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  • Kate Gerson

Too important to quit: For leaders continuing DEI work even when it’s hard

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Racism is a poison. It seeps into our minds and bodies as we live and move in our country. A commitment to examining the racism that is making us sick is essential to being able to act—and lead—justly. And every day, CEOs, leaders, managers, and executives—especially those of us who are white—are showing the world what not to do. And, well, I’ve been there.

Less than a decade ago, I co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to equity in education. I leveraged a long career in the classroom, leading schools, and directing large scale initiatives to build an organization focused on driving racial justice in school systems across the country. This was work that I studied for, surmounted the challenges of my childhood for, and strengthened myself to champion by suffering the indignities of one of America’s hardest professions—while spending every minute of my free time trying to become a better and more knowledgeable educator, ally, and advocate. Seeking to support my students’ liberation from unjust systems through literacy and language was hard and noble work. I wanted to reimagine the very systems controlling their young Black lives in Indianapolis.

The failures of our institutions risk the lives and humanity of Black children, Indigenous children, and children of color—and we have so much work to do to fix them.

As a CEO, I built a culture on that belief and acted on my assumption that racism would be dismantled through relentless attention, precision, urgency, and intensity. I had a laser-like focus on our mission, and held tight the responsibility of driving us toward it. When I look back on it now, I see that I was leading an organization on the premise of ending racism in teaching and learning, while taking little time to understand the toll of peeling back white supremacy every day. Race work requires care, trust, and attention, and I wasn’t modeling those well enough. As our organization moved deeper into our journey to more fully live into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), I didn’t track the ways in which that work can often trigger and harm people of color. I was not present to the grief and rage rising in our community.

My experience opened my eyes and mind to what is happening at workplaces across the country as they struggle with the legacy and habits of racism and begin their DEI journeys. In the public and private sector—in for-profit companies, non-profit organizations, and social institutions of all sizes—there are consistent problems occuring that often have straightforward solutions. Racial identity development is a process with recognizable stages that are predictable, widely experienced, transient, and treatable; and there are reasons why a workplace sees less engagement, more complaints, worse retention, and an increase in interpersonal conflict when DEI work is underway. With the best of intentions, our structures, norms, values, patterns, assumptions, and unconscious decisions often harm, oppress, ignore, marginalize, and minimize people of color at work.

When DEI work finally begins, the heat increases for our Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian colleagues. It heats up because learning demands descriptions and discussions of—often in excruciating detail—the roots, reality, and rules of systemic racism. Because colleagues speak about and experience racism differently, white people say absurd things while we’re learning. The shock and tears that come with that white learning is understandably maddening for some of our colleagues of color who have lived the nightmare of racism while we white people have not had to even know it was there. When people of color in the community feel harmed and hurt, a reckoning and responsibility is rightly demanded. In the absence of acknowledgement or care, that demand often comes as a call to oust those near the top, or even dismantle the whole organization, believing them all irredeemable. Burn the city to the ground.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. My fellow leaders, there are so many unforced errors; so many missteps and public fumbles as we and our leadership teams wiggle through this moment. Our boards, customers, employees, stockholders—and soon even the SEC—are tracking our progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion. The only way to move past the false starts and half-efforts is to uncomfortably climb into the heart of the work. We cannot actually burn it all down, kick everyone out, and punish people for not knowing what they don’t know. We can’t hire our way out of it or just study a vocabulary list. We cannot just put up a banner on the website, declaring a commitment to something that we are not able to understand, internalize, or even define. And we cannot put the burden of the work on our staff of color.

Hurt will happen.

Crisis will occur. Petitions will be passed around. We will get called out for our mistakes. Accountability is required, but that accountability needs to come by calling people in. Leaders must be vulnerable in public, learn in public, and risk speaking in public when we don’t yet know how to say what desperately needs to be said. We need to believe in our redemption and remember why it matters, not to mention how many people our leadership affects. We need to be told and shown that to trip in the path—or even veer off it—is not the end of the road. We need to put aside our pride and our shame, and call in support. We need coaching, information, and to witness in order to grow and navigate through these times and be capable of driving positive change. And we need to do it now. Because we do hold great responsibility: not just to the work, but to those in it with us. I know it seems like an intimidating and slow hill to climb. I promise that it can be done and done well, and that you and your organization will thrive if you commit to this journey. We can chart a new course to workplaces that honor, respect, and treat equitably every member of the team. We can do so much more than “check the boxes.” I began my career as a teacher because I wanted to combat and overturn systems of oppression and violence, and I have been guided by that commitment every day since. My story is an offering and my intention is to invite yours. I invite you to make mistakes and learn with me. I beg you to struggle, and to grow, and to struggle again. I am with you. If we do it now, in this hour, we can leave a very different nation and a very different way of working for our children and theirs.

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