It’s About to Get Real…

By Latricia Barksdale

In our six-part blog series, we are exploring cross-cutting themes that surfaced in our DEI In Action Case Studies, themes that we see again and again in our work with organizations across the country. As we delve into the challenges and successes of the DEI efforts at Blue Engine, College Track, and TNTP, we first extend deep gratitude to the many leaders and staff members who were courageously candid with us. Because they were willing to vulnerably pull back the curtain, we all have an opportunity to recognize patterns and build more inclusive, radically human workplaces.

This month, we’re naming a phenomenon that we see across organizations doing this work, including TNTP and Blue Engine: the more an organization centers DEI, the more unknowns are surfaced. Promise54’s COO Latricia Barksdale offers some things organizations can do to prepare for the road ahead.

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Nearly a decade ago I’d just rejoined Teach For America’s staff and was attending a meeting where the organization’s new core values were being previewed. I scanned the one-pager in front of me and saw that one of the values was “Diversity.” A long description followed, but the language that stood out most to me was: “in particular, we value the perspective and credibility that individuals who share the racial and economic backgrounds of the students with whom we work can bring…” 

At that moment, I felt a mix of emotions: surprise, skepticism, excitement, but mostly relief. Yes!, I thought. Explicit acknowledgement that those who share the backgrounds of the students the organization is focused on are critical to the work to bring about educational equity and uniquely positioned to influence how to go about it. I was starting to think about what I believed needed to change for us to live into this core value when someone asked, “So, does this mean white people should not be doing this work?” 

That’s when I realized shit was about to get real. I wasn’t the only one with mixed feelings and hard questions about what this meant for our organization and for me, and wondering what was going to be different, and when. Was the organization ready for what was going to come next? The answer was: not completely. But that’s to be expected… 

TFA isn’t alone. In codifying the DEI journeys of Blue Engine, TNTP, and College Track for our radically human approach to case studies, we observed this phenomenon over and over again: as an organization looks to (more) deeply center diversity, inclusion and equity, it is nearly impossible to fully imagine the range of reactions and implications that will surface…and it’s hard to address the unknown. That said, in our work we have started to see some patterns emerge that may help to normalize the discomfort.

At TNTP, as leadership made a more intentional commitment to DEI, they saw a drop in staff’s perception of DEI initiative effectiveness and leadership’s prioritization of DEI from 2018 to 2019. As DEI conversations increased in depth and frequency, and as the leadership team explicitly committed to walking the walk, staff awareness and fluency around surfacing and resolving DEI issues also increased. Staff were primed to notice and acknowledge gaps in diversity, inclusion, and equity, and their standards for TNTP’s DEI work rose. As TNTP Chief of Staff Leticia de la Vara pointed out, “We are seeing an uptick in people who see issues of race and bias. People are internalizing it, and that’s growth. It means that we have to keep at it for a while, and it’s a process.”

Have you ever heard the saying “once you know a thing you can’t ever unknow it?” This is one of the patterns we have started to see emerge: once leadership makes a declaration that diversity, inclusion and equity are foundational to the mission and work of the organization, it raises the bar. Talking the talk creates visibility and often comes with an increased demand for action. Staff expect us to deliver — fast — as more folks take notice of where we are living into the beliefs we have committed to and where our organization (and we!) are falling short. This situation can be even more challenging in the absence of conversations about concrete steps. Explicit plans can help calibrate expectations about what action to anticipate, who is responsible, and when it will happen. 

And at the same time, it’s important to set expectations that plans may need to shift. Any notion that an organization’s (or individual’s!) journey toward transformation is linear — that we get progressively better and better until we arrive at this magical utopian destination — is flawed from the get-go. Black American writer and activist James Baldwin once wrote “a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do, what you will find, or what you find will do to you.” There will be twists and turns, and countless ups and downs. And what’s more: there’s no destination. There’s no point at which we can say “we’ve arrived!” This work requires us to constantly assess whether and how our actions align with our stated values. 

This may seem daunting, but here’s the thing: this is a normal and predictable part of the process. And it’s a good thing! For many of us, making our organizations more diverse, inclusive, and equitable is not “business as usual.” If we’re doing it right, we will have to take a hard look at how our organization operates, and consider what changes need to be made. That can be scary for organizational leaders because interrogating ways of operating through the lens of aspirations around diversity, inclusion, and equity can call into question core approaches and deeply ingrained practices. But here’s a promising practice that we see emerging: organizations experiencing deep, sustained transformation take the approach that nothing is above questioning and criticism. Everything is fair game. 

As organizations put everything on the table for vetting through the lens of DEI, we can expect pushback from external partners and/or funders who may be invested in how things have been and perhaps not feel the same need for change. Blue Engine faced challenges in navigating tensions between internal values and external expectations as they shifted their metrics toward student growth to better align with their DEI aspirations. Anne Eidelman, Blue Engine’s CEO, shared: “we made this internal shift to a north star around gains for all students, and yet two years later, I’m still struggling and don’t think even all of our funders really understand our choice, rationale, or evaluation methodology.” These disconnects with external stakeholders can be uncomfortable and generate a lot of friction. It will be important to take a long-term view and stay grounded in the change we are pursuing and why.

This work isn’t for the faint of heart! It is going to require a lot of us and our people. None of us can anticipate everything that might come our way but there are some things you can do to prepare your organization for the road to transformation:  

  • Normalize that things will get more challenging before they get better. Growth is hard, morale typically goes down for a time, things will get sticky, and it’s a long road to more consistently living into beliefs around diversity, inclusion and equity. Support your team in building resilience.
  • Have a plan and know the plan will change. Bring together a diverse, cross-functional group of people to co-create a plan. Communicate to your staff what the priorities are and what action they can expect. Acknowledge that things could shift and be sure to communicate when they do and why. Regularly share updates, progress, and setbacks. Get feedback on how things are going and be open and flexible about where this journey might lead.
  • Be mindful of the common misstep of placing the burden for culture change disproportionately on people who hold marginalized identities and all-too-often are expected by white leadership and staff to do it all
  • Bring your board, funders, and external stakeholders along. Undertaking this work can have implications for your relationships with supporters and partners. Make sure to keep them in the loop — real time — on what your organization is doing and how it may change how you work them.  

Articulating a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity is an important first step, but what really matters is everything that comes next — because things get hard. Your commitment will be tested, but if you go in with eyes wide open, you’ll be in a better position to effectively manage the highs and lows and, ultimately, make meaningful progress on your DEI goals.

This post is tagged diversityequityinclusionleadershipmanagementradical humanity