A lot can happen in two years.
Back in fall 2016, my colleague convinced me to join him at a conference for folks ‘in our space,’ people who cared about social change and who ascribed to the mantra of business for good. I’m a skeptic by nature and am generally apprehensive toward groups that categorize themselves as ‘socially responsible businesses.” More research was definitely in order. Before deciding whether I needed to conjure up a schedule conflict to evade the conference, I began to peruse its website. The conference theme had the word ‘inclusive’ in it and my ears perked up. Maybe the conference was a fit for me after all!!
Fast forward to my arrival at the conference. Late as usual, I entered a fully packed ballroom of about 600 people. After a quick scan of the room, I counted about 599 white people. Let’s call this enormous conference room a white sea, for short. No stranger to wading through white seas, I composed myself and decided to slap on a smile and find a seemingly friendly white person to park it next to. I braced myself for the inevitable pleasantries that would lead me to reveal that I focus much of my work on racial equity. With that revelation out there, out came all the burning questions about diversity, equity, inclusion that my tablemates had ever had. Relief washed over me as the programming started, bringing an end to my free consulting. My relief was short lived as the facilitator directed us to find a partner with whom to discuss ways in which inclusion had played out in our lives. As my partner shared her story, I won’t recount her tale here for sake of confidentiality, it hinged on a realization that she could invite black people into nature. For her, this was an epiphany. Before that point, I hadn’t realized that she was the gatekeeper of nature, so turns out the exercise was helpful.
I won’t beat a dead horse here–let’s just say that the remainder of the conference involved many similar conversations. More than once, someone assumed I was the facilitator of the only session that had ‘black lives’ in the title. I was congratulated a handful of times for an award won by another light skinned woman with natural hair (she was incredibly beautiful, so I was flattered, but I can say aside from being women of color with natural hair, we shared no other physical traits). I managed to make my way through the microaggression-filled days, the way I always do, planning to vent on the ride home. I’d chalk up this community as another loss, adding it to the list of well-meaning white spaces that ooze harm for people of color who wade into the white sea. But after hearing me vent, my colleague–the one who’d convinced me to join him at the conference–asked me if I’d be willing to write up my thoughts and share them with the hosting organization. I toyed with the idea and ultimately decided I would do as he suggested. If there was any chance to positively impact this resource-rich community of people who impact thousands of employees globally, all with a commitment to good, it was worth my energy. I’ll be honest –when I agreed to do this, I assumed the organization would say, ‘thanks for your feedback!’ and then flip me off on the other side of the screen. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
That initial feedback call turned out to be the beginning of a meaningful relationship with this organization. We returned to the conference the following year to present a session on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to a full room of attendees excited for the opportunity to engage in this important conversation. We knew that our session only scratched the surface of what work and conversations were possible, and necessary. We began to discuss how their group could lead an entire community to a more meaningful action toward inclusion and equity, deepening the conversation in a way that is not typical of such networks. Over the next year we developed a narrative strategy rooted in equity and transparency, a corresponding communications playbook, and a detailed messaging cadence to plan external communication. To keep the external work honest, we partnered on internal organizational development and coaching with the committee leading equity efforts. As we looked around this year’s conference, our third, we realized how far the community has come in a few short years. We saw equity woven as a throughline through all sessions and conversations, keynotes from leadership sharing their journey in this work, and attendees feeling more motivated to take the learnings back to their companies.
Seeing the breadth of the work over these years, I’ve never been more sure that relationships drive radical change.