Part 1: So your organization wants to do DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) work?
A DEIB Guide to being the best client and hiring the right consultant for your organization.
This is quite a moment. Racism has poured out of living rooms and right into the streets for us all to see. Almost daily, we bear witness to the relentless dehumanization of BIPOC immigrants, the traumatizing separation of children from their parents at the border, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black and brown folks at the hands of the state. And so, here we are, witnessing the widespread public acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter and an understanding that changes to our racial caste system are long overdue.
This has led many companies, non-profits, government agencies, and schools (“organizations”) to embark on the journey of engaging in the work of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, because, as has become ever more obvious, statements of commitment are simply not enough. The reason you are brought to this work matters not, be it a lawsuit or a reckoning with your privilege. What matters is that you are here now.
If you want to make your organization more equitable, you must begin with the understanding that true DEIB work cannot be a cosmetic process. For this work to truly be in service of justice, it must begin with an in-depth look at your systems, practices, culture, and leadership, followed by the transformative work of power redistribution. The following are bits of wisdom we have gleaned from the many times we’ve done this before. Because, although there is neither one right way nor one wrong way to engage in this work, there definitely are SOME right ways to walk toward justice and be a part of building a better world for all of us and for generations to come, and there are some harmful ways that will only divert your journey.
Know thyself (or at least start the journey toward). Whether you are just now scratching the surface or you have a DEI team going full steam, engage in some level of reflection around the ways in which your systems, structures, culture, and practices are doing harm to the communities you interact with, to your employees, to your clients, to your organization. Similarly, how are these very inequitable structures benefitting the dominant culture, the culture of whiteness, you? How are they ethnocentric? Have you engaged in practices of the “diverse hire” without changing anything else? Is the leadership in your organization diverse, or are the lower ranks of your org chart colorful while the upper echelons remain lily white? Are you chasing recognition or change?
Build your team. At whatever level you occupy: President, Board Member, Director, Manager, the DEIB person for your organization; you will need to build your team to work on DEIB with. This work cannot be done in isolation because community isn’t just a one-person show, and oppression is embedded throughout our organizations. Building capacity for yourself and those around you will be critical to your success and that of your organization. Do this team building strategically. Ensure that your team is diverse (look at this diversity through many lenses) so that you are getting as wide a range of lived experiences and perspectives as possible; and make sure that you are doing work within your team to disrupt societal power dynamics so that your team members from marginalized groups have full seats at the table.
Engage in learning about the different paths you can take. This journey will be an educational deep dive, so now that you have engaged in some level of reflection, do some preliminary research so that you can start to identify the needs of your organization. Learn about the options that exist, potential scopes of work, the budget ballpark, and potential deliverables. It’s helpful to come in with some knowledge, lest you be shocked that you cannot reasonably expect an organization-wide assessment for $5,000. Help set your organization up for success by understanding what you want out of this work.
Know what you cannot know. It is so important that you and your organization understand the limits of your ability to self-assess, partially because it’s next to impossible to diagnose something so close to you (that’s why doctors aren’t supposed to treat family members), and if you are a primarily white-led organization, then you likely won’t know what you do not know. Even if you are relatively diverse, you still exist within a Eurocentric patriarchal society where inequitable power dynamics are rendered invisible to the eyes of most people who work within their confines. In other words, do the research so you can provide potential consultants with a general idea of what you are looking for (and so that you are not shocked at what they recommend), but treat the recruitment process as one where you can learn about what exactly you need (and which consultants might be the best fit for your organization).
Never forget how powerful the state of not-knowing can be: As business leaders (especially if we are some combination of white, male, Christian, straight, financially stable, college-educated, etc.), we are expected to act like we know everything, and we may even have become convinced (since we’ve been taught this from infancy) that we can master any subject that we decide to tackle. “You can be anything you want to be,” our parents said. “Sky’s the limit,” our teachers said (again, if we are white, cisgender, etc). But you cannot master DEIB. You simply cannot. Yes, aim for the stars, and definitely do the work because that is your responsibility to people of color and to your organization; AND also know that humility in the face of learning from others and cocreating new knowledge with them is where the powerful work of transformation begins.
Choose a consultant who truly does DEIB. You have done your research, and you are committed to learning and cocreating knowledge with the consultant that is a fit for you. Now, how in the world do you find this person? There is no one way to do DEIB work, and there is no one consultant who is perfect for everyone. However, there are some healing and some harmful ways you can engage in doing DEIB work, so make sure your consultant shares the values you are striving for:
It is healing to make an honest commitment internally to work toward dismantling your systems of oppression – and let’s be clear – they do exist within your organization, so no need to hide them.
It is harmful to write some press releases or statements of commitment so that the ‘incident’ you are responding to blows over in the press and call it a day: Anyone willing to do this for you is a problematic member of this profession. You must engage fully if you want to support communities of color.
It is healing to practice vulnerability. Model the type of behavior in your learning about DEIB that can allow others in your company to be vulnerable as well. Be inquisitive, reflective, and always willing and open to learning.
It is harmful to set the expectation that this work will only be done within the comfort level of your leadership: This is where we learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and trusting the teams you engage in this work both internally and externally to work with each other through these moments. This is key to creating a safe(r) learning environment for everyone.
It is healing to engage BIPOC/BIWOC firms that are doing this work in transformative ways. Encourage and resource your DEIB work, so that these consultants can themselves engage a team, which will only enrich your outcomes. Remember, a big part of the problem is the Euro-centric approach we have in the professional realm that serves to protect systems of oppression and uphold white supremacist behaviors.
It is harmful to engage DEIB firms that are solely owned and led by white people. White people absolutely have to play a part in this work, but being the primary financial beneficiaries of work that rests firmly on the centuries of struggle and resistance by BIPOC folks for acknowledgement of their full humanity is simply not one of them.
Our organizations can only do this work if we as leaders, can acknowledge the role we play in creating something different than what we have been taught. It takes deep personal reflection, interpersonal behavior change, and intentional institutional and structural action that moves us toward dismantling systems of oppression and creating culture shift. This work is a long-term commitment, and we all have a role to play in it.
In part 2 we will explore the ways in which we can create a DEIB driven process to engaging the right consulting firm for you.
This post was co-written and cocreated by:
Ana Lugo, Founder, Equity First Consulting
Ana Lugo’s passion and commitment to social equity is embedded in every aspect of her work and life. She comes from a long line of women whose strength, wisdom and resilience have served as a model for what the world has the potential to be and what light the path she walks. Ana’s vision, a world where we work together to dismantle oppressive structures and foster and value all identities, sets the framework from which to deeply understand the causes of and ways to address structural inequities. Ana’s vision also elevates the importance of building community and teams rooted in shared values.
Jenny Levine-Smith, Equity & Justice Educator, Coach, Writer, Organizer, Consultant
Jenny Levine-Smith grew up surrounded by activists, organizers, and teachers who shared and imbued a passion for racial, economic, gender, language, religion, LGBTQ+ justice in both our private and public spaces. As a white, Jewish woman, Jenny has ancestral experience with state-sponsored violence and personal experience with the protective cover of whiteness in America. As an educator, working primarily with Latinx youth, Jenny saw first-hand how institutions in this country work together to strip Black and brown youth of agency, culture, and language, as well as how powerful and resilient these children and their families are. She left the classroom committed to working with People of Color who are working to deconstruct and transform these systems.