all. It also enables individuals and groups to feel safe, respected, engaged, motivated, and valued for who they are and for their contributions toward organizational goals.

Educate Our Leaders

The US Coast Guard has a geographically dispersed workforce assigned not only across our nation but also overseas. We realize that individual team leaders truly set the tone more than executive leadership with regards to developing a diverse and inclusive workplace environment. With this in mind, we have developed an inclusive leadership framework to spread DEIB concepts throughout a members’ career.

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The inclusive leadership framework is a set of four leadership competencies that define and present the expected leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities at every stage of a member’s career to be an effective Coast Guard leader. We also designed tailored, meaningful learning and development efforts to make a significant impact. By developing DEIAB modules and inserting them into every leadership course, we helped arm our unit leaders throughout the service with the proper tools.

We also recently developed and launched a voluntary D&I Foundations Course on the Coast Guard Learning Management System. This six-module e-learning course was a first step for anyone from the Coast Guard workforce looking for tools and resources to support DEIAB conversations, learning, and cross-cultural relationship building. The modules include: Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in the US Coast Guard; Civility in the Workplace; Emotional Intelligence; Micro-aggressions; Unconscious Bias; and Generational Diversity. In the past four months, we have had more than 10 percent of our workforce members complete the course.

Create and Enable Change Agents

To further support DEIB acumen, the Coast Guard has developed the first-ever Diversity and Inclusion Education and Awareness Program (DIEAP), consisting of more than a hundred diverse Coast Guard DEI Change Agents (comprised of military, civilian, reservist and auxiliary representatives). The DEI Change Agents is a new initiative for the Coast Guard. Solicitation to become a change agent was open to all members (active duty, civilians, reservists, and auxiliarists) at all levels despite rank or seniority. Applications were evaluated by a diverse board of D&I Practitioners. Over 100 members were selected to participate in this initiative.

The DIEAP is a six-month development process designed to equip Change Agents with knowledge and skills to support the Coast Guard’s mission to develop an organizational culture that values respect, diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging. The process entails a 10-day DEI training, empowerment coaching training, and facilitating sessions with a DEI expert. The end goal is to help build common ground for meaningful dialogue about civility, equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and cross-cultural relationship building.

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One of the DEI Change Agents’ key strategic actions entails partnering with units’ Leadership Diversity Advisory Councils (LDACs) to help raise the D&I acumen at respective units. Partnership with LDACs includes conducting inclusive dialogues, brown bags, and town halls. There are more than 100 LDACs within the service. These entities are located in the field to directly ascertain and address DEIAB issues at the unit level as well as elevate broader issues to senior leadership for action.

Spread the Word

In partnership with the US Coast Guard Academy, our flagship institution for developing officers to be leaders of characters, we have established an Inclusion and Diversity Lecture Series. The lecturers are typically external D&I thought leaders and subject matter experts within their respective discipline. The purpose of the lecture series is to increase the Academy’s cadets and staff collective awareness surrounding all issues relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion by bringing a diverse set of speakers to educate and inform on a variety of topics within the academic arena.

Leaders are responsible for educating themselves, exposing themselves to various viewpoints regarding diversity, and continuing their individual DEIAB journey. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, who addressed the Academy, emphasized the importance of DEI saying, “Our nation is ready to fulfill the promise of our constitution to build a more perfect union and to ensure equal justice for all people, and it is your generation that can and will bring the joint force to be truly inclusive of all people.”

In addition to the development of the Coast Guard officer corps, attention has been given to the enlisted workforce as well. Several years ago, the Coast Guard established a Center for Inclusive Learning and Teaching to develop a community of practice around inclusive and evidence-based teaching practices. This work has been further leveraged across the Service’s training centers, such as at Recruit Training Center Cape May, our sole accession point for the enlisted workforce. There, boot camp instructors and staff are taught about implicit and unconscious bias and how to promote respectful and inclusive workplaces. At the Coast Guard’s Chief Petty Officer Academy, a course designed to enhance mission readiness and leadership skills and strengthen our Chief’s message, we have updated our leadership and diversity curriculum to further instill inclusive leadership traits to all future chiefs.

Ultimately, our goal is to develop leaders who can fully embrace and leverage the vast diversity of today’s workforce as well as create an environment where people feel accepted and empowered to give the best of their talents.

About the Author

Dr. Gladys Brignoni assumed the duties of the U.S. Coast Guard Chief Learning Officer and the Deputy Commander, Force Readiness Command in November 2011. In this capacity, Dr. Brignoni leads the U.S. Coast Guard efforts to ensure the delivery of mission-ready forces through superior performance-based training, career development, education, doctrine, leader development, readiness assessments and major exercise contingency support. Since 2011, Dr. Brignoni has had an opportunity to fulfill other USCG assignments to include being the Senior Executive Advisor on Diversity and Inclusion for the agency and the Special Advisor to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Prior to her assignment as the Deputy Commander at Force Readiness Command, Dr. Brignoni was the Executive Director at the Navy Warfare Development Command where she oversaw all contracts, requirements and programs to include doctrine development, Fleet Synthetic Training, and Modeling and Simulation. Other career highlights include being the Facility Support Services and Contract Manager for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, the Executive Director at the Center for Naval Intelligence (CNI), the Director of Training and Learning Standards at CNI, the Education Specialist at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Language and Cross-Cultural Communication Specialist at the Peace Corps and an Assistant Professor of Education at Old Dominion University.

A native of Puerto Rico, Dr. Brignoni has over 20 years of experience in talent management, diversity and inclusion, training, performance improvement and change management. She holds a B.A. from Purdue University, a M.A.T. and a Ph.D. in Education from Indiana University. She is a member of the Defense Acquisition Workforce as a certified Facilities Engineer and a certified Lean Six-Sigma Black Belt.

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