Earlier this year, in the midst of the Black Live Matter movement I spoke to a couple of NFP CEOs who were looking to take action on the lack of diversity in their workforces.
White, very highly educated, middle class, men and women living without disability pretty much summed it up.
While these two CEOs were leaders of advocacy organisations, an area of work that traditionally favours these characteristics (along with the Aid sector), few agencies have nailed the diversity agenda. Sure, there are those organisations that specifically cater to certain groups who in many (not all) instances employee significant numbers of people who are within that group; but often even then it is rarely genuinely intersectional.
There are a bunch of structural reasons this is the case that I am not going to address here because you all know that stuff; I know you know you’re going to better serve your client cohorts if your workforce reflects the community. I know the vast majority of the for-purpose space aims to be progressive and inclusive. You know the theory, you’re living and working within the reality of structural disadvantage every day so I am not going to school you on that.
Rather I am going to look specifically at some of the factors I have witnessed through a couple of case studies, and then we'll look at a very powerful step you can take toward building a genuinely inclusive workforce.
Case study one – the Aid Agency.
An organisation I did a piece of work for provides aid to communities in the Asia Pacific region. Their client cohort (to generalise): Pacific Islander, from large families, a span of ages, little education, religious, deep traditions, and limited access to financial, educational and housing resources. The agency's staff: white, young, UN interned, minimum qualification a related research Masters, no children, atheist (we know this because it had been surveyed).
These staff cared deeply about using appropriate gender pronouns and getting the wording right on their acknowledgement of country. When they worked with client groups, they made statements about and used the language of equals to avoid the sense that there was any power imbalance that came from their privilege and more importantly, their holding of the purse strings (this created a whole set of other issues, but that's a story for another day). As a group, they knew and believed 'all the right things’.
They received feedback from their client communities that they were colonialist.
You can imagine the panic that ensued. So, a plan was developed to solve the issue:
They would hire a consultation panel of PhDs who specialised the Asia Pacific Aid Sector.
I am assuming I don't need to point out the problem here? Or maybe I do because I had to point it out to them. The answer isn't asking people who are the same as you to help solve a problem that is based in your way of relating to a group that has a vastly different set of experiences to you. ASK THOSE PEOPLE - THE ONES WHO ARE DIFFERENT TO YOU. Sorry for yelling.
Case study Two:
This time we're in a service that had a program based in correctional facilities. Again, good humans - very well-meaning people, highly educated, highly experienced in their line of work. They – and genuinely good on them – decided to up their game and hire some First Nations women to take on Aboriginal Liaison Officers roles in recognition of the fact they were not adequately supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients.
I ran into one of the women recently, and she told me about her experience. She described the organisation as the most racist she had ever worked in. I was momentarily surprised; certainly, I knew that wouldn’t have been their intent. I also knew they were so well-meaning, ... and so white ... so well trained in cultural sensitivity but ... - I reflected - also they would have been so sure they were ‘good people who knew the right things’ that it wouldn’t have even been on their radar that they were not able to provide a culturally safe workplace for those women.
And this is the thing for our sector. Our good intentions, our hyper-education and our fear of really reflecting on our privilege (as opposed to our performative displays of naming privilege whenever it might detract from the perceived power of our argument or because it is a social tick) are holding us back from doing the work that actually needs to be done.
So what could you do instead? Don’t ask me. Ask the people you serve. Ask the people you are seeking to include. Ask them with open hearts and be ready to really hear. Go in knowing that good intention and academic know-how is good - it really is, but it’s not lived experience. I know you've done the training, but actually, it can backfire (see here and here and here) Ask them how to ask the questions if you don’t know-how. And then make sure you act on what you're hearing (ok, so this is now two steps) to the extent that you can, and check in about whether you're getting it right. Not earnestly or agonisingly - then you're making it about you, not them - just in a human, 'I care about you' way.
And if you're in an underserved group and I have this all wrong, I would love to know. I am conscious of asking you here to be constant educators and that that is a role you shouldn't have to fulfil. But I am also conscious that all the blind spots we have that mean all the education and good intent in the world just isn't cutting it.
Note: Identifying information is removed from case studies.