At a recent client meeting, our check-in question was, “What is at the heart of equity and inclusion work for you?”
Sometimes the first thing that pops in your head is the most truthful answer. For me, it was relationships. Equity and inclusion work is about nurturing relationships across perceived differences and challenging what “difference” actually means. I grew up as the sibling of a brother who was chronically excluded. For reasons that to this day are difficult to pinpoint, he had trouble making friends. He was at worst bullied and often simply passed over or forgotten. As the older sibling who easily made friends, read the unspoken social cues of what was expected of me, and easily “fit in,” I spent a lot of time wondering, “What am I doing that my brother isn’t? Why do people treat me differently?” This led to a lifelong pursuit of the question, “Why do some people get better treatment than others?” I noticed this happening across race, across class, across gender, and across all kinds of subtle “differences” that were on the one hand inconsequential, on the other, monumental, if you ended up on a “lower” rung of this complex unspoken social status ladder.
There is a line in Robin DiAngelo’s famous introductory video, “Deconstructing White Privilege” that to this day haunts me. As she is describing her upbringing in a predominately White middle-class suburb (which sounds a lot like where I grew up), she notes that none of the adults in her life ever expressed any sense of loss that there were not more people of color in their neighborhood. I realized the same was true for me. While my parents attempted to “broaden my horizons” with social service trips abroad and were often pleasantly surprised and supportive when I had a teacher of color, there was never any grief expressed at the ongoing reality of racial segregation that was self-evident in our neighborhood. This lack of diversity is, in fact, a great loss. The consequences of a history of legal discrimination and segregation in our country merit grief. Not just for people of color, but for all of us — we all lose out on the potential depth and meaning that only comes from relationships, particularly when said relationships provide us with new lenses by which to view our world and allow us to face inequities we would otherwise be unfamiliar with.
I work in equity and inclusion because ultimately I crave closeness with people. Because I recognize the social status ladder that divides us is, frankly — bullshit. Because through my positionality as a White woman, I have had access to better treatment and am therefore in a powerful position to bring about change. While I teach a multitude of topics — how to understand structural and systemic change, the definition of microaggressions, processes for communication across differences, and organizational policies that are inclusive — ultimately my work is about bringing us together as human beings.
How I conduct my work is as important as why I do my work. It is part of being the change I want to see, staying in integrity, and holding myself accountable.
I met Sherri Pittman in 2018 when she joined a co-share work space of non-profit and social impact consultants. Over lunch one afternoon, we noticed a myriad of connections between us, including that we were both signed up to co-facilitate an interpersonal dynamics class at Stanford University that Spring (and were matched in the same practice clinic). Sherri was the only Black woman in our facilitator’s clinic, and while the program did have an explicit group commitment to equity, the responsibility for holding, managing, and taking personal risks in those conversations tends to fall on women of color. I challenged myself during that time to step up my allyship – to ask my fair share of hard questions, to name microaggressions, and to bring the lens of equity to the conversation so that she (and the other people of color in the
group) didn’t feel so much of the burden to do. This has been an ongoing commitment (which I am still working on) to strengthen my skills and practice in authentic allyship. Since then, Sherri and I have sought out more opportunities to co-facilitate so that we
can consciously model for groups how to share the emotional labor of leading discussions about race and allyship.
Together we have re-imagined how the Authentic Solidarity for White women program can be tailored to a multi-racial audience focused on allyship and intersectionality, without losing the bold accountability of White people taking up their share of the emotional labor in this work.
This partnership is a gift. I am and continue to be blessed by Sherri’s trust and support, and I commit regularly to showing up and doing my part in our work.
This sometimes looks like: being the first one in a multi-racial group to assert why we still need to talk about slavery, or being the one in front of the group to model non-defensive listening when I may have used a metaphor or reference that was harmful to a marginalized group. In our working relationship, this has also meant thinking, talking, and considering how we both utilize our strengths, without falling into socialized traps regarding individual workloads and leadership sharing.
The success of equity and belonging work – whether it is state or local policy change, organizational culture shifts, or inclusive and equitable employment practices – I believe is directly related to the depth of one’s self-awareness and ability to nurture honest mutual relationships with others. That is where transformation and healing happen.
Another partnership that is important to me is the opportunity to be a part-time teacher at CompassPoint Non-profit services, where I co-facilitate Coaching for Managers and Inclusive Facilitation. CompassPoint serves as a model for how to lead a Pro-Black organization, and how this stance serves the whole (see a recent article by Co-Executive Director Liz Derias and Teacher/Facilitator Kad Smith on building Pro-Black organizations, here). One could read the title and assume that Pro-Black means only Black, when in fact, that is not the case at all; “As a result of building power for Black people, we build power for all oppressed peoples (inside and outside our organizations); that is, when we center Black people, we uplift all people. The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society’s Targeted Universalism primer describes this, asserting that when those most marginalized build power to shift policy that benefits them, it has the capacity to benefit other marginalized peoples.”
Personally, even as a White identified person, I have benefitted from an organizational culture that values a sustainable pace to its work, and one that is committed to multiple ways of knowing, not just charts and data, but music, storytelling, and uplifting a range of life experiences at the center of its content. And come to find out, this approach actually can be documented in data to have broadened our impact across the sector.
My professional and personal journeys have always been intertwined. My search for autonomy and sense of responsibility to positively impact the world is a personal conviction that I have worked to express in my vocation. And while I do work independently, the partnerships and relationships have always been both my why and my how. How do you balance independence and partnership? How do you nurture mutual and respectful relationships across differences? I’d love to hear your thoughts here.