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In light of recent events surrounding racial justice in America, I have struggled with figuring out where my role is in the current conversation. After much deliberation, I think the best I can do is share my story and how I learned. You see, I’ve served in many personal and professional roles throughout my life. Depending upon the capacity in which we met, what you may not know is that I not only spent 3 years as the national diversity and inclusion manager for a large law firm here in the US, but I also spent 2 years engaged to an ex-San Francisco police officer, bringing up an interesting mix of emotions and reflections at this particular moment in history.
You see, I am a privileged white cis-gendered female who virtually fell into this full time diversity, equity, and inclusion role because of my colleagues’ good faith in me. I had no generally accepted qualifications in the space (I mean, I grew up in beach cities in Southern California, rode horses, and had the privilege of a college savings started before I was even born). When I was in high school and college I was interested in some of the topics covered in this broad space and took courses accordingly, but that was the extent of it. The core curriculum at the college I attended was centered around social justice; I’ve been passionate about, and an advocate for, the expansion of what “success” looks like for professional women in the corporate world since as far back as I can remember; and I have had numerous close friends and family members come out as LGBTQ+ over the years which early on led to my understanding of the importance of advocacy sociopolitically and beyond. Where I had little to no experience, stepping into this role, was in my relationship with the BIPOC community.
You see, I was hired into the role from the marketing side of things. Given my personal values alignment, I started informally helping out with our diversity and inclusion programs in the region. I planned and organized events, managed relationships with external associations, put together invitations, and wrote essays and proposal content. After about six months of this, and getting to know some of the more active attorneys in the space at our firm, my friend and mentor shared with me that the firm was looking to bring someone on to do this work full time (a new role for the organization). Given the energy and personal passion I felt supporting our efforts in the DEI space, I couldn’t imagine the thought of not getting to continue to contribute. So, at her gentle urging, I decided to apply for the position. I like to think the national leaders of our employee resources groups and human resources team saw my passion and sincere desire to help build the program because, as luck would have it, they hired me. Looking back on my career to date, it is the most rewarding and terrifying role I have ever stepped into.
In the span of 3 months I transitioned out of my marketing role and onto the human resources team. I was terrified about our diverse employees finding out about my lack of qualifications to represent them in this space. I imagine not dissimilar to how many leaders currently feel; expected to advocate and know how to help their employees and the broader BIPOC community through their influence but feeling ill-qualified and equipped to do so, and perhaps a bit fearful about acknowledging that. This mental space typically leads to one of three different coping strategies: task-oriented, emotion-oriented, and avoidance-oriented. I went for a task-oriented approach and spent that 3 month transition (and beyond) learning as much as I possibly could about DEI work and best practices in other organizations. I started with a programmatic outlook, as I’m a natural project manager and organizer and this seemed the best way for me to make a significant impact while I still continued to learn and grow, myself.
While there are numerous individuals sharing resource guides, that are more robust than this, some resources that helped me early on (and hopefully will help you):
As we began to build our programs and I became more visible within the firm as the go-to for our program, I continued to grow right alongside it. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that my most powerful role was as a mediator-style facilitator. It was not my responsibility or right to know everything in this space, nor will I ever, but it was and continues to be my responsibility to learn what I can from the broader community, the lived experiences of my colleagues and community, and from the company’s leadership; to bring that awareness to others and influence the design of programs meant to create equity and justice.
At the time, my favorite graphic to represent this was:
In the context of an organizational DEI program, think of no box as, well, doing nothing. Think of the small box as putting best practices into place. The larger box, to me, constitutes the extra step of developing awareness, having the grace to listen and learn, and using that knowledge to ensure leadership and other individuals with power develop the wherewithal to advocate and elevate diverse employees accordingly.
There is a new, expanded version of this concept that brings in our larger societal responsibility. I love this and have been seeing it around social media a lot these past few weeks:
My role as a DEI professional centered around collaborating and aligning strategies and programs designed to create an equitable growth environment and inclusive culture for our employees. Some of the ways we did that:
Some of the specific work I am most proud of is engaging the leadership team I worked with in the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation. I was lucky, as I had a few members of the leadership team who were already strong advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Nonetheless, we hatched a plan to support broader engagement, awareness, and advocacy amongst our leadership. During their first year as formal allies, our leadership team followed a path similar to mine. They were each required to:
For some of our leaders, this experience turned out to be transformational, as they were able to broaden their knowledge and perspectives in this (at the time) relatively unique way.
Taking this a step further, I would like to have provided additional continuing educational resources and tied these growing initiatives more closely into compensation, though a part of me is conflicted in this last point as I want to believe in people getting involved, as I first did, through values and emotion alignment and not purely based on compensation (yes, I know I can be a bit of an idealist). We also brought a DEI component into our employee evaluation process across the firm and started a learning-based Allyship program, but that was the extent of the work we did during my time. In late 2017 my husband and I relocated out of the state and my formal career in the DEI space ended.
I mentioned at the start of this post that I was once engaged to an ex-San Francisco Police Officer. He was (and I assume still is) liberal and big on social rights. Not what you think of when hearing about today’s clashes between police and BIPOC. The light being shed on this conflict today is, unfortunately, not surprising. A particular story he shared with me keeps coming to my mind. In San Francisco officers work their way up to “better” (read: safer) assignments through tenure. That means, as a fresh peace officer, oftentimes your first role involves serving in some of the toughest neighborhoods at night; in his case, predominantly Hunter’s Point, which is home to the largest poor Black population in the city. He shared with me that early in his career he was instructed to remove his seatbelt as they went by the housing projects in the area (standard practice) so they wouldn’t get stuck in their vehicles if they got ambushed. Ironic, given similar stereotype-based safety instructions Black parents have to give their kids on dealing with police. Can you imagine, as a young and impressionable individual, having these stereotypes drilled into your head day in and day out?
Combine this with the fraternal brotherhood of a police force and the tendency for many forces to put police with questionable records on less choice assignments. While inexcusable, it is not a far stretch to see how those bad apples in the bunch have been able to flourish and why many police forces are struggling with reacting to current protests peaceably. While I don’t consider myself educated enough to wax poetic on the reforms necessary among our police forces nationwide, given how liberal San Francisco is, I can only imagine the challenges in other parts of the country.
What I do know is that throughout history real change comes when we rise up as a nation and demand it. I am glad to see the thought-provoking discussions being had in our everyday spaces right now and I am hopeful for the change to come as a result. We must keep having these conversations long after this moment to make change happen. We must keep growing every day, set our egos aside and be humble, learn to be comfortable stepping in it occasionally in the name of learning and growth (goodness knows, I probably did a few time in this post!), and really listen. The first place to start is on our own journey as allies. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and if you are privileged to be in such a position, use whatever influence you can to advocate now and moving forward.
Since my time as a full-time professional, I strive to continue to stay involved in the DEI space in my new local community. I am active in the local Society of Human Resources (SHRM) chapter’s DEI steering committee (where I still manage to step in it pretty regularly – it’s a growing process) and I had the privilege of speaking on a DEI best practices panel at last year’s regional Benefit Corporation Leadership Conference. Whenever I see a request from an individual to talk “best practices” and help a company in my community I reach out to set up a coffee or lunch date and try to listen to see how I can help that person make shifts by sharing what I have learned to date.
While I haven’t had the opportunity to formally re-enter the DEI world occupationally, I continue to strive to grow as an Ally and to help and support other allies in the space. I stay involved through my own learning, by educating and supporting others, and building this lens into my continuing career pursuits and helping others see through it in theirs.
If you want to connect for 15-30 minutes for a quick chat or coffee, let me know.
If you want some ideas on how you can personally or professionally grow and make a difference, let me know.
In the meantime, hopefully you’re feeling a bit more comfortable knowing that how you’re feeling is normal, growing in the process of learning, and you have a few more ideas regarding how you can do this work in your personal and professional life, too.
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