My DEI journey started long before I knew it. In one sense, it started the day my parents immigrated to the U.S., when they decided to uproot their lives in their mid-40's for the American Dream.
For a long time, in fact well into adulthood, I couldn’t fully appreciate the strength, courage, and resilience it took for my parents to rebuild a life from scratch. The image of eight bags containing what they deemed to be our most precious belongings neatly lined up at the international terminal at Newark is forever etched in my memory. Now looking back, I see survival in their eyes; the powerful drive to ‘make it’ in a foreign place. I see how they — and I and my sister — acquired whiteness in order to succeed, to assimilate. The shedding of the old skin.
Given this, it’s not surprising that I chose to build a career in the social sector. I felt — and continue to feel — fortunate to have had the opportunity to get an education and build a life of economic productivity and prosperity; my inspiration stems from a deep commitment to building toward a more equitable world, especially for those historically underrepresented in the American education and workforce systems. And yet, I felt a missing piece in my “why” every time I talked about it.
Recently, this missing piece became crystal clear. At a previous job, my pushback on centering whiteness in our work, in elevating white privilege and power in our meeting structures, in promoting white supremacy culture norms in what we deemed “professional” was noted as resistance to feedback, as not-an-expert in my job, as low performance. Many aspects of my identity — a South Asian, an immigrant, a full-time working mom — struggled when success on my team meant adhering to practices and norms that elevated whiteness and rigid power structures. All the while, my team was supporting partners to build an inclusive and equitable society where economic advancement is possible for all.
I was the 6th person of color to leave my team in two years; two more have left since and countless others have left across the organization. I, along with others, question whether there is an appetite for de-centering whiteness in the organization — or if it enjoys its white identify and the privilege it brings. While the organization can cite numerous examples of the ways in which it is focused on DEI— all-staff trainings, engaging DEI consultants, creating equitable and inclusive hiring policies — the organization must assess the impact of such efforts. And it must include and assess the actions of its senior leaders to authentically build an equitable and inclusive organization.
I understand that this takes time. It takes active behavior shifts and new ways of being and working. It takes authentic shifts in power. It takes deep listening without arguing, without getting defensive, without interrogation, minimizing or gaslighting. It takes rethinking timelines and embracing non-linear processes. So
1. BE FEARLESS AND UNAPOLOGETIC: support your staff who are Black, Hispanic/Lantinx, Asian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Native Indian/Alaskan Native to thrive. When your BIPOC staff show up fully, good work happens. Make space.
2. BE BOLD IN BREAKING BARRIERS: build and implement policies and practices so that you are not upholding the very systems your work claims to dismantle. This often looks like doing something that has not been done before.
3. LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND, NOT TO RESPOND: ensure that differing opinions and perspectives are respected, are given a platform, an ear. Challenging the status quo can be signs of boldness, creativity, and innovation.
4. CHOOSE PEOPLE OVER SYSTEMS: protect your people, not your systems. The longer your history, the more likely that your systems are rooted in whiteness and white power and privilege.
5. HIRE VALUES-DRIVEN STAFF: ensure that people you put into positions of power and formal authority share your DEI values and ideals. This is often an assumption that is made as staff get promoted, without ever fully testing it.
6. LEARN AND PRACTICE ALLYSHIP: use your power and privilege to take action to achieve equity and inclusion. Allyship requires acknowledgement of power and privilege and the use of that very power and privilege to advance the needs of those historically underrepresented.
So, the missing piece in my “why?” In its simplest form, it’s about people — it’s about supporting leaders — especially Black, Hispanic, Latinx, Asian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Native Indian/Alaskan Native leaders — to be movers and shakers. We need to build strong organizations that are steeped in inclusive and equitable practices and led by fierce and dynamic leaders who are supported to drive transformational change in our fight for equity and racial justice.