By Leah Fessler
Last week, we hosted the first session in Chief’s intensive workshop series, DEI in Action. This session focused on going beyond the DEI statement, featuring DEI expert Jennifer Brown, Founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, and her co-consultant, Chelsea Williams. Below is a peak into our conversation with Jennifer and Chelsea.
Q. At the highest level, what does inclusive leadership actually mean?
Jennifer Brown: When we talk about inclusive leadership, we talk about taking on differences as our own. We can't have the lived experience of others, but what we can do is understand enough to spot when difference makes a difference — both in positive and often not so positive ways. My job as an inclusive leader is to make sure I understand a little bit about a lot of different identities so that in any room, I can spot micro aggressions, spot comments that are problematic, and give that feedback.
Another really important element of inclusive leadership is transferring benefits of our privilege to others without a focus on self. Privilege is access, it's power, it's platform, it's permission. It's a way that some of us walk through the world that means we're safer to give input and transact. There's less risk for us. We need to understand the nuances of privilege in our work to become an inclusive leader because people often feel mystified by advice to, “just be an ally." But that doesn’t mean I just put my pride pin on once a year in June. Allyship Is a path that we walk continually. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey that we earn every day. I like to say that you're only an ally if someone in an affected community calls you an ally. For this reason, as a leader I really try to say, I am an aspiring ally, not label myself as an ally — that caveat is an essential mindset shift.
Q. For those of us who may be less familiar, can you further explain what intersectionality means, and how it manifests at work?
Chelsea Williams: The intersectionality conversation has to account for the inequities that exist across identities, including privileged and non-privileged identities. But another incredibly important piece of this conversation is where discrimination manifests across our identities. For me as a Black woman, discrimination shows up from an equity standpoint in the pay gap. We know there's a pay gap between men and women, but if we break down the category of women, we know that women of color, specifically Black and Latina women, tend to be at the end of the payment spectrum. So when we talk about advancing equity in the workplace, we have to make sure we're thinking about compensation, promotions, or any other issue through an intersectional lens. No issue is the same for all women, or all Black women.
To show what this intersectionality looks like in action, let me share the example of someone I recently met in a training session. She told me, “Chelsea, I didn’t even know what the term intersectionality fully meant, but I've been living it over the past three months.” She said:
“You know, COVID happens. And I’m on a team of people who primarily live in wealthier parts of New York City, and I live in the Bronx. So when everything hit for my team, I felt my socioeconomic condition as a low income New Yorker. And then the conversation about Black injustice and the continued murder of Black men and women came to the forefront, I felt my racial identity. I felt being a Black woman on top of already feeling my socioeconomic status. Then I also identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, so when pride month came along, I started feeling that lens of my identity at work. But I don't get to move or push aside my Blackness and my socioeconomic status. It all connects at the same time.”
This woman’s experience is a very practical example of what intersectionality looks like. And I'm sure people in your organizations experience those overlapping identities every day.
Q. In your proprietary model for becoming an inclusive leader, you present four primary phases. What’s the first?
JB: These four phases are built around the premise that inclusive leaders are always asking themselves how they can learn more about what they don't know when it comes to cultural competency. The first step is asking yourself, where am I on this journey? And that’s why we created the four stage model, from phase one, unaware, through phase four, advocate. It's fine to be everywhere on this journey — as long as you're on the journey, there's no bad place to be. So, that first phase is unaware. It could be understood as denial, or “I’m a good person,” or, “Oh my goodness, here come the diversity police again.” It’s the notion that as a leader, if we have a diversity team, I don’t really need to be paying attention to this — they’ve got it covered.
In unaware, we don't know what we don't know. It’s the phase in which we’re focusing on how we have good intentions, but we are not curious about our impact, and we don’t calibrate our behavior based on that impact. In this phase, there’s a bias toward how you’ve been taught to lead, and how you’re most comfortable leading. A lot of leaders in this phase believe in meritocracy. They believe they’ve built a culture that rewards hard work and performance, and they’re blind to the particular headwinds that particular talent faces. And it’s hard to perceive some of those headwinds, because they’re often invisible, and require a lot more listening. If we want to move the needle from unaware to aware, the next phase, we need to channel empathy and knowledge. In that next phase, there’s humility, there's openness. In aware, we’re awakening ourselves to what we don’t know, and how what we don’t know can hurt us, which is a very effective motivational technique.
If you are a Chief member, to learn about the next three stages of Jennifer Brown’s inclusive leadership model, listen to her and Chelsea’s full conversation with Chief.
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