A Beginner’s Roadmap to Racial Diversity and Equity

I live in Vermont which has long been known as one of the least diverse states in the United States, currently ranking at “second whitest.” As a trainer and facilitator in racial diversity, equity and inclusion, and as the only black woman serving in the Vermont legislature, I often hear from leaders who are looking for advice on how to increase diversity. 

The most common impetus for our conversation usually follows this pattern: “Recently, I was in a meeting with my board/team/staff/members. We were in the middle of strategizing session and I looked around the room and realized that it was all white. There were no people of color at the table at all.” They find themselves unsettled by the lack of racial diversity and are looking for solutions to employ to make it right. Key research has found that diversity is one of the most important factors in predicting sales revenue and nurturing unprecedented innovation for corporations. A lack of diversity, especially in roles of leadership, can result in bad decisions that ultimately hurt your brand. Some clear examples are the recent controversies for giants Facebook, Dove and Pepsi.  You may be most familiar with the backlash against the Pepsi Corporation for their commercial featuring Kendall Jenner (of Kardashian fame) giving a police officer a Pepsi during a large protest as a gesture of “unity, peace and understanding.” The officer, dressed in riot gear accepts the Pepsi and the crowd erupts into cheering and fist bumps of celebration.

The Pepsi video aired at the height of tensions and mass public protests against police brutality and killings of blacks in the United States.  Critics found the ad tone deaf and dismissive of real human rights violations against people of color and need for protests that continue to this day. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King tweeted in in condemnation of the ad: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.” Significant research shows that meaningful diversity in decision-making greatly reduces the likelihood of such disconnects between a brand and its audience.   

So where to begin? Here are eight steps that can get you a little further on your journey towards meaningful racial diversity in your organization or business.

1.       Do an honest assessment of not only raw numbers but of any initiatives and programs that you may have which promote greater racial diversity.  How many people of color are actually engaged in your work in a position of leadership? Is there a pattern of turnover for people of color in your workplace? Is your customer base all white? Are you even tracking these things at all? The great part about doing assessments is that they allow for us to take a look at what we are doing well and identify areas for improvement. In reviewing your numbers, you may discover that you have nailed it in achieving gender parity in the c-suite. So, build on that and identify what you did to foster that growth and recognize that you can do it again. From a 40,000-foot view, you may find that your work doesn’t suck nearly as much as you think but could use a bit more intentionality in implementation.

2.       Take a moment to consider this gut-check question: What benefits are gained personally and professionally from not pursuing meaningful, racial diversity within your group? (Not tokenism, but real diversity.) I know this is a doozie of a question, but I never said this work would be easy, so stay with me.  

3.       Take it from the top. Look up, literally. Look at those lovely, framed inspirational poster versions of your organizational mission and vision statements that are decorating your walls. Review them with new eyes towards racial diversity and equity. Then dust off that manual and find the section that talks about your organizational values. Are those same benefits you identified in #2 reflective of your organizational values? If they are not, don't cling to them.

4.       Now go back to your vision statement and actually visualize what is stated. Most vision statements have a population that will be transformed by an organization’s work. Is it a community? A customer base? A region? An industry? Even if your work is to save the whales, actual people have to do the work of saving those whales.  Who are the people pictured in your mind’s eye? Is it a racially diverse group of people that you imagine? If not, you should start today on modifying that image through meaningful diversity. Similarly, if the image in your mind is diverse, yet your group is mostly white…it is a definite sign that you need to take action today.

5.       Articulate why diversity is important to your organization. If you have made it through the last three steps, the perfect answer is “It is a fundamental value of our company. It is the right thing to do to achieve a more just and equitable world.” I’m sure that is what you were just about to say, right? But your actual answer may have a few more layers to it as well. Is it to increase market share? To assist in recruitment or retention efforts? As a part of public relations? Define it so that you can design it.

6.       Get professional support and training in diversity, equity and inclusion. I repeat, get – professional – support – and – training – in – diversity – equity – and - inclusion. Do not attempt this on your own. The biggest mistake you can make is to move forward with a strategic plan on DEI without consultation on your plan and training for those who will be charged with implementation of your plan. (See number 7 for more on that.) And before you ask, no, neither a two-hour workshop or video are sufficient to unpack a lifetime’s worth of socialization and messaging for anyone. If your shortcut this step, your plan will fall flat on its face.

7.       Identify champions who will drive the implementation of your plan.  The reality is that your entire 18-person board is incapable of all arriving at the same level of cultural competency at the same time. Some folks are going to be inspired by this work, others will be completely terrified by the prospect. And of course, there may be some silent dissenters who just don’t get it. (That does not exempt them from participating in the process, so no free passes on that one.) Find those highly-inspired and skilled decision-makers on your team who are totally into it and empower them to get it done.

8.       Recognize that it is a marathon, not a sprint, and that you will probably screw it up at some point.  As a society, we are horrible at dealing with issues of race and racism. We clam up, shut down, resist unpacking, become defensive and more in our attempts to become non-racist and culturally competent. Because of this, you may have missteps with even the best attempts to get it right. But as race scholar Dr. Derald Wing Sue says, “It is not about how you cover up racial blunders, it is about how you recover.” So, commit to the work and stay engaged in the journey. It is worth it.

Kiah Morris is an award-winning speaker, trainer, and facilitator on issues of racial diversity, equity and inclusion. She also serves on in the Vermont General Assembly as a State Representative representing Bennington, Vermont. Learn more at her website kiahmorris.com