Transformation from the Margins Out: Centering Voices of Black, Indigenous, and Womxn of Color to Create Organizational Change
Photo Credit: @angelinabambina
While many organizations are engaged in cultivating social justice out in the world, they are simultaneously struggling with how best to address the multiple layers of internal injustices that create unwelcoming work environments, particularly for black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPoC). This past August, Portland Women in Technology (PDXWiT) published the 2019 State of the Community . The report offered findings from a survey of just over five thousand respondents in the tech world for the purpose of gauging the sector’s health when it comes to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). One of the most fascinating realizations that emerged from the study is that:
“most white people in the industry said their companies take diversity seriously and would recommend someone from an underrepresented group work at their company. But among people from other racial and ethnic groups, and transgender people, fewer than a third agree…”
To this discovery, Megan Bigelow, the board president of PDXWiT stated:
“These [DEI] initiatives that are being built are resonating with white people. However, the efforts of the white people who generally run those companies aren’t resonating with the people they say they’re trying to reach…”
Demonstrating this same dilemma within the business sector, despite the goal of creating an economy that is inclusive of everyone and implementing a new model of inclusive corporate governance, Jay Coen Gilbert, cofounder of B Lab explained in Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion:
“…only 43 percent of B Lab’s staff who are people of color feel they can bring their whole selves to work, compared to 96 percent of their white coworkers. Houston, we have a problem..”
Jay is absolutely right -we do indeed have a problem. However, what both Megan and Jay describe is not the actual problem. The facts that diversity initiatives are not resonating with BIPoC, and they do not feel like they can bring their whole selves into a work space are symptoms of a deeply entrenched problem within organizations. The problem organizations are faced with in their attempts to cultivate just, equitable, and diverse working environments is that they are not relying upon the innate wisdom and leadership that can be found in the voices that have been most acutely impacted by unwelcoming, inequitable, and exclusionary spaces. Simply put, organizations are not placing the appropriate focus on the voices of black, indigenous, and womxn of color (BIWoC) when trying to create transformative organizational change. And, beyond the appropriate focus, few organizations are consistent with following the lead and directives of BIWoC. The word “womxn” includes those who are both members of traditionally oppressed racial/ethnic groups and who identify as trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary, or cisgender.
The well intentioned landscape of organizations is peppered with examples of conversations and actions around DEI by well-meaning, predominantly white-led nonprofit organizations. To the detriment of these organizations, such initiatives are overwhelmingly anchored around the bravado of the white voice. The irony here is that at the same time organizations are amplifying the call to cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workspaces, the voices that matter most in answering this call are (still) being muted and silenced. In Hacking Diversity in Tech by Emphasizing Retention , Megan Rose Dickey posits that retention is key in helping to cultivate diversity. What is intriguing in this piece is the use of the word hack as a way to communicate that there is indeed a “work around” for the problematic environments organizations are grappling with. By definition, a hacker is any skilled expert that uses their knowledge to overcome a problem. If the problem is the lack of diversity — as Dickey’s article suggests, and this lack is a direct result of the systemic marginalization that occurs within organizations, then there is no better expert voice to hack diversity than those who most acutely suffer from, and bear the brunt of the problem. It goes without saying that white folks ought not be the experts in the room on this because they do suffer the most from the problem. Yes, white folks suffer within the oppressive system that we aptly name white supremacy/white patriarchy. However, the suffering is acutely and vastly different than the suffering that is experienced by BIWoC within the same system. In fact, I would go as far as to say that while they do suffer, white folks are beneficiaries of the problem, which is the very reason why they are able to be seen as the experts in an area that fundamentally is about addressing the oppression on traditionally impacted populations.
What organizations lose in silencing and muting the already marginalized voices of BIWoC is the lived experiences and narratives of BIWoC who have been at the painful end of systemic marginalization in organizations. When organizations choose not to center BIWoC voices in creating just and sustainable work environments, they end up reducing critical narratives and stripping away the profundity that is deeply embedded in these narratives. In doing so, organizations forfeit access to the groundswell of wisdom that is only found within the years of experience BIWoC have in both navigating and surviving unwelcoming and exclusionary organizational environments. For organizations working to better hold DEI within their work spaces, success will be achieved to the extent to which they are able to shift power to the voices and lived experiences of BIWoC.
When we consider the role marginalized and impacted people play in creating transformative organizational change, it has been said that it is the very living, existing, and survival of the marginalized that is the key. If we can agree on this belief, then organizations must remember that it is precisely the marginalized position of BIWoC that renders them uniquely suited and poised to create meaningful organizational change when it comes to creating spaces that better hold and support diversity, equity, and inclusion. As organizations further marginalize, mute, and silence the voices and resourceful power that lies exclusively within BIWoC, efforts to create diverse, inclusive, and equitable work spaces will only end up perpetuating the very harmful environments they desire to transform.
Mother. Teacher. Agitator. S. Rae Peoples is the founder and principal consultant of Red Lotus Consulting, a race equity and service boutique. Her writings and opinions have been published in the Washington Post, the East Bay Express, the Oakland Post, BlogHer, as well as Young, Fabulous and Self-Employed magazine. Currently based in Boston, S. Rae is a student affairs administrator at an art school and Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for North Atlantic Books.