“Say it out loud. I’m Black, and I’m proud!” If you grew up in the 60s in the US, you might recognize these words as lyrics from American icon James Brown’s hit single released in 1968, just four months after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and one year after I was born. In fact, my family had just become part of the Great Migration, moving north seeking better opportunities. Given the times, Brown wrote the song to instill pride and encourage empowerment within the African American community. He also wrote it as a way to challenge the current systems of oppression.
I am Black. I am proud. And every opportunity I have to say and live it out loud, I do. However, I’m not so proud of the lack of progress we’ve made as it relates to racial equity in the US, particularly for African Americans. Over 53 years have passed since that song and so many other powerful movements. Yet, we still experience many of the same inequities in healthcare, education, the criminal justice system, and corporate America. And while our circumstances remain very frustrating, we must continue to fight and focus on solutions. In fact, why don’t we celebrate Black History Month by engaging in culturally intelligent actions that contribute to closing racial equity gaps for African Americans and other BIPOC communities? There are a multitude of strategies you can implement to promote racial equity in your organization. Here are at least four ideas and CQ action steps to consider. Given the focus on Black History Month in the US, this article is intentionally focused on racial equity issues related to African Americans in the US. However, each of these action steps can apply globally and across other racial groups and inequities, they continue to experience as well.
Recognize that Words Matter
Recently the UK chair of KPMG came under fire for his comments attacking unconscious bias training. He made some important points regarding the lack of results from many unconscious trainings, but his words were interpreted as saying that unconscious bias doesn’t exist at KPMG. That’s what struck a nerve with many KPMG employees. Words matter. Robert Livingston, a researcher in the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues, ”Beliefs, not reality, are what determine how employees respond to efforts taken to increase equity. If your employees don’t believe that racism exists in your organization, the diversity initiatives will be perceived as the problem, not the solution.” If leaders are going to make any traction towards racial equity in their organizations, they must clearly communicate to employees that racism is real and that leadership is committed to exposing and dismantling its impact on the inequities that have resulted from it. This isn’t always easy, especially since many leaders often have a much easier time seeing racism as a problem in the broader society compared to seeing it in their own organizations.
CQ Action Step #1: Use your words to be clear about the problem of racial inequity in your organization and your commitment to addressing it.
Develop Employees’ CQ Knowledge
CQ Knowledge is our understanding of how cultures are similar and different. This includes understanding history, Black history, as well as present-day realities around racial disparities. But you can’t just call out racism or racial inequities and leave employees confused and wondering what this means and what they can do. Many of them feel like it’s irrelevant to their jobs.
Organization-wide education and learning and development are critical to the process of promoting racial equity in the workplace. This includes cultural intelligence training that helps employees at all levels of the organization engage more effectively with their African American colleagues, peers, customers, or students and equips them to support and become co-owners in the racial equity work. And there are many ways for them to contribute. For example, one major corporation has charged HR to lead the way in doubling the number of African American leaders and new hires over the next four years. As part of their Racial Equity Action Plan, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has set a goal of requiring faculty to make case studies used in the classroom feature a diverse protagonist, particularly African American leaders. They are partnering with their Black alumni to make this happen.
CQ Action Step #2: Educate. Put your employees on a learning journey. Then equip and expect them to be part of the racial equity work.
Keep Data as the Driver
Is it really fair to do these things for certain cultural groups such as African Americans and not others? Isn’t that reverse discrimination? As you engage in racial equity work, you will likely encounter these kinds of questions. My guess is that you might even be struggling with them yourself. This is where understanding history and the data come into play. The broader facts are clear. African Americans have been systematically disadvantaged in the US for years. As a country, we still have a lot of work and catching up to do. Specific to your organization, let me ask you to consider a few questions:
- Do you have strong representation and decision-making power of African Americans at all levels of the organization?
- Do they receive equitable promotions, opportunities, and compensation?
- Are you creating space for your Black employees to share their lived experiences in the organization?
- Do they feel included and like they belong? What is your data telling you?
If you can answer yes to most of these questions, then you are well on your way to promoting a racially equitable workplace. If you can’t, determine the gaps and work to close them. You may need a more robust strategy. This kind of strategy is the very kind of thing we’re working to develop in our CQ Leadership Academy, and it’s the kind of approach a dedicated consultant can help you develop. These questions can apply to Black, Brown, gay, and any other marginalized group that unfair decisions and systems have disadvantaged. Remind yourself and others that fairness requires special attention and specific actions to support those who are otherwise treated unjustly by the system. It’s about creating equitable opportunities for everyone.
CQ Action Step #3: Use data to guide your work and respond to the resisters, including your own doubts.
PRO TIP: Interested in learning more about the CQ Leadership Academy? Hear directly from our facilitators by watching the video below!
Invest Financially in the Black Community
Major companies across the country are investing billions of dollars into racial equity work. This is a good thing. And if your organization can make a significant financial contribution to this work, you should. In my own hometown, an investment fund by multiple corporations was designed to strengthen minority-owned businesses. Since January 2020, it has raised $8.5 million to create a more diverse economy and drive economic prosperity for businesses of color in the Midwest.
Even if your organization can’t commit at this level, there are many ways to invest financially in the Black community. For example, at the micro-level, be intentional about supporting local Black-owned businesses. When you order lunch for staff, what restaurants do you typically use? Are they all white-owned? If so, diversify and rotate, including Black-owned restaurants. Encourage your employees to do the same. Do some research and identify a list of Black-owned businesses in your area and distribute the list to employees. On a deeper level, formalize or enhance your supplier diversity program. Assess your list of vendors and suppliers and intentionally give business opportunities to Black businesses. And hold your white business partners to the same standards.
CQ Action Step #4: Put financial resources and support behind your words. Do everything you can to increase economic equity for the African American community.
Black history is American, Canadian, and Global History. And the celebration of our many contributions should not be limited to one month. More importantly, the actions we take to address racial inequities in our organizations should be happening 12 months a year and on a daily basis. Make a commitment to take real action so that this time next year, you can celebrate Black history and the progress your organization has made in addressing racial equity.
We are excited to take this topic to a deeper level at our upcoming CQ and Racial Equity Webinar on February 25. Again, given that this is Black History Month in the US and Canada, this article focused largely on racial equity in the US. However, the webinar will feature conversations with CQ equity experts from around the globe. You don’t want to miss it. Click on the link to register.
Sandra Upton, DSL serves as VP, Global Diversity Practice, and provides strategic direction for applying Cultural Intelligence (CQ) to DEI work across all segments and industries. She previously worked with schools and universities through her role as Vice President of Educational Initiatives. In addition, she’s a regular speaker, trainer, and consultant on cultural intelligence with companies and non-profit organizations. As a former business school dean and organizational consultant, Sandra understands how to effectively integrate CQ with organizations’ D&I initiatives and global leadership programs. She has also facilitated study abroad experiences in places such as China, Europe, Israel, and South Africa. Sandra finds her greatest pleasure in spending time with her husband and two children. She also enjoys travel, reading, watching a good film, and long walks.
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