This article was originally published at Forbes.com.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been overjoyed to watch individuals and organizations launch into conversations about ending racism, building inclusive organizations, and creating a more just society. These conversations have been a long time in coming, and they deserve our full-throated support.
However, if the conversations are going to extend beyond the news cycle to actually enact substantial change in our companies and communities, each of us must make a determined effort to stay engaged.
The Center for Values-Driven Leadership is turning to experts for advice. We recently asked an expert panel what organizations and individuals should be doing now to address racism. We share excerpts of the conversation below; the comments have been edited for brevity and readability, with the approval of our panelists. Find a full video recording at this link.
The moderator is Dr. Jim Ludema, co-author of this column, and director of Benedictine University’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership. The panelists, pictured above, include:
- Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor of practice with the University of Virginia and a leading global scholar of diversity and inclusion;
- Dr. Salwa Rahim-Dillard, Founder and CEO of Equision Consulting, LLC and Diversity + Inclusion leader at U.S. Cellular; and
- Cheryl Harris, the Chief Procurement Officer at Allstate, where she is part of an executive team hosting “raw and real” conversations about race.
Moderator: Speaking for myself and likely for other white folks, I know many of us want to engage, but we’re afraid, sometimes terrified, of getting it wrong. What should we know?
Harris: When you’re silent, sometimes it’s more painful and can do more damage than actually speaking words, even if you don’t know the right words to say.
You can’t be silent if you’re an ally. These simple words will make all the difference in the world: just acknowledge, “I see you. I hear you. I’m listening and I’m open to learning.”
Roberts: Know that you’re probably going to get it “wrong.” That’s just part of the process. Something you say or the way that it’s said or the timing of when you say it is going to invite feedback. When you open up that conversation [about race], you’re going to invite some feedback. So, instead of being stuck on whether you are right or wrong, I would reframe it as an opportunity: “This conversation will invite feedback that will help to advance or enhance our learning.”
A measure of fear and anxiety characterizes the daily walk for many Black and Brown people in our country and around the world. The current moment requires a different kind of bravery on the part of many white people who, until now, haven’t had to put themselves out there and get out of their comfort zone in addressing racism. Because truly, the consequences of your getting it “wrong” are not on the same order of magnitude as the consequence George Floyd and so many others have faced for getting it “wrong,” when somebody felt justified in their course of action that led to public murder.
Rahim-Dillard: I echo both of your sentiments. I’ve been about this a lot in the last couple of weeks, and I say, silence is wrong. It’s complicit. So, if you want to be wrong, then stay silent.
Use your voice. It is not easy. It is not an easy conversation. We all have difficult conversations when we’re Black mothers of children. … As a Black Muslim woman, I have been talking about race my entire life. I call it my superpower. …I’ve built that skill. If you want to have these conversations, you just start to have them. And as you have more of them, you will create trust and care and concern where you’ll have the safety to continue these conversations.
Moderator: As we look at our organizations, what should we be doing to address racism and build inclusion?
Roberts: In our recent piece in the Harvard Business Review about U.S. companies needing to take a stand and fight racism, Ella Washington and I present a three-part process: (1) acknowledge, (2) affirm, (3) act. Acknowledge the injustices and the harm of racism that is happening, not just out there in society, but also around you, in your workplace. Affirm the right to personhood by listening and seeking to understand the experiences of people who have been the targets of racism. As you’re acknowledging and affirming, you’re committing to a process of lifelong learning. You’re just beginning to own what you don’t know, what you haven’t seen, what you’ve tuned out over the years, what you dismissed when someone tried to bring it to your attention. This learning process will equip you to act in an informed manner – by leading internal changes that will promote racial inclusion and equity in your organization.
Rahim-Dillard: I like to say that regardless of your hierarchy in your organization, you can help create equity for Black and Brown and women folks: challenge your companies on their board and their C-suite composition; interrogate the talent management practices; ask for an annual audit of pay equity, performance ratings, voluntary and involuntary exits; do engagement surveys of Black people. Insist on standardized talent acquisition practices; require at least two Black candidates on the slate; use structured interview guides and a diverse interview panel. Use metrics and leader expectations. Influence the high visibility projects, the mentoring, the sponsorship, and the high potential programs. Ask about succession planning and the promoting of Black employees. Disrupt your own biases and challenge unsubstantiated feedback during talent reviews. Address micro-aggressions. If you’re planning meetings, ask who’s not at the table. Give fair and frequent high-quality feedback. And most of all, stay committed because being anti-racist is an iterative process that requires lifelong learning.
Harris: We really need to have a “let’s keep it real” discussion and talk about our stories. We really needed to show up, not just the Black women and Black officers at the company, but we needed everybody to lean in. We needed the white women, Hispanic women, white men that didn’t know what to say but really need to show up as a united force to say, “we are going to address this together.”
What we did [at Allstate] was talk about what it means to be Black: a Black mother, a Black wife, a Black executive. We talked about what it feels like to have your children leave your home, especially your young African-American men. I have three of them in the house with me right now. And the pain that you feel because you worry about whether or not they’re going to make it back home safely. We talked about the white men on the team that didn’t speak up when they saw people not being treated fairly. We just talked about how we’re a company of people, how we’re a nation of people, how our families, how our children, how we’re all in pain and we need to navigate this together. So, we started the discussion. We started the dialogue. There were tears, but what we said we would do is be very respectful in our discussion. We created just some common ground rules in how we expect people to not only behave on that day in which we held the session, but how we expect them to behave as we navigate moving forward.
Roberts: I would just add that we’re at a critical juncture for leading change. The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a period of massive disruption, and we’ve had to rally and make radical decisions to sacrifice for the common good. Fighting racism is going to require that same kind of response. It will be massively disruptive, and we’ll have to make sacrifices on behalf of the common good with an eye toward the least of these. But I think there’s no better time for us to do that.
Harris: Everything starts with us. And I believe together, justice can be served.
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