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Identity

For Diversity Consultants, the Past Year Has Been a Roller Coaster

Experts in addressing racism and bias in the workplace have been very, very busy.
May 25, 2021, 4:01am
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On May 25th a reckoning with systemic racism was reignited. It's still here — and so are we.

The day after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, protests erupted in the Twin Cities. As weeks passed, an unprecedented wave of demonstrators flooded city streets worldwide in response to police officers killing another innocent Black civilian. Like many watching the events unfold, Janelle Williams Melendrez, the co-founder of (R)EVOLVE Consulting, a diversity, inclusion, and belonging firm focusing on private and public sector clients, recalls processing a spectrum of emotions she describes as “dichotomous.” 

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“I was at the point where I was having conversations with my children, my husband, who is Latino, about how our experiences are similar and different,” said Williams Melendrez, who is Black. “The fear that my children were having in the world—they already didn't trust the world, already was afraid of what was happening in terms of the pandemic, and then not being able to escape this imagery. It was just a really difficult time. And then, at the same time, in terms of the business, you know, suddenly everyone [companies] wanted help in this area. And I got to the point where I just wanted to hear the answer to the question ‘What prompted you to reach out to us now?’”

The answer to this question was critical for Williams Melendrez and other Black diversity and inclusion consultants as companies flooded their inboxes with inquiries seeking direction on how to proceed following the events of May 2020. Practitioners in this industry are used to defending the importance of their work to corporate leaders who could proudly list sales and results-driven data but failed to showcase the same investment in measuring progress or lack thereof in diversity and inclusion initiatives in their workplaces. Suddenly, D&I consultants were in high demand. 

Now, a year after the murder of George Floyd called for the dismantling of racism across society, Black diversity and inclusion consultants tell VICE that companies still have a long way to go to embrace the full scope of work to create equitable workplaces. In other words: change is slowly happening, if it is happening at all. 

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Historically and presently, the issues to address run deep. Black workers are underrepresented in management-level positions and higher-paying industries, and overrepresented in lower-paid sectors and front-line jobs, according to research published by McKinsey earlier this year. Black workers were also laid off more and hired less during the pandemic, according to analysis from RAND, a research organization. Black Americans in the workforce face racist labor practices during the interview process, inequity in salaries, navigating microaggressions in the office environment, and being overlooked while going out for promotions. There’s also the added stress of showing up to work while stories and videos of police brutality flood the media. 

After the protests started, companies found they could no longer ignore these headlines. At first, public relations efforts were immediate. Companies rolled out Black Lives Matter tweets. Some called for Juneteenth, a holiday marking the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans in the United States, to be a company holiday. Others announced donations to social justice organizations and created grant programs for small Black-owned businesses and Black creatives. But they were unprepared to address the urgent pressure to improve the corporate and front-line worker cultures for Black employees and employees of color, many of whom took to social media to call out employers that made statements on the protests while ignoring racist work environments in their own institutions. The next step was often seeking out diversity and inclusion firms for help. Consultants like Williams Melendrez observed clients realize in real time that there was no quick-fix solution.

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“It was very reactionary initially. A lot of requests for training that had to do with implicit bias, what anti-Blackness is, and ‘How do we do anti-racism [training]?’ kind of perspective,” Williams Melendrez said. As the weeks progressed, clients who were willing to move beyond “understanding” created diversity and inclusion committees to analyze where inequities might exist in the organization’s hiring practices, values, and missions, and how to dismantle them. “It's this domino effect that happened,” she said.  After reviewing how systems of oppression might be operating in their clients’ organizations, Williams Melendrez’s firm works with companies to create a strategy based on their findings, and coaches them through actualizing equity and inclusion efforts.

Brittany Harris, the vice president of learning and innovation at the Winters Group, a Black woman–owned diversity, equity, and inclusion firm, described being inundated by requests to lead town hall meetings and listening sessions and feeling conflicted about this approach. “As a Black woman practitioner, I was very aware that as much as institutions were calling for town halls and listening sessions, Black people were kind of over it. And so that was something that I struggled with: being responsive to clients and not reactive,” she said.

Harris wanted to do away with the “retraumatization” that occurs for Black and brown people when they witness white people working through their white privilege and unconscious racism in these town hall sessions. The firm created sessions for Black employees only, separate from their white colleagues. “We'll get into affirming our experiences and less about educating white people or meeting to share under the white gaze,” Harris said.

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Although this method of “caucusing” had been leveraged in equity and justice spaces, corporate organizations were new to this approach, and some were resistant, Harris said. “One way we had leaders think about this is by considering the emotional labor often carried by Black employees during times of crisis and racial injustice,” she said. “Likewise, we supported clients in understanding that since our experiences in the system of racism are different—Black people and white people—so is the work we must engage in as we seek to disrupt and dismantle.” 

For example, Harris said a curriculum designed for white employees would be focused on the history of racism in the United States, interrogating whiteness and allyship. Meanwhile, sessions for Black employees would focus on disrupting internalized oppression, creating healthy boundaries, harnessing collective power and individual agency. 

Some clients committed to this approach, and others did not. “There is still this struggle with moving beyond the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to DEI education, and there are some who still conflate creating self-affirming spaces with ‘exclusion,’” she said. “In other words, some felt this approach might be interpreted as divisive.”

Harris said she found that “shock and distancing” was a recurring theme in the anecdotal and qualitative research when she and a colleague worked on a report called "A Call for White Humility in Response to Black Rage.” “That looked like folks and leaders saying, ‘You know what, this is not us. We didn’t know this was real,’” Harris explained. “Shock and distancing are insufficient because what it suggests is, you never believed the real valid lived experiences of the people most impacted by these systems.” 

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In response to these themes, Harris’s team pushed their clients to move beyond empathy, shock, and distancing. The next step was to drive organizations to acknowledge how their industries have benefited from racism and the enslavement of Black people. 

Very few of her clients have strategically embarked on this truth and reconciliation process. Still, at the same time, Harris said that many are beginning to have the conversation about how they have been complicit in historical and present-day harm. “For example, one client has a stake in the tobacco industry and is thinking more critically about how their business has contributed to racism and the target marketing to Black communities,” she said.

Harris added that the bigger step clients could take to demonstrate a commitment to justice is a strategy that involves corporate reparations. “Justice requires accounting for harm caused, past and present. Since we live in a broader social context that refuses to acknowledge the fullness of this country’s history, resistance is unsurprising,” she continued.

Sharon E. Jones, the chief executive officer of Jones Diversity, which focuses on enabling organizations to utilize, retain, and promote diverse talent into leadership roles, told VICE that many clients’ lived realities distanced them from the injustices happening outside their neighborhoods. “A lot of my clients, they're privileged and we try to help them see it, because their bubbles are like ‘Everything’s fine where I am in Silicon Valley or the Upper East Side of New York,’” she said.

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One sign of how serious an organization is about receiving the education and implementing strategies for progress is how involved the leadership is in diversity efforts. “You could tell by who you're talking to,” Jones said. “I try to work with companies where I'm going to be closely working with senior leaders, CEO, C-Suite people. I don't want to work with a low-level person because they don't have the authority to make decisions that create change. If I'm working with a mid-level person, they have to talk to somebody who maybe can get to somebody who can make a decision. That's how things get stuck. That's how things are likely not to happen.”

Because Jones’ firm received more calls of interest this year than in the past, it became more important for them to discern which companies were willing to put in the months to years to transform their workplaces.

“I only have so much time and I want to spend it creating positive change and not just creating some paperwork that people put in their files and go, ‘Well we hired a consultant and here's our report,’ and thank you very much,” Jones said. “The ones who aren't serious, I try to move on.” 

Although diversity and inclusion specialists are paid to improve workspaces, this work does weigh heavy on their mental health. Darren Martin Jr., the co-founder and CEO of Bold Culture, a firm creating equitable workplaces in communications and tech industries and authentic multicultural marketing campaigns, said his company established a rule at the beginning of 2021 not to take client calls or workshops on Mondays and Fridays. This gives consultants time to recharge. 

“It was a lot at the beginning, because not only are you a person of color dealing with and processing what's happened yet again, and the comments and conversations around the issue, but then also now taking that and turning that into lessons to teach people, sometimes to people who don't want to learn or don't want to change their ways,” Martin said. “Undoubtedly, it has had an effect on our stress levels. This work is never going to be easy.” 

Williams Melendrez said that she meets up with a friend of Asian descent who is also a diversity consultant to vent weekly. “We have a conversation, and sometimes it's an hour, and sometimes it's four, and it's just that place to release and cry and laugh, and share our challenges and our hopes because it does take a deep toll.” 

In response to her frustrations in working in the space, Harris developed Liberated Love Notes. This card deck includes a glossary, self-reflection, and group discussion prompt cards that facilitators, therapists, and educators, and equity and justice practitioners can use to center the Black experience in their curricula. Harris said that she wants to see diversity and inclusion work evolve past serving organizations and instead empower employees in the long term. “The DEI industry should not be accountable to organizations and leaders; we should be accountable to people. That's the whole point of justice work,” she said. “To redistribute power to people.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Brittany Harris’s last name is Janay, which is her middle name.

Follow Natelegé Whaley on Twitter.