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Young People at a Workshop

Boldly Speaking.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE ANTI-RACIST? (FOR ORGS)


It’s been over two months since Memorial Day in the US.  Over two months since the Central Park “Karen”, Canadian ex-pat Amy Cooper, leveraged her whiteness and gender to threaten the safety of a Black man during a feigned distress call to the police.  Over two months since George Floyd was killed when a police officer asphyxiated him by digging his knee to Floyd’s neck for 8 mins and 46 seconds, while others either held Floyd down or prevented the public from intervening -- all over suspicions of a $20 counterfeit bill. 


It seems it has been ages ago, but indeed, the world finally started to wake up to the gruesome reality of anti-Black racism. On Memorial Day.  A day to honour those who gave their lives for the good of their country. 


Although it has and continues to be a painful time for many, the response I have seen from organizations wanting to be part of the solution has been commendable.  It seems we are in a crucial moment of transformation.  Each of us has a choice to make, to welcome, ignore, or resist it.


Make the Choice to Welcome Change

For many of the organizations I work with, the answer is to welcome it.  Even though it can be intimidating, there has been a massive shift from not wanting to be racist, to being intentional about being anti-racist.  The best in class organizations are looking for meaningful approaches that can be integrated long-term into their culture as opposed to quick checkbox solutions; they strive to utilize their strengths while building upon their weaknesses.  For these organizations, change must be rooted in their organizational values and ways of doing, so that they can be maintained long after the leaders that implemented them.  In this sense, it is not simply about optics or maintaining employee engagement – these organizations are making a conscious decision to seek justice.


Once there is agreement about the type of change organizations want to see, it has become much easier than ever to begin walking the talk.  Today, there is significant attention to and interest in anti-racism.  As well, calls for accountability and allyship have laid the foundation for responsive action.  Once a shared understanding of racism, anti-racism and justice is established across an organization, and a strong framework is selected to guide our efforts (Boldly Inclusive has developed the Inclusion First® Model for organizations starting their inclusion journeys) the work of anti-racism can be thoughtful, methodical, sustainable, and lasting.


Consider the Barriers to Success

While much of the focus is on what organizations want to do and how to achieve their goals, it is also important for organizations to consider the barriers they must overcome and proactively address them.  Indeed, although the social climate apt for organizational anti-racism, it is crucial to unpack the existing structures, assumptions, and constraints that limit an organization's possibilities for change in order to move the dial.  Outlined below are some potential traps organizations risk falling into when starting on anti-racism.


1)      Overlooking professional qualifications.  In the past couple of months, I have heard countless stories of Black, Indigenous, and racialized individuals from a range of functions being invited to take on newly developed professional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leadership roles in response to freshly acknowledged organizational gaps.  Not only does this appear performative and unconsciously minimize this functional area, but it completely overlooks the range of knowledge and skillsets required to do this work effectively.  Although lived experience is valuable, it must be supplemented with professional expertise in order to initiate, influence, implement, and integrate DEI change.  It requires knowledge of institutions and the historical, legal, and social systems which surround them.  Many who are doing this work have either deep professional and academic experience in this field, or they have earned certifications.  To have the greatest chance at success, it is important to have a leader with experience and a strong point of view to spearhead this work. 


2)      Overdependence on key people.  One thing I hear often is that organizations are looking for the best way to leverage their DEI councils or employee resource groups (ERGs).  Although this is important, it is similarly crucial to consider how to best set them on the path to success.  For Black, Indigenous and racialized people, ERG participation can be a source of both optimism and frustration – optimism for the possible impacts of this critical work, and frustration if they do not feel heard or supported.  Recently an ERG member shared the following analogy: “it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill – it is difficult to do this alone”.  To extend the analogy then, when one considers the incline, the obstacles one might face, changing climates, and exhaustion, it is obvious that overdependence on a small group of volunteers can be self-defeating.  For this reason, it is important to be thoughtful about how organizations bring their ERGs along the change journey, build upon their unique contributions, and let them know they are valued.  For organizations that are creating new groups to support this work, it is advisable to articulate a clear purpose and scope and set roles and responsibilities to set expectations for all involved.

 

3)      Seeing anti-racism as the domain of HR.  This brings us to the next point:  although not at all sustainable, many organizations see anti-racism (and DEI) as the domain of HR.  Yes, I have explained in past blogs that DEI leaders should report directly to the CEO given their vast strategic influence and operational portfolios, however, I want to be clear that owning the portfolio does not mean that DEI leaders are solely responsible for the portfolio's success.  It is like being the director in a movie – DEI leaders hold the vision and coach those who are putting it into action to deliver the best possible performance.  They provide direction, advice, support, and they ensure end-to-end cohesion.  Similarly, anti-racism efforts require a highly-performing and committed cast of actors to implement the vision. 

 

When anti-racism is determined to be the domain of HR, the potential for impact and scope of influence is negatively affected.  DEI leaders can be spread too thin, and the emotionally heavy nature of their work can lead to burnout.  As well, the possibilities for organization-wide culture change are also diminished with a myopic view.

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