The global pandemic changed many of us and has led many to question if the ways we are working are serving us well. The answer these people are discovering is “no, these ways of working are not serving us.” This isn’t the first time people have declared work environments as inhospitable to their humanity. What feels different this time, is more and more people are pushing back on companies and organizations, and demanding that we change how we operate at work.
When we experience a threat, we either freeze, flee, or fight. Often in the past when experiencing harm at work, people would freeze - they didn’t leave and they didn’t feel like they had the power to demand change. But that’s changing. People are fleeing work places that do not serve them, as evidenced by the Great Resignation. And people are fighting back - we are hearing stories of unionization at Amazon and Starbucks - workers want a say in their workplace practices. At Tesla, workers are suing - and winning - because of discriminatory practices. Etsy freelancers are protesting unfair practices. At RAICES, they are leading a public campaign to pressure their board of directors to share power in decision making about who will lead their organization. These are just a few examples of how people are responding to threats of workplace practices that do not serve them.
I believe resistance at work, like these stories, have the potential to dramatically change our ways of working to better serve all of us. Using our power collectively to demand change and then ensure that change is created in ways that serve us ALL is the foundation of social change movements around the world.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” - Frederick Douglass
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” - Assata Shakur
“Power never takes a step back—only in the face of more power.” - Malcolm X
“Somehow, the guys in power have to be reached by counterpower, or through a change in their hearts and minds, or change will not come.” - Cesar Chavez
“There will be no magical day of liberation that we do not make.” -Mariame Kaba
"Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world." - Desmond Tutu
Leaders for social change have repeatedly taught us a version of this quote: change does not happen because those in power want to change. Change happens because those without formal power collectively demand change. The most successful movements for social change have been led by those most affected by the change: for example, woman’s suffrage, India’s liberation, South African anti-apartheid movement, marriage equality, Civil Rights. None of these movements would have been successful unless the oppressed led the movements that pressured for change.
In some respects, organizational DEI requires social change. In my experience working for organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion, power in organizations will block, resist, and slow down change at every opportunity. While I would love to believe that we could rely on organizational leaders to get us to real change, history and my own experience tells me that people in power are not going to transform organizations on their own. Change will happen in organizations because those most oppressed and marginalized by current practices demand change. Organizational leaders who are committed to change should foster the conditions for this resistance. This means creating psychological safety to share hard feedback about what’s happening in your organization. The people with the most marginalized identities are best positioned to name what changes are needed. Make sure your DEI planning committees have the power and resources to change practices and create accountability for DEI. Fostering resistance in your organization is what will lead to change.
This does not mean that leaders are off the hook for doing the hard work necessary to transform their organizations. When they hear these demands, they must stop the practices that are leading to harm, repair the past harm, and then change to new practices. What new practices you choose should be influenced by the wisdom of the most marginalized. What do they need and want going forward? The leaders ensure the new practices are aligned to that wisdom. Leaders must do the self work necessary to unpack why they try to block changing practices. It’s not enough to talk about what changes you might consider. You must act to repair harm and act to change practices. Thoughts and prayers and black boxes of solidarity are not enough. People deserve actual change. These resistance actions at work are people calling in leaders to do better.
If you’re not in a position of power, and your organizational leaders are too scared to foster resistance, I hope you resist anyway. Organizations improve when you do. While resistance may feel scary - often the path to liberation is on the other side. There are two ways we uphold systems of oppression - one is the way we yield power when we have power, and the other is the ways we subjugate ourselves to power. You must choose: do you accept the current conditions? Do you stay or go? Do you work collectively to pressure the organization for change?
To be clear, I am not advocating that people stay in organizations that are harming them. Some of the most caring advice I ever received was from other Black women telling me to leave when environments were harmful to me. This advice was grounded in the knowledge that the harm was real and the belief that I deserved more. I believe we all deserve to work in an environment that is not harmful. Often the best thing we can do is to remove ourselves from harmful, exploitative workplaces.
What I *am* saying is that you cannot rely on those in power to be willing or able to figure out how to transform organizations for diversity, equity, and inclusion. They literally do not have the range. If you decide to stay, you must decide if you stay and acquiesce, or if you stay and resist. There is no option C.
MLK Jr told us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Resistance against patterns of oppression in our workplaces is one way to push the arc towards justice and change. I hope more organizations will welcome opportunities for resistance at work, and I stand in solidarity with all that are demanding change to practices that are not serving us.