Over the past week, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about George Floyd, the ongoing protests around the United States, and how we got to this point. I am responsible for leading a Washington DC-based organization dedicated to principles like conflict resolution, social inclusion, and righting injustice around the world. Witnessing the suffering caused by racist state violence makes me question what kind of leader I want to be.
As a country founded on slavery, racism is ingrained in our institutions and clearly still present in our everyday lives. The murder of George Floyd is only the most recent tragedy in a very long and sad history of injustice and violence against Black America. To our Black colleagues: we see you, and we stand with you.
I received an email this week from a staff member asking how management plans to stand by our values at this difficult time. It has forced introspection on my part. What I’m beginning to understand is that I have a lot to learn and I have not done nearly enough to be actively anti-racist. As a white person, I’ve learned that I’ve had blinders on most of the time when it comes to recognizing micro aggressions or subtly racist comments, and that I don’t speak up enough when I recognize racist behaviors.
When I was in the Army years ago, I recall higher ranking enlisted and officers referring to junior black soldiers as “boy.” I’m just now realizing that, while I knew that they never referred to me in that way, I never spoke up or called out the behavior. In prior jobs, I remember sensing that some of my colleagues of color were almost overly professional, seemingly trying to “prove” themselves in a dominant white culture. I don't recall ever really trying to understand why or if they were being subjected to racist behaviors. Shame on me.
At DT Global, anti-racism is an integral part of the process of building an inclusive organization. But first we have to understand racism and be comfortable talking about it openly. As a leader, I want to create an environment of trust, so staff can feel safe to say when they are suffering and feel comfortable discussing sensitive issues with their managers. I want to encourage honesty and empathy throughout all levels of the organization so we have a culture of acceptance. While the road to truly “living our values” is a long one, here are three steps we’re starting with right now as we continue to learn.
First, leadership has to take a stand, talk honestly about how they feel, and communicate openly with staff. Not everyone will be interested in or comfortable with discussing racism at work, especially if there isn’t a solid foundation of trust. When leaders let down their guard, admit they do not have all the answers, and make themselves vulnerable, this goes a long way toward building trust and a culture where our Black colleagues feel supported and safe. Leadership will hold managers accountable, ensuring that they are treating all staff fairly, and with dignity and respect. Racism and inequality will not be tolerated at DT Global.
Second, building trust is critical to supporting staff and leads to healthy dialogue. Staff have to know that their managers “have their back” and they can voice their opinions, criticisms, and recommendations to leadership, who will actively listen. And it is our role, as managers and leaders, to be open and communicative about how we can turn those ideas and thoughts into actionable policies.
Third, we are embarking on a medium to long-term plan committing to education about systemic racism in America and supporting tangible ways to promote justice and end racism. This goes beyond our internal systems and our ongoing processes to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. It could include regularly scheduled “safe space” discussions with staff, facilitating outside activities and inviting experts to host workshops, starting book clubs, volunteering with organizations at the forefront of supporting racial justice, partnering with Historically Black Colleges, organizing “End Racism” annual work events, and a host of other actions.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I am committed to continuing to grapple with these difficult issues, even when it is hard or uncomfortable. What I do know is that if leaders lead on this issue, it makes it easier for everyone to discuss racism and work toward tangible actions to end it. I’m committed to listening and learning.
“The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it.”
Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Anti-Racist