Beth Chandler, in a tan blazer, speaks into a microphone

In a Q&A following her speech, Beth Chandler peeked into the future of DEI, expanded on her work to make organizations more inclusive, and revealed who inspires her the most. Photo by Tony Rinaldo.

Research shows that companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion perform better than their competitors. They make more money. They’re more innovative. They’re better able to attract and retain talent.

And yet the future of DEI initiatives in the workplace remains unclear, especially since the Supreme Court struck down race-conscious affirmative action programs at colleges in June and 13 attorneys general followed up the ruling by warning Fortune 100 companies against using race as a factor in employment practices in July.

“To be honest, there are some days when I don’t feel particularly optimistic about diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Beth Chandler, the president and CEO of YW Boston, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing equity for the past 150 years. “Yet,” she added, “those moments in days of weariness and pessimism don’t ever give way to despair. I remain steadfast in my belief that we will prevail, because ultimately I believe in humankind. I believe that with a little courage, people will do the right thing.”

As the keynote speaker at Boston College School of Social Work’s annual Equity, Justice, and Inclusion Lecture and Distinguished Alumni Award Celebration in Gasson Hall last week, Chandler provided half a dozen examples of how everyday acts of courage have promoted equity while bringing national attention to important social issues, improving business practices, and helping people reach their full potential.

She took more than 80 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends back to 2004, when then Massachusetts Sen. Marian Walsh voted no on an amendment that would have defined marriage as one man and one woman in the Commonwealth.

Sam Bradley, Jr. and Beth Chandler engage in a Q&A

Assistant Professor Samuel Bradley, Jr. asked Chandler how she knows when an organization is truly committed to DEI. Photo by Tony Rinaldo.

Walsh received hate mail and death threats for refusing to overturn the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, but she won re-election twice over challengers who opposed gay marriage.

“It could have cost her her job,” said Chandler. “Yet she made the decision to do the right thing, the moral thing, even though she knew that that could mean that she would probably not be re-elected.”

Chandler’s work at YW Boston includes helping organizations achieve more inclusive environments where everyone—especially women and people of color—can succeed. During her speech, she told an anecdote about one organization where several women of color said they had been denied opportunities to work on big projects. Instead of ignoring them, the leadership team looked at data, confirmed their claims, and then revamped the company’s process for selecting project teams to make it more equitable.

In the past, managers selected who worked on high-profile projects. Under the new process, a dedicated group of employees picked project members. The revised approach exposed junior staff to project managers, said Chandler, and enabled project managers to see the strengths of all staff members. 

“Everyone in the organization benefited because a group of Black women had the courage to speak up,” she said. “The women demonstrated moral courage,” she added, referring to their decision to stand up for an injustice, “and the leadership demonstrated intellectual courage because they were willing to challenge old assumptions based on new learning.”

Scune Carrington smiles behind a podium

In a moment that brought whoops from the crowd, Scune Carrington, MSW ’09, sang the chorus for “You Gotta Be,” an R&B hit by British singer Des’ree. Photo by Tony Rinaldo.

Chandler told a few stories about people in her life whose acts of courage helped make the seemingly impossible possible. When she was in fourth grade, for example, the orthodontist in her small shoreline town of Branford, Connecticut, told her that he would sponsor an all-girls basketball team for a special tournament if she could round up 10 players. 

Chandler fielded a team, the orthodontist kept his promise, and many of the girls on the squad went on to play Division 1 college basketball. She led Harvard to two Ivy League championships during the 1985-86 and 1987-88 seasons and later played two seasons of professional basketball in Salzburg, Austria. 

“Here was a guy with little to gain. He had no daughters. He was the only orthodontist in town, and so he had a lot to lose—the money and his reputation. And he could be embarrassed because who knows how he would be,” said Chandler. “Yet he was willing to support 10 young girls in town to achieve their dream of playing in the tournament. His courage led to collegiate success that may not have happened otherwise.” 

At the end of her talk, Chandler challenged attendees to harness the power of courage to create a more just, equitable society. “Are you prepared to exhibit everyday acts of courage, to give others the confidence to do the same?” she asked. “As you saw through my examples, small acts of everyday courage by ordinary people can lead to powerful, equitable outcomes. If you remain true to your DEI values and commit to doing one small act of courage a day, we will achieve the equitable community and world for which we aspire.”

An attendee in a striped sweater asks a question.

More than 80 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends attended the event, which was held in Gasson Hall. Photo by Tony Rinaldo.

In a Q&A following her speech, Chandler peeked into the future of DEI, expanded on her work to make organizations more inclusive, and revealed who inspires her the most.    

A social worker in the audience asked Chandler to predict what DEI will look like years from now.  

“I don’t know what it will look like in five years or 10 years, but I know it will look different,” Chandler said. “Language changes, and so it will be interesting to see what the language is even five years from now.” 

Samuel Bradley, Jr., an assistant professor who moderated the Q&A, predicted that organizations would begin to rely more heavily on data to make decisions related to DEI initiatives.  

“We’re seeing more equity audits within organizations and we’re seeing more measures,” said Bradley, who oversees BCSSW’s Equity, Justice, and Inclusion Committee. “I think we’ll see a much more data-driven approach to the work, which I think is good and I’m excited for.”

A student in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development wanted to know how Chandler connects with people who are resistant to change at their organizations. 

As part of her answer, Chandler said that it’s important to show individuals how a more inclusive environment would improve their lives. “What’s the story you’re telling folks for why they should make this change?” she said. “What’s in it for them? How are they going to benefit from this change?”

Bradley asked Chandler several questions, one of which was how she knows when an organization is truly committed to DEI. 

Chandler named five signs that show an organization is dedicated to making its workplace more inclusive, including buy-in from leadership, an understanding that change will take time, and a commitment to allocating resources for the work. 

Bradley closed the Q&A by asking Chandler what keeps her motivated. 

Chandler pointed to her two kids, who live with her in Roslindale, a residential neighborhood on the southwest end of Boston. “I want them to be able to have opportunities in Boston not be dictated by their race, by their gender, by how they identify,” she said. “Thinking about how I can make Boston a better place for my kids is something that drives me everyday.”

From left to right: Gautam N. Yadama, Susan Tohn, Scune Carrington, and Susan Coleman

Dean Gautam N. Yadama and Scune Carrington pose for a photo with former Professor Susan Tohn and Assistant Dean of Field Education Susan Coleman, who nominated Carrington for the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award. Photo by Tony Rinaldo.

After the Q&A, BCSSW honored two alumni for their impressive contributions to the field of social work. The School celebrates two graduates at the event every year, bestowing one award upon an alum who earned an MSW or PhD 10 or more years ago and another award upon an alum who earned an advanced degree between five and 10 years ago.

Scune Carrington, MSW ’09, director of integrated care at the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, received the Distinguished Alumni Award. 

She said BC shaped her professional ethos, noting that she discovered her true purpose while on campus in fall 2006. 

“I attended an informational interview that ignited my curiosity and propelled me toward a social work degree,” said Carrington, who now oversees initiatives focused on oral health, behavioral health, and integrated care at 52 health centers across the state. “BC gave me all of the resources that I needed to succeed.”

In a moment that brought whoops from the crowd, Carrington sang the chorus for “You Gotta Be,” an R&B hit by British singer Des’ree.

The song, which The New York Times described as an “infectiously sunny tune about the affirmative powers of self-confidence,” inspired Carrington to give advice to attendees.  

“Be bad by asking questions,” she said, invoking lyrics from the song. “Be bold by running for that office. Be courageous—take that class that scared you, ask for that raise at work, apply for that job. Be wise to ask for help because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Anne Day Leong, PhD ’17, senior director of Research, Evaluation, and Research Partnerships for UNICEF USA, received the Distinguished Recent Alumni Award. 

Leong shared her philosophy on work by recounting a conversation she routinely has with her 8-year-old daughter, who is trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. 

“I often tell her, ‘Don’t focus on what you want to be. Focus on what you want to fix,’” she said in a video recorded before the event. “Once you figure out what you want to fix in the world, the rest will fall into place.”

Leong said that BC’s doctoral program in social work gave her the skills to tackle the problem she wanted to fix: bridging the gap between research and policy to support the health and well being of children. It was on the Heights that she developed the technical acumen to use research as a tool to create systems that serve children and the proverbial pieces started falling into place, culminating in her role with UNICEF USA.

“At BCSSW, I was privileged to work with brilliant scholars in child policy, child practice, and analysis,” said Leong, who recently developed a UNICEF USA postdoctoral research fellowship program in partnership with the School. “My doctoral chair guided me through the big picture questions around child policies, how policies tie directly to practice, and how to evaluate the impacts of policies and practices on children. My committee member, Summer Hawkins, pushed me to explore statistical analysis and to better understand the stories that data can tell us. When I graduated from BCSSW, I had a clear view of the problem that I wanted to spend my career fixing.”