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  • Writer's pictureItzbeth Menjívar

Beyond Diversity and Inclusion

Black, Indigenous, and other people of color do not only experience racism and violence at the hands of police and the state. We also experience the impacts of white supremacy and other systems of oppression within the workplace—racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and ableism, just to name a few. Thankfully, a number of organizations around the world are finally realizing the need to foment racial dialogue among their employees and to address racial injustice from within their organizations. While this is very welcomed on the long walk toward justice, there are strong pockets of resistance to this kind of work, and often for good reasons. Working to solve hundreds of years of interlocking injustices that deeply affect most people could get very messy, very quickly.

It is difficult to move large groups of people toward a consensus on new approaches that could potentially solve some of our most protracted challenges and significant barriers to workplace justice. Very often, this is because the systems of dominance that created and allowed for inequities and injustice are the same systems that show up at the table in the form of resistance from those who have benefitted from the system. Another common issue is the sad fact that internalized oppression is commonplace, making solidarity between oppressed groups even more difficult. This is why the first step in equity and justice work must be a deep examination of our own individual complicities in the very systems that we want to dismantle, or at least make obsolete.

By looking in the mirror first, for our own participation within these systems, we each can become aware of our choices at key decision-making points within the workplace. Without this awareness, we are made to believe that we don’t have choices in the matter.

Once the inner-work is well underway, we are well placed to begin transforming the organizational culture. The following are five characteristics of effective ways to advance equity and justice work within our organizations, as informed by my experiences supporting clients through change. This list is simply a place to get conversations started, and not intended to be all-encompassing. I welcome any and all constructive critiques to help us move our workplace conversations forward, as I am committed to always advancing my own learning journey.

Move beyond Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), and toward Equity, Belonging, and Justice. D&I efforts have been successful in many places at doing just that—including more diverse voices at the table. However, D&I does not usually apply a racial lens to understanding deep patterns of anti-Blackness and Native erasure, two key features of our racialized society. This tends to result in diversity that still excludes and marginalizes Black & Indigenous people. If there are no or few Black or Indigenous senior leaders or executives in your organization, ask yourself why. This should be a major red flag, especially if your organization serves mostly communities of color.

Recruiting diverse talent without taking the time and effort to examine how white dominant culture, anti-Blackness and Native erasure live within your organization, most often results in forced assimilation into the dominant culture or a marginalization or exclusion of those outside of the dominant culture. Those unable or unwilling to assimilate end up in difficult and exhausting situations, often becoming victims to a powerful workplace toxicity that forces the individuals to exit the organization prematurely, in order to care for their own wellbeing. I know this from personal experience. One of the reasons I started my own business was my own experience with being dehumanized in the workplace, and dealing with the resulting nausea and general sense of unwellness triggered by the thought of going back to work in another white dominant structure, where at best my contributions would be undermined or ignored, and at worst I would be dehumanized, as someone living at the intersection of race and gender discrimination.

The opportunity in front of us at this moment in our history calls for equity that leads toward justice while advancing healing for all, and the obvious place to begin is to partner with those impacted, to create an environment where everyone feels that they belong, their voices are respected, and their contributions are valued. The voices that have been historically silenced and excluded are exactly the ones needed at the table to create an environment with room for all, because those are the voices intimately familiar with what is needed to create a truly inclusive and equitable space.

Unapologetically center race. Across the Americas, including and especially here in the United States, race is the deepest wedge of division in our society. Many like to argue that socio-economic lines are the main drivers of division, however, just as one example, Black professional men who drive luxury cars have shared how they are constantly targeted by police and not even their success has shielded them from racism and violence. Since anti-Blackness and Native erasure are two founding features of white supremacy, the exclusion of Black & Indigenous people, especially within leadership ranks, is sadly the standard within most organizations.

By centering race, while employing an intersectional lens, we begin to create the conditions that allow everyone to thrive. I have received pushback on this idea from other marginalized groups. For example, members of the LGBTQIA+ community or people living with disabilities will often express how the impact of exclusion on their lives has been significant, and that is completely valid. It is also true that for Black and Indigenous members of those communities, the layers of discrimination and exclusion extend to a whole other harmful level. This is why we center race AND strive for intersectionality because if we find solutions to advance justice for Black and Indigenous LGBTQIA+ and Black and Indigenous people living with disabilities, then we will advance solutions for ALL people in marginalized groups.

Never place the burden on the most impacted. I should be surprised, but sadly I’m not, at the fact that the burden of most organizational racial justice work falls on the laps of those most impacted by systemic discrimination and exclusion. Yes, our voices are important to have at the table, if we so choose. However, these responsibilities—which add value to our organizations—should be remunerated, as with any other task that adds value to the organization. Not remunerating staff for additional work and added value is a legacy of enslavement.

This does not always have to mean additional money; it could also mean moving other responsibilities from our plates, or providing additional paid time off. In order for racial equity efforts to be effective, they must be integrated into the performance evaluation process for all leaders and all staff, so that the work may be seen as integral to delivering impact, rather than as a distraction to the mission and vision. Advancing equity, belonging, and justice adds value to organizations by improving the working conditions for everyone, and therefore, this work increases the positive impact on the communities served.

It is also worth noting that only the white community can advance the shifts necessary to dismantle white supremacy. Communities of color must dismantle the ways in which we have internalized white supremacy and white dominant culture, but transformational organizational change can only come from those with the power to change systems and structures.

Center everyone’s humanity. Effective equity work refuses to reclaim anyone’s full humanity by robbing someone else of theirs. This is a founding reason behind why BridgePeople exists. I know personally that I cannot reclaim my full humanity by dehumanizing someone else. Having an abundance mindset tells me that there is enough love and compassion to go around for everyone, even when we make mistakes, which we all do.

Equity work seeks to meet everyone’s needs, and I am a firm believer that we have everything we need to ensure everyone has access to exactly what they need. While we must resist the temptation to fall into what’s been called “The Oppression Olympics”—a practice of measuring one’s oppression and privilege against another group’s oppression and privilege, implying that one group “has it worse” than others—we must also be willing to understand and sit with the fact that systems of oppression have harmed most of us who are not part of the wealthiest 1%. It doesn’t take anything away from me to empathize with the pain of another human being, even if my perception says that they may enjoy more unearned privileges in life than I do, and we know that perception does not always equal reality.

Leadership requires that we understand our own needs, and that we be willing to work toward meeting the needs of someone who enjoys less privilege than we do, because that is the way that solidarity can be achieved to fuel positive change. We must also center and elevate the needs of the most impacted, while honoring everyone’s humanity. These two things are usually presented to us as mutually exclusive, but that is simply not true. We can choose to create room for everyone’s humanity, while also working to ensure that those for whom we have historically had a lack of empathy are those who are now most centered. Making the time to nourish and deepen relationships goes a long way to remind each other of our shared humanity.

Imagination is not optional, it’s required. A tragic lack of imagination is one of the biggest obstacles to transforming our society, including our workplaces. This lack of imagination is normally concentrated in the leadership ranks. Those who already have access to power, and who have learned how to make the systems work for them are the least likely to want to engage in creative visioning for how things could be in the future.

This is one of the biggest reasons why there are such

deep divisions between junior and senior staff.

A “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality is prevalent, and it perseveres because those whose power and privilege it protects are unwilling to engage those without power and privilege as equals in dialogue in which their voices and experiences inform the way forward. I often tell my clients that my role as their equity consultant is not so much to bring the solutions to the table (other than well-established best practices and tools for dialogue), but rather to harvest the collective wisdom that already exists within their organizations, from staff of all backgrounds and all levels of seniority. Equity and justice work seeks to engage all staff as equal human beings, albeit with different roles, rather than from the outdated dominant perspective that there could be such a thing as a hierarchy within humanity.

In June 2020, Ben Hecht, President of Living Cities, wrote for the Harvard Business Review that, “Organizations cannot afford not to do this work, but they also can’t enter into it lightly, under the misconception that a training or workshop checks the box. True racial equity and inclusion work in the workplace must look unlike anything we’ve done in past decades, because we’ve consistently failed to tackle racial inequity at its deepest roots.” I could not agree more and always advise my clients accordingly. The people closest to the problem are also closest to the solutions, for such a time as this.

Advancing equity, belonging, and justice requires a willingness to reexamine all of our deeply-held biases and beliefs. Preserving the status-quo and advancing justice cannot co-exist. Those of us who choose to lead in multicultural environments or lead cross-culturally must master becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, and letting go of the idea that meaningfully advancing equity and justice is not doable simply because we are unable to imagine the solution in our own minds. The breadth and depth of the barriers that we seek to remove in equity work require that we engage in the radical inclusion of the stakeholders that are impacted by leadership’s decisions. Our end goal can no longer simply be to increase diversity, but rather to commit to measurable outcomes that demonstrate that a culture of equity and belonging that leads towards justice has indeed been achieved.

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