Addressing Racial Equity With an Organizational Change Lens

Addressing Racial Equity With an Organizational Change Lens

Organizational change efforts can be daunting, even when the organization and its leaders know that such an effort will lead to a stronger, more sustainable organization in the long term. When it comes to racial equity, such efforts often carry an extra level of pressure. That's because change efforts seeking to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) can trigger both conscious and unconscious anxieties when staff and leadership are required to examine personal and organizational values, norms, behaviors, and perceptions. No matter what you do to create and communicate a compelling story and adjust policies and procedures, it all comes down to employee engagement, especially when it comes to "unfreezing" behavior and modeling change, both of which are key to ensuring employee buy-in and setting the stage for a successful change effort.

When tackling racial equity, the amount of individual energy and effort required to achieve a truly equitable and inclusive workplace can create stress at all levels of the organization — particularly for people of color. As with other change efforts, racial equity work requires staff members to personalize the process in order to find their own entry points into the work, and as each of us reflects on our own identity and what it means in both an individual and organizational context, frictions can arise. If not tactfully managed, issues of intersectionality, power dynamics, personal and work-related boundaries, and unconscious biases can become barriers that stand in the way of progress. But when implemented effectively, racial equity change initiatives can spark an examination of our lived experience, both at work and in our personal lives — as well as individual transformation. Not surprisingly then, if organizations can create a culture in which individuals are able to express and work through their own unconscious biases, uncertainty, and shame, they will experience a greater rate of change.

CRE's nearly four decades serving the nonprofit community has taught us that organizations ready to address and embrace racial equity must first examine how race interacts with all aspects of organizational culture, from board governance, to leadership and management, to staffing and talent management, to day-to-day work flow. While not an exhaustive list, below are four simple strategies for moving the needle on organizational change efforts intended to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion based on what we have learned from our experience promoting racial equity in our own organization and with our client partners.

Understand that each individual will experience this differently. As with many change initiatives, leaders (both of the organization and of the initiative) must give staff the tools and opportunity to create a shared vision that everyone can buy into. This may sound simple, but values, lived experience, and personal understanding of structural and systemic racism, among other critical factors, vary widely from individual to individual and can surface disagreement, blind spots, and resentment about what racial equity means. To help with that, we have found it essential to approach the work as an iterative process that requires paying close attention to how each person in the organization understands the larger racial equity journey. Once you begin to understand what each individual brings to that journey, you can begin to set smart goals that serve as "small wins" for all and create a shared sense of inclusion in, and ownership of, the effort.

Acknowledge that emotions matter. In their article "Reimagining Cultural Competence: Bringing Buried Dynamics Into the Light," authors Erica Gabrielle Foldy and Tamara R. Buckley make a strong case for the value of intentionally surfacing and processing emotions within an organization as a way to enhance cultural competence and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Here at CRE, we have an opt-in racial equity working group that encourages staff to engage with difficult topics in a more curious and reflective way as we implement our racial equity work plan. It's a space where each of us can openly share our feelings, frustrations, and even fears at a personal level in relation to the overall effort, and we've found it to be critical in supporting the broader effort because it enables honesty and trust building among staff across varying identities, and beyond race. 

With our clients, we notice again and again that providing individuals a space where they can share feelings and emotions during interviews and focus groups can make all the difference in the success of an organization's change efforts. It encourages individuals to listen with empathy to the challenges and insecurities that surface during diversity, equity, and inclusion change efforts. And it enables the kind of trust, vulnerability, generative disagreement, and innovation that is needed for long-term organizational transformation. While it is helpful to have an outsider facilitate these conversations, it is also true that over time enough trust and ownership can be built for these efforts to become self-sustaining.

Pause when needed. Dialogue that places conversations about race within the long history of white supremacy in America and the current political moment is important for ensuring that all staff members have a shared understanding of the context of (and need for) the organization to have a racial equity vision. However, focusing solely on the long-term impact of the change effort can sometimes lead staff feeling overwhelmed by the work. To balance the need to establish concrete long-term goals with short-term wins, we have found that pausing and making space for immediate action (and reaction) is a powerful way of maintaining and reinforcing staff engagement, stamina, and buy-in.

Distribute leadership. For us at CRE, one of the most important pauses we took came in August 2017 in conjunction with the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. When those events created a feeling of despondency among staff, white allies on staff led an optional session in which all were encouraged to share and process their feelings and thoughts about the events of that weekend. Having white allies lead one-off sessions and also be active in leading and facilitating the process that followed helped distribute responsibility for our racial equity vision to every member of staff and ensured that ours would be an organizational culture in which people of color were not expected to do all the emotional heavy lifting. It also helped create more authentic buy-in from white staff members, as they worked to create sessions and work plans that took into account the emotions and viewpoints of all staff members.

While more and more organizations are dedicating resources and demonstrating a greater commitment to equity, it is still too soon to see — or even expect — big successes or even point to an established body of best practices. Addressing racial equity within an organization requires multiple levels of simultaneous interventions that consider the past, present, and future, as well as intensive (and often anxiety-provoking) work at the individual level. That's a big ask from staff members, but organizations can make headway toward it by leveraging proven change management and transition planning tools. Such tools and strategies can help organizations overcome the structural racism that exists in society and establish truly inclusive, anti-racist organizational cultures in which differences are seen as assets and lead to even greater, more sustainable impact.

Yaro Fong-Olivares is a consultant at Community Resource Exchange, where she focuses on transformational leadership, team effectiveness, diversity, inclusion, and organizational development and change.