June 24, 2024

getting started

a bridge over the puget sound with houses and trees beneath it
photo caption: the aurora bridge in seattle, washington spanning the puget sound. trees and boats dot the land while the water is still. pretty amazing what we can do when we want to, eh? [photo by Jamie Martinez]

“Hooray! Our non-profit organization is ready to use its power for change. The status quo won’t stand a chance against us. Let’s see, we’ve got ourselves a fifteen-point plan to end racism. We’ve got our diagrams, our power analyses, and our group agreements. We’ve got an action item here to update our strategic plan with equity-first points. We’ve—no, we haven’t fired the racist finance director, but we’ve got our eye on her. Now, where were we… I’m pulling up my calendar and… oh, well, this week’s pretty much over so we’ll start next week. Well, next week isn’t great for me, it’s the end of the quarter, and then after that it’s a holiday… and people start to go on vacation so it’ll be impossible to get everyone together for at least a month…. Hmmm. Okay, here’s what we’ll do. I will set aside a block of time to read through these materials… how about 3:05-3:25 tomorrow afternoon. Yes, that should do it. Great! Was there anything else?”

Racial justice and equity doesn’t happen from intentions. It takes action to dismantle the status quo. Say you have an organization that commits to making change. How do you do it? How do you find the time? Most places choose one of two options. They’ll ask their existing staff to add DEI to their plates, or they’ll hire someone new to do it. I’ll include pros and cons of both options, plus some ideas for how to do each one better.

use existing staff capacity

We can have staff pitch in to lead the DEI efforts that affect their work areas.

Asking existing staff has real value. Racial equity movements have to include everyone. DEI work falters when staff members reject their role in the process. It can unravel when people believe it’s “not my job” to take them on. Including the whole workforce will make it clear that this change needs everyone.

Existing staff usually know the systems they’re in and how they work. They may already know what practices are unfair or need to replaced.

Most staff members already operate at full capacity—if they’re not above capacity. It’s hard to set aside the time to do change work on top of an existing workload. Standing meetings, project due dates, and daily interruptions fill most people’s schedules. It can feel pretty reasonable to wonder where we’ll get the time that DEI deserves.

We may try to add staff to teams or departments to ensure this work gets done. But what if we set aside, say, 10% of our day? How do we hire 10% of a person to cover the overage? Is it fair to expect that person to work across more than one team to cover a full time salary?

Ideas for improvement:
Add staff time to the budget and ensure it gets taken. Task a full-time employee to lead the team’s goals, assign work, and track progress. When we make the work a real priority, we don’t accept excuses for a lack of movement. Imagine if we planned a critical move to a building that never happened? Who would accept no movement on that priority? Why would DEI efforts be less important?

Set expectations for an employee’s time. Ten percent isn’t enough time. Equity-focused work should take up 100% of everyone’s time. Every aspect of our work comes from a foundation of injustice. Create a goal, say 25% of each employee’s time. That could mean 10 hours a week should focus on implementing our DEI goals. Identify activities and track the time it takes to perform them. With that sense of urgency, we can get real about capacity and hire who we need to offset it.

hiring a dedicated DEI employee

Hire someone with DEI expertise who can move projects across the entire organization.

Capacity issues can bog people down. It’s can be hard to squeeze DEI time into an already-packed schedule, even when we have the best intentions. I used to have to squeeze equity-focused work wherever I could. Having a dedicated staff member can help keep the work moving. They get to spend their entire day working with each department to advance change. Hiring for this role also allows you to select specific education and skillsets that existing staff may not have.

Some organizations go even further and hire a leadership-level DEI champion. This is often a Chief Diversity or Chief Equity Officer. This can lead to greater visioning, strategy, and oversight for the entire organization. Racist status quo activities often live at the CEO level. They often need someone with DEI expertise in their decision meetings.

Hiring a single DEI staff member can be super isolating. It can make a person feel like they’re the only one who cares about these issues. It can be even more harmful when that person is BIPOC or already struggles with feeling marginalized or othered. This is a leads to a specific type of burnout I know all too well.

Outside of leadership, these roles often hold little formal power. It shows up even in their titles: “DEI Coordinator,” or a “DEI Manager” with no employees. These staff members often influence behavior through their own charisma or expertise. But if people don’t respect them, or don’t respect their work, change won’t happen.

Even at the leadership level, the “Chief DEI Officer” still reports to the CEO. That makes a statement about who is really in charge. Sometimes that leader works solo, or within an HR department not focused on equity. That means they’re responsible for the DEI strategy and carrying out those actions. With so much to fix, that person’s capacity tops out fast, limiting their effectiveness.

Ideas for improvement:
When you hire someone new to handle your DEI work, know they start with some disadvantages. First off, they’re new. They don’t have rapport with team leads or department heads. These staff members need the authority of someone else in power. They need the support of a leader who can influence or insist that others respect their work.

DEI-focused staff also need the power and freedom to push back on people above them in the hierarchy. It’s very easy to hire someone and let them work. When they come knocking on your door asking you to change, you need to listen. You can’t set aside their recommendations or steer them away from the untouchable parts of the business. You will leave the organization worse off than if you had done nothing at all.

hiring external consultants

My marketing department (me) asked me to add this one. External consultants are great for helping organizations get unstuck and moving towards real solutions. We bring education, expertise, and skills needed to draw out information and actions from the people we work with. But we aren’t permanent employees. We need people to imagine new possibilities with us and then work to make them a reality. It can sometimes be hard to get started, but we can’t stay at the beginning forever.

If we want to make true progress towards equity and justice, we have to invest more than our free time.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space