Creating a psychologically safe and inclusive work culture of Accountability and Belonging is central to the role of a developing anti-racist leader. The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior that leaders are willing to tolerate. An effective culture shift requires the engagement of the entire leadership team. This means demonstrating a clear commitment and meaningful awareness that everyone can articulate about an organization’s anti-racist values and clarity about what it means to have an anti-racist, equitable and inclusive culture of Accountability and Belonging. Remember that valuing anti-racist work is both an attitude and a mindset, and that fear, apathy, and discomfort are expected reactions to any change that disrupts the status quo.
A Culture of Belonging
Our society privileges whiteness, a message deeply rooted in – and amplified across – the media, social systems, and all institutions. Keep in mind that physical exclusion isn’t the only way to prevent access. There are subtle and not so subtle interactions and microaggressions that can cause Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) to feel devalued, such as exclusion from meaningful work, slights, marginalized input, invalidation, insults, having their voices ignored or interrupted, and being treated as if they are invisible even though they are physically present. Individuals thrive at work when they can connect their ideas to those of the organization and experience positive regard from team members. Belonging goes beyond the initial concepts of DEI – it’s a feeling of being fully welcomed and accepted. It’s essential that Belonging be added as a vital part of DEI initiatives so that it becomes Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB).
Psychology tells us that self-esteem derives from a need to belong. Naomi Attaway, founder of I am Triangle, describes three signs of Belonging: vulnerability, shared experiences, and nurturing bonds. She notes that “We need others. For completing the patchwork of our identities, with our singular traits and those that we share with kindred and friends” (“On Belonging,” Psychology Today). According to Greatplacetowork.com, relational trust is the glue in building a culture of Belonging. “Belonging in the workplace is an employee’s sense that their uniqueness is accepted and even treasured by their organization and colleagues. It is an accumulation of day-to-day experiences that enables a person to feel safe and bring their full, unique self to work. The pandemic and the Great Resignation have also made creating a culture of Belonging more critical than ever – not just for employee well-being but for business success.” If BIPOC do not see anyone who looks like them in leadership roles, it is harder for them to develop a sense of trust or Belonging.
BIPOC often suppress their authentic thoughts and feelings to survive in white spaces. While a diverse workforce can be created through deliberate hiring practices, when BIPOC are hired, frequently they do not have a feeling of Belonging due to a lack of authentic relationships within the organization. BIPOC leaders often bemoan how so few white co-workers have cross-racial relationships that support, mentor, or sponsor BIPOC staff members. This places a heavy toll of “unpaid emotional labor” on the organization’s few BIPOC leaders who recognize the importance of Belonging and the need to support BIPOC staff.
It is vital to intentionally promote a culture of Belonging and Accountability by moving beyond white allyship and encouraging the development of White co-conspirators, who play an important role in the support and success of BIPOC leaders. According to Black Lives Matter Co-Founder, Alicia Garza, co-conspirators “are people who are actively fighting against the system of white supremacy and in particular the benefits they receive from it.” As a co-conspirator, you are conscious of your privilege, and you voluntarily use it to help navigate barriers that BIPOC face. In other words, it’s important to have skin in the game. BIPOC seek meaningful co-conspirator relationships where they are actively supported, respected, and treasured.
Act outside of the box and request walking meetings with select BIPOC staff and board to learn about their experience at the organization and ask if their BIPOC colleagues are thriving. Walking meetings can strengthen interpersonal relationships and a sense of Belonging since walking side by side tends to lead to conversations that is more peer-to-peer. They can reduce hierarchical status distinctions and tension during discussions. You must be patient with this process because it will take time to build trust in these relationships.
As a developing antiracist leader, set the tone from the top by evaluating where you are as an organization. Don’t pretend to have a diverse leadership team or Board when you only have a few BIPOC. Also, assigning all race-related matters to the one or two BIPOC board/leadership team members free the rest of the team from the accountability of anti-racist work and increases their racial emotional labor. Since these roles are often given without proper authority, sufficient resources, or extra compensation, it signals to those inside and outside that the organization lacks commitment to their stated anti-racist goals and displays a devaluing of BIPOC. Be aware of who is hired, who gets the plum assignments, who is promoted, who is opting out, who is turning a blind eye, and where the pockets of resistance are. Are you developing co-conspirators? Are white leaders embracing the anti-racist values and mission? Are there unnamed white roles and/or BIPOC roles? Are some people being treated poorly? Do people feel disconnected? Are people frequently resigning or quiet quitting? Do BIPOC feel psychologically safe enough to display their best selves at work? Would staff say that this is a great place to work?
It is the anti-racist leader’s role to ensure that anti-racist work is not elective. Include every single person working within your organization (including board, consultants, students, volunteers, EVERYONE). Staff with positional power who resist the antiracist goals especially must be held accountable. When staff are allowed to opt out of the anti-racist work, it is another form of favoritism. A leader’s silence will be viewed as a lack of dedication to anti-racist goals. This inaction is the #1 threat to an organization’s anti-racist mission because people will distrust the commitment of leadership.
Pockets of resistance by staff with positional power are the greatest threat to an organization’s anti-racist work. Everyone in the organization knows who they are – they hold the power to define what and who is good and valued, and yet they are often permitted to opt out of the anti-racist work. When these individuals are not held accountable, it allows for unchecked white-body privilege, bias, and structural racism. You must publicly and privately have zero tolerance for racist or oppressive behavior. Holding everyone accountable is key to the success of your anti-racist initiatives.
Repeated microaggressions, subtle insults, witnessing white favoritism, and feeling unvalued can consume considerable energy. The amount of time that BIPOC are forced to spend on addressing these issues, fighting for job survival, and proving themselves repeatedly causes racial trauma and destroys aspirations. This leads to less-than-optimal performance and retention, as well as low morale, quiet quitting, and burnout. All evaluations by executives, managers, and supervisors should stress their ability to recruit, develop, and maintain a diverse team. Supervisory sessions must include conversations about the status of the team, especially cross-racial relationships. The more employees feel that they can discuss race relations and share their experiences of bias in the world and at work, the more they will feel heard, acknowledged, valued, and connected to the organization. You can also track the hiring, retention, and promotions of BIPOC staff and check for departmental or supervisory patterns regarding transfers, turnover, and grievances.
Success lies in holding yourself and the entire organization accountable for the anti-racist goals and mission, seeing the value of each team member, and eliminating barriers to the contributions of BIPOC staff. You must become racially literate and upskilled to be able to see, discuss, and interrupt bias and structural racism. Becoming an anti-racist leader means being a critical lover of your institution and learning how racial inequities are embedded into our systems and investing time in anti-racist education and culture shift. Remember that the work is messy and external, with no finish line, and with the purpose of bringing balance, fairness, and equity while creating an environment of Accountability and Belonging.
- Clarify what Accountability and Belonging mean within your organization.
- Focus on ways to ensure anti-racism work is known, felt, and invested in by all staff, leaders, and Board.
- Support all leaders and board members in continuously learning and reflecting on how the organization will address institutional racism and uphold a culture of Belonging and Accountability.
- Upskill all staff, so they can confidently handle complaints relating to racism and microaggressions.
- Identify what managers and supervisors need to contribute to a culture of Belonging and Accountability.
- Place special focus on team building and community building.
- Constantly identify and address barriers to the retention and development of BIPOC staff across all levels.
- Embed mentorship and professional/career development into the ongoing supervisory process.
- Place relationships at the center of your work.
- Ask “How are we working together as a team?”