Beyond Definitions:
Operationalizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility

Planetary ReaCH logoOn January 18, 2022, NASA released the Policy Statement on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility [DEIA] for NASA’s Workforce and Workplaces. In addition to affirming the agency’s commitment to DEIA, this letter from administrator Bill Nelson included definitions for diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. These definitions are similar to those adopted by many organizations in that they are broad value statements. As such, they are helpful in understanding NASA’s vision for DEIA but are only a first step for operationalizing — and evaluating — the integration of DEIA in different contexts.

Planetary Resources and Content Heroes (ReaCH) is funded through the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s Science Activation program. Throughout the project’s lifetime, ReaCH will develop and continuously refine a model of effective practices for training planetary scientists to better engage Black and Latinx youth and families based on DEIA principles. The ReaCH model, which includes strategies for engaging diverse communities in planetary-themed hands-on activities, will be implemented in professional learning workshops across the U.S.

The ReaCH team is diverse. The 16 team members come from various professional backgrounds: planetary scientists, informal educators, and evaluators. In addition, team members come from a diversity of cultural backgrounds and experiences that have shaped our individual understanding and approaches toward engaging public audiences. This team diversity is a great strength, but it also presented an early challenge when defining a common vocabulary for the ReaCH team’s definition of DEIA principles and engagement approach.

As mentioned already, the NASA definitions, while appropriate and valuable from an organizational perspective, are broad. We quickly realized that ReaCH team members were each interpreting the definitions differently. Consider, for example, the NASA definition of inclusion: “The full participation, belonging, and contribution of organizations and individuals.” Now, take a moment to reflect on your understanding of this definition, given the context of a professional learning activity designed to prepare planetary scientists and informal educators to better engage Black and Latinx youth. For example, what does full participation look like? Does “full” refer to mindsets or populations? To whom does participation refer? Participation in what? Without a shared understanding of inclusion, how would the ReaCH team test, improve, and share their model with other groups?

Recognizing that a common vocabulary was a critical foundation for the ReaCH model, the team drafted statements to guide how DEIA is manifested in its efforts. The table below displays NASA’s definitions of DEIA alongside the ReaCH team’s operationalizations, or shared understanding of what these definitions look like, in our work.

NASA Definition ReaCH Operationalization
Diversity The representation of varied identities and differences (race, ethnicity, gender identity, disability, socioeconomic status, tribe, sexual orientation, communication style). Focus on Black and Latinx audiences through intentional engagement.
Equity The consistent and systematic provision of fair, just, and impartial treatment to all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment. Acknowledge and reduce systemic barriers encountered by Black and Latinx audiences through an asset-based approach.
Inclusion The full participation, belonging, and contribution of organizations and individuals. Create a sense of belonging through intentional relationship-building and attention to relevance.
Accessibility The capability for full and independent use by all people, including people with disabilities, of technology, programs, and services through inclusive design, construction, development, and maintenance of facilities. Support full and independent participation by all people by building awareness of the diversity of individual needs.

While NASA has provided guidance and stressed the importance of incorporating the pillars of DEIA into multiple projects, teams and individuals must do the difficult work of making the definitions concrete. These operationalizations represent the first step for our team in creating the ReaCH model. As the Planetary ReaCH team works to both incorporate these operationalizations in its work and measure progress toward successful integration, we offer these first steps of our journey and lessons learned to guide others who are on the same path.