Symbolic Gestures or Meaningful Change

Organizational Development
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We are now just over a month past the start of the uprising prompted by George Floyd’s death, and as with many movements we are seeing the splintering off of different factions. What started as a call for police reform and an end to systematic racism has become much more.

My question is who and what are driving these changes?

As a leader in the social sector, I have witnessed the ingenuity and strength of our nation when it comes to problem-solving. Our solutions are swift, innovative, first in class, and unfortunately not always the answers to the problem at hand.

I ask for systemic racism to be addressed, you give me a logo change. I again ask for systemic racism to be addressed and you elevate statues, songs, and the removal of confederate flags.

I get it, symbols have power, but I caution against getting distracted by the low hanging fruit. These fruit bear wins, though they are not the type of wins that seed future growth. To flourish we need to dig deeper. Systemic racism more broadly impacts policing, education, housing policies, wage gaps, health care, and so on. All of which need to be addressed with solutions of their own.

The removal of symbols of hate is just that; symbolic at best. It is time to actually do the work.

There is no doubt that this is complicated in nature. I have talked to many companies wondering where to get started. This is by no means an exhaustive list but rather offers a few points to consider.

  1. As companies and institutions, there is an acknowledgment needed that systemic racism is already present in your organization. We are indoctrinated into it from day one as a nation, and while you may, or may not be the cause of it internally, you are upholding it by allowing it to continue.
  2. Commit to doing the work, this is not a quick fix nor a free one. Have you allocated time, funds, and human capital to a diversity and inclusion initiative? Who are you asking to staff it, and do you need outside help? Being a person of color alone does not qualify someone as an expert in diversity via lived experience. It does, however, lead to the next point.
  3. Listen to understand and accept the validity of experiences shared by people of color in your organization. In no uncertain terms, they are telling the truth. Look beyond simplified training and assess gaps, strengthen cultural competencies, and examine which policies and practices need to be revised from an equity perspective.
  4. Pay attention to who the decision-makers are in driving your diversity initiatives. There are far too many decisions being made by non-people of color, without their input. Know that this is another way white supremacy culture shows up. Do not lean on the “we know best” approach and instead consider as many perspectives and solutions as possible to ensure you are addressing actual systemic racism.
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat. See point two, this is not a one and done. Position your organization to continue the work over the long haul and center it in your strategic planning. Anti-racism fatigue is real and there needs to be an understanding throughout the organization that while early efforts may be about centering racial equity; diversity improves culture, inclusion, and profits for the entire organization.

Finally, as in many experiences in life, we are not always clear on the path forward but it is up to each of us to take the first steps if we want to see change.

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