Written by Leadership Charleston Class of 2021 participant Janet Bates of JE Dunn Construction Company
I never thought I’d be here: but there is nothing I want more this year than to go to a conference where I drink stale coffee and get a reusable grocery bag filled with a couple of pens and semi-useless iPhone accessories. Since congregating around the snack break table isn’t an option these days, I’ve been attending a multitude of virtual conferences, the most recent being the inaugural DE&I Conference by the Charleston Metro Chamber.
As a Leadership Charleston class member, I was told during our orientation that issues of diversity, equity and inclusion would be woven into the fabric of each of our sessions, informing the conversations we have and the projects we undertake. I’m grateful for the timing of the conference; beginning our year of exploration with three half day discussions on bias, anti-racism, equity vs. equality and the business imperative for DE&I helped set a foundation for our experience going forward.
There were a hundred, if not more, mic drop moments that filled up my notebook; enough stats I couldn’t get down on paper quick enough that my phone is full of pictures of slides on a screen. Below, I have shared some of the highlights of the three days.
There is a business and moral imperative to pursue Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And let’s start here: this is about more than being a good person. If that is all this work required, we would be in a very different place than we find ourselves. The work that we do must start with ourselves and move to our communities and businesses. One of my favorite moments of the conference was during the first fireside chat with Chase Glenn from the Alliance for Full Acceptance, when he said “This is difficult work. It takes courage and intentionality.” Another note I wrote said: It is okay to be uncomfortable, because people are uncomfortable right now.
LaVanda Brown from the YWCA reminded all of us that racism is not the only oppression, but it is the glue that connects oppressions. For example, the empowerment of women cannot be actualized without addressing the inequity affecting Women of Color. Systemic racism is embedded. This is about systems, not about people, so we should start by outlining definitions to help create a common language.
- White Supremacy: Historically based and institutionally perpetuated system of oppression of people of color that defends and grows power and wealth of the oppressor
- Systemic Racism: Racism is embedded in our society and systems. We see it our criminal justice system, housing disparities, education and wealth acquisition. We ALL inherited these systems, and it will take all of us to change it. Yes, white men do need to be a part of this. They are in fact particularly important in this work.
- Equality does not equal Equity. Equality aims to ensure everyone gets the same thing. Equity aims to ensure everyone gets what they need to get the same thing. Equality is when we build stairs to enter a building and say, “There! Everyone can get to the doors to enter the building.” Equity is when we also build a ramp and ensure the door can be open via a button or door handles. Now everyone has access to the building.
Dialogue leads to Strategy leads to Action. By using a common language, we can begin productive conversation, which, even if uncomfortable, should be focused on bringing people together. But conversation cannot be done for conversation’s sake. Without sincerity, any intentionality will be erased. Once we start with dialogue we can move to strategy and then action. Let’s focus first on ourselves and our communities before diving into our businesses.
Listen. Learn. Engage. Act. Find accountability partners, both white and People of Color, who won’t judge you and who have permission to check you. Recognize that we all have bias. Bias is not something to be ashamed of, it is to be shared. Work to expand your associations: search out resources and consider your network. Intentionally expand both when you realize that everyone in the room with you has the same shared response: you are missing blind spots. Commit to action to challenge those biases.
When we engage in anti-racism work on a personal level, it will impact our immediate community. But as we mentioned in the beginning, DE&I is not only a moral imperative but a business one as well. Leadership in DE&I does not need to start from the top, although it should be in the fabric of who we are. DE&I is not just a human resource function; it is not simply the responsibility of someone who has “diversity” in their title. It needs to be owned by all; it should be ingrained in strategy which will create productivity, innovation and creativity. While non-diverse environments are not necessarily hostile, they can be harmful. People want to bring their whole selves to work. This is why representation is important: when people feel they belong, they are more motivated and productive.
Increasing representation can begin by being intentional about where and how you recruit: blind resume reviews, diverse hiring panels, building relationships with various colleges including HBCU’s. Since we are talking about systems and not people, we need to review and challenge policies and practices. Is the policy creating an advantage or disadvantage for the people in our community? Challenge the practices we employ around the goals of DE&I. It is important to remember that DE&I is not a destination or a program. It is, as Darrin Gross from the Coastal Community Foundation said, a “different orientation of spirit, different habits of the mind, to live into the ideal that we are here to unite communities”.
We have so much work to do as a country, as a community, as individuals. As a white person of immense privilege, the amount of work ahead of us can feel so overwhelming it can seem easier to walk away than keep pushing on. If this work feels hard, it is harder still to live in a society supported by systems that are inherently racist. We stand on the shoulders of the people who have come before us, those who have started dismantling this mountain. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I’m choosing to harness the energy felt at this conference. It is clear to me that while we have a very long way to go, in our business community we have people who are committed, passionate, engaged and ready to learn, ready to act. Since DE&I is not a destination, I look forward to the second conference next year. But most importantly, I look forward to an ongoing dialogue resulting in increased action from our business community to fundamentally shift our culture forward.