Advocacy Attorney Participates in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit
by Prianka Sharma, Assistant Chief Counsel
Last month, I participated in Women in Government Relations’ annual Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit. Advocacy staff often attend conferences and trainings that further professional development goals and give advocates new and innovative tools to better interact with their small business stakeholders. The summit was aimed at government relations professionals and offered tips and tools to help us be more mindful of DEI initiatives in our work.
This event was timely given Advocacy’s recent work on Executive Order 13985. Issued by President Joe Biden on January 25, 2021, the order directs the heads of federal agencies to evaluate whether existing agency practices create barriers for public participation, specifically underserved populations.
One panel that was especially helpful focused on active and empathetic listening. Advocacy staff are often contacted when business owners are undergoing stress due to burdensome regulations that may imperil their livelihood. They may feel upset, confused, or fearful of losing their business. Often, Advocacy staff are the first government officials with whom small business owners feel like they can be heard.
The empathetic listening session focused on ways to ensure that the speaker’s contributions were being valued, and how to respond empathetically in high-stress situations. Using techniques such as summarizing back to the speaker the key points of their statements, Advocacy staff can better engage with representatives and ensure that conversations are productive. For example, the facilitator suggested statements like, “So if I hear you correctly, what you are saying is. . .” followed by relaying information back to the speaker. This shows that the listener is actively engaged in the conversation. These skills are crucial as Advocacy attorneys build relationships with small business representatives.
The DEI summit also gave attendees tools to use in everyday life. Summit workshops focused on how to find common ground when you may disagree with the viewpoints of those you are engaging with. For example, the facilitators challenged attendees to find two things that they had in common with another person, and one that they did not. Facilitators then asked the speaker to share their viewpoint on the topic that they did not have in common, while the listener summarized back the points made by the speaker. This exercise helped encourage attendees to actively listen and participate, even if they may not have familiarity with the views being expressed.
Summit workshops also challenged attendees to look at their existing networks and find gaps in who they engage with. For example, if attendees only engage with primarily one industry group, gender, or profession, facilitators challenged them to think about what groups they may be missing. By expanding networks beyond obvious contacts and working to understand various viewpoints on a particular rulemaking or policy, Advocacy staff can ensure that they provide the best possible representation of small business interests when they engage with federal agencies.
Many of the techniques demonstrated during the summit are tangible tools that are relevant to Advocacy’s daily work. Recently, Advocacy engaged in outreach efforts on two equity-related policy issues. In both instances, Advocacy staff used critical and empathetic listening skills to engage with stakeholders on issues that were of concern to them. Advocacy summarized these concerns in a public comment letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior on its request for information concerning equity in agency policies. Advocacy was pleased to note in a subsequent blog post that Interior included some of the suggestions from the letter in its agency equity action plan. Advocacy also engaged with small business representatives and wrote a comment letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Having training in DEI related practices will help Advocacy staff to further engage with, and better respond to stakeholders on these types of equity issue discussions.
Overall, the summit was valuable for the staff who attended. Advocacy attorneys are excited to put the new techniques they learned into practice as they continue to advocate on behalf of small businesses.
Prianka Sharma is an Assistant Chief Counsel for Advocacy whose portfolio includes agriculture, energy, and natural resources. Sharma can be reached at Prianka.email@example.com.
 Executive Order 13985, Advancing “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” 86 Fed. Reg. 7009 (January 25, 2021).