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As more of us become vaccinated, our conversations include mentions of reunions with family and friends and much needed breaks from lock-down. We are excited to visit the places we have not seen since March of 2020 and many of us are discussing the personal changes we would like to make. The changes may include new boundaries to establish in relationships, a stronger confident voice to advocate for yourself or others or even pandemic-hobbies or routines that have served as a respite during moments of difficulty or to break up the monotony of each day. Personally, I’ve spent time reflecting on what will actually change; what have we really learned? And especially today on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I challenge us all to continue to hold ourselves, our leaders and institutions accountable to long-term systemic change.
Today, I’ll be delivering a leadership development training where we will start the session off discussing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. This particular cohort started in October of 2020. I realized quickly when we started how familiar the participants were with our virtual meeting platform and how they had adapted to working from home. There was a clear difference in this cohort compared to the first all-virtual cohort that started in May of 2020. In May of 2020, we were still thinking there was a chance we could be in-person by August. This reminded me that humans can adapt to change quickly particularly when we understand why the change is necessary.
This makes me think of the many conversations I’ve had with clients and colleagues lately about systemic change in government, corporations and in education. Similar to the leadership development trainings I’ve delivered over many years, change is more likely to happen when self-awareness occurs. When we understand why a change is necessary through reflection, we begin to create a new vision for ourselves. As an individual, you must understand your strengths and weakness, your motivations and your response to conflict. By understanding your personal and professional experiences and how they have shaped you, you will improve your ability to manage your response to difficult situations and ultimately grow as an individual.
Self-awareness applies to organizations as well. As we work to honor diversity and create more equitable and inclusive organizations, we must do the hard work of organizational and systemic awareness. We must understand the systems we work in. Why were the systems put in place and who do the systems benefit? It’s natural to be solution-oriented, to work to “fix something”. It’s actually quite satisfying, particularly in corporate settings, because we can point to an action or a result: a new campaign, a new diversity hiring target, a new hire, an elimination of a policy. As leaders continue to transform themselves and their organizations, we must become more aware of our biases and what experiences continue to reinforce those biases. We have to understand the root causes that allow power imbalances to exist in organizations. For instance, to make change in business, we must understand the beginnings of the capitalist economy that enslaved people through the plantation system and the resulting generations of inequities that we live with today.
Just like our personal habits and blind spots, organizational “habits” (e.g., policies, structures, etc.) and blind spots (i.e. power imbalances, caustic organizational cultures, lack of psychological safety, etc.) become normal over time: “We’ve always done it this way. That’s how the leader wants it to be. It’s easier to get it done if we follow this process.” As we develop a new vision for ourselves and the organizations we work in daily, we have to understand the origins of the unfair systems we may unconsciously be reinforcing. To develop a new vision, we will need to listen to understand and ask questions of those that are different than us. Take time to question ways of working that are deemed normal and consider how certain conditions in your team or in your organization may be creating barriers for others to succeed.
Remember George Floyd. Remember that not even 24 hours after his murderer was found guilty, Ma’Khia Bryant was killed. Remember the horrible images you’ve seen of anti-Asian hate crimes. Remember that while eventually children will no longer be in virtual school, many will continue to only receive a meal when they are in school. Then ask yourself, “What do I need to understand about the system that creates these conditions? What is the problem at the root of these conditions and what can I do to create a new solution?” Understand the system you are in.
Heidi Jackson Everett
President & CEO
Star Cypress Partners