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Reflecting on Race and Allyship: How to Drive Meaningful Change | Commitments Leaders Can Make Today

June 24, 2020 Jennifer McCollum

The conversations of the past have done little to impact systemic inequalities and institutionalized racism. Now is the time for real conversations that drive action for transformative change.

How can we courageously move beyond the past to create real change at our organizations and in our communities?

I had the honor of sitting down with Bev Wright, expert leadership consultant and inclusion advocate, and Eddie Turner, international best-selling author and award-winning coach, for the latest installment of Linkage’s Critical Leadership Conversations series, a free webinar series highlighting the latest in leadership best practices.

“Reflecting on Race & Allyship: How to Drive Meaningful Change,” was an interactive conversation grounded in lived experiences and actionable strategies for change. The discussion proved to be an invaluable opportunity for more than 1,000 leaders to reflect on and discuss the shameful reality of the past, the shifting reality of the present, and the hope for the future.

This webinar was hosted on Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Short for “June Nineteenth,” Juneteenth marks the day when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, finally received news of their liberation. As Eddie explained during the webinar, this day is an important opportunity for reflection on our history and the so-far unfinished road to realized equality.

As we concluded, I asked our listeners to share a commitment they will make to serve as an ally to rising Black and other underrepresented leaders. We received hundreds of incredible responses from senior leaders across the country.

The commitments they made will serve as enduring reminders of the work that stands before us, and our ability to contribute to substantive change in our organizations.

1. Examine how those of us in majority groups benefit from the continued oppression of marginalized groups. 

As leaders, we have a responsibility to build the diverse leadership pipeline necessary to establish the next generation of leaders. We also need to closely examine why we have not been successful in doing this already.

Blacks represent less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and only 3.2% of executives and senior manager–level employees. If our workforces are not representative of national demographics, we cannot begin to create the diverse and inclusive workplaces our employees deserve. It begins with our hiring and promotion practices, as well as uncovering the unconscious bias that erodes our ability to build diverse leadership teams. We must also examine what we are afraid we may lose if true equality existed and how that might be getting in the way of us driving the change that needs to happen.

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I want to learn more and teach other colleagues about unconscious bias and how to overcome it. I feel this is an important topic because we as recruiters have a direct impact on how we shape the workforce. I wonder how different our recruiting efforts will be once we address and overcome our unconscious biases.
  • I will question assumptions we make in hiring decisions and explore similarity bias.
  • I will interview and hire more diverse candidates.
  • I am reading Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad to understand my own biases and assumptions. It is hard and I am committed to doing this work.
2. Step outside your comfort zone.

Being a true ally is not about feeling comfortable—it’s about being truly supportive and committed to change. We cannot do this without having hard conversations or asking difficult questions. Purposeful Leaders are courageous, and they never stop learning, and that means listening and sparking the conversations that may be difficult or uncomfortable. Identify when you feel uncomfortable, and why—but don’t let this discomfort stop you from engaging in these important topics.

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I will read more, learn more, and have uncomfortable conversations with white friends.
  • I commit to having those uncomfortable conversations that may need to be had. I commit to provide a more inclusive culture.
  • I will stop letting “but this might be kind of uncomfortable” from being an excuse from here on out with regard to asking questions or having tough conversations.
3. Embrace sponsorship and mentorship.

Professionals who are members of underrepresented groups need navigational support to advance their careers, but often receive less than white professionals. Both mid-level and senior leaders have important roles to play in supporting the advancement of people of color, and serving as a mentor or a sponsor can be a meaningful way to support and build diverse leadership pipelines. Remember: A mentor is someone who advises the mentee on professional advice, while a sponsor is a senior-level leader invested in their protégé’s career success.

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I will identify two Black people in my organization that I will reach out to and, with their permission, sponsor them for projects and positions.
  • As a white senior leader, I will reach out to someone of color in my organization as an ally, and extend my hand in sponsorship or mentorship.
  • I will continue mentorship with all the early-career professionals of color in my company.
4. Serve as an educator within your friends and family.

As we all strive to become more effective and inclusive leaders in our organizations, we have a responsibility to meaningfully engage our friends and family in these important conversations. If you are leading or participating in conversations about prejudice and bias in the workplace, evaluate how you can bring what you learn and hear into your own home and community. If you find a resource or a narrative that is particularly impactful to you, share it. Leaders are educators, and our responsibility to lead does not end when we log off for the day.

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I will educate people within my family and social circle so they are more empathetic and understanding.
  • I will talk to my family about race and share with them resources to educate themselves.
  • I’m a minority with biracial children, and I have been trying to speak up for myself more with my white friends and husband’s family to try and open their eyes to the racism I experience…to hopefully lessen what my children will experience.
  • I will educate myself on social justice and share that knowledge with my family and friends (white people) to reinforce my learnings and help expand my own personal sphere of change.
  • I will continue to educate my white family and friends on why BLM is important and help them to see things from a different perspective.
5. Make use of employee resource groups, established meetings, and trainings.

Often, the infrastructure or support system to meaningfully engage and talk about issues related to prejudice, bias, and race do not exist within our organizations. The time is now to create those opportunities for our leaders and our teams. Also, as leaders, we have access to existing employee resource groups, established meetings, and training opportunities that can be modified or adapted to better speak to issues related to inclusion. Are there ERGs that could be added to your organization? If you are an executive leader, are you serving as a vocal ally and sponsor of these groups or their initiatives? Are there outside resources or experts you can bring in to help you facilitate better programming or hands-on training?

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I will volunteer my time and talent as an ally for my company’s African Descent Network ERG.
  • I am creating an Unconscious Bias Training focused specifically on racial bias that my Team Lead has committed to requiring our team to participate in.
  • I will set up a reoccurring ally lunch with a Black employee.
  • I commit to sharing the “How can I be an ally” slide with my team during one of our meetings next week.
6. Focus on intersectionality and other underrepresented groups.

Race is one factor that influences a person’s professional advancement in the workplace, but there are others that, when combined, create further disadvantage. Here is one example: Linkage’s research on intersectionality proves that a complex combination of different forms of discrimination, including racism and sexism, overlap in ways that profoundly affect the advancement of women of color. Consider the multitude of biases that exist and how these can be impacting the advancement of people of color at your organization.

This month is Pride Month, which honors the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, a tipping point for the gay rights movement in this country. This year, LGBTQ communities are elevating Black voices during Pride Month in solidarity. How can you diversify your Pride Month recognition and celebration and introduce underrepresented history and voices?

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I am creating a presentation for Pride Week that is specifically focusing on people of color to educate my workplace and highlight an issue that isn’t talked about as much.
  • Be more open to differences.
  • I will lean in to drive the right dialogue for change.
7. Confront bias and unconscious bias.

Leaders have a responsibility to understand the external and internal biases that may impact their decision-making ability. Bias is explicit and conscious; the person is conscious of their feelings and attitudes, and their behaviors are directly related to these feelings. Implicit or unconscious bias is beyond a person’s awareness and can be in direct contradiction to a person’s stated beliefs or values. Unconscious biases affect how we think, feel and act. Through training and guidance, we can decode our unconscious biases and free up our decision-making from this harmful influence.

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I will speak up in a respectful way and address bias when I see it.
  • I will continue to learn and understand the issues of race and recognize my own biases.
  • I will dedicate time to increase my level of education by listening, watching, and reading to reduce my unconscious bias and be an ally to drive change.
  • I will make sure I am very honest about my personal biases and make sure they don’t negatively affect any individuals.
8. Continue your education.

Purposeful Leaders never stop learning, and they think of leadership as a lifelong journey. It is our responsibility to seek out the educational resources and tools we need to fully educate ourselves on the topics impacting our communities—and our teams. Seek out perspectives from diverse educators and specialists and strive to find narratives that question your initial assumptions.

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I commit to continuing to read and watch Ted Talks and continuing to have the tough conversations with my family and friends—and thinking and talking about ways I could have done better.
  • I will read and listen to podcasts to educate myself.
9. Looking beyond the United States.

This webinar was attended by many leaders who live in other countries, and they shared how important this work is in their own countries and communities. Our ability to lead inclusively across difference and elevate and advance employees of diverse backgrounds and to model behaviors of inclusion and anti-racism is a universally important ability. I am inspired by our international viewers who are committed to this important work.

Here are some of the commitments our listeners made:

  • I am watching from London, England. As a white leader, I would love to do something here like the Dallas Dinner Table. I commit to working even more as a coach to young Black women in the inner city here in London to raise their voices.
  • I am committing to continuing to educate myself on the impacts of systemic racism in South Africa, and to call out others—including those in positions of power or influence—when they are either explicitly or implicitly biased.

Linkage is committed to changing the face of leadership. The Creating Cultures of Inclusion Solution is a practical framework to assess, evaluate, and accelerate inclusive leadership qualities in leaders at all levels.

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