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Establishing a Workplace DEI Program | Considerations for People of Color (Part II)

Yejin Lee

Three women having a discussion at a table

In the first post of this two-part series, we discuss how people of color can strategically assess the efficacy and impact of their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. Now, we'll share specific strategies that can be used by people of color as they do this important work, particularly when it becomes personal. 

The personal nature of DEI work

While DEI work should not be focused solely on issues of race, building an equitable and inclusive organization requires that we confront history as well as many contemporary manifestations of racism. Those who have been deeply and personally impacted by racism may feel more inclined to undertake a leadership role in the effort to promote DEI, in part because of the knowledge from lived experiences as well as a strong desire to ensure others do not ensure similar mistreatments.

While a personal passion for justice can serve as powerful fuel for DEI work, those leading the charge to promote DEI may also experience firsthand organizational resistance, microaggressions, and other forms of varying hostility as a result of their pioneering efforts—all of which can result in racial trauma.

It is therefore exceedingly important to identify potential contributors to racial trauma and exercise strategies that support those on the frontlines of DEI work.

Strategic disengagement

It can be incredibly difficult on an emotional, psychological, and practical level to strategically disengage with DEI work, but disengaging can also be an important tool to support longevity. 

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a conflict style inventory—a tool to measure an individual’s response to conflict situations. The assessment uses two axes, one called “assertiveness” and the other “cooperativeness.” Depending on your response to the assessment’s questions, your default conflict management style can fall into one of five categories: 

  • Competing (assertive, uncooperative)
  • Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative)
  • Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative)
  • Collaborating (assertive, cooperative)
  • Compromising (intermediate assertiveness and cooperativeness)

Knowing when to utilize each of the conflict management styles based on an analysis of the conflict’s root cause(s) can help with strategy and, ultimately, endurance. Assessing the root causes of DEI-based conflicts can be very helpful in determining whether staff person should engage or disengage with an issue. These roots have varying levels of depth; the deeper the root, the harder the issue may be to resolve. Some examples of roots are communication, personality, work style, and values.

If a person doing DEI work assesses that the root of an issue stems from poor internal communications, it may be worth an attempt to address, manage, and resolve the issue.

If the root stems from conflicting values, the road ahead will likely be more of a challenge. This isn’t to say that issues rooted in a more emotional or personal place automatically call for an avoidance or disengagement strategy. More simply put: this analysis can help an individual determine what strategy to utilize. What may also help this assessment is to scan your emotional, mental, and physical health. If you are becoming increasingly agitated and angry and this is negatively impacting you, consider a period of disengagement.

But what happens to the work when you have to disengage?

Reliance on allies 

Whether or not a staff person needs to strategically disengage from DEI work for a period of time, it is always helpful to cultivate and rely upon allies. An ally is someone who provides assistance and support; in this case, it may come in the form of a white person who is capable of supporting people of color on the front lines of DEI work.

Confronting issues of institutional and interpersonal racism must not rest solely on the shoulders of people of color. In fact, some argue that it is the responsibility of white people to deal with the racism of other white people so as not to overburden people of color. This requires a level of active relational engagement and a developed sense of trust with white colleagues. Before comfortably relying on allies in the workplace, provide them with some some tools to reflect on their power, privilege, and how they can use those in service of racial equity. 

The importance of self-care

“Self-care is a testament to the ability to understand, nourish and identify with our complex, layered and ever-evolving selves,” Alisha Acquaye wrote for Everyday Feminism, “It is a self-centering decision to acknowledge, address and cater to our bodies’ needs—spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, and more.” 

For people on the front lines of DEI work, self-care is especially important. These tips can help you center yourself:

  1. Find or create places and spaces that affirm your greatness, whether it is an affinity group or meetup.
  2. Identify a personal growth goal and pursue it. Sometimes, leading an effort can both be empowering and yet feel one-sided. Growth and learning can be revitalizing, particularly when you are dictating your own path. If you’ve always wanted to write, considering joining a writer's workshop.
  3. Organize a space to address workplace microaggressions. It is important to release accumulated experiences of microaggressions. You can create an affinity group at work and/or create or join existing groups in your area.
  4. Take paid time off. Taking space from work is important for all workers, but it can be especially rejuvenating for people experiencing resistance to their DEI work.
  5. Consume books, movies, and shows that bring you joy and lightness. DEI can understandably be very heavy and intense. To counterbalance the intensity, try bringing levity into your life. 
  6. Take care of your body, whatever that means for you. This could mean eating more or less frequently, exercising, meditating, taking hydration breaks, stretching. You know your body best, so if you listen, you'll be able to give it what it needs.
  7. Make time for solitude. There is a time for community and a time for solitude. Make sure you have both by carving out time for self-reflection and rest.

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Are you a DEI warrior? Share with us your own strategies for making the work sustainable and enduring! 

Yejin Lee

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.

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