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It had been days after I watched companies place black squares in their social feeds to represent taking a step towards change, taking a step to stand for black lives, and surprisingly taking a position on something that has not always given the light it very much deserved.

That’s when I knew that I needed to encourage additional conversations, conversations with a variety of individuals, providing perspective in their respective worlds. Meet Norm Baillie-David, who kindly hopped on a call to chat without not necessarily knowing what I was asking for. Further to that he wrote the following as a way to put forward his next steps.

Confessions of a privileged white leader: It’s time to act

by Norm Baillie-David, MBA

I would never consider myself a racist. But, if my understanding of the term is accurate, I can’t claim to be an anti-racist. I haven’t actively worked to combat racism. Like many of my privileged, white peers in leadership positions, the current wave of activism brought on by the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has stirred up many emotions. Many uncomfortable emotions: Sadness, frustration, confusion (how can people do that to each other?), guilt, but most of all, helplessness.

If you’re like me, the fundamental question that many of us are asking now, at least where our organizations are concerned, is “how can I genuinely help – what do I do?” (I’m not talking about the many corporate statements and pronouncements that this is unacceptable, etc. I tend to discount those as corporate PR. More on that below.)While I was contending with this big question, a former (black) employee reached out to me, probing to see if I would help frame the many emotions she was experiencing as well, and channel them into some constructive action. To preserve her anonymity, let’s call her “Terry”. My first thought was: “Why is Terry asking me? What do I know about this?” In the brief conversation that followed, I experienced, ever so briefly, that moment of clarity that I would now like to share with my fellow white, privileged leaders. The solution lies in things I’ve been talking to leaders about for years: building empathy through conversations. Empathy is just the beginning, but we need that empathy to motivate us to the proper action.

Unfortunately, as with many tragic events, the media focus has stirred up many good corporate intentions. How many of you have been asked by your CEOs to “make sure we’re doing something about this.” The corporate urge to “tick the box’” is as strong as ever, as we have seen with the many “official” pronouncements mentioned above. As my conversation with Terry confirmed, this just builds even greater cynicism. I’m guessing that the large majority of these initiatives are truly well-intentioned, but I also feel they’re missing the mark.

What to do, and what not to do

Those of you who know me know I’m originally from the survey world, so what I’m about to say is probably sacrilege: I don’t believe now is the time to do that diversity and inclusion survey. I’ve been in the boardrooms for so many of these discussions: “We need the facts before we can act”, “we need to know the size and scale of the problem”, “we need facts to be able to develop a plan”, and on and on it goes. All true. But that happened after Ferguson, Missouri too, and it has happened after every other well-covered media-event.

I’m proposing something different. Something less scientific, but infinitely more human: Let’s start conversations. Small at first, but then wider and wider. The first thing we need to do as leaders is understand. Because, speaking for myself, I don’t. I can’t possibly. Before we can measure, or develop or implement policy in our organizations, why don’t we just listen? Minority groups: Tell us about your experiences. Explain to us what it feels like. Try to put us in your shoes. Leaders: Let us (try and) empathize. NO! Stop right there, I know what you’re thinking. No more focus groups, please! (Remember, I moderate these for a living). Heaven knows enough of those have come and gone as well, without much action to show for it. Let’s do away with delays, and rather embrace human connection. Let’s sit down in mixed groups and share stories. Listening needs to go both ways. We leaders need our racialized and indigenous employees and colleagues to help us understand what help we can offer, and what needs to change. What can we do that’s meaningful and that won’t just be dismissed cynically as I did with those initiatives I lumped into corporate PR? Most of all, we need help to keep the momentum going, because when the media hype dies down (at the time of writing, it already is slowing down), we don’t want this time to be like all the rest. Although the tragedy in Atlanta (Rayshard Brooks), and the continuous issues with the RCMP’s relations with Indigenous Canadians is providing another blast of oxygen to this story.

My proposal

Here is what I propose for discussion:

  • Together with my friend Terry, I would like to get a small mixed group of trusted individuals in a group to build greater clarity around anti-racism in the workplace
  • Working in concentric circles (in a combination of within and outside our organizations), I would like to enlarge the conversation

Each conversation should address four basic questions:

  • What have you (the racialized and indigenous employee/colleague) been experiencing at work and in life in general? Help us understand.
  • What do you need from us (white, privileged) leaders? How can we help?
  • What should we not do?
  • How do we keep up the momentum when the initial hype dies down?

Many of you reading this will think this is old-hat; that all this has been discussed ad nauseum, yet little has changed. There are tons of books on the subject, why don’t you go and read those? And you’re right.[1] Therein lies the issue. We (white, privileged) leaders haven’t really been listening, let alone acting. I want that to change. I believe many of my colleagues and peers want that to change too. Racialized and Indigenous peoples demand it. Let’s work on it together. I’m listening.

In closing, Norm has continued to work on unpacking his place in making changes in workplaces. I believe having had our chat, seeing his consistent content throughout social, and the navigation towards building sustainable impact — it has been reassuring to see that his momentum has not been lost by the days that have past.

Interested in hearing if you have had a chat with someone like ‘Terry’ and how it’s helped you? Or, have you seen anything in your workplace that has added value to the necessary changes to impact change for the BIPOC employees over the last year.

[1] A quick Google Search reveals a ton of reading material here.  Books alone don’t create the empathy and understanding need to motivate true behaviour change.  We need deep, difficult conversations to begin to understand.  Then, we can act properly, and not just superficially.

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