#DiversityFail

mistakeLast month I went with a friend to see the famed Holocaust Memorial Center located in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  It’s one of the finest museums of its kind in the country and, like many people, I hadn’t seen one of the greatest things in my own backyard.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning; the sun was shining in a clear blue sky.  I left my house right on time, confirmed with my companion about pickup location and we were off.  As we drove up Orchard Lake Road, nearing our destination, we could see the huge museum, striking in its external appearance – a combination of brick and metal, stretching up to the sky with large glass windows and surrounded by a large, convenient and *empty* parking lot.

Uh-oh.

By now, some of you may know exactly why the parking lot was empty.  I, coming from a traditional Catholic upbringing, my friend from a Baptist one, both of us living in a Christian-mainstreamed world never gave it a thought.  Until we arrived at the empty parking lot.

And then it clicked.

Judaism observes the Shabbat on Saturday, Christianity observes the Sabbath on Sunday.  This was a Jewish museum.

Diversity fail.

Here we were, out to expand our own cultural horizons and historic knowledge, stopped by our own lack thereof.  It was the ultimate irony.  I share all this because I’m also a diversity and inclusion consultant, even more ironic!  But I share it with purpose.

We all have “diversity fails” at one time or another.  No one is perfect and everyone makes errors out of a lack of awareness – whether it’s Chevy making a “Nova” and trying to sell it in Spanish-speaking countries where “no va” means “it doesn’t go” or it’s hosting a major fundraising event on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

We all make mistakes, and it’s not necessarily about fault.  Granted, I’m not talking about mistakes that involve lying, cheating, misrepresenting facts, or name-calling.  This isn’t about Paula Deen using the N-word or Rachel Dolezal lying about her heritage.  I’m talking about honest, well-intentioned mistakes.  Truth is, we all make them.  You are, along with everyone else, the result of your cumulative life experience.  There will be times when it’s not likely you could have predicted the mistake in advance, given your life experience and your exposure to various cultures and people.

Owning the mistake, learning from it, and making adjustments as you move forward is the key. 

more people would learnGiving yourself permission to make mistakes is essential.  Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, many people are so afraid of making mistakes, of being judged for making them, that they don’t even engage.   Fear of messing up prevents people from sticking their hand in the fire, afraid of getting burned.  It prevents learning.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called “The R Word.”  It described how many white people are so afraid of being called a racist that they stay out of conversations about race altogether.   Being called a racist evokes shame, embarrassment, and often defensiveness for white people.  Many take a step back, retreat, avoid the conversation in the future. The shame-and-blame strategies of past workforce diversity trainings have left many white people, especially white men, shut down, defensive or avoidant.

But… we’re in this together.  Research has shown that one of the best ways for people to learn when it comes to diversity and inclusion is through dialogue and reflection.  Talking, thinking and practice leads to learning.   Dialoguing across difference supports that process.  If there’s no dialogue out of fear of failure, there’s no learning.  White people especially – be courageous and step into the conversation – lean in.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes, to say, “Oops, I made a mistake.”  Or maybe, “I should have known that, why didn’t I?”

At the Michigan Nonprofit Associations daylong institute on diversity, inclusion and equity in June, I heard Dianna Langenburg from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation say,

“We treat mistakes as gifts, as precious opportunities to learn.”

Several of the morning panelists echoed that same sentiment, talking about how their best insights had come from the times they had made mistakes.

Imagine the creativity, the open-mindedness, if all organizations fostered a learning culture that valued the process of learning and valued the sharing of mistakes made.   Fruitful diversity and inclusion conversations require a safe, trusting space.  That means setting the tone, leading by example, and opening up a discussion which encourages people to talk about their mistakes in order to learn and grow from them.

How do you set a trusting environment where people feel comfortable airing their mistakes?   Does your organization view making mistakes as “precious opportunities to learn?”


Building Trust after Trust is Broken

trust

Picture this: You’ve had concerns brought to you about the diversity and inclusion within your agency.  Some of the concerns run deep; they may even be open wounds and you know you need to address them.  You’ve gotten people to the table to talk, even those who felt reluctant to share, people who may have wondered aloud, “Are you really going to do something about this, this time?” or “How are you going to be any different from the last one [director/officer]?” You’re committed, you’re resolute… and you’re a little nervous.  Where do you go from here?

One of the very first steps is to establish trust among and between your committee members.  That’s not an easy task if people have had negative experiences with your organization or with past failed initiatives.  Choosing the right person to facilitate the process is important – s/he needs to have enough authority and influence within the organization to effect changes and commit the organization to them, be steadfastly dedicated to diversity and inclusion, be a respectful communicator and skilled conflict negotiator, and be open and willing to learn from committee members.  If outside facilitators and consultants are chosen to serve in this role, then the committee will still need someone of organizational authority to participate on the committee in a leadership role to ensure commitment to making changes.

When Affirmations formed its Multicultural Advisory Committee, it was designed to address a recent transgression that was rooted in a history loaded with structural and geographic racial inequality.  Those who came to the table were reasonably skeptical of the outcome of any planning meetings.  Trust was a difficult thing to establish.

Everyone’s heard the old phrase, “he can talk the talk, but does he walk the walk?”  Is it all talk, or is there any action behind those words?   In Jocelyn Giangrande’s book “What’s in Your Sandwich?” she interviews Bob Riney, President and Chief Operating Officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan.  When asked about reputation, he said, “to rebuild a tarnished reputation, it requires 100% ownership.  It helps to go public, stand up and apologize by admitting wrongdoing… it requires your reputation to be more consistent.”

A key element here is “go public, stand up and apologize by admitting wrongdoing.”  So many leaders within organizations refuse to acknowledge any role in creating the circumstances that led to the transgressions.  Paralyzed by fear, public admonishment, and perhaps possible legal recourse, they skip this step and move right into action planning. They avoid taking responsibility and consequently damage their ability to build trust within the community.  In some cases this is a fatal flaw in the process.

Have you ever felt like someone wronged you?  Have you had someone make an honest mistake but with good intentions?  Ultimately, you just want someone to own that.  To say, “Yes, this was wrong.  I did this and let’s make a plan to change it for the future.”

When Affirmations’ Multicultural Advisory Committee began to meet, the pain among community members was palpable.  People needed to be able to voice their hurt, have that pain heard and have leadership acknowledge the truthfulness of that experience.  The committee planned an off-site gathering, in a community member’s comfortable living room, with a potluck-style meal.  For three hours, people shared their hurts and their experiences and Affirmations’ leadership acknowledge the reality and truthfulness of those experiences.

Sitting with people and hearing their lived experiences provides one of the best solid foundations upon which to build.  The fears and pain are real and when fully understood by those in leadership, can provide a substantive base to inspire next steps that are thoughtful, caring and relevant to the concerns that are being shared.  It was only the first stage of building a solid trust base within the Multicultural Advisory Committee at Affirmations – there would be many more to come. But without a solid base, all future efforts would be weak.  This early step in Affirmations’ process was critical in creating an environment of mutual respect, caring and honesty and set the stage for even deeper, equally as honest conversations about transparency and accountability that would come up in future meetings.

Read Part 5: What Does Getting From Committment from the Top Look Like?

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This is one post in a multi-part story documenting one historically white organization’s journey toward becoming racially inclusive.  The series seeks to document the challenges and successes faced along the way in an effort to provide a learning tool for other nonprofit organizations who wish to do the same.  For a complete copy of Affirmations’ “Blueprint for Change” visit www.GoAffirmations.org and click on About Us.

Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012 
 
Kathleen LaTosch is a consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion planning for nonprofit organizations.  She worked at Affirmations, Michigan’s largest LGBT organization, from 2002-2011 and served as Chief Administrative Officer from 2007-2011.  While there, she was responsible for facilitating a broad-based racial diversity and inclusion initiative.  For more information about Kathleen’s work and availability, email her at klatosch at gmail.com

Perception Vs. Reality: Seeing through racialized lenses

eyeHow to Create a Plan for Racial Inclusiveness: One Nonprofit Story [Vol.2 | 12-4-13]

By Kathleen LaTosch

On November, 18, 2013, video clips of certain Grosse Pointe Park, MI police officers were discovered.  The clips showed the officers ordering men of color, who had been pulled over, to perform demeaning acts such as singing and dancing on demand in front of the officers.  The videos were then allegedly shared by the officers with other officers on the force over personal cell phones and emails.  When a local reporter came across the videos and contacted the police department, the Captain insisted that such an incident could not and would not occur in his department.

After verification of the authenticity of the clips, the story aired on a November 19th Craig Fahle Show on American Public Radio where online comments about the now-public video clips were discussed.  What was most striking was that the online comments did not uniformly condemn the officers’ actions; rather there was a strong and vocal collection of commenters who supported the officers and their conduct.  Comments such as “they [the men of color] didn’t look too offended, some even looked like they were in on the joke” or “I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be racist…” were prevalent.

This “blind eye” is a common theme and frequent observation among those engaged in racial inclusivity work.  The majority population often minimizes the experiences of racist treatment directed at people of color or even expresses disbelief in a person’s experience of racism or racist treatment.  We’ve seen this play out numerous times over the past year across the United States.  In November, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was perplexed at how people found his statement of ‘interracial couples triggering a “gag reflex” among conservatives’ to be racist.  In October, numerous stories headlined individuals dressing up in blackface for Halloween, all of whom failed to acknowledge the negative impact upon people of color or the history of degradation from which the practice of “blackface” stemmed.  And most recently, after years of ignoring and overlooking allegations of racist “shop and frisk” practices, several department stores, including both Macy’s and Barney’s, were forced to acknowledge such practices after being caught on film.

These examples all highlight situations where the offender does not recognize an activity as racist but where the receiver of the treatment does.  I remember the first time a black staffer at Affirmations told me s/he never felt taken seriously by white people at the center.  I asked for examples and heard things like, “I walk into a room and am completely ignored,” or “no one even makes eye contact with me” or “one time, when I was new on staff, I was even asked to leave a table because I was perceived as ‘not belonging.’”

And then another African American staff member shared a very similar experience.  And then another.  And then, only when I knew what I was looking for, did I see it happen.

It was an awakening for me as a white staff member of a historically and predominantly white organization.  This disbelief or inability to see the experience of people of color is what keeps many organizations paralyzed from becoming more inclusive.  This disbelief was at the root of staff leaving Affirmations in 2006, citing a hostile work environment for people of color.

Once those staff members left, it was up to those left behind to make sense of what had happened and make sure it did not happen again.  Very quickly, a clear distinction and division in perceptions emerged.  There were three primary perspectives among Affirmations’ board and staff, a mainly white group of people, about how to interpret what had happened.

First, there was a strong group who did not believe the situation had any racial characteristics at all, other than the fact that those who left the organization happened to be African American.  When local community members rallied around those who had left, validated their experiences and called upon Affirmations to change, this strong group suggested they were a small yet vocal minority  that did not represent the opinions of the larger African American community.  While this group expressed agreement that the HR situation had not gone well, they suggested that perhaps those African American staff members had been overly sensitive and quick to pull “the race card.”  A different perspective of remaining board and staff agreed with those that left, saw staff treatment as inequitable, and either worked to make change or also eventually left the organization.  A third perspective was akin to a deer caught in the headlights, where people stayed stuck in the middle and remained silent on the controversy.  Regardless of where people stood, it was clear that change was needed.

The organization decided to form an internal Race Relations Team to get to the root of the problem and make recommendations for change.  At an early meeting in February 2007, three main perspectives regarding potential root causes of the situation were identified:

  1. It’s not racist – it’s all perception: the organization is not racist, intentionally or otherwise, but others perceive it as racist so we need to change community perceptions;
  2. Yep, it’s racist: the organization operates with intentional or unintentional racism which is combined with a disinterest in changing; and
  3. We don’t know what we don’t know: the organization takes actions that are perceived as racist by others, without intending to and without realizing their offensive nature.

This perception vs. reality conversation was pivotal and decisions could not be made without processing perspectives from all three camps.  Another critical conversation point came up around intentions.  The three perspectives all clearly articulated whether or not intention was a part of the equation.   In fact, there was a deeply emotional reaction for white people if they were regarded as acting intentionally racist.  Further conversation included questions such as: 1) are we racist?  And 2) if we are, is it intentional or unintentional?  And lastly 3) if unintentional, does that still make us racist and what should we do about it?  It was important to discuss the relevancy of intentional vs. unintentional racism for members of the organization and to understand that regardless of intention, the impact upon people of color remained.  It was through these open and honest conversations about intentionality and impact that the team was able to move forward and make recommendations to address the concerns.

After exploring these perspectives and gathering input from staff, board and volunteers via anonymous surveys, the leadership at Affirmations decided that it did not matter if a hostile working environment existed or if it was perception alone, whether it was intentional or unintentional.  The fact that people perceived Affirmations as having non-inclusive (at best) or racially inequitable (at worst) policies and practices was incentive enough to invest in making change.

While these questions may seem somewhat elementary to the experienced diversity and inclusion practitioner, they were critical process points for a historically white nonprofit human service organization struggling to understand the nature of its own lack of inclusion.  The reality vs. perception debate often had by people of color and white people, respectively, is a very real conversation and can be a critical step for an organization to successfully begin effective inclusion work.  The intentionality of racist behavior and practices is likewise a critical discussion point for white people.  It is through these conversations that a deeper understanding and awareness of the complexities of institutional and structural racism is revealed and opens the door for deeper and longer-lasting systemic change.

Read Part 3 here.

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Author’s Note:

For readers interested in learning more about the concept of unintentional racism, the diversity and inclusion field now has several articles under the search terms of “unintentional bias” or “implicit bias” that explores the neuroscience of racism as wells as other forms of unintentional bias usually held by those with a majority or mainstream identification such as white, Christian, adult, able-bodied, etc.  Staff training is now available to help organizations recognize these biases and become more aware of them to support an inclusive workplace culture.

Read more on this concept here:

Sharp Racial Divisions in Reactions to Brown, Garner Decisions, Pew Research Center, 12/8/2014.

Whites Think Discrimination Against Whites is a Bigger Problem Than Bias Against Blacks, Washington Post, Michael Fletcher, 10/8/14.

This is one post in a multi-part story documenting one historically white organization’s journey toward becoming racially inclusive.  The series seeks to document the challenges and successes faced along the way in an effort to provide a learning tool for other nonprofit organizations who wish to do the same.  For a complete copy of Affirmations’ “Blueprint for Change” visit www.GoAffirmations.org and click on About Us.

Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012 
 
Kathleen LaTosch is a consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion planning for nonprofit organizations.  She worked at Affirmations, Michigan’s largest LGBT organization, from 2002-2011 and served as Chief Administrative Officer from 2007-2011.  While there, she was responsible for facilitating a broad-based racial diversity and inclusion initiative.  For more information about Kathleen’s work and availability, email her at klatosch at gmail.com