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Last week, I spoke at a dinner at Nerai restaurant in Manhattan, hosted by my friend Frank Congiu of Randstad, a Netherlands-based global staffing company Frank had invited a group of Chief Human Resources and Diversity Officers, some from small companies, others from huge and world-famous firms, to learn about my most recent book, Rising Together.
The gathering kicked off with author and fellow guest Keith Ferrazzi asking everyone speak briefly about one thing that’s been sapping their energy lately. In less skilled hands, this exercise might have devolved into a complaint session. But Keith’s humane tone and willingness to be vulnerable kept things real, enabling us to build connection quickly.
Chatham House rules were in effect, so I can’t share specifics. But in addition to the usual energy-sappers related to health and family challenges, several participants spoke about the challenge of serving as corporate D&I advocates in a social and political environment that can seem, and be, increasingly hostile.
It’s been shocking for those of us who’ve been working in D&I, as I have for the last 33 years, to watch political and media figures– there’s no way I can call them leaders– grabbing the spotlight with anti-diversity rhetoric and policies. And it’s hugely disappointing that so many who have benefited from living and working in prosperous democracies are willing to support those who smugly describe themselves as “anti-woke.”
It’s shocking because, for the most part, we’ve always believed in progress, in the “long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice,” as Martin Luther King used to say. In two steps forward, one step back, slow but steady. In keep on moving ‘til we reach higher ground.
I’m as dismayed as my colleagues by the resentment that’s come to dominate much public discussion, and by the media’s indulgence of “Too far too fast?” narratives. And I’ve been unnerved by the facile and self-pitying what-about-ism that underlies assertions of male and/or white victimhood.
But perhaps because I began my career in D&I before we even had language to describe it, I’ve mostly remained able to maintain my passion for the job I feel called to do. And while this political and social moment can be brutal, I do not believe its knock-on effects will erode the forward momentum achieved over recent decades toward a fairer and more equitable workplace, which has always been my chief concern.
You might ask why.
First, because the effort to create more inclusive cultures is being shaped by an inescapable reality: the increasing diversity of the talent pool from which organizations must draw. As a male construction executive observed to me a few years ago: “If our company can’t get better at attracting, retaining, and engaging women and people of color, we have no hope of remaining competitive. We have no other path forward.”
Second, the scope and nature of the social changes we are living through is enormous. It’s really nothing less than the incorporation of people who were formerly excluded from leadership and decision-making roles in every sphere: heavy industry, professional services, government, the military, technology, media, sports, education and more. As my friend and colleague Stanley Crouch, a writer and fighter who maintained his optimism til the end, always observed, “What’s happening is the constant redefinition and expansion of who matters, who gets to have a say.”
In other words, this is transformation at scale. Which means it was never going to proceed along a straight path. And because it’s been in process since the 1960s, we often fail to recognize how consequential and therefore challenging it actually is, or how much time it will require. So while we quite easily remember King’s words about the arc of history bending toward justice, we can forget that he always described that arc as long.
This brings me to my third point: we’ve been here before. We’ve experienced periods of backlash, of two-steps-back, which may tempt us to conclude that momentum toward fairness was simply a phase, a passing moment. For example, people have been informing me that women’s leadership is “so over”– or “so 90s,” “so early 2000s,” or “so 2010”– for the last 25 years. I used to take this seriously, but in about 2005 I decided to ignore it. I’d heard it before, and would hear it again.
Having been at this for a long time is also useful because I remember what it used to be like. Having begun my adult working life in the advertising business at the height of the Mad Men era, I can hardly agree with those who stoutly declare that women have made virtually no progress. Similarly, Sherrilyn Iffil, one of this century’s great Civil Rights lawyers, always reminds audiences understandably frustrated by the pace of change that apartheid was legal in parts of the US just 50 years ago.
Her message: Keep fighting.
So our capacity for hope needs to be nurtured, especially in painful times. Permitting our energy be sapped by those incapable of imagining a world in which other peoples’ progress does not come at their own expense diminishes our ability to maintain buoyancy and spirit.
Speaking of buoyancy, I am always mindful that, until his final days in the hospital, Stanley Crouch continued to sign his emails with the personal slogan he’d adopted in the mid-1990s: “Victory is assured.”
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