Don’t get me wrong, measurable tangibles such as assessments and plans are important to racial justice — but these are not the only ‘returns’ we need in order to create a more racially just workplace.
Are you a member of a racial justice team at a white-led organization?
Do you constantly get asked by organizational leaders, “What have you accomplished so far? Your team has been meeting for 6 months, so what has that investment gotten us? Show me the numbers!”?
Are you having a hard time responding to these questions?
If so, you are not alone! I have been there, both as a justice team member within organizations and as a consultant working with these teams to build their capacity. This frustration is very common and it exists because there is a dissonance between how organizations invest in racial justice work and the returns they expect on that investment.
At the heart of this issue is that we invest in what we value. But in many white-led organizations, we only value quantifiable returns. In Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture — Still Here,” she writes, “Things that can be counted are more highly valued than things that cannot. For example, numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, and money raised are valued more than quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict, morale, and mutual support. Little or no value is attached to process in the internalized belief that if it can’t be measured, it has no value.”
Don’t get me wrong, measurable tangibles such as assessments and plans are important to racial justice because we need to think strategically for the long-term and have the tools in place to inform and guide behavior — but these are not the only ‘returns’ we need in order to create a more racially just workplace.
The reality is these tangibles are only useful if the culture within which they are applied has sufficiently developed the skills and dispositions to bring them to life in racially just ways. How we do matters just as much as what we do. We must identify these intangibles and understand how they are connected to the tangibles. And we need to sustainably and equitably invest in the development of both.
So, how do you explain all this to your boss (or your boss’s boss) when they ask for returns, especially given the irony that their demand for quantifiable, “easy-to-understand” ROI personifies the exact culture you are trying to shift? And how do you explain this all in ways that don’t accidentally anger your boss (or your boss’s boss) who may still be steeped in white fragility? And how do you craft such a delicate response during the few hours you have each month to do racial justice work! Ugh!
To untangle all this, we need organizational leaders and racial justice teams to self-reflect. So, here are some questions to get both parties started:
Leaders: Is your organization really investing in your justice team?
Organizations that expect racial justice returns must invest equitably and sustainably in their racial justice teams — but very few do. If you are an organizational leader reading this, you may be thinking, “Of course we invest in our teams! We allowed them to form, and we let them meet each month during work hours! We are fully invested in racial justice work!” But so often this investment is an illusion, a performative action that leaders and even justice team members buy into.
Here are a few hard questions to investigate this supposed ‘investment’
- Do we believe staff should be paid for all the work they do for the organization?
- Do we believe racial justice work is work the organization needs?
- Have we allocated paid hours for the staff on the racial justice team to do the work? Does this show up in the organization’s budget?
- Have we removed work in equal ratio from those team members’ plates so they can add these new hours? Does this show up in the organization’s budget?
- Did we subsequently shift the organizational goals to reflect the removal of those hours? (Did we decrease the overall number of kids taught or dollars raised or contracts signed because these staffers are serving on the racial justice team?)
- Did we shift the organizational goals to include the racial justice team’s work? (Note: this should include tangible and intangible deliverables.)
- Did we equitably compensate/resource the racial justice team for the emotional toll this work takes, especially on BIPOC members who have to navigate the racist systems they are also trying to uproot?
- Did we consider that a cross-hierarchical team will have very different hourly rates by position — which intersects with race and gender, which means the white men on the racial justice team in higher-power positions who lack lived experience with racism and sexism are getting paid more to serve on the team than the BIPOC women team members in lower-power positions?
If you answered no to any of these questions, your organization is not yet investing equitably and sustainably in its racial justice team, and its racial justice team is essentially volunteering their time. In other words: Your organization is exploiting its staff. Ouch. And therefore your organization has no right to ask for a return on that said ‘investment.’
What can you do about this?
Change the dynamic. Dig into those questions and sit with the discomfort (BTW, that’s a racial justice skill to cultivate.). Use your positional power to examine the “investment illusion” and change it from performative to sustainable and equitable. This does not need to happen overnight but it does need to happen — intentionally and deliberately and in collaboration with the justice team. Remember: How we do matters just as much as what we do. Rethink your investments.
Without this examination, organizational leaders will continue to hypocritically expect racial justice returns without really investing in racial justice work. And when they ask teams to demonstrate their returns on investment, they are actually saying, “I’m not going to value your time nor will I approve the hours you need to do this work nor will I release you from the obligations of your full-time job nor will I consider the disproportionate impact of this work on BIPOC team members nor will I recognize the hypocrisy of paying higher-power white staff more to do this work than lower-power BIPOC. But I am going to expect you to use your unfunded time to continue to meet with the team, and create reports on your progress that are crafted in ways that don’t make me feel guilty or defensive, and meet milestones that the other senior leaders and I think are valuable even though we have done little to nothing in racial justice ourselves. Oh, but I stand with Black Lives Matter.”
Justice teams: Are you letting the system you are fighting determine what your returns should be?
But, if the group making the decision hasn’t spent time to build trust between the team members — they’ll likely end up with the same decision they would have made before they implemented this new process …
Like all teams, racial justice teams should identify, monitor, and regularly communicate their work. But, they need to examine how they do this. Yes, teams need to develop tangible deliverables; but they need to do so in ways that model the culture they want for their organizations. This means they need intangible justice skills, such as being comfortable with discomfort, normalizing conversations on race and racism, developing trusting relationships with teammates across racial and positional power boundaries, engaging openly and vulnerably in meetings, centering and amplifying BIPOC voices, and so on. These intangibles are critical because any organizational plan or policy produced will only be effective if drafted and implemented in racially just ways.
Take for example a decision-making process that centers and amplifies BIPOC voices. This is a tangible product, a written process highlighting strategies like progressive stack during discussions, weighted voting to amplify BIPOC input, and transparent sharing of process and results with staff.
But, if the group making the decision hasn’t spent time to build trust between the team members, if they haven’t discussed how positional power and racial identities influence discussions, if they haven’t confronted the implicit fear of retaliation in the work culture and how it intersects with race and position, then the team will go through the motions of progressive stack and weighted voting — and likely end up with the same decision they would have made before they implemented this new process because people were scared to speak up, their silence was taken as affirmation, and everyone voted defensively to avoid retaliation.
This ‘racially just’ decision-making process will ultimately reinforce the white dominant status quo, leaving white folks to pat themselves on the back for an equity job well done and BIPOC folks to walk away biting their tongues — again. As they say, culture eats policy for lunch.
As Okun states, we can counteract this dynamic by including “process goals in planning. For example, make sure your goals speak to how you want to do your work, not just what you want to do. And look for ways to measure process goals. For example, if you have a goal of mutually respectful relationships [on your team], think about ways you can measure how you are living into that goal.”
Here are some questions to help your team identify the full breadth of your returns, both tangibles and intangibles:
What tangibles have we created so far?
(These can include protocol, trainings, assessments, team meetings, team job description, meeting norms and agreements, newsletters, etc.)
What intangible skills did we cultivate by creating these tangibles?
For example, by creating a justice team job description, did you examine how racial identities influence members’ contributions to the team’s work? Or, when meeting as a team each month, are you normalizing conversations on race and racism? Or, when crafting a staff assessment, did you consider how to safely elicit and amplify the voices of those most impacted by workplace racism (BIPOCs)? Get these down on paper; include those you feel you have made progress on and those that need further development.
How do these intangible skills support the tangibles?
In other words: How do the intangibles bring each tangibles to life?
Now think vice-versa: How was that assessment better as a result of safely eliciting and amplifying the voices of BIPOC staff? How are those team meetings more impactful as a result of normalizing conversations on race and racism? (And so on.) Remember: It is an iterative process so these tangible and intangible returns are building on each other.
How do we know we’ve cultivated these intangible skills?
Describe any measures of progress, or ‘look fors,’ to help monitor.
For example, the team might report they are more “comfortable with discomfort” by regularly observing: “We take more time to sit in silence and think about challenges rather than react immediately with an answer.” Or, the team might report they are better able to center and amplify BIPOC voices in decision-making by observing: “It’s a habit now to ask at our meetings, ‘How do we know this is what our BIPOC staff want and need?’ and then triangulate our work with their input from the last survey.” Getting these ‘look fors’ down on paper raises them to our conscious awareness so we can better monitor the team’s culture shift over time.
How are these skills helping our team practice and model our vision of a racially just workplace?
Whatever your vision of a racially just workplace, it will require intangible skills to bring it to life. For example, if your vision describes a racially diverse staff at all levels of the organization, ask yourself what skills and dispositions are needed to recruit and retain BIPOC staff in a majority white organization? What skills and dispositions are needed to support a racially just workplace, not a tokenizing one? These are the same skills and dispositions the justice team is developing on a small scale with the intention of rippling out to the organization, so take time to articulate how practicing these skills in a microcosm (the team) can model a racially just culture for the macro-system (the organization).
As we can see, it’s a classic both/and — we need both tangible and intangible deliverables on racial justice teams. But if we skip this examination, we default to the valuation and expectations of the dominant culture. And, if teams keep defaulting to the white supremacy dogma that only the tangibles matter, they will start to believe that false rhetoric: “Maybe we haven’t actually accomplished anything over these last 6 months. Ugh! We are failing!” They will essentially gaslight themselves! But don’t let the system you are fighting determine what your returns should be. Take this opportunity to develop and communicate a more robust ROI narrative.
Doing organizational racial justice work is really hard; we know this. But it is made even harder when we lack real investment and are constrained to valuing only half our work. We can twist ourselves up in knots and spend our precious, limited time crafting carefully worded responses that only tell a portion of our story. But by addressing this dissonance head on, by having the hard conversations with ourselves, our teams, and our leaders, we can untangle those knots and upend some of the white supremacy culture that impedes our work. And then we will start seeing real returns on our racial justice investments.
Sapna Sopori, (she/her) CEO of Sapna Strategies, LLC, a strategic planning firm that helps leaders develop and operationalize their DEI intentions. She is Indian American, raised by a single-mother whose own challenges and opportunities in this country shaped Sapna’s understanding of the intersection between race, gender, and immigrant-status. As a consultant, educator, and activist, she works with organizations to identify and uproot biases in their policies/procedures/protocol to ensure that the good work they hope to do in the world is not undermined by how they do it. Read her blog on her website! She can be reached on LinkedIn.