Poor Little White President

I’ve been an officer of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee at work for the last 3 years or so, recruited to take over the Secretary position from a young, Queer woman who left the organization just a few months after she helped start the group. I was a slightly reluctant recruit because I’m typically not much of a joiner, less of a work joiner, and less of a joiner in a workspace of people I had trouble relating to – White, suburban, Minnesotan women who were not in the arts and did not swear enough for my comfort. But I quickly fell in love with my fellow officers on the committee (all women: it’s a nonprofit, and women are predominant), and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to bring to the largely suburban, White staff: cultural education from members of the Muslim, Hmong, Native American, Hispanic (as the presenter identified), East African, and LGBTQI communities, an expert on socio-economic inequities, etc., as well as fact sheets on Pride, Ramadan, Juneteenth, the High Holy Days, and others.

We’ve also pushed the organization in the direction of better diversity metrics, bias training, the use of gender pronouns in communication, more comprehensive data collection (including genders other than male and female), inclusive event planning, and most recently an Equity Impact Assessment, which I’m particularly happy about. A good EIA, incorporated across projects, budget planning, etc. allows decision makers to see beyond their own necessarily limited perspective and assess how decisions may negatively impact marginalized groups they might not have thought to consider – anything from people who might have limited English ability or literacy in English, to former felons burdened with copious restrictions on housing, loans, welfare, etc, to folks without secure homes or internet connections who need to access private information online. We’ve hit some obstacles and resistance, but our work has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the organization, and to some extent on the people who work there – BIPOC and White.

But at the end of 2020, our beloved DEI President resigned and no one else expressed any interest (or even expressed active disinterest) in taking on the role, for various reasons including limited time and mental capacity to commit to it. In order to keep the group going, I agreed to be President for one year. It felt like a necessary obligation and a learning experience, one both my best friend (Black) and my partner (White) said I should consider, because it’s something I deeply care about and have experience in. Besides keeping the group alive, I agreed to do it because:

  1. I’m comfortable leading discussions
  2. I’m the least introverted of the Officers
  3. We had someone willing to take on my role as Secretary
  4. I have the least stressful non-DEI job of all the Officers

But really it came down to me or nothing, so two months into it, here we are. And now the one remaining Person of Color among our officers (she and our former president are Black) is leaving for a career-path job in another company.

So we are currently a Diversity committee composed of 3 White, Straight, Cis-gendered, Able-bodied women. What. the. fuck.

How has this happened? How do we change this? I don’t have a good answer. I’m trying to engage more of our attendees (our “Committee” as opposed to our “officers”) so they will feel more invested in the group. I’ve reached out for suggestions for Black History Month and Women’s History Month; we sent out a company-wide poll to try and find better meeting times and days for staff; I’ve tried to use our new Intranet platform to highlight and seek comments and contributions on our activities and posts, but I don’t know that it will lead to a Diverse Officer group by 2022. Here are some of the obstacles we face:

  • Minnesota is a predominantly White state
  • while representation is becoming more diverse in Minnesota, we remain a leader in structural racism, with some of the worst racial disparities in health, employment, education, income, homeownership in the country (a great place to live … if you’re White)
  • our staff is predominantly White, cis-gendered, and heterosexual
  • while more diverse than when I started 6 years ago, most of that diversity is in the lowest-paid roles in the organization
  • the lowest paid roles are hourly, giving staff less flexibility to commit to extracurricular activities
  • the lowest paid roles are funded through billable time, making non-client time a financial setback for the org
  • we had one POC in a supervisor role when I started, and we currently have 2
  • all upper management is White; only one is LGBT
  • with White people in management positions, White voices tend to speak, be heard, and be prioritized over others. The Right to speak is a given with people in management; not in people from lower-prestige positions
  • people in marginalized groups have been marginalized, which makes speaking up, taking charge, questioning dominant thought patterns not only something they may have been punished for in the past, it may be financially risky
    • (see employment, income disparities)
  • The way we frame discussion/participation may be culturally imperialist and off-putting, employing White Cultural tropes like reliance on the written word, explicit and implicit hierarchies, either/or thinking, perfectionism, conflict avoidance, etc.

Perhaps the reason staff have not felt invested in the DEI committee is the same reason they have not felt invested in the organization (our turnover for POC seems high). Because inclusion and equity seem ancillary, rather than an integral part of what the org wants to achieve. Everything DEI related gets pushed onto DEI, and that’s way more than a handful of volunteer staff can do. (We have been told our DEI duties cannot be included as part of our work hours.) There is so much more work that needs to be done in the org, but most of that work should not be the responsibility of an unpaid, volunteer committee. If the org doesn’t demonstrate and enforce a strong commitment to inclusivity and equity from the top, we in DEI are to some extent spinning our wheels.

I got a certificate in DEI from e-Cornell a few years ago, and there was a questionnaire to determine the level of commitment from the top of the organization, and we scored abysmally low. I’m not particularly ripping on my employer, because I know this is not uncommon. Decent, well-intentioned people leading small organizations with limited funding have a hard time making equity and inclusion a visible priority. Still, I would argue that it has to be done.

So what do we officers do? Keep pushing the Executive Team, keep working on the strategic goals that team verbally endorsed, and keep trying to educate. As we whiteys are all that we’ve got right now, it does change the way I approach that education, though. We decided to throw together a training next week, highlighting Black History Month and Women’s History Month in an intersectional way, since our planned speaker cancelled with little time to spare. Since no one else has time (as usual), I’ll be putting together the presentation (mostly youtube videos), but against my blabby instincts, will keep the commentary to myself. Or rather, to my blog (thanks, y’all), and defer to the far more relevant and articulate voices of the Black Women who have participated in and researched the topic.

And then I will step back from highlighting discussions about Race for the rest of my term. Even though racism has always been the center of my Equity work and thought, unless we’re talking about Whiteness, I can’t appropriately lead or even facilitate those discussions for a diverse staff. I loved digging into White Supremacy Culture last year, co-facilitating with the previous President, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that now, unless the discussion only included White people (eww), or we find another Officer of color willing to jump in.

I feel like I need to join a DEI officer support group; it is sad, frustrating, and often worse, that our lack of diversity & inclusiveness keeps us from addressing racial diversity & inclusiveness in an appropriate and effective way.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences, if you’ve got ’em.

One thought on “Poor Little White President

  1. jimwrich

    Dear Zoe, I am familiar with the challenges you describe. I’ve experienced some of them myself. If you would like, I think a direct conversation might be helpful. Love, Jim 

    Like

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