By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC
*Acronyms used: BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, & People of Color; DEI = Diversity, Equity,
I consider myself in pretty good shape. I work out a few times a week on the treadmill or in a
power-stretching class (I refuse to call it “yoga”). But the other day, I was helping a friend
out at his winery and I learned how not in shape I am. I had a fun vision in my head of stomping on grapes in a barrel, like that classic I Love Lucy episode…but the reality was a lot harder than I anticipated and I was sore for days! I found muscles I didn’t know I had! I was turning a 500-pound pressing block, shoveling grapes from a hot tub-sized bin, mixing the fermenting wine with a potato masher that stood almost as tall as me, and more. Full. Body. Workout. What really blew me away was that my friend was outpacing me without even breaking a sweat! This is his daily life, so he is in much better shape for this work than I am. He doesn’t need to count his steps or go to crossfit because his regular routine makes him stronger than any scheduled activity possibly could.
And, that got me thinking about how we build the strength and set the pace to tackle issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workplaces. Is it through the rigors of daily life or is it through opt-in experiences like classes, books, podcasts, etc.? The reason I ask this is because there is an assumption that these two ways of knowing are the same. But they aren’t.
The strength built up by people of color who experience and struggle through racism every day is different than that of their white counterparts, who are generally able to “opt-into” the racial
equity fight. There is often a history of racism for BIPOC that goes beyond an individual
lifetime, spanning hundreds of years and even crossing continents. The constant effort needed to navigate daily life, to survive and thrive in a system designed to keep you down, requires a level of strength and resilience not attainable through a few hours a week of reading blogs or books or watching movies. In other words, reading The New Jim Crow is not the same as living it.*
“Reading The New Jim Crow is not the same as living it.
And, I bet that most people, white and BIPOC alike, understand this difference in regard to daily
life. But when it comes to our workplaces and the DEI goals we hope to achieve, we pretend like these two ways of knowing lead to the same level of strength and resilience. So, let’s ask ourselves some hard questions: in regard to employees within organizations tackling DEI initiatives…
- Does everyone have the same level of strength, resilience, and understanding of racism?
- Who is in better “diversity shape” to address the issues of racism head on?
- Shouldn’t the people with the greatest understanding of the issue set the pace** for the DEI work in their organizations?
I mean, if I went to help my friend at his winery and asked him to slow down the work until I
built up my strength, would I actually be helping? Or worse: what if I went to him and demanded that I lead the work? This is not to say that I shouldn’t try to help. I most definitely should help, regardless of how out of shape I am at that moment. But I need to choose the right mindset: an understanding that just because I want to work doesn’t make me the most qualified to lead the work. I need to take on appropriate work that fits my current strength-level and helps me grow so I can build my strength and be more impactful in the future. And I have to be okay with giving my friend the space to lead the work at his accelerated pace, and not make him feel badly about being stronger and faster than me. Otherwise, I would be centering the experience on my needs, not the needs of the work itself. There’s a subtle but critical difference. And, if I was really serious about helping him out, I would support him more often, work out on my own to get stronger faster, push myself harder and use him as a model instead of trying to slow him down to my level.
The fact is that organizational leadership will determine the direction and pace of DEI initiatives. But it is also a fact that leadership positions are mostly held by white people. BIPOC employees are more likely to be in lower level positions and often are implicitly tasked with accommodating the burgeoning understanding of their white counterparts (especially those in leadership). All the while, the BIPOC still have to grapple with the racist structures and systems held in place by the slow pace of the DEI work. And this dynamic of slowing down the pace of the work to accommodate those least “in shape” sends 3 implicit and completely erroneous messages:
- That the work is not urgent enough and can afford to go at a slow pace;
- That the white staffers are not capable of developing their resilience and strength at a faster pace; and,
- That BIPOC employees and stakeholders who are ready to go faster will wait around while the organization moves along at a pace that accommodates those least impacted by racism.
None of these messages are true. Not a single one. But because we rarely take the time to
unpack the issues around our DEI pace-setting and leadership, we often send these messages
unintentionally. This all said, a common retort I hear to statements above is that going faster will risk losing white stakeholders, including staff and funders. Part of this is correct: there will be risk, but there is also risk if you don’t speed up the pace: you risk losing engagement from BIPOC employees and stakeholders. But this retort also comes with its own implicit and erroneous message: that BIPOC employees aren’t capable of understanding those risks and developing with white leadership a scaffolded strategy to address them. That message is just as false as the previously stated myth that white staffers aren’t capable of following a faster pace. Slowing down the pace is denigrating to all people involved, white and BIPOC.
So, if you don’t believe these myths, ask yourself: who is setting the DEI pace at your
organization, and does that pace unintentionally send any of these messages? These are hard questions to ask and answer. Most organizations don’t even try. But, if you want to really unpack the possible implicit bias of the DEI work at your organization and unleash its full potential, I can help. I work with leadership teams to examine their DEI work, specifically around complex issues such as these. This is what leads to setting and achieving real diversity goals. Together, we can create Just Strategies for Just Solutions!
Side notes/food for thought:
* This is not to denigrate learning about racism through opt-in experiences. These learning
opportunities are very important for everyone who wants to engage in anti-racism work, both to develop critical white allies and for BIPOC to examine our internalized racism (just because we know we are oppressed doesn’t mean we know how to dismantle the oppressive systems). I am simply advocating that classes cannot fully convey the daily life of someone on the receiving end of society’s racist structures and beliefs.
**It is important to note that “setting the pace” for DEI work does not mean doing all of it alone
or even taking on the bulk of the work. When I was at my friend’s winery, he set the pace but I
worked super hard, too, and my time and efforts were greatly appreciated because I allowed him the bandwidth to do the more complicated and challenging tasks I wasn’t ready for yet. He could also take a break, which given that he was working on this way before me and would be way after I left, I felt really good about providing him. I was part of a team and I trusted my friend to set a pace that achieved a goal he understood far better than I did. Why are we comfortable following someone else’s lead in situations like volunteering at a winery but when it comes to DEI in our workplace we get all prickly? Hmmmm…