Every day I trepidatiously scan the latest news on the internet hoping to avoid the most egregious triggers. This week began with a debate on “white Hispanic” trending in social media regarding a Deputy Sheriff in Los Angeles who shot and killed a Black man. That debate was similar to the “blue dress / gold dress” debate of 2015, with the exception that it was about race, and racism, and death. As a woman who has spent too much of her adult life responding to the statement: “You don’t look Puerto Rican!” Meaning: “You look white,” these debates make me cringe. Yesterday had its share of reports of violence against people of color by law enforcement officials, politicians, and haters-in-general, but one story jumped out at me. “A white professor lied about being Afro-Latina for years.”
I spend a great deal of time thinking about the construct of racial and ethnic identity. Throughout history there have been people who chose to pass as white (if they could pass as white) because they sought the privilege provided by passing safety from violence, job opportunities, improved housing conditions, etc. Many mixed-race people do not have to try to pass. Genetics are a funny thing. We do not all carry the same percentage of our ancestors’ DNA. We come out all mixed up. I have siblings with blond hair and blue or grey eyes and siblings with black hair and dark brown eyes. We have a range of skin tones. I was encouraged by my mother to stay out of the sun long before fears of skin cancer were a common concern, as she did not want me to get too brown.
The point of all of this is that we have been taught and conditioned for hundreds of years that there are clear advantages to being white. In recent years, people of color – Africans, descendants of Africans, Asians, descendants of Asians, Native Peoples, descendants of Native Peoples, and every possible combination of the above with varying degrees of European DNA mixed in – have begun to learn to value themselves. The assertion that Black Lives Matter, that people who are not 100% white matter, comes at the price of being attacked by those who disagree (aka racists). Those attacks may be verbal (hate speech): “You dirty spic!” Those attacks may be written (racist billboards) “Diversity = White Genocide!” Those attacks may be physical “The police shot into the crowd of protesters with rubber bullets at point blank range.”
What this woman, especially as one in the academic sector wielding an incredible sphere of influence, did by impersonating people who are born into a world where those attacks and the threat of those attacks are a daily experience was to disavow the value of our lived experience. I once had a friend who said, “I cannot compete with you!” She was referring to my childhood of poverty and abuse, my first husband being killed in a taxi accident in Beijing, and other personal struggles and tragedies that I have experienced. She also referenced my being a Latina. This ‘icing on the cake’ apparently made it hard for a white woman to complain about how difficult her own life was. This was long before I was facilitating discussions on white privilege in my workshops, but her complaint created a breaking point for me. White, non-Hispanic / non-Latino people cannot even let us have our suffering. They even have to co-opt that! I have survived being spit on, having a full soda can thrown at my head, having a bucket of water with laundry soap thrown in my face, in addition to many verbal racist attacks by people who did not like having dirty spics as neighbors in our public housing projects in Astoria, NY. These are traumas that I would gladly trade for a life of safety and prosperity or privilege.
Every time we are confronted with the assault of a white person passing as a person of color, we are forced to face our internalized racism. The many shades of internalized racism within our own communities that focus on whether someone is being Black enough or Latino enough. The debate over how Hispanic a ‘white Hispanic’ person is versus an ‘Afro-Hispanic’ or ‘Afro-Latino’ causes us to fracture further and further apart. Racism has been part of Latino culture for as long as there have been Latinos (think of the Conquistadors). As we gain self-realization, self-esteem, and work to unlearn the internalized racism that we have been taught for millennia, we must remember that teaching to value shades of color perpetuates the Spanish system of la Casta* which was a very effective way of keeping people divided and disempowered. As long as we focus on shades of color as a value system we perpetuate racism. This perpetuates our division, our separateness, our lack of connection and inclusion, and ultimately our ascendance to full privilege. We have an opportunity to stop reacting to the racism that we have been taught and to start intentionally being who we are: the legacy of those who came before and new, beautiful, and whole people.
I have been asking this question for decades: What difference does difference make? It came to me when I was confronted by very privileged individuals who could not even imagine what life would be like for those who are not white, Christian, educated, socioeconomically secure, heterosexual, without a major disability, born in the USA, and for the most part, male. I needed to find ways to get through the resistance to inclusion, to create a bridge that would help those who were taught that difference is bad to cross the chasm from ignorance to inclusion. I needed to develop a methodology to help these people to unlearn the lies that they had been taught all of their lives: that they were not part of the problem of racism nor the cure; that all people who worked hard, followed the golden rule, and kept out of trouble would be able to be successful in American society; that affirmative action was unfair and helped those who were less capable, lazy, and did not deserve the jobs that they got; that the majority of Americans have not been victims of racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of hate; and that discrimination is not a cornerstone of privilege. I have been told hundreds of times by individuals who actively reinforced institutional racism and sexism that they were neither sexist nor racist. Usually, I was told this vehemently.
With the announcement that Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his Vice-Presidential running mate, the internet and media worlds lit up with an incredible range of responses. Most of the statements, however, have not focused on Ms. Harris’ political position on various matters. Most of the statements have focused on her gender, race, or ethnicity, in other words, her intersectionality. As the first woman of Indian and Jamaican descent to be nominated (presumed at the time of this writing) Vice Presidential candidate by one of the two major political parties in the United States, comments regarding Ms. Harris’ intersectionality have abounded. Kamala Harris identifies as a Black woman. She is representative of millions of Americans of mixed ‘race’ and ethnicity. Many of us were deeply, positively impacted by having a President who was of mixed race when we elected President Barack Obama. Now, we have that opportunity again. The opportunity is to normalize and embrace our intersectionality rather than engage in debates over how Black or how Indian Ms. Harris is. At Inclusion Strategy Solutions LLC, we discuss intersectionality in many of our workshops. I, for example, cannot dissect my intersectionality. I cannot only be a woman today, without being a person who is in her 60s, or someone who is half Puerto Rican and half Irish descent. All of my distinct demographic identities combine to make me who I am. They have always shaped and impacted how others see me, respond to me, and treat me. I am the sum of my parts. I am the sum of my experiences and perceptions. I do not need to be aware of the cause and effect of those perceptions for them to exist. I, like Kamala Harris, am among the ‘offspring of the colonial embrace’ – a phrase first coined by Paul Scott, author of The Jewel in the Crown. We have European, African, Asian, and Native American DNA to varying degrees. Kamala Harris is not Indian or Jamaican or African or European, she is American, very American. I love Aurora Levins Morales’ poem, “Child of the Americas” for this specific reason: we are new and cannot go back to those elements of which we are comprised.
Is the Candidate Qualified?
We have an opportunity to pay attention to how we describe and define each other. Kamala Harris is many things as a human being. The most important things that we need to focus on in determining if she should be the next Vice President of the United States, is her qualifications for the position. As a Senator, a former State Attorney General, and a former District Attorney, Ms. Harris clearly meets the qualifications of a dedicated public servant who knows the law and has navigated the pressures incorporated in the positions that she has held.
This is not a political endorsement, but rather an illustration of the recommendations that we make to our clients on a regular basis. When asked for assistance with increasing diversity in organizations, especially at the leadership level, we are often given the proviso that the candidates need to be qualified. My consistent response is that you should never even interview a candidate who does not meet or exceed the qualifications for the position, even if the candidate is a white male. I will further argue that, based on the adversity that Ms. Harris has had to contend with as the child of a Black man and a brown woman, both immigrants, she is more qualified than one who has had a life of privilege. Privilege, for anyone who bristled when reading the previous sentence, does not mean that your life is free of grief or adversity, but that people of color, especially women of color have to deal with all of those things on top of the double edged sword of living in a world rife with racism and sexism.
When I think about the question: What difference does difference make? The answer to me is obvious: Difference makes a tremendous difference! I did not have a single Puerto Rican teacher until I was in college and did not have any Puerto Rican professors in graduate school. This is astonishing to me still as one who was born and raised in New York City. I had a Puerto Rican baseball coach as an adolescent and he provided me with an incredibly positive role model as a man of color who, despite tremendous odds, achieved his master’s degree. Kamala Harris represents so many people who are not accustomed to seeing people like themselves in positions of power. She represents so many people whose parents came to the United States because of its reputation as a democracy where anyone, everyone has an opportunity to succeed. That representation also means that issues of importance to women, Black people, children of immigrants, people of mixed race and heritage, have a greater likelihood of their concerns and issues being addressed.
To those who are threatened by difference, I want you to think about your role models, mentors, teachers, influencers. Who in your world has held a mirror up to you so that you can see your future self? Who has created a bridge for you to cross from poverty to economic stability? Who shared stories of overcoming obstacles so that you could have hope of a better, brighter future? Those of us who are the majority of the human beings on this planet have had too few of those representatives. Kamala Harris has not been successful because she is a woman of color, but despite being a woman of color who had to and continues to overcome barriers that most white people cannot even begin to imagine. Representation matters. History matters. If we are to create a future based on equity and inclusion, difference matters.
Genuine Change Requires Genuine Self-Examination, Strategies, and Transparency
During the past week my partner, Paula T. Edgar and I have received at least two dozen requests for help from potential clients. These requests have varied in terms of the specific type of help that they were seeking, but mostly people wanted help drafting their “Black Lives Matter” statements. Several people reached out asking if they could “pick our brains” (aka get free consulting), but that is the subject of another blog post. We have provided several of our clients with feedback on their statements, which is totally appropriate as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consultants. These statements should be personal and reflect an organization’s culture and history. (Please see Paula’s blog post “Say Something. Organizations Cannot Be Silent About Black Lives.” ) In other words, if you want to make a statement about an emotionally and politically charged issue, it really needs to be genuine. Here, as an example, is the statement that Paula and I released on “Black Lives Matter” last week.
We get frequent requests from potential clients interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion work that fall in the ‘window dressing’ (not really genuine) category. Some examples:
“We don’t have the resources to do a whole DEI assessment or strategic plan. Can you just give us a checklist of dos and don’ts?”
“We have had several ‘issues’ lately. Can you do a 45-minute webinar on unconscious bias?”
There are many more examples that I could share, but you get the idea. Racism, bias, inequity, and exclusion have dominated human interaction for millennia and yet people expect this to be effectively addressed by a single 45-minute ‘diversity workshop’ or an email from the CEO expressing their commitment to being inclusive. These ‘strategies’ give meaningful diversity and inclusion efforts a bad name.
The Walls Are Porous
The walls are porous. I have been saying this for a very long time. What I mean is that what happens out in the world impacts people inside of the walls of the office or hospital or restaurant where they work. Whether employees are comfortable discussing the Black Lives Matter protests or not, does not mean that they have not been impacted by racism and violence against Black people. The devastation resulting from the Coronavirus on a global scale has made this point painfully clear as many people are doing their jobs while being out in the world. The new workplace walls might be one’s bedroom or closet or kitchen walls. WFH (working from home) is what many ‘non-essential’ employees have been doing for the past few months. It is impossible for any organization regardless of function or size, to avoid being impacted by this pandemic. There have been hundreds of articles providing advice on working and managing from home. (I wrote a blog and presented a webinar on this in March: “10 Inclusive Management Best Practices for Remote Teams” ) The challenge of navigating the Coronavirus and its impact on the workplace was greatly compounded on May 25th.
On May 25th, the video of George Floyd being murdered by Police Officer Derek Chauvin ‘went viral’ and the traumatic impact was immediate. I have conducted thousands of investigations of allegations of discrimination in my career. It is exceedingly rare that ‘smoking gun’ evidence exists. The almost 9-minute video (which is extremely difficult to watch) is more than a smoking gun. In response, protests calling for justice and asserting that Black Lives Matter have been happening in cities and small towns from the United States to New Zealand and include people of all races, ages, genders, and religions. The protests have been inclusive and effective. Elected and appointed officials across the country are scrambling to write and pass legislation that creates accountability and transparency for law enforcement agencies and protects people from hate crimes. As with the Black Lives Matter’s protests in 2014 and 2016 White people have marched alongside Black people to call for justice. Unlike in 2014 and 2016, however organizations have had to acknowledge the impact of these events on their employees and customers and figure out if, and how to address and share their position on Black Lives Matter.
In the midst of the complicated process of trying to bring staff back to work safely (as more and more states ‘open up’ during the current recession of Coronavirus cases), leaders also have to assess the impact of institutional and systemic racism on their organizations.
The walls between the members of your organization and recent events have virtually disappeared. People are streaming life; and personal-life and work-life are now blended. So, the porosity of walls – when external issues seep into and impact an enclosed space (office) – has become more complicated for organizations to manage.
In every organization, employees have been disparately impacted by the Coronavirus. Black and Brown people have been disproportionately impacted by the Coronavirus in terms of infections and deaths. Some employees have had family members die because of the virus, some employees have had the virus and are struggling to fully recover and deal with its long-term impact on their lives. Others are primary care givers of a family member with the virus or must cope with their kids not going to school or summer camp. People are being bombarded by a tremendous amount of negative news and images. All the above is impacting our ability to sleep, eat properly, relax, renew, and refuel. We are asked: “How can you expect organizations to manage DEI during all of this?” My response: how can you not? DEI impacts everything that is happening now. So, now is the time to mindfully address your organization’s DEI issues.
Do The Work
Inclusion takes work. Equity requires an investment of time, money, and other resources. Inclusion doesn’t happen organically. No one wants to hear that. Potential clients sometimes think that when we recommend a thorough, multi-leveled and strategic approach to DEI that we are simply trying to sell them more services. We are not. We are being genuine with you and we know what works
Paula and I try to explain that a coordinated and sustained effort is required to achieve healthy organizational change, especially if the organization has a demonstrated history of racism or other forms of discrimination. Employees need tangible evidence that leadership is serious in words and deeds about creating inclusion.
If your organization has not done anything in the DEI sphere, say so, along with sharing your commitment to change. If your organization has had false starts in terms of your DEI efforts, say so, while sharing how you have learned from those failed efforts. If your organization has done some genuine DEI work and realizes that the elusive goal of being an inclusive organization requires ongoing work, say so, while mapping out how you intend to continue doing this vital work! Expect that those who are reading your “Black Lives Matter” statement can read between the lines and determine how genuine you are based on what you do and do not say. Members of your organization know what you have and haven’t done in the past and so, if you distort that history, they will know that you are not being genuine or transparent.
I have been writing and talking about the importance of (DEI) being part of an organization’s strategic planning process for years. We do not recommend that you invest in a strategic planning process and then, three months later stitch on a DEI patch. That “patch” will inevitably fall off after minimal wear. DEI needs to be woven into your strategic planning process – from the beginning. All stakeholders need to be part of the process – from the beginning. Organizations need to be prepared to implement the strategies that they commit to and establish a budget and other resources for that purpose. The plan needs to be communicated to all staff and key stakeholders along with an invitation for their participation and feedback. Too often, executive teams craft DEI statements and plans in a vacuum without inviting the input of those most deeply impacted by the outcomes of those plans. The fear of hearing the truth does not make the truth disappear. Many organizations reach out to us for help in cleaning up the messes that result from not being genuine in the first place.
Once you have crafted a collaborative, time bound DEI strategy, complete with accountabilities and dedicated resources, you need to communicate that plan to those impacted by it. Then, you must actually carry out the plan, to the best of your ability, including modifications as needed for unexpected situations such as, the Coronavirus. Communicating a plan without carrying it out will make it difficult for employees to trust that your commitment is sincere, especially if there have been DEI challenges in the past.
Organizations need to conduct a DEI assessment so that they can incorporate the findings into their DEI strategic planning process. A rigorous assessment will employ methods that make it safe for all employees to share their perspectives and challenges including: an anonymous DEI survey, confidential interviews, and focus groups. A review of an organizations’ DEI histories, documents, prior DEI training efforts, and public image, including social media should also be conducted. (It is amazing that in 2020 many organizations have websites that require multiple clicks before there is any hint of where they stand on diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is too many clicks for most people to bother with.)
These best practices are developed to support an organization’s unique culture and sub-cultures. Asking us to come in and facilitate a workshop without having a clue as to what DEI issues the members of your organization are struggling with is like asking a doctor to prescribe medication without conducting an examination. The results can be unhealthy and require more serious treatments. Many organizations waste an incredible amount of resources by not making an appropriate investment in the first place. DEI workshops should be customized (by experienced, qualified professionals) to meet the specific needs of your organization. This can only be established through an unbiased (externally conducted) DEI assessment and collaborative DEI strategic planning process.
We really want to help you and I am being genuine when I tell you that with very rare exceptions, we can. The question that you have to ask yourself is: “How much do I want to change?” (That is an intentional double entendre.) If you want genuine change within your organization, then you need genuine self-examination, strategies that have been developed mindfully, and transparency about your history, intentions, and commitment.
If you want genuine change, isn’t today the right day to begin?
Wendy Amengual Wark
June 10, 2020
I have written blog posts in the past about the tragedy of racism and specifically, about Black people who have been murdered by police officers. It is chilling to re-read these posts that are four and six years old. Today, we are experiencing continued violence against Black people and in response hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets despite the risk of contracting the Coronavirus. Legislation is being submitted at the Federal, state, and local levels to create accountability and transparency of law enforcement agencies. The good news is that many, many organizations realize that they cannot stay silent regarding their position on “Black Lives Matter.” This makes me optimistic. They are embracing the need for genuine change. We can do this. It will not be easy, but we if we are willing to do the work, can do this – together.
My July, 2016 blog post, “In Light of Recent Events” Addresses strategies that employers can implement to support employees traumatized by the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
In December of 2014 I wrote, “Divided We Fall” about the responses to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
Who ‘owns’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at your organization? Often, the responsibility for the success, or sadly, the primary accountability for the failure of an organization’s DEI initiatives belongs to the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) or head of HR. In many organizations, these individuals do not report to the CEO or president, but to the Chief of Staff, Chief Administrative Officer, or the CFO (this last, for reasons that escape us). Successfully advancing DEI requires direct engagement from the C-suite, direct reporting to the CEO by the CDO, and holding all members of the organization accountable in tangible ways.
There is considerable evidence showing that organizations with successful DEI programs have two key components: genuine, organic, interest of at least 10% of non-managerial staff and a demonstrated commitment of executive staff, most importantly the head of the organization.
Commitment is demonstrated in multiple ways. Holding oneself and one’s team members accountable for both the success and failure of the DEI mission, vision, and goals is the most critical.
That accountability can be demonstrated by measuring not only demographics, but participation in DEI initiatives, such as DEI strategic planning, membership on a DEI council, being a mentor or protégé, participation in educational workshops and sponsorship of cultural events (internally and externally). Despite clear opportunities to demonstrate commitment and accountability, how many CEOs actually attend diversity conferences? How many CDOs report directly to the head of their organization?
If you are looking for strategies to drive accountability at your organization, you can encourage your CEO to join 900 other leaders by signing the “Pledge to Act On supporting more inclusive workplaces.” https://www.ceoaction.com/pledge/ceo-pledge/ The pledge includes several tangible commitments including a commitment to “create accountability systems within our companies”. Signatories are not just in the corporate sector. Leaders in academia and in the non-profit sector have signed the pledge as well. Individuals can also sign the “I Act On Pledge: I pledge to check my bias, speak up for others and show up for all.” https://www.ceoaction.com/pledge/i-act-on-pledge/ This can be encouraged across an organization as a part of implementing organizational DEI change.
A similar initiative was launched by the UN in 2000. The Global Compact for Gender Equity https://www.unglobalcompact.org/ has been signed by 10,409 companies in 173 nations (599 in the US) and requires a financial contribution based on an organization’s level of participation and time-based goals for creating gender equity.
These types of pledges are powerful because of the public declaration of commitment to inclusion and equity that potential clients and employees can use to help determine whether they will patronize a particular organization or seek employment there.
Whatever approach an organization takes to create and sustain accountability for their DEI success must align with and support the organizational mission and culture. One size does not fit all when it comes to DEI strategies and so an organizational assessment (including anonymous DEI surveys of board members and staff, including the C-suite), will help to determine what will work for you. Additionally, DEI strategic planning is a key component of success in this area. DEI strategic planning should be part of any organization’s overall strategic planning process and should be facilitated or guided by established DEI practitioners.
The strategies outlined above are not a burdensome drain on organizations with even limited resources. While these practical investments in an organization’s well-being are recognized as best practices, demonstrate commitment to DEI, and motivate and engage employees, they are still very rare. These practices are directly supported by categories 1 (D&I Vision, Strategy, and Business Case); Category 2 (Leadership and Accountability); and Category 3 (D&I Structure and Implementation of the Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks, which provide specific guidelines and standards for these strategies. [Learn more here: http://centreforglobalinclusion.org/ ]
If your organization is not holding everyone accountable for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, isn’t today a great day to begin?
Wendy Amengual Wark and Paula T. Edgar, Esq.
Partners, Inclusion Strategy Solutions LLC
If I Want to be Inclusive, I Must be Willing to Change
When my partner, Paula T. Edgar and I facilitate workshops on workplace inclusion, we discuss all of the incredible benefits of having an inclusive workplace: more successful collaboration, greater efficiency and productivity, improved employee engagement, retention, and more effective communication, to name a few.
We are transparent with participants about the fact that being inclusive requires work. The hardest part of that work is being able to change how we do things. Valuing diversity is easy, by comparison. I can appreciate that someone cooks differently than I do, especially, if I enjoy their style of cooking. But even if I do not want to eat their food, we can still coexist peacefully and in an engaged and supportive way. Inclusion, however, means that I must change my style of cooking if I am going to successfully collaborate with another human being. I love to cook. I especially love to plan an entire menu so that my guests can enjoy a thematic experience. If I am to be inclusive, I must be able to open myself up to a different approach to the menu and any number of stylistic variations; from how much salt one uses, to what type of oil is best to use.
Vive la Resistance!
People really do not like change, hence the great success of chain restaurants. People get to order food that they have eaten before and apparently enjoyed, and in doing so, avoid surprises. I have heard more times than I can (or care to) recount, “But we’ve always done it this way!” There is security in knowing how things are done. This approach makes great sense when it comes to mundane tasks such as opening doors, turning on lights, or mailing a letter. But even these simple-seeming functions have evolved tremendously in the past 100 years, and continue to do so. When I began working full-time, I used an IBM Selectric typewriter with carbon paper to make an original and two copies of everything that I typed for the law firm that employed me. (I am incredibly grateful that when I mistype something these days I can just hit backspace or delete to correct the error!) So, change is a very good thing – sometimes.
It is fairly easy to get people to embrace change that makes their lives easier or simpler, but when it comes to changing the way that we think about society, and ourselves, things get a bit more complicated. The recent launch of ‘The 1619 Project’ by The New York Times is an excellent example of this. The 1619 Project is intended “to correct the record, reframing the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the national narrative.” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html For people who have been excluded from chronicling the history of the United States, this project provides an opportunity to write a more inclusive record. There has been a backlash by some White individuals claiming that essays in the project are either inaccurate, or that the project is not “real history”. These negative reactions (I will not reference any of them here), to this sweeping endeavor to examine the impact of slavery on our systems and institutions, employs the method of questioning the qualifications and efficacy of the messenger to disqualify the content. I can say with confidence as one who studied graduate level history at an Ivy League institution, that change was not something that was embraced in our field, be it a change of perspective or the subject itself. I was challenged when I wrote about the history of Puerto Ricans in New York City for being too close to my subject. So, another way to resist change is to establish that only a small number of people – people who claim to be objective – are truly qualified to research and write about our past. I would posit that no human being is able to be fully objective about our history and so we are all disqualified, according to these criteria.
Not All Change Is Created Equal
We hate being wrong! We especially hate being wrong about racism. As a person who is optically White, I can tell you that racism exists everywhere. For years, I called myself ‘a spy in the house of racism,’ because racists would say racist things to me or in my presence based on two false assumptions: first, they assumed that I was White; second, they assumed that I was a fellow racist. When I would correct people and say that as one of Puerto Rican descent, I am a mixed-race person, they would respond in shock; “You don’t look Puerto Rican!” “When I say Puerto Rican, I don’t mean someone like you!” Ah, you mean that you believe I am a better person because I look White – like you. People become very defensive when they are corrected or ‘called-out’ on their racism. I am not a big advocate of calling people out, but sometimes, I just get tired of this ignorance and bias. As a diversity practitioner, I educate people, with love, and help them to change and open their minds and hearts and reexamine their history books. So, if I am facilitating, I focus on feeling empathy for the person who has been mis-educated about slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and immigrant-phobia. Through my empathy I can begin to try to educate them from a place of love. I explain that our goal to create a more inclusive world is not about making anyone feel bad about our past, but rather to help them to see a personal benefit in being able to have really wonderful relationships with people who are quite different from themselves. This means, that we need to understand the distance that the other person has traveled to get to this space that we are sharing at any specific moment in time. This means that we need to study history, anthropology, and sociology from multiple perspectives – even the parts that make us very uncomfortable. Once we receive this new information, we need to be able to have our minds changed by it. Empathy is an incredibly important and powerful experience. If I can feel empathy for another human being, especially a human being who I do not identify with or necessarily like or respect, then I can begin to bridge the chasm of being exclusive.
There are many anti-racism workshops being facilitated across the country as well as examinations on White fragility when it comes to discussions on race. We regularly facilitate these workshops, as well as sessions on how to be an effective ally. Several organizations have gotten a great deal of publicity by providing their staff with one hour of ‘diversity’ training following racist incidents between their employees and their customers. This is a complicated subject and as such, we need to stop trying to find simple, quick fixes for these problems. One hour? Most people binge-watch five hours of the latest series before coming up for air. The average movie is two hours long. The average seating for a dinner in a restaurant is 90 minutes. How can even the most qualified facilitators be expected to accomplish anything of value in one hour? We are requested to meet these unrealistic expectations on a regular basis. We are told that there is not time within the busy work schedule to pull people out for training. We are told that people will not tolerate a training session that is longer than 90 minutes. We are told that the budget ‘will not allow’ such an expenditure; we are told many things about why employees cannot spend a full day in a workshop to learn how to navigate the impact of racism on the workplace. What we need to hear is how much the time and money it costs to respond to litigation; how much time that organizations spend attempting to resolve conflict between employees; how much is invested by organizations on recruitment and hiring only to see those precious investments run screaming from the building because they have been subjected to micro-aggressions on a daily basis.
This work takes time. Time to gather information about the organization’s culture and history; time to develop workshop agendas that matter to the participants and genuinely help them to learn and grow and change; and time for organizations to shift from being reactive to proactive about being inclusive.
Helping people to develop meaningful communication and relationships with one another is what this is all about. We are asked regularly to give people a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ or a checklist of things that they should read to help them to be inclusive. We resist providing such lists for multiple reasons, but if giving you a list will help to make change a reality, I will break our rule, just this once.
Studies show that people respond to lists including 5 things more than they do to lists containing any other number so, here goes!:
The 5 things that facilitate inclusion:
Willingness to change
These are of course, over-simplifications, especially as we are talking about messy, complicated people trying to cope with the daily onslaught of social media messaging and negative news that seeps through the porous walls of every workplace, but this is the outline of a master course in being inclusive. Let us know if you want to join us, the learning never ends.
Wendy Amengual Wark
New York, NY
August 26, 2019
Inclusion Strategy Solutions LLC
Helping Organizations to Intentionally Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion!
In the winter of 1969 I wore pants (sewn by my mother) to school for the 1st time. Mrs. Matossian, my 5th grade teacher sent me to Mrs. Sullivan’s (the Principal), office for coming to school dressed inappropriately. The next day, my mother sent me back to school in a new pair of ‘slacks’ with a note citing the School Dress Code for New York State allowing girls to wear pants. This was the only time in my entire educational experience that I was sent to the Principal’s office for a disciplinary reason.
Mrs. Matossian, who was usually very sweet to me, did not respond very well. After ‘the incident’, Mrs. Matossian became curt and did not call on me as much. I was hurt and confused. We girls would have to walk to school in the middle of winter with our snow pants on and then remove them in the coat closet before class began. This was embarrassing and a challenge in the cramped, dark closet! In February of 1969, New York City had one of its worst blizzards with 9” of snow, so walking to school only in tights and boots would not be prudent.
It was after all, 1969! Think of what was going on in fashion: mini-skirts, go-go boots, and fishnet stockings! How could a pair of slacks be more provocative than that? These were modest slacks, by the way, not elephant bell hip-huggers.
This was also a public school in New York City in 1969 – the year that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11 on the moon! (I shook Neil Armstrong’s hand in a parade celebrating this achievement!) 1969 was the year of Woodstock and President Richard Nixon and protests against the war in Vietnam.
From the perspective of 11 year old Wendy, I was conflicted. I really wanted Mrs. Matossian’s approval – really! I strove to be the teacher’s pet by erasing the black board, handing out materials, and raising my hand from the front row of the class as frequently as possible. I also really wanted to be be comfortable and not have to get in trouble for that. I lived in a world that was changing rapidly and under restrictions that did not affect my six brothers in the same way that they affected my two sisters and myself (our six half siblings were older and so, were not part of this transition in the same way). My father almost killed my older sister for cutting her hair in a short ‘pixie’ style. We girls were supposed to have long hair and wear clothing that was not provocative. He was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1902 and had antiquated ideas about women’s rights, but his ideas were common in New York City in 1969 as well. My mother could not get a credit card in 1969 without her husband’s signature – even though she was the one with a job who supported our family.
I also wanted to honor my mother’s efforts to gain whatever freedoms that we could including, the freedom to dress as we pleased. In time, Mrs. Matossian not only relented and ceased her retaliation, but her comment on my final report card indicates that she forgave my challenging her authority: “ Wendy is a wonderful person. It was a pleasure to have her in the class. She will certainly succeed in all her endeavors.” So, I was affirmed by getting the approval of a favorite teacher and, I like to believe, who was empowered by the progress that my generation fought for. One giant leap for woman kind!
I was inspired to share this piece of my history by the UN Women post “Five Innovations That Have Advanced Women’s Rights” I hope that you are inspired to share some of your own history! Let me know about your ‘firsts’. These achievements in our own lifetimes need to be recounted and recorded so that those who are struggling for access to full emancipation and empowerment are encouraged to persevere!
As we embark upon a new year, we wish you and yours all things wonderful!
2018 was an incredible year! Most exciting was the formation of Inclusion Strategy Solutions LLC – our partnership! (Learn more about Paula and Wendy) We recognize that our skills and competencies are enhanced through our collaboration. Merging our organizations has provided our clients with a greater depth and range of services. Most importantly, our personal missions and visions align and result in greater innovation and impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion in our world!
We are happy to share with you, some highlights of our 2018 accomplishments:
During 2018, we trained over 3,000 individuals in subjects including: Sexual Harassment Prevention (as New York State and other jurisdictions enacted stricter training requirements for employers), Inclusive Workplace and Leadership (Unconscious Bias), and Anti-Racism. The content for these sessions was developed in collaboration with our clients to meet the specific needs and challenges of their organizations. We also developed content to satisfy New York State Bar diversity, inclusion, and the elimination of bias CLE requirements.
We supported our clients with developing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and strategies and supporting their EEO and HR needs by conducting investigations, facilitating counsel and advise sessions, and advising leadership on best practices.
In our work as diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants, we had the opportunity to travel to Athens, Greece as well as more than 10 US States to facilitate workshops and consult on various subjects. The myriad perspectives across global and regional environments create exciting opportunities for exploring the complexities and nuances of this work.
We’re excited to continue to enhance our opportunities to learn while engaging with a diverse array of people during this new year.
We look forward to the opportunity to support your organization and collaborate with you on your inclusion strategies!
Please visit our new website: Inclusion Strategy.com and let us know what you think. We would love to hear from you.
It was another 7 years before I began working in the EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Office at the NYC Department of Transportation. In 1987 I became the Deputy Women’s Advisor for the agency (on top of my day job as Deputy Director of Administrative Services). I had been active in fighting for equity and justice in many different forms throughout my life and the Women’s Advisors’ Program was established to assure that women who worked for the City of New York were not discriminated against or harassed. As part of my Women’s Advisor’s role, I became a member of the NYC Commission on the Status of Women’s (CSW) Sexual Harassment Task Force which was led by Bella Abzug, the CSW’s Chairperson at that time. We read many reports, interviewed hundreds of victims and developed a comprehensive report on the subject. As a result of this, I was invited to join DOT’s EEO Office 1988. I should note that it took a few years of experience investigating claims of sexual harassment and discrimination along with extensive training before I was able to do this work without overly identifying with complainants or mentally condemning every respondent (alleged harasser) prior to completing an investigation. In 1991, shortly after Anita Hill testified in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearing, I was promoted to Director of the EEO Office. Sexual harassment against women was headline news for a few weeks at that time and employers began implemented mandatory training on sexual harassment and discrimination. The training that was being developed was not, in my humble opinion, effective, so I dedicated myself to preventing harassment in the first place.
In May of 1994, after 7 years at DOT managing EEO investigations, reports, and training, I became the Program Director the CSW. The CSW focused on issues relevant to women and girls in the workplace and beyond. One of my first responsibilities was to support the CSW’s domestic violence task force. In June of 1994, OJ Simpson made the headlines when he was arrested for murdering his wife and her friend. Domestic violence against women once again became headline news for a few weeks. Funds were allocated to protect women and girls from violence and educate professionals on how to effectively deal with and prevent domestic violence. The parallel between domestic violence abusers and sexual harassers is precise and cringe-worthy: control, intimidate, and discredit your victims.
In the 30 years that I have been doing this work, I have seen little improvement in the areas of preventing and responding to sexual harassment. Most employers do not have effective policies or protocols. Those that do have policies and protocols in place rarely implement or enforce them.
Most employers do not properly train their employees to prevent harassment. In my observation, webinars and training segments as short as 90 minute focused on reviewing the laws and definitions relating to sexual harassment do not create self-awareness or modify behavior. Despite this, most employers pay thousands of dollars every year to repeat this mandatory, ineffective exercise. I often refer to this process as ‘death by power point’: the facilitator reads slide after slide after slide and then expects participants to actually retain some of the information.
Most employers do not respond to complaints appropriately and use training as punishment or a form of insurance against litigation. First (and I am not giving anyone legal advice here), training employees does not insure that employers will not be held liable for failing to protect their employees from sexual harassment or discriminatory conduct. Second, having someone who has already had sexual harassment prevention training retake that training in response to their violating your policies or the law by harassing an employee illustrates insanity to me. It is, however, the most common method for responding to sexual harassment by employers. Training (and I prefer using the word educating when referencing educating people on their rights and responsibilities, and most importantly, on self-awareness and behavior) should never be used as punishment. I have facilitated hundreds of sexual harassment prevention sessions where employees drag themselves into the training room like someone being forced to eat their peas knowing that they still won’t get dessert. That is a direct result of organizations inadvertently giving training a bad reputation. It is all too common for employees to expect these sessions to be boring, irrelevant, and insulting. Sending a respondent (a person accused of sexual harassment), whose misconduct has been corroborated, to be retrained is an even greater of a waste of resources.
Most employers do not hold harassers responsible for their actions and will often allow perpetrators of harassment and discrimination to victimize multiple employees before taking any action whatsoever. When it is confirmed that an employee has violated the law by sexually harassing another employee, an organization’s response sends a clear, loud message to all of the other employees. Usually that message is, “We won’t take any strong action, because we don’t want to be sued by the respondent for wrongful termination.” So, some employees learn that they can harass with impunity, especially if they are high up on the organization chart. Most employers do not hold leaders responsible for their own conduct or for managing the conduct of those who report to them. Accountability by leadership is critical to sending a message that harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated in an organization.
Most employers do not support victims who come forward to complain about being harassed. This goes back to protocols and policies. People who are not trained to investigate allegations of harassment and discrimination should never be involved in an investigation. Even worse, complaints are often mishandled from the start because employees are told to go to their supervisors with their allegations. If I work in IT, my supervisor is trained to code computers, not handle difficult and complex sexual harassment complaints. Organizations often do not realize that they put supervisors at risk when they ask them to become involved in allegations of discrimination.
Sexual harassment and assault are in the headlines again: Hollywood, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and other places occupied by humans are being exposed as unsafe places, especially for women. The claims of the hundreds of women who have come forward in recent months range from having been recipients of inappropriate comments to having been victims of sexual assault. Headline news grabs our attention, upsets us, results in many articles and conversations about how pervasive and insidious sexual harassment is, and devastates the organizations that they expose. But, headline news has not resulted in effective prevention of or response to sexual harassment in the workplace. Not before 1991 and not since. Isn’t today a great time to change that?
I will address the solutions to the problems outlined above in #METOO and What I Do About it: Part 3 – Solutions which will be posted later this week.
Please share your stories and any other feedback that you have so that together we can create lasting solutions to this ancient problem.
I cannot remember the first time that I was sexually harassed. Was it the man in Central Park who exposed his genitals to my sister and me on a sunny afternoon in 1968? Was it the gang of boys on the street telling then 12 year old Wendy what they would like to do to her? [I will not share my response here as it is NSFW.] I can say that I have experienced so many incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination that most of them have blurred in my memory. For the record, I have never been sexually harassed by a woman.
If I limit my experiences of being sexually harassed to the workplace, I have to go back to my waitressing experience while in high school when a customer slid his hand under my uniform to touch my behind. Unfortunately for him, I was holding a full pot of hot coffee and the shock of his invasion resulted in my ‘accidentally’ spilling that hot coffee in his lap. Alas.
Two incidents were too painful to become blurs in my memory. The first was while I was working at a proxy firm on Wall Street when I was 20 years old. Two important pieces of background information: First, the President of the company promised me that I would be reimbursed for the tuition that I paid to NYU for work related classes that I was taking. Second, after being on the job for 7 months, I happened to be in the Personnel office and glanced down to see a payroll record for an employee who I supervised. This man was an old Army buddy of my boss’s boss, ‘Hugh’. He was lazy, incompetent, and spent large segments of the day roaming around and smoking cigarettes in the staircase. I was appalled to learn that this person was being paid $10,000 more than I was. My immediate supervisor was away on vacation so I marched into Hugh’s office and confronted him. He explained to me that ‘Frank’ had a family to care for and needed the money. I replied that this information was irrelevant. I should not be supervising someone, especially someone who was not carrying his own weight, who made more money than me. Hugh said that we would discuss this when my supervisor returned. He added that they were very pleased with my performance and that I would be pleased with my bonus and salary increase, which would be shared with me at the end of December. During the holiday party a few weeks later, I went into the kitchen area to get a drink and the President of the company came up behind me, grabbed me by the shoulders, turned me around, pushed his body against mine, pinning me to the cabinet behind me, put his lips on mine and shoved his tongue into my mouth. I was stunned! I reflexively pushed this man away who was easily more than twice my age and a foot taller than I. I ran from the area into the restroom where I repeatedly rinsed my mouth in the sink. After some time, I skulked out of the bathroom and left the party.
The next week, the bonuses and raises were announced. I received a standard 20% raise and a $250.00 dollar bonus. The staff member with the ‘family to raise’ also received a 20% raise and based on his higher salary, a $500.00 dollar bonus. I lost my ability to control myself. I had also repeatedly been told that my tuition reimbursement check would be included in this pay period, but it was not. I went into the President’s office and although I was trembling terribly, said that this situation was unacceptable and that I expected him to remedy the ‘error’ on my bonus and increase and to have a check issued for my tuition, as agreed upon. He began very slowly to tell me that he really should not have promised me tuition reimbursement as it was not ‘official’ policy and other employees might feel jealous if I were to get special treatment. He also said that there was nothing that he could do about the raise or bonus as that was ‘Hugh’s’ responsibility and he would not interfere in an executive’s decisions about his staff. He then stood up and walked out of his office. His tone and facial express clear to me that he was punishing me for rejecting his sexual overture. I stormed into ‘Hugh’s’ office and, after telling him what I thought about his favoritism, resigned and left the office. I felt disgusted, defeated, and afraid that since I had resigned with so much drama, I would neither get unemployment or a reference. I did get both. In retrospect, I am guessing that they decided that they got a break when I resigned and kept my silence. I did not have the vocabulary at the time to identify my situation as ‘Quid Pro Quo’ sexual harassment.
Two years later, I was working in NYC’s Garment District for a manufacturer of accessories. I was reporting to two vice presidents (marketing and sales). I went into the office of the vice president of operations to ask him about a shipment for an important customer. We were leaning over a work table in his office scanning several computer printouts. It was the early 80s’ and I had on a pencil skirt, man tailored blouse and a skinny 1950s era tie. He said, “Nice tie!” and ran his hand down my tie which was hanging down as I leaned over the table. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but before I could move, he grabbed me, spun me around and pushed me down on the table. My skinny high heels slipped out from under me and I was falling back onto the table and felt that I would fall onto the floor. In a panic with my right hand, I grabbed his tie which was now hanging down on me, to keep myself from falling. My left hand landed on the table in an attempt to keep myself from slipping onto the floor. I realized that my hand was on a pair of scissors. I remember thinking “What is a pair of scissors doing here?!” I grabbed the scissors and cut off his tie. He went flying back across the room. I fell down with the scissors in one hand and a section of his tie in the other. I scrambled up off the floor and without seeing or thinking ran down the hall to my office, which I shared with three other people. My co-workers, seeing my distress ran to me asking what had happened.
Once I calmed down, I went to the senior vice president’s office. My attacker as well as my two bosses reported to her. She was married to the President of the company. She came around from her desk and sat next to me, hugged me, handed me tissues and water, told me that it must have been shocking. She said that she would call the car service to take me home. That I should take off the next day (Friday), and have a relaxing weekend with my husband. She said that on Monday morning we would meet and figure out what to do. (Some relevant information about this vice president is that he was having an open affair with another woman in the office. He was married and every few weeks his wife would come to meet him prior to their going out to dinner or wherever. I always cringed when she came in because I could not believe that she did not know that her husband was cheating on her.) The President of the company also had a reputation as a ‘womanizer’ and I avoided being alone with him because he made me uncomfortable.
That Monday morning, I came into the office ready to be told that my attacker had been fired. My mother worked for the NYS Department of Labor and I had called her and discussed the matter. She explained that sexual harassment was against the law and that the employer had the responsibility to protect employees from this kind of treatment. When I arrived at the office, two of my co-workers told me that a few of the other women had had similar experiences with ‘Frank’. I was confident that the organization would do the right and legal thing. So, when the senior vice president told me how remorseful ‘Frank’ was, that this would certainly never happen again, how valued I was as an employee, how I had such a great career opportunity with the company, and blah, blah, blah. I told her that this was unacceptable. I shared what I had learned about the other employees who were being harassed by ‘Frank’. I told her what my mother had told me. Her tone and demeanor changed completely. She sat up straight and said, “Frank has a family to take care of! Do you expect us to throw him out into the street after all of the years he has worked here?!” I just stood up and said, “No.” I was nauseated as I walked to my desk and collected my things. My co-workers were extremely upset and tried to keep me from leaving, but there was no point. I filed for unemployment and my claim was denied. So, I filed a sexual harassment complaint with the State. My unemployment claim was approved as was 3 months of ‘front pay’ to allow me time to find a new job. My resignation was considered ‘constructive termination’ as the workplace was so hostile that effectively, I would not be able to do my job. At the time, I had no idea how important this and my other experiences as a victim of sexual harassment would be in preparing me to do the work that I was meant to do.
For the rest of the story, please read #METOO and What I Do About it: Part 2 – The Problem and #METOO and What I Do About it: Part 3 – Solutions which will be posted later this week.
Please share your stories and any other feedback that you have so that together we can create lasting solutions to this ancient problem.
“It’s Not Just Fox: Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Harassment” by Claire Cain Miller in the April 10, 2017 The New York Times offers some concise observations and recommendations. I responded in the comment section, but those comments are limited to 1500 characters. The original comment is below along with a few additional points:
I have worked in the field of EEO, discrimination and harassment prevention since 1988 and have the following observations:
Many employers lack practical protocols and deal with sexual harassment in a reactionary manner.
Often, the individuals responsible for investigating claims of sexual harassment have not been effectively trained, lack sufficient experience, authority and the support needed to enforce policies.
Many organizations do not hold all employees equally accountable. Whether the alleged sexual harasser is a fork lift operator or senior VP should not alter the recommended steps to be taken if ‘probable cause’ that harassment occurred is found as the result of an investigation.
The author recommendations “Authorize dozens of employees throughout the organization to receive complaints, so that people can report to someone they’re comfortable with.” ONLY if those individuals are effectively trained to conduct confidential, unbiased intake interviews.
Many organizations limit the duration of sexual harassment prevention training sessions to 1 hour and use webinars in place of interactive sessions.
‘Training’ used to punish perpetrators of sexual harassment fails. Individual EEO “Counsel and Advise” sessions that deal with the cause and effect of ones’ actions, IF termination is not warranted is an effective method dealing with certain policy violations.
Employers can defend their organizations by protecting employees from discrimination and harassment.
In addition to my posted comments above, I believe that it is important that employers realize that most employees do not have faith in their organization’s EEO process. I would recommend that my colleagues in HR peruse those comments posted in response to the piece. Many individuals feel that they cannot trust their HR / EEO representatives, that their best interests come far behind those of the organization and that those best interests are not in alignment with the organization’s priorities. Organizations invest millions of dollars each year in the development of employees and ideas and then squander those investments by allowing employees to be treated in abusive and hostile ways. Most employees will resign claiming “a better opportunity” as the reason in their exit interview for fear of having their professional reputation damaged by telling the truth.
If you are not 100% positive that the policies, protocols and people at your organization are effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment and discrimination, then use the current media attention as the impetus to make that happen.