With all of the social, economic, and community challenges plaguing Philadelphia, I was surprised to learn this week that a handful of employees at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) decided to reach out to the press because they were “furious” about a workshop that I was subcontracted by DiverseForce to facilitate on building cultural competence. In the 10+ years that I’ve led these types of sessions, I’ve never once gotten 100% positive feedback, but why were these negative responses newsworthy? How did the “fury” of a few people land me in the headlines?
To date, several news segments have been published, most of which are devoid of context, heavily biased, riddled with hand-picked sound-bytes, and contrived with the typical “click-baity” feel that most articles about “race” have these days. An article written to clearly provoke emotion, not to actually cover the facts. DailyCaller.com published an article with the title, “I Just Want to Cry…”. Since the publishing, I've received a fair share of "hate" messages via social media.
But beyond the anonymous internet trolls that I’d expect to hop on the bandwagon, I’m left questioning the sincerity of last year’s media frenzy around Black lives supposedly mattering? With platforms around the country using their reach to vilify a successful African American business owner and PhD. Is this how we fight “racism”? A handful of people feel “furious” about a workshop and the response is all of this? Through my work, I am able to support my children, families, and employees. The irony is that this is exactly representative of why we have the economic disparities in America right now. Not only because of racism (spoiler alert), but because of the individual choices that we make to oppress and disenfranchise each other. But I guess the bigger picture doesn’t seem to matter when we’re “furious”.
The other article and segment from CBS3 presents a more balanced overview, but I’d still like to take a moment to give context to a broader discussion that needs to be addressed from my vantage point.
The problem that we’re facing in today’s society and specifically in the DEI industry is that people want their organizations to change, but they don’t want to change collectively as employees. People advocate for diversity, but are intolerant of things like diversity of thought. People shout about inclusion, but will exclude you if you don’t believe what they believe. People want their voices to be heard, but oftentimes it comes at the expense of others’ voices being heard. People preach unity, while sowing discord. People act on their emotions, rather than their logic.
My firm was recently subcontracted by DiverseForce, our DEI partner, to facilitate a training for employees on building their cultural competence and allyship behaviors. The workshop mentioned in the media was the first of three. I facilitated two subsequent sessions (with identical content) the very next day. If the first session was so bad, I'm wondering why the plug wasn't pulled after the first one, but I guess we'll never know.
The Free Library of Philadelphia is in the midst of a full organizational change process and has made some significant positive progress over the last year with identifying a new interim Executive Director (of color), hiring a Chief Diversity Officer (of color), and recently appointing a new board chair (also a person of color). I was told that the foundation had been set to begin having conversations that can support and restore the fractured interpersonal dynamics that had broken down as a result of ongoing equity challenges at the FLP.
There was a specific segment of my workshop where we began discussing the power of language. I always challenge audiences to think about their language choices, the varied meaning of terminology, and how those language choices impact their ability to find common ground with others in the workplace. While terminology like white supremacy, white privilege and others have their own place, the effectiveness of these concepts dissolves in the workplace context when supporting organizations in doing DEI change management work. I urged the audience to think differently about their usage of these terms, especially when attempting to describe interpersonal phenomena in the workplace. Can we negate the existence of the entirety of those concepts? Of course not, but we do need to think more strategically about when and how to use certain concepts as we work to create truly inclusive company cultures. I was also attempting to challenge the group to limit the common habit of centering “whiteness” within every discussion about racial inequities, but we barely got that far.
Clarifying My Role as a DEI Consultant
The average professional cannot begin to imagine how challenging it is to do this work in a responsible way. My work is bound by the principles of DEI and I have to honor diversity, equity, and inclusion at all costs. While some DEI consultants approach their work from a personal lens, using their own lived experience as a qualifier for the credibility of their work, I do not take that approach. I use evidence-based practices that have been validated by decades of research.
As an African American woman, I have been to court to fight unfair treatment that I have received by the police (won the case by the way), I have been discriminated against while pursuing my doctoral degree, I have been excluded from purchasing property in certain neighborhoods by real estate agents, and I encounter discrimination (call it racism if you want to) regularly, especially in this field. Despite every right that I may have to use these experiences as a back-drop for my DEI expertise, I’ve been able to get far more RESULTS for organizations by utilizing an organizational development and change management approach that is grounded within a psycho-social framework. It is these principles, in fact, that the same Philadelphia Inquirer recognized me for in 2019 with a Diversity & Inclusion Award (the irony).
In the Inquirer article, I was characterized as demonstrating “anti-Blackness” for discussing the fact that white privilege does not exist as an absolute. All of our “privilege” is contextual. This fact is not used to “placate” anyone (as the article asserts), rather, it is used to help professionals better understand how fluid and flexible these social constructs are. Because remember, they are social constructs. Once we acknowledge this, we have the power to redefine our experiences. So no, I’m not “divorced from reality”, and definitely not suffering from “anti-Blackness” or “internalized racism” for taking this approach. I know that it’s hard for people NOT to see me as a “Black DEI Consultant”. I am definitely prejudged and expected to show up in a certain way because of my race, but that’s par for the course in this work.
Where Do We Go From Here?
With the rise of “us vs. them” DEI consulting practices, my team purposely chooses to avoid that approach. I don’t believe that white allies have to participate in sitting through a “reckoning” as a sort of rights-of-passage for them to learn how to support the racial equity movement. I discuss this in my book "Authentic Ally: A Guilt-Free Guide to Becoming an Ally for Racial Equity" (coming out next week). Companies will never be able to create a truly “safe place” for these types of discussions if they employ a method that requires one group to be characterized as “bad” just by the virtue of their skin color. Does individual character mean anything anymore?
At the Calling All Allies Project, we are disrupting and innovating in the DEI space and we work with partners, like DiverseForce who are doing the same. We have a saying, “people love to learn, but hate to change”, and there’s a method to pushing the limits and taking a purposefully unexpected approach. While I fully see that this approach isn’t the best fit for certain organizations, I'm proud to have worked nationally and internationally with organizations of all sizes who are willing to push through their personal discomfort to move toward equity. While I'm disheartened that the emotions of a few led to this, I’m hopeful that this situation will create an opportunity to continue the discussion around how we can all work together to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Dr. Brandi Baldwin