In the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), individuals who identify with marginalized groups are often the ones most involved in the work. For example, a study in the field of higher education showed that underrepresented faculty members (e.g. women and people of color) are the ones shouldering their institution’s commitment to DEI work.
Aside from often being unrecognized and undervalued, this imbalance leaves underrepresented employees at greater risk of experiencing microaggressions and pushback. While it can be deeply empowering for a person of color to lead work related to racial equity, it can also be challenging to sustain.
The first installment of a two-part series, this post will focus on how people of color can assess the efficacy of their efforts related to DEI. The second part will focus on how staff of color can sustain and endure this important work.
Sometimes, a person’s passion for DEI work is rooted in personal experiences of discrimination, microaggressions, and disempowerment. This can lead to a deep desire to ensure that an organization is set up to address and ultimately prevent those things from happening in the future.
Organizations are incredibly lucky when they employ individuals who are willing to take on this role, especially when the work is done on a volunteer basis and is not part of any one person’s formal job description. This is a noble and virtuous charge, and it is important to recognize when an employer is genuinely empowering their staff to institutionalize DEI values, and when they may be tokenizing the staff who are leading the charge.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself in order to determine whether you are being empowered or tokenized:
- Is my organization genuinely interested in and committed to DEI work? How do I know whether this is true?
- Am I being empowered to do this work? If so, what resources am I being given to do this work effectively?
- Have I been given any authority or decision-making power related to DEI work? If not, has the leadership team come up with a process to make decisions related to DEI?
- If I am not given tools, resources, or decision-making power related to DEI, then what is my role?
Are you set up for success?
If your organization has equipped you with the tools to lead this work, then it seems more likely that you are being set up for success. If you are meant to lead the charge but have no access to additional resources and little power to make effective changes, then it is possible you are experiencing tokenism. In this case, it's worth considering whether your energies should be spent on DEI projects or if there is a way for you to identify what you need from your organization in order to conduct this work meaningfully—and to ask for it.
It is also possible that your organization simply does not have the capacity or financial resources for DEI work. If that is the case, you can tell them that there are resources to help nonprofits fundraise specifically for DEI-related initiatives or to incorporate DEI into an organization’s fundraising strategy. Perhaps it is time for your organization to pursue capacity-building grants to ensure equitable experiences.
It is important to be able to see whether your employer is setting DEI-focused staff up for success and efficacy. It is also useful to understand how we, as individuals, can more effectively engage with the sensitivities inherent to authentic DEI work. This is especially important for staff of color, many of whom have experienced bias, microaggressions, harassments, etc. in the workplace. How do we honor and name our experiences while we also compassionately hold people accountable for the harm they cause? Can we do both at the same time?
I was once participating in a breakout session at a conference, and I became increasingly frustrated by a woman who was saying a number of anti-black and xenophobic things. I began a combative argument with her and ended up making her feel small. The facilitator, a woman of color herself, forced a break, and then asked to speak with me.
The facilitator sat me down and explained, “Yejin, sometimes we have to choose between being right and being effective. Which do you want to be right now?” Much to my embarrassment, I felt tears forming and exclaimed “Why can’t I be both? Why is the burden on me to be kind and nice to a woman who just said terrible things?” She gave me a knowing look and said, “Because that’s the way the world works, sometimes. Neither choice is wrong, but most times you can’t have it both ways.”
I took a deep breath, decided that I would rather be effective than right, and then re-engaged in a conversation with the woman. I was calm and compassionate, and the discussion ended with the woman acknowledging the harm that came from her previous remarks.
Being right vs. being effective
I learned a very important lesson that day. Taking a deep breath and zooming out of the immediate situation helped me to determine what my goal was for this discussion, which made it easier for me to identify strategies of engagement: I wanted the woman to recognize the racism in her statements, and to acknowledge the pain it causes. By deciding that I wanted to be effective, I was forced to exercise patience, modify my tone, and focus on my breathing.
I very well could have decided that being right was more important in this situation because what she said was racist and painful. Then I would have had to let go of the expectation and possibility of having this woman apologize for her hateful speech. But that would have been okay, too—people of color shouldn’t have to bear the emotional burden of always meeting explicit or implicit racial bias with compassion and grace. It’s a matter of choice.
This is all to say: it can be very challenging for people of color to engage in conversations about race and racism, and though we shouldn’t be expected to always prioritize efficacy over rightness (this can lead to forced repression of experiences of racism, which can be very harmful to an individual's mental, emotional, and physiological health), it is helpful to know that we can always zoom out and make a choice around our intended goal. And, we can be ready to explain the strategic choices we make.
Part II of this series will cover how to strategically choose levels of engagement regarding DEI work to ensure longevity, endurance, and sustainability, and ways people of color can prioritize self-care as they continue this important work.
Are you a person of color who leads your organization’s DEI work? Share with us your ideas, experiences, and successes!
Yejin Lee is a nonprofit professional and career coach based in New York City. She is most passionate about supporting nonprofits in operationalizing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework, and assisting individuals in thoughtfully identifying and strategically pursuing professional goals. Yejin also loves cooking, eating, annotating TV shows, and hanging out with her husband and sassy shiba inu.