What You Need to Make Progress for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
It’s a new year and so many of us are thinking about how we can make 2022 better than the year before. Many organizational leaders find themselves looking back at the last two years, and despite the intention of changing their organizations to be places where their staff of color can truly thrive, they are finding they have made little progress. The commitments and declarations of solidarity were not enough to change things. Change requires action. But many organizational leaders have NO idea where to start to actually make meaningful change for their staff of color.
There are seven conditions that I believe are necessary for organizations to make meaningful progress for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)* that allows them to move beyond conversations about race and patterns of oppression in the workplace to being able to take concrete actions for change:
Insist on Accountability
Ensure there is power backing up your DEI initiatives by involving the people responsible for deciding strategic priorities and allocating resources. Dedicate resources (time, money, and capacity) to support your organizational leadership team to do the learning necessary to be good stewards of your DEI strategy.
When I led DEI strategy at an education organization, our consultants advised us to start our work with our leadership team. I believe following this advice was critical to our success. Often the people with the most positional power are the biggest barriers to creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive team environments. I’ve found the leaders often have the most to learn and unlearn to disrupt their own patterns and practices that keep them from making progress for DEI.
Often leaders have risen through the ranks by mastering practices that lead to inequity and exclusion of staff with marginalized identities. Leaders' sense of their own identity as leaders and beliefs about work are deeply connected to power and control. Equity and inclusion, in particular, require that power is shared so teams can create ways of working together that works for the whole team.
In order to make meaningful progress for DEI, leaders must explore their beliefs about hierarchy and who should make decisions at work, and excavate their attachments to using power and control to dominate their team . Not only can this self exploration pave the way for equity and inclusion at their organizations but it can pave the way for their own liberation from using power and control in oppressive ways.
If leaders do not explore their beliefs about power, control and their own identity, they may be resistant to releasing power and control in ways that are necessary for equity and inclusion. Because these leaders have positional power and make decisions about organizational resources and strategy, these leaders' resistance to change can have dire consequences for organizational DEI efforts.
One way to address this challenge is to dedicate resources and time to support leadership teams to cultivate consciousness to learn to change their behaviors and practices so that they lead and manage in ways that create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive team environment.
Become aware of the patterns of oppression present in your workplace and your role perpetuating those patterns; resist the urge to "unsee" those patterns by intentionally working to stay awake.
Consciousness: (noun) the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings.
In the movie The Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo to choose a blue pill or red pill. The blue pill will allow Neo to carry on his life as he's known it. The red pill would allow Neo to learn the truth about his world. Neo cannot know what the truth is unless he chooses the red pill - he has to decide between the devil he knows and the devil he doesn't know.
Challenging oppressive practices at work is a lot like Neo’s choice. While people often know their current state is not serving them or the people in the organization well, they don't know what is on the other side of transformation. What does the future hold if they take the red pill? The fear of the unknown makes people resistant to change. Look at what has happened in school systems across the country as they introduce curriculum related to race, culture, justice, and liberation (incorrectly called Critical Race Theory). People worked overtime to keep the very curriculum aimed at creating more inclusive learning environments out of schools. They were pushing back on the devil they did know – they did not want to risk losing what they know. Even when they know their current reality is not serving them well. Their fear of change made them want to choose the proverbial blue pill.
Neo chooses the red pill, and he saw that his world was full of constructed ideas that were not true. These constructs limited Neo’s mobility so that the system could exploit him and extract from him. Much like the Matrix, the systems of oppression present in our world are in place to extract, exploit, and keep us separated and unable to see how our fates are connected to each other and our collective liberation. Cultivating consciousness is about building the capacity to see patterns of oppression present in our workplaces and lives and learning to see how our own behaviors contribute to the perpetuation of these patterns.
Often people think the easier path is to stick with the devil they know – the practices we've been taught that are best despite the fact that these same practices lead to inequity, exclusion, and harm. You cannot have a diverse, equitable, and inclusive team environment without cultivating consciousness. Systems of oppression work because we cannot see them clearly. They are like the air that we breathe – these oppressive and dominating ways-of-being are everywhere. Their ability to work and oppress thrives on our inability to see these systems at work. “Denial of the [racial] hierarchy only helps maintain the structures that support it.”^ Keeping people unaware and not examining these systems allow them to continue and keep us in our place.
Cultivating consciousness is about building the ability to see these systems of oppression at work in our lives and in our workplaces. Intentionally cultivating consciousness also helps us build the skills to reimagine our ways of being so that we can create environments where everyone can thrive. Cultivating consciousness is about taking the red pill so that you can stay woke and change the world - or at least your workplaces.
Get clear about what the purpose and vision for your organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work is. Work with a cross-level, cross-functional team to align and create a shared vision for DEI.
One of the biggest barriers to making progress is the lack of clarity about what organizations are trying to accomplish through their DEI work. Leaders often don’t know where to start their DEI work. As a result, organizational leaders often try to “fake it till they make it” - they focus on communications and on saying the “right thing” to appear like they “hear” their staff. They put out statements and black boxes on social media to show they “stand with” their staff of color.
Because these leaders have not done the work to understand patterns of oppression and domination playing out at their own organization and how their own behavior reinforces these patterns, they don't actually know how the verbal commitments they make should translate into action. Without that clarity, you have organizational leaders saying something that they think means X, and their staff hearing something that they think means Y. This difference of interpretation leads to conflict that can rupture an organization and stop their DEI work in its tracks. Many leaders only want people to “stop feeling bad” (something I’ve heard multiple organizational leaders say when asked why they want to do DEI work) or feel like they belong, and many staff of color want to transform their organizations to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive. These are wildly different visions for DEI. If you're a leader only willing to do listening circles so that you can seem like you care (even though you are unwilling to change), and I'm a worker at your organization expecting true transformation, the chasm between our expectations can cause disappointment, harm, and can tear an organization apart.
It is incredibly important to be clear about what actions an organization is committing to doing in pursuit of DEI. This helps to create a vision for what your staff can expect from your work environment as you transform your organization. This clarity can help create a road map of what work you will and won't take on to achieve your vision for DEI.
Dedicate resources to support your racial equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.
DEI work is a major change management effort. To change, teams need to learn to identify patterns of oppression present in their workplace. We have been conditioned to not see these patterns. Many of these patterns are connected to our traditional ways of working that we’ve been taught are the “right way” to do things. When we challenge patterns of oppression, we are challenging the status quo, and there will be resistance to that change.
Organizations will need to dedicate resources - money, time, and capacity - to overcome resistance to change. Money will help you to invest in team learning and development necessary to implement new ways of working that disrupt patterns of oppression. You should also be sure to compensate the members of your team who take leadership roles in your DEI work - either by increasing their compensation or by decreasing their other responsibilities to make space for the DEI work (while maintaining their compensation). This work often falls on women of color - particularly Black women. Not compensating your staff for their labor is exploitative and extractive, which is the antithesis of the true goals for DEI and workplace transformation. If you are truly committing to transform your organization to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, then you MUST avoid doing this work in exploitative and extractive ways.
Invest in building relationships and trust to position your team to create a new culture together.
To create a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment will require that leadership collaborate with their team to create norms and ways of working together that work for *all* of the team. We call this process “co-creation.” Co-creation requires trust. You have to trust that the people you are co-creating with will center everyone’s humanity - that they are committed to changing their practices and leveraging their power to create an environment where everyone can thrive. Today’s organizations typically are not places where everyone is thriving - it is this reality that usually leads organizations to develop a DEI strategy in the first place.
But it is not just that everyone isn’t thriving - our current norms and practices are often causing harm. Harm that erodes the ability to trust that someone sees your shared humanity. To create the conditions for co-creation, teams will need to build the capacity to engage in restorative practices that repair harm and build relationships and trust. Restorative practices "seek to attend to the needs and obligations of all who have been affected by harm - both the offending and victimized individuals… in order to move toward greater accountability and healing for everyone."^^
Restorative work begins with the question, do you want to stay in relationship together? If you do, what will it take to make the relationship right? To move forward requires the willingness of those who have caused harm to see that they have an obligation to repair harm they have caused. It also requires that the person harmed has the opportunity to say what they need to be restorative so that they may move forward. You cannot skip to healing without repair. Restorative work is more than repairing harm. To say yes to the question, "Do you want to stay in relationship together," requires that a relationship existed before. To enter into a restorative process to repair harm requires that everyone involved knows the others involved value their humanity. This level of trust requires intentional relationship building work. When I was first trained in restorative facilitation, I learned that 80% of restorative work is relationship building, while 20% is about repair harm.
Working to make organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive is essentially restorative work. We are working to repair the harm that happens to organizations and the people in them from racism and other exclusionary and inequitable practices.
We encourage teams to co-create the practices that allow the entire team to be in community and right relationship with each other. This can only work if you’ve invested time to build relationships and trust, and supported your team to see each others’ humanity.
INSIST ON ACCOUNTABILITY
Hold people in your organization accountable for DEI work: both learning about patterns of oppression and dominance AND changing their behaviors and practices so your workplace is somewhere everyone can thrive.
Diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice at work requires real change. It's not enough to feel bad about what's happening to people of color at your organization. You must do the work to change how the organization operates. It's a major change management effort - and like any other change management effort, that requires accountability for the change.
I believe one of the things holding progress back for diversity, equity, and inclusion at work is the unwillingness to hold people accountable for their actions and for learning and doing better.
There is a pattern in organizations of avoiding accountability for DEI work. Some people justify this choice because there is research that shows DEI work leads to discomfort that causes some people to push back on those ideas and actively work against change.
This resistance is a real phenomenon. And yet, it is unacceptable and unjust to let the current conditions stay unchanged. To leave the current conditions as they are, you are asking people of color and people with other marginalized identities to remain in an environment where they do not belong, they cannot thrive, and where they repeatedly experience harm that affects their careers, health, and economic viability. In order to maintain the comfort of the people who don't want to "do all that DEI stuff," you are essentially maintaining the system that is harming people of color and leading to inequity. When company leaders give someone who repeatedly causes harm more and more chances to learn or even opt out of learning - it comes at the expense of the people they are harming. When company leaders do that, they are essentially acting in solidarity with the people causing harm. I call on you to choose better.
We have a duty to create an inclusive environment free from oppressive behavior. That requires true accountability for learning and behavior. It means articulating expectations for how people treat each other and equitable HR outcomes. It means holding managers accountable for the environment on their teams. It means holding organizational leaders accountable when there are disparate outcomes along lines of race - like pay inequity, inequity in promotion opportunities, and inequity in attrition rates, etc. It means not promoting managers who repeatedly cause harm. It means preventing people from managing others so they can’t derail their careers. It means firing people who are not aligned with your values and expectations when necessary. Without accountability and real consequences, these patterns of oppression will persist at work.
Create conditions in your organization so people at all levels can resist patterns of oppression and demand change.
“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.
And 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 am grateful for the opportunity to join the growing community of people committed to push.
*Terminology is constantly evolving in the DEI space, and for some diversity, equity, and inclusion has come to mean strategies that are window dressing with no intention of changing organization practices and norms. In this article, however, we are using diversity, equity, and inclusion or DEI as short hand for the anti-racist, anti-oppression, strategies required so all team members can thrive and needed to eliminate disparate outcomes in talent practices along lines of race, gender, and other identities. We recognize the term is imperfect but have chosen to use it here for simplicity.
^ powell, john a, Racing to Justice 2012 pg xxii
^^ DeWolf, Thomas Norman and Jodie Geddes, The Little Book of Racial Healing, 2019, pg 21-22