Q&A: Github’s Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Demetris Cheatham

Cheatham talked about what DE&I means in 2022 and how to foster belonging in the workplace.
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Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography

· 5 min read

Demetris Cheatham is the senior director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at code-hosting platform GitHub. Acquired by Microsoft in 2018, GitHub has become one of the web’s primary venues for computer programmers to collaborate and share their work. Cheatham is something of a multi-hyphenate professional—perusing her résumé, there is a computer science degree, a JD, an MBA, and a stint as executive director of the National Bar Association.

We spoke to Cheatham about DE&I at GitHub and beyond, and she shared some insights for aspiring DE&I professionals.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are you seeing in the DE&I space currently that’s creating new challenges for leaders?

So I think that diversity and inclusion is grounded in the visible dimensions of diversity. So [is] race, ethnicity, even physical disabilities, neurodiversity, gender, sexual orientation, and things of that nature. And I think over the past three years, especially with the pandemic, I think diversity and inclusion is now expanding even more to include things like well-being. Conversations around burnout are now part of the diversity, inclusion, and belonging [discussion].

Before the pandemic, you had a lot of companies that had to go remote because you had to, but it was kind of looked at as more of a Band-Aid. But I don’t think this is going anywhere. So now [we] have to think about it more long-term and more holistically, to say that we have to include people that have different ways of working. And so, even learning styles and working styles—that’s also diversity, that’s also inclusion, and that’s also speaking to belonging.

I feel like the B has been tacked on to DE&I relatively recently. Can you talk to me a little bit about what belonging is and how belonging is fostered at GitHub?

Vernā Myers says, “Diversity is getting invited to the party, inclusion is being invited to dance, belonging is when the DJ actually thinks about what song you want to hear.” Like, that’s awesome, and that’s the expansion of it. We are really, really thoughtful about that. Even pre-pandemic, over 70% of our workforce was remote, working in 15 countries and regions around the world, all 50 states in the US. We’ve always had this kind of remote and distributed team, so we always had to think about our employees as, “What song do they want to hear? What do we need to play for them in order for them to realize that we want them, hear their value, their contributions…for them to do the best work of their lives?”

I remember during my orientation, one of the first things was, “find your peeps”—find your people—because no matter what you have an interest in, there’s a group of people around GitHub that have similar interests. And we want to foster that type of collaboration as well, in addition to the collaboration on code and the work we do on our platform.

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If someone wants to follow in your footsteps and get into the diversity field, what do they need to bring to the table to actually make sustainable, tangible change wherever they go?

I think there’s two things that helped me succeed in what I do. One is just openness, learning, and  curiosity. I’m always thinking about what voice isn’t being heard in this conversation. And I won’t know what voices aren’t being heard unless I’ve gone out and actually talked to people and understood what their experiences are.

I’m often asked the question, “What DE&I books do I read?” And of course, I read all the standard ones, but also read a lot of biographies. I want to understand what people had to overcome, what their backgrounds were, what were some of their biggest challenges, and [this comes from] people who are billionaires now all the way down to people who are just starting to learn and to get into tech.

The more that you can educate yourself and learn from people’s lived experiences, it just widens your aperture into how to build sustainable programs for most people.

The second thing that I would say is to talk a lot. You know, when people ask me what my role is as a DE&I leader, I say to facilitate conversation and dialogue. A healthy organization and an inclusive organization exists when you have employees talking a lot. And a lot of people are like, ”no, we don’t want them talking,” but I think that as long as the conversation is happening, that lets me know that people feel like they have a voice and that someone is listening to them. So I tried to make sure that I’m facilitating dialogues through learning circles or employee resource groups.

How do you navigate discussions and smooth things over when they get really tense?

I have a background in politics. I think that helped me—born in Washington, DC, no less—more than anything. I’ve been in many of those intense situations—a situation room, so to speak, where everybody’s up and yelling and slamming on the table. And I think that if I have a superpower, that would be it. Oftentimes, you will see me sitting back with my head in the air, and I’m just listening to all of the sides. And I’m able to actually pull out the scenes in which there’s more in common than there are differences. Most people just want to feel that they’ve been heard. They are okay with you not doing what they want you to do, as long as they feel like they have had the opportunity to present whatever their sides are, and for you to hear it and for you to have considered it. And I think that’s something that I’m able to do, just listen to all the sides.

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