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February 2, 2021

Become an Anti-Racist Organization

We fielded a lot of inquiries in 2020 from leaders who said, “We want to become an anti-racist organization. Can you help us?”

Our first response is curiosity. What does that mean to you? Why do you want to become an anti-racist organization? What would be better at your organization if you did this work? How would you know you’d succeeded? That last one is a loaded question because the work never ends. However, there are measurable indicators of success along the way.

Our second response is to invite them to re-frame the phrase from anti-racist to anti-racism. The fastest way to make people defensive these days is to say– or even insinuate– that they might be racist. That attacks people at the level of their identity, which is very difficult for people to change. Whereas racism or anti-racism is a set of behaviors and policies that seem easier to change than “who you be” in the world. It’s a nuanced and important distinction.

Here’s a brief overview of what it would take if you decide that doing anti-racism work is your goal:

  1. Assess where you are. It’s impossible to map out a journey if you don’t know where you’re starting. There are almost certainly a lot more steps between where you are and where you think you want to be than you realize.
    • If you’re going to commit to being on an anti-racism journey, start with a clear understanding of the problems you need to solve.
    • Only then can you determine the steps necessary to get where you want to go. For example: does your organization have a union? If it does, that’s an indication that there is a lack of trust between employees and management. Anti-racism work doesn’t work without a strong foundation of vulnerability-based trust.
  2. Align your personal and organizational values. One of the hardest things about committing to an anti-racism journey is seeing the water you’re swimming in.
    • In the U.S., we were born and raised on values like rugged individualism, competition, and the importance of “book smarts”. Those are actually symptoms of a white supremacy culture, but we don’t recognize it because it’s the only thing we know.
    • Values that align with anti-racism include things like respect, collaboration, inclusion, curiosity, humility, courage, and vulnerability-based trust.
  3. Understand what works. Unconscious bias training on its own doesn’t work. If it did, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation decades after companies started delivering unconscious bias training to employees.
    • The primary reason that so many DEI initiatives don’t work is because they’re considered “initiatives” instead of what they really are: the warp thread of culture change.
    • DEI work is the through-line of your culture and the primary reason people stay or leave, because it’s about belonging, our most basic human need. DEI work is, at its core, transformational culture work.
    • It is deeply personal, interpersonal, and institutional. In order to be effective, it has to happen at all three levels.
    • Another important reason unconscious bias training on its own doesn’t work is that mental awareness alone never changes behaviors. At Kadabra, we use a learning theory that aligns with the theory of change in order to facilitate behavior change related to inclusion and belonging.
  4. Get buy-in from the top. Senior executives must understand the imperative for doing anti-racism work and support it fully. They’ll want to understand that it’s not just a moral imperative, it’s really good for business. Companies that don’t do this work will be obsolete in the coming years.
    • That means they will have to get vulnerable and learn how to have meaningful conversations about race.
    • They have to become culturally competent and humble at both the individual and cultural levels. This is work that is mostly done in community, but the foundation of it is done at the individual level.
    • It starts with senior executives committing to being on an anti-racism journey both personally and professionally.
  5. Support the front lines. How many times has a senior leadership team led an “initiative” that the frontline managers know nothing about? These frontline managers are the ones with the most opportunity to affect culture change.
    • They need to be supported with the tools and skills to become allies and accomplices in this work. For example, it’s the frontline managers who deal with your customer service people every day. These are the people that are statistically most likely to hold marginalized identities in your company.
    • What kind of an impact do you think it would have on your customer service people if they felt a real sense of inclusion and belonging from their managers? The ripple effect that would have on the customers they are serving would be profound. As Richard Branson said, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
  6. Patience… and accountability, too. Anti-racism work is a lifelong endeavor. We won’t succeed until and unless the very systems that have run this country for hundreds of years are drastically changed.
    • But one leader mentoring a BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) person can make a difference in that person’s life. It all matters, but you have to start somewhere.
    • It’s important to understand that you’ll make mistakes. That’s a guarantee if you’re “in the arena,” as Brene’ Brown calls it. In other words, if you’re doing the work, you’re going to mess up.
    • Be patient with yourself. Be patient with each other. AND hold yourself and each other accountable. As Dr. Maya Angelou famously said, “When you know better, you do better.” Make mistakes, and make amends.

In summary, we would recommend that leaders focus less on labels and more on doing the things–small and large–that when added up, make a big difference in creating a culture of inclusion and belonging for everyone. It’s hard work. It’s not “sexy.” But it’s worth it.