How Our DEI Book Club Became a Successful Workplace Program

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, the first book in our DEI book club

Diversity in the workplace isn’t new, but the demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion has grown higher in the past few years. For Gen Z, DEI is a greater concern and more highly valued than it has been for previous generations. Over 60% of Gen Zers surveyed believe diversity benefits society, and almost 80% believe brands should have active DEI efforts.

Many of us have heard that reading fiction can increase our empathy. Studies have also indicated that imagining positive interactions with people from stigmatized groups can help decrease prejudice and negative responses toward those groups. I would argue that a DEI book club can help to engage our imaginations and expose ourselves to the joys, challenges, and humanity of a diverse range of people.

As we have continued working to advance our DEI initiatives over the years at Online Optimism, our DEI book club (called “On the Same Page”) has come to epitomize what has worked best so far in our workplace—namely, programming that is led by our staff, offers flexible participation, and is supported financially by our organization. As Meara McNitt, Senior Social Media Director and one of our book club members, said, “It’s a place that we all agree to open our minds and hear others’ experiences with the added value of a centered topic that we’re all exploring together.”

What DEI Book Club Looks Like at Online Optimism

How It Started

In the summer of 2020, like many other companies, we examined ourselves as an organization, our relationship with DEI, where we fell short, and how we wanted to change and be more accountable moving forward. One initiative we decided to take was starting a diversity and inclusion book club, with So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo as our first book.

  • We purchased the book for all interested staff members.
  • We scheduled virtual book club discussions to include staff remotely.
  • We started a Slack channel to share our thoughts, questions, and ideas outside of our scheduled meetings.

Our goal was to promote DEI within our company by facilitating productive discussions, educating ourselves, and finding actionable ways to change. Since its inception, our DEI book club has remained popular among employees and expanded to include additional books, film components, and a wider range of topics related to DEI.

Our DEI Book Club Books

A stack of several of our DEI book club books, including Difficult Women, The Yellow House, All About Love, The Fire Next Time, So You Want to Talk About Race, and How to Be an Antiracist

To date, these are the DEI book club books we’ve read:

  1. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  2. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  3. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  4. The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom
  5. Maus by Art Spiegelman
  6. The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You: Stories by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
  7. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  8. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
  9. Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
  10. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

Our Book Club Discussions

Today, our book club is run by Online Optimism’s DEI Committee, which is made up of employees from various departments who have chosen to join. The DEI Committee schedules two virtual discussions per book and guides these conversations with discussion questions.

“We look up study guides and discussion questions that the author, publisher, or others have created for inspiration, as well as come up with our own ideas,” said Ivey Barr, WordPress Developer and one of our DEI Committee Members. “To refine the list, we think about which questions could be too intimate or invasive for a workplace discussion, narrow down broad questions so they’re easier to answer during our brief meetings, and try to cover a wide variety of topics and moments from the half of the book being discussed.”

The DEI Committee shares the discussion questions in our book club’s dedicated Slack channel before each meeting to help generate excitement and get people thinking.

10 DEI Book Club Suggestions for the Workplace

We’ve learned a lot about how to run a successful book club at our organization over the past 3 years, and we’d like to share our top 10 DEI book club suggestions for anyone else looking to start a similar program in their workplace.

1. Determine the Goals for Your Diversity and Inclusion Book Club

Our second DEI book club book, How to Be an Antiracist, which aligned with the goals for our diversity and inclusion book club

One of our top DEI book club suggestions is to make sure you have SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals. What do you hope to achieve over the next 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months? What are some relevant needs of your organization and of your employees that can be accomplished with your book club? How will you measure your progress?

Examples of goals could include:

  • Read at least 2 books per year in your book club.
  • Get at least 20 employees to join your book club within the first 3 months.
  • Get at least 15 employees to participate in book club discussions within the first 3 months.
  • Have at least 70% of staff report satisfaction with your DEI book club by the end of the first year.

2. Create an Action Plan with Policies, Activities, and Resources

Creating a successful DEI book club in the workplace requires careful planning and implementation. To foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, it is important to establish clear policies and guidelines that promote respectful and open dialogue. Our suggestions include:

  • Decide what your reading schedule will look like. Will you try to read one book per year during your summer slowdown? Read a book each trimester or each quarter?
  • Create a procedure for choosing books. We ask our different affinity groups to pick books on a rotating basis to help encourage staff interest and a diverse reading list.
  • Determine how staff will obtain their books. At Online Optimism, we feel it is important to support DEI initiatives like our book club by paying for the resources needed to participate. We poll staff to see who wants to read our upcoming book and what format they would like to receive (hardcover, e-book, or audiobook). This is also a great opportunity to use your funds to support local bookstores run by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized groups.
  • Consider issuing trigger warnings when relevant for the books you are reading.
  • Schedule book club discussions, deciding how many discussions you will have per book, how you will space them out, and how long these meetings will last.
  • Establish ground rules for book club discussions to ensure that all voices are heard and respected.
  • Consider if you’d like to try incorporating other activities, such as group exercises or guest speakers, to deepen the learning experience. We’ve found success with having a dedicated Slack channel to allow for asynchronous communication outside of scheduled discussions. When we chose the book of a local author, we also invited him to lead our discussion of his book.

“I love book club because it provides an opportunity to read books that wouldn’t be on my typical reading list,” shared Eliza Fillo, Digital Ads Coordinator and a member of our book club. “I’m not a big reader in general, but I actually enjoy having a structured reading timeline—it motivates me to stick with the book. I lean toward lighter reading in my personal life as it can be hard to digest a book with heavy subject matter alone. I appreciate that in book club we’re given content warnings in addition to dedicated time to break down the reading in a safe space. During these discussions, you always discover new perspectives or additional contexts through which to view the story/experiences of those in it.”

3. Decide Who Will Run Your DEI Book Club

Decide who will be accountable for running your DEI book club, including picking the books, getting them ordered, sharing information with your team, scheduling and leading discussions, arranging any other activities, and measuring the results of your book club. You may have several different people managing different tasks. But without a dedicated person responsible for getting each task done, it can be easy for this work to slip through the cracks and for your book club to fall apart.

The employees who take on these responsibilities should be passionate about DEI topics and committed to doing the work. Anyone leading book club discussions should have good communication skills and the ability to facilitate meaningful discussions. You might also choose to rotate between discussion leaders. This allows multiple employees with different perspectives to lead discussions, and rotating these responsibilities can also be a good way to avoid burning out on this work.

4. Make Participation Optional for Employees

Another one of our DEI book club suggestions is to make participation optional. Allowing employees to choose whether or not to participate can help reduce feelings of obligation or pressure, while also increasing engagement and interest.

We’ve found success in allowing staff to join or leave our book club on a book-by-book basis. Someone may be too busy or burned out on DEI work to want to participate at the moment, but open to joining another time. Or some staff members may have read a book already or be disinterested in a specific book and want to opt out for that one.

Ways to encourage participation include:

  • Allow staff to make recommendations for upcoming books.
  • Communicate the goals of your DEI book club and how it aligns with your company mission.
  • Keep meetings short enough that they fit within employees’ schedules. We had good results switching from 60-minute to 30-minute meetings, for example.
  • Share your book club’s progress, wins, and any fun activities.

5. Solicit Book Recommendations from Staff

At Online Optimism, we’ve found that asking staff for book recommendations has worked well for us, but there are pros and cons to consider. Staff may feel more involved and engaged if they have a say in the books they read. As Amanda, Design Strategist and one of our newest book club members, put it, “I enjoy the discussions and hearing about how the books relate to others’ experiences.”

But if your staff lacks diversity in certain areas, their choices in books may reflect that same lack. Encourage staff to suggest books that represent a range of perspectives and experiences, including those from underrepresented groups. You can also look for lists of DEI book club books from others to give you more ideas.

6. Identify DEI Book Club Books That Support Your Goals

When choosing books, keep your DEI goals in mind. Review the selection of books that you’ve read previously and actively look for whose perspectives may be missing, then make it your goal to find a good book to fill that gap.

You might also want to rotate between fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. Fiction and memoir can take you into someone else’s world, show you their realities and their perspective, and help you to empathize with them. Nonfiction can help you re-examine our history and learn directly about how to take action to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Consider different genres, such as fantasy or historical fiction, as well as different formats, such as graphic novels. Esteban Largaespada, Digital Ads Director and one of our book club members, pointed out that “science fiction can open up topics such as how we see the future of humanity, our beliefs about people and the future.”

Look for books that provide diverse perspectives and challenge assumptions. These are the books that will help encourage thoughtful discussions.

7. Generate Excitement for Your DEI Book Club at Work

Get people excited about joining your book club, participating in discussions and activities, or even taking on a leadership role within the club. This can come in many forms:

  • Make a company announcement about the start of your DEI book club.
  • Share reminders leading up to book club, whether that’s posters in your office, emailed reminders, or messages on Slack or Teams.
  • Allow staff to recommend books.
  • Announce the next book that you’ll be reading and encourage people to join.
  • Offer coffee, snacks, or treats for in-person meetings.
  • Schedule engaging activities, make sure staff know about them in advance, and share takeaways or positive experiences with the team afterward.

8. Schedule Book Club Discussions and Activities

Our staff with Maurice Carlos Ruffin, author of one of the books we read in our DEI book club

Give employees opportunities to engage with the book together, such as scheduled book discussions, film pairings, happy hours, volunteer events, or even guest speakers. Think about the timing of your activities as well.

For us, it has been helpful to have a discussion halfway through the book and another at the end of the book to keep people motivated and engaged throughout. We read one book every three months, which gives people enough time to finish the book without it feeling either too rushed or too drawn out.

We’ve also started discussing a relevant film following each book, which the same affinity group chooses. This gives us another medium to learn from and can help engage our team another way. Claire Escobedo, Senior Digital Designer and DEI Committee Leader, said, “I like that we pair each book with a movie—the movies always end up making me think more about the books, and vice versa.”

When we read The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You: Stories by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, an author from New Orleans where our company is headquartered, we also reached out to him and allocated a budget to have him join our discussion of his book. Local staff came to the office for an in-person discussion, and we also live streamed the event so remote staff could participate. Over half of the Optimists we surveyed named this as their favorite book we’ve read so far, and as Sara Bandurian, Operations Supervisor and a member of our book club, said, “It was extra special to have the author join us for a Q+A session!”

9. Measure Employee Attendance, Participation, and Satisfaction

It’s important to measure employee attendance, participation, satisfaction, and anything else that will be relevant to your goals.

  • Keep track of how many people sign up for book club.
  • Keep track of how many people join each discussion and activity.
  • Survey book club members or your full team to get their feedback.

Review this data and the progress you’re making toward your goals. If a lot of people signed up but then didn’t show up for discussions, what happened? Did the DEI book club not meet their expectations? Was it more time-consuming than they expected?

Sending out surveys to your team can be a useful way to get answers to these kinds of questions and make sure that your book club is meeting everyone’s needs.

10. Adjust Your Diversity and Inclusion Book Club as Needed

It can take time to figure out exactly what will work for your organization. You may need to read fewer books per year than you expected. Or your book discussions could have too many people and need to be broken up into smaller groups. Keep measuring results, asking for feedback, and adjusting to make your DEI book club inclusive and accessible to all employees.

Promote DEI with Your Own Workplace Book Club

We hope you’ll join us in promoting DEI at your organization with your own diversity and inclusion book club!

More of a visual reader? Check out our DEI Book Club Web Story below: