Diversity Is Not Enough And, Done Alone, It Can Be Counterproductive

Please give deep consideration to your intent and process.
02/06/2017 08:07 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2017
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Andrea Plaid on the "Minnesota Nice" Phenomenon
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If your organization/coalition/group views racial and ethnic diversity as an endpoint, and is only ready to add another color to your crayon box, please give deep consideration to your intent and process. Below are some quotes from people/groups that have been burned by flawed processes that haven’t started with a deep, fully integrated, institutional commitment to anti-oppression:

“I only lasted for three months.”

“They acted nice at first, but it quickly became clear that they didn’t really want to hear what I had to say.”

“Just because I’m African American, they look at me as if I’m the oracle on all things black-related!”

“They claimed when they hired me that they wanted to deepen their work in our communities, but then they put me out in these white communities where I encountered blatant racism. It was very uncomfortable, and it didn’t build on the assets I brought to the organization.”

“More often than not, it felt like ‘me against them’ because they just didn’t get what I was saying at best, and were resistant/hostile to what I was saying at worst.”

It was obvious they called me at the last minute when they realized they didn’t have any people of color on the panel.”

When it was my turn to speak, by the time I was finished, everyone was staring in stunned silence and some people wouldn’t make eye contact.”

“Always having to be the one to point out racism is exhausting.”

“By the end, I was cast as the stereotypical ‘angry black woman.’”

“Now I have this smudge on my resume that’s difficult to explain.”

“We should have been forewarned when there were no other people of color led organizations in the coalition.”

Three days ago I had yet another conversation where well-intended, but poorly implemented diversification efforts have fallen short and resulted in harm. I’ve either directly experienced, or have been the listening ear for, way too many stories of lamentation from the sole person of color employee, board member, steering committee/advisory group member, coalition member, or even panelist/speaker in various environmental organizations/coalitions/settings.

www.theodysseyonline.com/being-the-only-one-in-the-room AtlantaBlackStar.com

The divisions in our society, exposed and rubbed raw by recent events, urgently call for a deeper level of intent and action on building processes, organizations, movements, and systems that are rooted in anti-racism and anti-oppression. Even adding the terms “equity and inclusion” and a few extra interventions doesn’t measure up in these times when so very much more is needed to bridge the schisms and address the pervasive systemic racism and other forms of oppression that impede progress on the interconnected issues of environment, economy, health, immigration, democracy, and so much more. As the site Fakequity so well illustrates, claim of equity by “including” or “engaging” people of color with an implicit expectation that they will assimilate to a deeply flawed system is far short of the transformation we need.

Recent studies/publications/initiatives have each sought to shine a light and issue an appeal to address the underrepresentation of people of color in environmental organizations and processes. The Green 2.0 Report uncovered the subpar racial/ethnic diversity in the staff and boards of nonprofit organizations, philanthropic organizations, and government agencies working on environmental issues. The D5 Coalition launched by philanthropic organizations aimed to diversify the staff and board of foundations and focus guidance of grantees in such a way that staff and board diversification is part of the criteria for grant making. The Board Members of Color group, now called The Green Leadership Trust, is comprised of people of color serving on the boards of directors of environmental organizations and is focused on “building power and diversity in the advocacy sector.” And the Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau shows that there are many options out there for diversifying groups/processes!

Figure Green 2.0 Report Findings

Much has been written on the topic of the need to go beyond diversity to actually adopting an anti-racist, anti-oppression agenda. “Beyond Diversity and Multiculturalism: Towards the Development of Anti-Racist Institutions and Leaders,” “Moving Beyond Diversity… Towards Inclusion and Equity,” and “And the People Shall Lead: Centralizing Front Line Community Leadership in the Movement Towards a Sustainable Planet” are examples of some publications that ask critical questions and provide guidance towards being intentional about institutionalizing anti-racist principles and practices. And the publication “Equity in Sustainability: Equity Scan of Local Government Sustainability Programs”  reviews how to operationalize race based equity measures, at a minimum.

Figure © Cindy Trinh http://activistnyc.tumblr.com/post/107160774563/yes-all-lives-matter-but-were-focused-on-the

As I continue to hear these stories demonstrating lack of significant progress for the movement and trauma for individuals involved in diversification efforts, the words of caution bear repeating, with stridency! Just adding people of color to a process or institution is not enough, nor is it the first, or even the second, step along an anti-racist continuum. First, we have to be clear on intent. Is the end goal to simply have more people of color involved, or is the intent to institutionalize anti-racism/anti-oppression in our institutions and in our systems change work? In advancing an anti-racist agenda, not only is incrementalism through diversification alone not effective, it can actually be harmful to those an organization involves in these “forays” into seeking merely to diversify a staff or a process. If it is the latter, developing processes anchored by a commitment to anti-oppression/anti-racism not only results in diversity but the gains in diversification are significantly more sustainable, as are broader aims towards systems change.

There are practitioners/consultants/groups who are skilled at facilitating anti-racism/anti-oppression processes, including organizations such as Showing up for Racial Justice, Dismantling Racism, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Movement Strategy Center as well as individuals/consultants such as Angela Park, Judy Hatcher, Makani Themba of Higher Ground Change Strategies and others. For committed organizations, these groups and individuals can serve as key resources in the path towards transformation.

For the sake of the persons who are the would-be hapless victims/survivors of these forays into diversity and inclusion, as well as to advance a broader process of ensuring that our conversations, our institutions, our movement, our systems, and our society are all rooted in anti-racism and anti-oppression, we must get this right.

In conclusion, I’m beseeching us all to strengthen our efforts and I’m stepping up to a commitment to self-transformation as well.

Funders—It is laudable that you are actively inquiring about board and staff diversity and even going as far as to be specific about asking about, not just numbers, but also level of seniority and decision making. Please also include inquiry about differential onboarding and ongoing support processes, as well as monitoring level of attrition for staff/board members of color and outcomes of exit interviews. And, to ensure a more transformative effort, please inquire about board and staff adoption and incorporation of anti-oppression principles and practices and include this as a key area of consideration in grant making.;

Organizations—Engage in a process that fosters institution wide commitment to anti-oppression/anti-racism. As recruitment occurs and people of color join the organization, ensure that there are checkpoints along the way to ensure that the person(s) is being heard and supported as well as encouraging/supporting caucusing by people of color within your organization and with other organizations, for peer support and exchanging lessons on best practices in addressing challenges and optimizing gains.

Coalitions—Encourage all individual members and the coalition on a whole to adopt anti-racist, anti-oppression principles and practices, in addition to the Jemez Principles (and Practices) of Democratic Organizing. Also, endeavor to build relationships, not just transactions.

Event Organizers—Above and beyond ensuring that there is diversity in your panelists/speakers, ensure that the diversification includes keynotes, moderators, etc. Ensure that it’s not just about faces of color but that there is content on racial justice. Be intentional about skillful facilitation of what could be triggering conversations for people so that tension becomes opportunity. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultants—If you don’t already, please encourage organizations to start with adopting an anti-racist/anti-oppression frame, principles and practices so that people of color come into a more welcoming and supportive space in which to bring their perspectives and gifts to advance the mission.

Individuals (potential board members, event speakers, job seekers, etc.)—As a key measure in your consideration of entering a process, organization or group, inquire about anti-racism/anti-oppression principles and practices, current presence of people of color, past experiences of people of color, and, if possible, speak to current and past people of color.

Everyone Else (including me)—We all need to be vigilant and vocal as we consider partnerships as we attend events, as we function in our own organizations. We must not only “stay woke” but we must act on and speak up for what we see in our wakefulness!

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