Building Cultures of Belonging
I read every month cases in the news of White-dominant institutions that have launched diversity initiatives ultimately failing to retain the people of color that they initially attracted. Colleges routinely report on their students of color under-performing. Corporations see their employees of color leave in droves. Black and brown workers in nonprofits are unable to move up the ranks into leadership positions. The common culprit in many of these stories is each institution’s failure to build an environment in which people of color can belong and thrive.
The concept of belonging, while not new, is becoming increasingly talked about. It is synonymous with inclusion, but to me carries more emotional heft whereas inclusion sounds rather tepid. Belonging is more than just being treated nicely and being invited to happy hour. Belonging is having one’s identities and experiences affirmed, being seen as invaluable, and being given the resources to succeed. White-dominant organizations like to believe that they are race-neutral and by default inclusive, in part because they see conventional norms of professionalism, leadership, and communication as universal standards rather than as standards born from and catering to White values and preferences. On top of that, the predictable presence of unconscious racial bias and structural racism all add up to create institutional environments that are hostile to people of color.
A huge part of what my team and I do is support organizations to engage in systemic, cultural transformation, not just increase diversity on paper. We deliver training workshops on having difficult conversations and understanding privilege and oppression. Our services include coaching leaders to practice participatory leadership and crafting social justice operational frameworks. All of these efforts contribute to institutions capable of affirming people of color’s identities and experiences of oppression, and giving them the resources they need to thrive.
I come from an ecology background, so I often like to borrow an adage from regenerative agriculture that says, “if you want the plant to be healthy, feed the soil, not the plant”, which is to say that to grow and keep a racially diverse body of people, an institution has to foster an environment that people of color can navigate, and where they can put down roots and grow. Whenever an organization reaches out to us wanting to be more diverse, the first piece of advice I give them is that they can’t simply “inject” diversity into their organization with tweaks to their hiring process. The diversity count may go up in the short run with these tactics but it ultimately won’t stick. People of color will realize that an organization is not designed with them in mind and promptly plan their escape. The lack or loss of diversity certainly feels like an urgent problem, but it is really a symptom of an inherently exclusionary and hostile organization. Organizations that want to be more diverse must do the long-term work of building a culture of belonging.
I’m curious, how is your organization building a culture of belonging? In what ways are you examining the implicit, White norms that define your organizational culture? How are you being more intentional about affirming the identities and experiences of people of color and setting them up to succeed in your organization?
Designing a Community Arts Development Program
Over the past year, our partner firm, TYTHEdesign, and we have been working with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs to design the agency’s Building Community Capacity program, an initiative dedicated to the growth of arts and cultural ecosystems in targeted low-income neighborhoods across New York City. We completed our project last month and are excited to see the fruits of our labor benefit future cohorts of organizations and neighborhoods that participate in the program.
New Workshop Series for Pratt Faculty
We are excited to be partnering with the Pratt Institute Center for Teaching and Learning to offer a new workshop series on Culturally Responsive Pedagogies to Pratt faculty. The workshops support faculty in building inclusive classroom/studio environments, designing culturally pluralistic syllabi, and successfully navigating difficult conversations and tensions arising from racial, gender, and other cultural differences. Workshops are offered every semester as well as by request. The Fall 2019 workshops will be held on October 15th, 2019. Check out the link above to learn more and sign up.