Greetings, Friends, Fans, Foes, and Fairweather DEI dabblers. You never know who reads these things, so I figured I’d go ahead and cover all my bases. #inclusion This article is based on personal and experiential findings while doing DEI work.
I started The Courage Collective in 2020 (along with a collection of other fabulous folks who you can read more about HERE) as a way to both navigate and proactively influence the racial reckoning we were collectively experiencing, sparked in large part by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
In addition to the real devastation, undeniable loss, deepened political divide, and “new normal” brought on by the global pandemic (aka – pandemmy, panorama, pan-seared salmon, and omarion), 2020 also catalyzed a wave of corporate promises (more HERE), which – for many organizations turned into platitudes. 😏 Yea fam, we kept the receipts.
While some folks stayed on the sidelines, others got in the game – part of which included hiring consulting firms like The Courage Collective to support their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. (Shoutout to all our past, present and future clients!)
In its first year, The Courage Collective facilitated over 150+ DEI consulting and learning sessions. These sessions included companies of all shapes and sizes. From this experience, there were a few themes that consistently emerged from the experience. Given that the reflection was helpful for me, I thought it might be helpful for others, too. To be clear, this is not intended to be a doctoral, data-diced dissertation; I’ll leave that harrowing work to my Ph.D colleagues. This is simply a collection of reflections based on what I saw, heard, felt, and learned.
Oh, and though they need no introduction, I’ve included my brilliant friends and colleagues, Nani & Michael, in this piece as well, so that they can share a few reflections of their own. Michael shares his thoughts on #2 & #9, and Nani’s shares hers on #6 & #8.
With that, I present to you the 10 Things We Learned Doing DEI work in 2021.
We live in a culture of immediacy. Brands like Amazon, Instacart, Doordash, and Instagram have normalized the following notion. Just about anything we want can be ours with the click of a button. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate when things happen expeditiously. But I hate to be the one to break it to ya. There’s no insta-app or delivery service for social justice or dismantling systemic racism. An organization’s need to “get this done yesterday” actually inhibits sustainable progress.
The companies that we’ve seen be successful in their DEI efforts are in it for the long haul; not just in words but in action. And yes, action also includes allocating resources (time, people, real dollars) to ensure that DEI initiatives are substantiated. Simply put, nominal investments will yield minimal results, so if your org really wants to see meaningful change, don’t tell me, show me. Or if I can borrow the words of the modern day philosopher, O’Shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube, “You can do it, put your back into it.” Trust me, your people want to see it, too.
This assertion gets to the foundation of the current holistic/naturopathic -vs- traditional/allopathic wellness debate. Regardless of where you land on the spectrum, the tension in our collective frustration with traditional medicine is palpable! If I have a nagging cough that is borderline chronic, there will come a time when Benadryl or VicksVapoRub just won’t suffice. I want the cough to stop! Yeah, symptom-focused treatments can get you through a day or a week, but if the same ailments persist for months, years, or decades, the malady upgrades from a short-term annoyance to a terminal warning. Persistent symptoms alert us to systemic ills.
Organizational illness works just like physiological illness, and people are as frustrated with symptom-based treatments at work as they are with symptom-based treatments at the pharmacy. None of us want to hear the words, “You’ll need to take this pill for the rest of your life.” Similarly, we don’t want to hear the words, “You’ll need implicit bias training every quarter for the rest of your life.” At some point, addressing symptoms must give way to deep dives into the soul of the psyche. We must get to the subconscious illness that perpetuates conscious afflictions such as bigotry, prejudice, and closed mindedness. Sure, analytics and sensitivity training help us recognize the presence of illness, but, ultimately, these types of surface solutions are only indicators of a problem. They will not cure what ails us.
…and given that the majority of Executive and HR leaders are disproportionately white, there’s often a major gap between the way they see the organization and the way the employees experience it – especially when considering the experience of employees from underrepresented groups.
To be fair, processing life through the lens of personal experience isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, it’s quite human… BUT where it gets precarious is when positional power dynamics become a factor. In other words, given that many executive leadership teams are disproportionately white, this means underrepresented ethnicities don’t always have a voice or seat at the table.
The result is that their experience, perspective, and point of view isn’t fully considered in the decision making process. And then we layer in the reality of capitalism, and people from marginalized identities are asked to prove why their experience matters for the “bottom line”… which is probably what led to the “Business Case for DEI” fallacy. More on that later…
As a Black man, it’s sometimes difficult to explain this reality to people who don’t experientially understand what it means to be Black (or come from another historically marginalized group), but I do have one memory from the last few years that stands out.
I’ll never forget the moment a couple years ago when a Black executive came into the organization where I formerly worked and talked about how she processed the murder of George Floyd. She talked about how afraid she felt for her family. She talked about wanting to take her son to the neighborhood police station so that he could meet the police officers. Her hope was that if the officers ever saw him out and about, they wouldn’t automatically perceive him as a threat. She humanized her experience as a Black woman with Black children, and her voice spoke volumes.
As she shared her truth, I felt seen. I didn’t have to explain why my experience mattered. She knew. She got me, because she was me; and that was an irreplaceable feeling. It wasn’t about the business case, it was about the human experience. And in that workplace moment, she gave me exactly what I needed and more.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this mindset is actually part of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, increasing representation within an organization is certainly an important and worthwhile pursuit. BUT even if you hire someone from an underrepresented group, 1) how do you know that they’ll have a good experience – especially if you’re bringing them into an extremely homogeneous organization, and 2) are your systems actually designed to support their success, growth and well-being? If not, their departure is only a matter of time…
A quote we use often at the Courage Collective comes from Dr. Crystal Jones. She says, “There’s a big difference between ‘all are welcome here’ and ‘this was created with you in mind.’ I’d posit that the latter is what we should aspire to, but too many often settle for token “diversity hires”, and then wonder why they’re out the door ASAP.
Just so we’re clear, recruiting alone can’t and won’t solve your company’s DEI problems. Also, while we’re at it, a lone individual cannot be “diverse”… Nani will break that down for you later.
What do I mean when I say “not all skin folk are kinfolk?” It’s simple. No matter the skin you live in – whether you’re Black, Latine, Asian, Indigenous, or any other Person of Color (POC) – you are still capable of upholding systems of white supremacy.
Author’s note: To be clear, “systems of white supremacy” and “white supremacy culture” are not the same as being a white person.
When I think about some of the not-quite-kinfolk who may not be invited to the barbecue, instead of feeling angst, I feel empathy. Reflecting on my own experience being “one of the few” or “one of the only” Black folks in mostly white spaces, I get it. I can’t even begin to explain the degree of difficulty that comes with what I call “the organizational dynamic gymnastics” many POCs deal with daily. It’s exhausting! But for many, it’s also a learned survival mechanism; a technique they’ve had to perfect.
There are certain things Black & Brown folks have to do in order to survive a white washed workplace. And frankly, when considering “proximity to power”, which is also akin to “proximity to safety”, I understand why some POCs are hesitant to take risks or put themselves out there. Not everyone feels a responsibility “for the culture”, and while that’s certainly their prerogative, it can definitely be rather perplexing to experience as a DEI Consultant.
We all saw it: during the summer of 2020, hundreds of companies worldwide adorned their webpages and social media outlets with splashy commitments to “anti-racism”, “racial equity” or “the fight for justice”. As somebody who was deeply invested in this work, I wondered “okay…so how will you do that? And will it last?” And truthfully, almost two years later, I’m still asking: “okay…so how will you do that? And will it last?”
If you dig beneath the piles of business jargon, the truth reveals itself. For many organizations, this work remains under-resourced (if resourced at all, that is) and is treated like a for-fun extracurricular activity. Except, unlike the music lessons you skip or the sports team you bail on, this work is anything but optional. And who sees it as anything but optional? Drumroll, please… the folks with identities that are pushed to the margins.
Countless organizations, though seemingly invested in DEI, put the bulk of the responsibility on A) their volunteer-run DEI council (who, by the way doesn’t get paid), B) the few folks in HR who care to move the work forward on top of their day jobs or C) via volunteer-run (there’s a trend here) Employee Resource Groups. And while these groups and people are well-intentioned and committed, they operate on a treadmill that’s running straight up a cliff. It’s a constant battle of proving the value of the work, begging for resources, and hoping the work sticks.
And what happens when you mix your own personal identities with work that you’re pushing up a really steep hill? You burn out. Then, you lose interest. So you leave.
Folks with marginalized identities are critical for the conversation. They should have a seat at the table where they can speak their truth and give feedback on decisions that impact their experience. However, they should not be relied upon to do all the teaching and to check their colleagues on their harmful behavior. The organization at large must consider ways in which the employee experience and overall environment can allow all employees to thrive.
I had an experience recently where a client asked something to the effect of, “When does DEI work move beyond a ‘feel good initiative’ to actually driving business results?”
Authors note: It was one of those moments where I was glad my thoughts weren’t available via closed captioning.
Hot take: the “Business Case for DEI” is an illusion. So you’re telling me that the primary reason a company should prioritize the work of DEI is so that they can make more money? Please. As Dr. Sam Rae said, “Sounds awfully similar to slavery.” To borrow the words of acclaimed artist Kendrick Lamar, “Miss me with that bulls….”
If the “DEI business case” alone were a viable catalyst for sustained behavior change, executives would have evolved their practices a long time ago, but alas, here we are. No wonder so many companies tap out or prioritize comfort when they don’t see immediate returns. This isn’t just a business problem, it’s a systemic and human-centered problem that manifests itself within organizations.
I wish I could say the aforementioned conversation was an infrequent occurrence, but, sadly, it’s not. In my experience, certain folks would rather intellectually arm wrestle about the efficacy of the solution rather than truly face the systems that create and perpetuate the problems.
Ultimately, it isn’t the folks in power who pay the real price for oppressive systems. Instead, it’s often those who are underserved, underrepresented, and historically marginalized who bear the brunt of the burden.
This is exactly why “check the box” DEI programs don’t work. At the end of the day, we’re dealing with the real lives of real people.
Given that on average, an individual spends 90,000 – 100,000 hours of their lives working (a number that has probably increased exponentially during the pandemic), the way someone feels at work is directly correlated with how they feel in life.
While we can debate data analytics all day, if very few folks from underrepresented groups can survive, or better yet thrive, in your company’s culture, that data tells a compelling story of its own.
Here are the problems. 1) We don’t have a diverse team or company. And 2) Our (very homogenous) group of current employees is uncomfortable talking about these topics. The magical solution? “Let’s diversify the pipeline and add unconscious bias training…. But I’d like to look at the content first, so people don’t get too uncomfortable.”
[Insert gif of me running away with my hair on fire]
When companies are seeking to make changes related to DEI, they usually zone in on the pipeline first. “In order to get better, we need to have more diverse representation.” Here’s the thing—they aren’t wrong. But, here’s the other thing – the buck doesn’t stop there. We’ve said it already—folks from historically excluded communities need to have a chance to get in the door. However, they also need a workplace that understands and includes them—a place where they can grow and learn. Chances are, there’s a lot of work to do to clean up shop before you focus on that pipeline.
Authors note: Please, for the love of everything, PLEASE do not refer to a candidate as a “diverse candidate”. Diversity describes a group of people, not one individual person. A GROUP can be diverse, but an individual cannot. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
The other go-to solution, unconscious bias training, is the one-off training you take (or multi-task through) that’s allegedly supposed to help you with the following. A) learn about your own biases. B) Confront them. And C) intercept them when they impact how you show up at work. Spoiler alert: they usually can’t even cover one of the above. Why? Because unconscious bias isn’t a standalone personality trait that we can quickly evade as we think about our work. It’s a part of a greater ecosystem. Which requires behavior shift, dismantling power and oppression, and greater organizational and social change.
Does tackling unconscious bias need to happen? Hell yes! But can one person who manages their bias make change in a company where bias has been used to benefit majority populations? No. Bottom line is that training, especially ONE 60-minute training, will not make substantive change. Especially, without being complemented by systematic changes and concrete plans throughout the business.
It never fails, every consulting opportunity has introduced me to professionals who want to be seen as “good people.” Drs. Banaji and Greenwald capture this desire well in the subtitle of their acclaimed book Blindspot: Hidden Bias’ of Good People. And this infatuation with “goodness” might be the #1 barrier for leaders, executives, directors, or managers. Especially for those who are trying to implement a psychologically safe culture. Centering goodness can only fuel divisiveness.
The correlation between “goodness” and “oppression” is historically inseparable. For someone to be bad, someone else has to be good. In order for someone to be righteous, someone else has to be unrighteous. For someone to be out, someone else has to be in. And these dualities become the foundational pillars that inform our power structures—structures that privilege some and marginalize others. Consulting throughout the pandemic has compelled me to confess a sobering reality: Being good is what got us into the culture wars we’re in, so being good is not what’s going to get us out.
So what’s the alternative to being good? The alternative is being vulnerable and aware. That’s what’s so deceptive about goodness. You don’t have to be vulnerable to be good, you just have to be right to be good. And, you don’t have to be aware to be good. You just have to conform to a specific set of social norms to be good. If we continually raise-up a standard of goodness to guide our culture-shifts, we’ll only create a new system that privileges and marginalizes differently (rewarding those who acquiesce and punishing those who deviate—the same ole’ same ole’). However, setting awareness and vulnerability as our guiding stars will change this. The DEI conversation will finally be able to transcend behavioral ethics and become a transformational force that heals fractured relationships.
There’s plenty of perspective out there about why DEI efforts fail (here, here, here are a few, in case you’re curious) – many of which have merit – but when I reflect on my own experience, I’m left with a simple conclusion: there are levels to this.
It may seem overly simplistic, but this is my truth. In order to see meaningful and sustainable transformation, change has to be holistic. Change is required at both the policy and personal level; good intentions have value, but must be substantiated by intentional actions.
When leaders want a “check the box” program, what they’re really telling me is that they want ease of implementation more than they want cultural transformation.
The notion that a single dimensional approach (hiring more POCs, for example) can solve long standing systemic problems is fundamentally false. And worse, it causes harm to the tokenized people on the other side of the fleeting diversity initiative.
This is precisely why I’m unwilling to do “DEI Work” that doesn’t do either of the following. 1) Look at the systems that uphold white supremacy and disproportionately marginalize certain identities. 2) Provide practical tools and relevant frameworks to reimagine the employee experience. Both are necessary to see lasting transformation.
At Courage Collective, our grounding statement is: “When Courageous People Meet Courageous Moments, it Moves and Impacts the World.”
So to all people (with a special shoutout to the DEI Practitioners) who are actually in the arena, rolling up your sleeves, and doing the work, you’re the heroes we need, but don’t quite deserve.
About the Courage Collective
The Courage Collective is a consultancy that takes a strategic, holistic, and human-centered approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. The company focuses on discovery designed to understand where a company is and where it wants to be; strategic priorities to embed DEI across the entire employee journey; and intentional action to create meaningful DEI impact. More information on The Courage Collective’s approach and services is available at thecouragecollective.co.