Written By Cardozie Jones, CEO & Founder and Erin Dunlevy, Vice President & Consultant
This summer, True North EDI’s Cardozie Jones and Erin Dunlevy offered complimentary coaching sessions to 20 emerging and established leaders across different sectors. We recognize that access to our services isn’t a given, so we are committed to doing what we can to break down some of those barriers when possible. And we are deep believers in the spirit of interdependence and learned so much from this opportunity. We got a crash course in the challenges leaders are facing right now, in this moment. We were able to practice our own skills as coaches, and we got to spend time with passionate, interesting, and committed leaders from all walks of life and experience. Feeling deeply moved by this experience, we want to share six major themes and lessons that emerged during our time.
1. Know your piece of the mission
Let’s face it- “getting clear on your why” is now an industry cliché. It’s overused and oftentimes underdeveloped. But the fact is, without a clear, human-centered purpose in our EDI work, we run the risk of enacting a few unconnected, superficial DEI-themed tasks, hoping they’ll make some lasting impact. In order to lead our coaching clients to a deeper understanding of their why in this work, we like to ask them a series of questions about what the future of their industry will look, feel and sound like when equity is achieved. How will your organization contribute to the world you want to see? Can the mission of your organization be achieved without an equity lens? And finally, (and most importantly) what is your individual piece of the why? If, for example, your community based organization (CBO) is looking to build a future in which all children have access to high quality arts education, what internal practices no longer serve that vision? By identifying what we’ve inherited internally that does not align with what we’re trying to achieve externally, we can see more clearly our role in reimagining the policies and practices that don’t serve us or the future we’re trying to live into.
2. There’s a difference between boundaries and walls
There is no question about it: boundaries are important. Many leaders we coach struggle with expectations around their own accessibility, and what so-called boundaries they are allowed to “put up.” But in professional communities and relationships, some rhetoric around boundaries can serve to lock ourselves and others behind impenetrable walls where truly seeing one another is impossible. In the case of leaders who hope to inspire and be part of spaces where collaboration leads to growth and innovation, a reframing of how we think about boundaries can take us further toward creating healthy and humane relationships. Sometimes, what we are referring to as boundaries are actually Rules of Engagement we are demanding others comply with—virtual force fields that only we have the agency to lower and raise. In our experience, meaningful boundaries are those that outline the needs of not only the individual but of the collective. We recommend to leaders that rather than focusing solely on what boundaries they want to express, they should create intentional opportunities to make visible the needs of those they lead and support. The outcome of practices like this typically lead to community agreements and a deeper understanding of what it looks like to support those with whom we are in professional relationships regardless of their position. Notions of boundaries might remain important, but rather than keeping us apart from one another, they serve as practice to bring us closer.
3. Emotions can be challenging, but they aren’t the enemy
One of the most important takeaways from a coaching relationship, (speaking as both a coach and a frequent coachee) is a set of accessible tools for managing situations that activate high emotions. Advice like, “Don’t take anything personally” is unhelpful at best, and insulting at worst, especially when we consider the well-documented gender and racial bias data revealing whose emotions are often policed in professional spaces. The fact is that each of us brings a unique set of lived experiences that shape how we experience and respond to tension, conflict, urgency and stress in the workplace. A clear understanding of what activates me and what options I have in those moments puts me back in the driver’s seat of my neurological responses to stressful situations and allows me to move forward in alignment with my values. At TNEDI, one of our tried and true tools, the D.I.V.E. protocol, organizes an accessible set of small actions many of us already take implicitly, and allows us to integrate those actions in a more explicit and immediate way. Take a beat and describe to yourself what’s happening in the moment—the actions and words present. Then, interpret the situation as honestly as you can. This will require some empathy, for yourself and others. Identify the values at play. What matters most to you at this moment? What matters to the people involved in the situation? Where is there alignment there? Finally, evaluate your options. Do you need support? Intervention? Or possibly just a moment to breathe and return to the situation later? Fundamentally, D.I.V.E. allows us to slow down, assess what’s happening from a values perspective and move forward in alignment with those values.
4. Put your values where your mouth is
One area that consistently comes up for me as a coach draws me back to an experience I had as vice-president of a board of directors for a theater company. There were a lot of difficult conversations that were my responsibility to initiate, and I found that when I felt lost, a best practice was to draw from the values of the organization to guide me. A lot of the work we do as Consultants is devoted to the articulation or clarification of an organization's core values. One of the most meaningful ways that organizational values can manifest is when leaders intentionally and explicitly invoke those values in how they show up and engage those within and connected to the organization. During my time on the board of this theater company, one of our core values was, "Yes, and…” For those of you who aren't familiar with what is commonly known as the first rule of improvisation, the “Yes, and…” principle asks us to take the ideas of others, accept them as the reality, and add to them. But “Yes, and…” is most commonly employed in improvisational comedy, and we know that when entering into hard conversations, nothing feels funny. While leaders typically hold more positional power than those they lead, that doesn't mean they can't employ practices that seek to engage people as whole and complex, with valid experiences and perspectives. The organizational value of “Yes, and…” required me to show up and listen first. It prompted me, rather than to debate, convince, or argue, to find ground from which we could move forward in a generative way that we designed together.
5. The work is not yours alone
We are no strangers to writing about the tensions, even polarization that accompanies conversations and experience of DEI work. Over the years, we’ve partnered with and coached so many leaders who are operating off “DEI fumes” — they know they have to keep going, but they’re not sure if it’s making an impact or if true change is even possible. As consultants, the ability to name desired outcomes and assess for impact is a substantial (and inherently imperfect) part of our work. But as coaches, our job is to find ways of making visible the truth of what’s in our way, and the possibilities that exist within our sphere of impact. There are no saviors in our work, but leaders often feel the weight of carrying entire DEI processes on their back (among other things). But this work isn’t designed for the individual. The tide of systemic oppression can’t be changed by a single person, no matter how powerful. So we encourage leaders to be honest about what is within their control—practices, decisions, funds, etc—and what isn’t, like getting everyone to buy-in or the elimination. As champions for justice, we have been programmed to ask, “what can I do?” But we don’t often take the honest time to ask, “what can’t I?” This isn’t about washing our hands of responsibility, or disavowing ourselves of culpability, but rather the need for honesty as a mechanism for meaningful work to happen. It’s about making visible what gaps exist in our capacity, knowledge, or skill, and creating pathways to close those gaps by trusting and leveraging the passion and expertise of those with whom we are in community.
6. Just ask
The landscape of work, and what we value (or don’t value) about work is rapidly changing. We’re noticing that differences in values around work are acutely felt both intergenerationally and across lines of identity experience. If we don’t have good tools for understanding needs and coming to agreements around ways of being in a relationship at work, the results are constantly frustrating. For this reason, we have a coaching module we informally refer to as “just ask”, which is about making a needs and agreements conversation a regular, informal part of our work relationships. If, for example, your team is bringing diverse values around meetings (times, lateness, virtual vs. in-person, formal vs. informal agendas, etc.), you might engage them in the following “just ask” protocol:
Our coaching practice is continuing to grow and we love sharing what we’re learning. Stay tuned for more and reach out if you or someone you know would like to set up a free consultation to explore how a True North EDI coach could help you develop a practice that inspires you and others.
Written by Jason Sirois
I was recently invited to a dinner party with friends where the topic of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace came up. One of the hosts, a leader in his company, shared that the company was in the middle of a DEI staff survey. He went on to say that even though he thought it was important work, the truth was that he didn’t want to know about his staff’s feelings. As a DEI practitioner, I didn’t find it to be a particularly novel take, but my curiosity was piqued. I asked him why, and he explained that feelings are “so annoying;” he just wants people to do their jobs. I responded, “‘Annoying’ sounds like a feeling.” Everyone laughed. I took note.
In the United States, we are socialized to believe that people can and should compartmentalize their feelings and separate them from their work. This is especially true for leaders; we expect leaders to be objective and make decisions free of emotion. What this conversation with my friend highlighted is that no one “compartmentalizes” their feelings at work; we ALL have feelings all the time. The difference is in how we are allowed to express those feelings. Leaders can express their feelings through directives and policies while their staff are left expressing their feelings at “the watercooler,” often running the risk of being labeled “too sensitive” and worse, facing retribution.
I reached out to Cardozie Jones, friend and CEO of True North EDI, to get his take on feelings and leadership in the workplace, both as someone who leads conversations on DEI and as a leader himself. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Jason Sirois (JS): What do you think about what my friend said? Does it surprise you?
Cardozie Jones (CJ): In my experience with leaders and, as a leader of a company myself, I certainly recognize the “virtue” of separating feelings from work. More honestly, there’s an inclination to be perceived as being able to separate feelings from work. But we actually can’t separate or sever our emotions from anything we do, so that tells me that somehow we've inherited these values around what I’d label as deception, and connect it to the idea of being a good leader.
JS: I appreciate the idea of deception. Daniel Goleman names awareness as the first domain of emotional intelligence in his book of the same name. If we don’t name the emotion, we deceive ourselves into believing that the directives and policies that can come as a result of emotion are just us “taking action,” but we aren’t considering the impact of those emotionally charged decisions on the rest of the staff.
CJ: And I would take that another step; once you have named the emotion, what are you going to do with it? There is something really powerful about not only naming the emotion for yourself, but sharing our emotions. We can’t be held accountable for what we don’t share. But that kind of vulnerability can feel counterintuitive to what we’ve inherited around leadership; if I share my feelings, people might think I have made an emotional decision, but if I don't share it, I can make an emotional decision without anyone ever knowing it, including me.
JS: I also think there is a generational divide in how we think we’re supposed to show up in the workplace. I recently worked with a leader who self-identified as part of the baby boomer generation who was having a difficult time engaging with a new employee from the gen-z generation. The leader explained, “Sometimes you just have to come to work and do your job. It’s so frustrating that they keep talking about their feelings.” This leader thought she kept her feelings separate from her work, but she felt frustrated, which led her to gaslight the new employee and use her positional power to ignore the employee’s requests for support. That employee ended up leaving the organization shortly after.
CJ: So there’s a real cost. In this case, the tension between generations (which has always existed) and a misalignment of values as it relates to engaging emotion, can cost us the spirit, the drive, the advocacy, the innovation of younger generations. Inversely, it can cost us institutional knowledge, wisdom, and experience of people in an older age group. So the question is what do we need to either create or surrender to ensure that we remain whole— meaning the people on the front end, the people on the back end, and everyone in between are all present and feel valued.
JS: That's such an important question. It makes me think of our beliefs around individualism. I have found it useful to unpack the myth of individualism with leaders. There are few people, if any, who can claim that they have accomplished something in the United States without the support of other people, institutions, or systems. But if I believe I have made it to my leadership position all by myself, I’m likely to expect others to do the same. And my belief in individualism renders co-creation inefficient, and inefficiency is an obstacle to profit and progress.
CJ: Right; because so-called inefficiency slows down the processes, which is not a bad thing, but in capitalism, anything that postpones profit and progress is an inherent negative. But to your point, co-creation requires partnership and partnerships require emotional awareness if they’re going to be successful.
JS: So why should a leader, let’s say, whose job is to increase profits and ensure progress, even consider co-creation?
CJ: I care less about convincing the leaders who only care about profit to be co-creators and more about working with leaders who actually want to lead equitable and inclusive professional communities. To be clear, I don't believe there is always an inherent malice involved on the part of leaders for whom profit and/or progress is a priority, but there are those who want to interrogate the tension that exists at the center of capitalism and equity and be designers of innovative and humane practices that come from that interrogation. This is where coaching really can help. We can make things visible. We can name things. We can come up with ways to address that thing we want to shift.
JS: I love that. I once worked with a leader who was committed to equity but took away the anonymous question platform his company used during quarterly full staff meetings. He said he wanted to give staff an opportunity “to develop the courage” to ask him questions directly during meetings, but when he was confronted with push back from staff and we looked deeper at the decision to eliminate a platform that provided a more equitable way to ask questions, we found that his discomfort with the questions that were being asked was at the root of the decision to eliminate the platform.
CJ: This is paternalism 101. Here we have a leader who, because he couldn’t honestly name his own emotional discomfort, created a policy that would spare him from it, all under the guise of wanting to engender courage.
JS: Something I’ve been exploring with executive coaching clients is the question, “What’s in it for me?” What is the benefit(s) for this leader if he grapples with his discomfort? Humans are wired for self-preservation, so my theory is that if I can define the benefits of dismantling systems of privilege and oppression for myself, I will tie my self-preservation to the creation of equitable and just systems. And as a result, when things get tough or uncomfortable, I am less likely to walk away.
CJ: A central tenet of True North EDI’s work is interdependence. It’s believing I am connected to you and that our fates are bound together. This belief requires me to give as much as I take. I believe we all can win in a community that centers interdependence.
JS: And for some leaders, believing in interdependence requires a reordering of priorities and values, which can be difficult. This makes me think of some of the ways leaders can engage with their feelings more openly. I have found that the leaders I work with benefit from having someone like a coach to talk about feelings without the fear of having their leadership ability questioned.
CJ: Yes; a place where leaders can be honest and clumsy. A coach can hold space for messiness. That’s a real gift. It doesn’t negate the need for vulnerability with other stakeholders, but it can serve as a rehearsal for it.
JS: Another strategy for embracing emotions is to define what it means when someone is “too sensitive” or “too emotional.” When leaders begin to define what they mean by “too sensitive,” they often uncover racial, gender and other biases; who gets to express certain feelings and who doesn’t?
CJ: The irony is that the reason you would even be in that discussion about “too sensitive” would be due to a sensitivity on the part of the leader. You think someone else is being too sensitive, but that's coming from a sensitivity of yours.
JS: Yes! How do we flip this critique to consider that maybe I, the leader, am being “too sensitive.”
CJ: Perhaps the word “too” is the issue. I'm being sensitive; you're being sensitive; those are just truthful statements. The word “too” creates the indictment. And of course, when you're in power you can indict people far more easily than they can you.
JS: I think one of the things True North does so well is helping leaders develop an inquiry approach–the ability to ask questions and examine what’s below the surface. In the case of the leader who took away the anonymous question platform, he missed the opportunity to be curious about why staff felt they needed to ask him questions anonymously. What he might have discovered is a lack of trust between him and the staff, which could have led to an honest reflection on ways to develop that trust.
CJ: I can think of a time when I received criticism as a leader; in the moment, I simply said, “This is really difficult to hear” and what I got in return was this beautiful empathy from the group. What came from that was not only compassion and empathy for me, but new ideas for how we as a collective could maintain the meaningfulness of feedback while acknowledging all of our humanity inclusive of mine. As a result, we developed a way to gather feedback before meetings so I could have time to digest it before responding. The same process was created in the other direction for times when I needed to share feedback. It was a process born from compassion and needs and I think everyone was better for it.
JS: So, rather than feeling like you may have undermined your leadership, your sharing of emotion led to a new process that allowed everyone to show up for each other more fully. I love that! What's your invitation to leaders who are reading this right now?
CJ: My invitation is for leaders to consider the impact of inadvertently or intentionally enacting their emotions through their decisions and policies. A useful albeit vulnerable exercise would be to ask those you feel you can trust to give you honest feedback to the question: have you observed me make organizational decisions based on my emotions? You might be surprised at what you hear if you create an authentic non-defensive space for it. One thing I hope isn’t lost here is that we’re not suggesting the elimination of emotion-based decisions nor are we suggesting they are inherently negative; but emotional intelligence means knowing when our emotions are at play, and running a self-diagnostic to assess how decisions, regardless of where they come from, align with our values. What about you; what’s your invitation?
JS: My invitation to leaders is to really interrogate their beliefs about emotions and leadership. If they believe they can't express or even have emotions at work, I invite them to recalibrate their relationship with emotions, both theirs and others’, until they see the feeling and expression of emotions as an opportunity rather than a liability.
CJ: There are so many more options available once we acknowledge that connectedness of what we once believed were separate. Once something is visible, we have the ability to decide if we want to surrender, keep, or transform it.
Written by Erin Dunlevy, Vice President & Facilitator
Last week DEI strategist, consultant and best-selling author Lily Zheng reacted (lovingly) to a LinkedIn post referring to a Forbes article by Aparna R. about misleading DEI reporting. Lily Zheng (who uses they/them pronouns) expressed support for the ideas presented, but inquired as to why their image was used as the thumbnail image for the article when no one at Forbes had contacted them about it. Thankfully, their image was connected to ideas they agree with. But the moment speaks to a trend that often goes unnoticed, and that is glaringly present in the DEI industry. This was the use of an image of a person without their consent, and the importance of that fact can be easily lost under the good intentions and important message of the article’s content.
It’s hard to open up a social media platform like LinkedIn these days and not see a post or two with a screenshot of the all-too-familiar Zoom boxes and a caption like; “Another great Implicit Bias session with ABC Storage Management!” (Business name obviously fictional). When I see them now, I often wonder, did all 27 people on that call say yes to having their images grabbed and posted in public? If they did, were they given adequate time to consider their answer before the image was taken?
The unauthorized use of people’s images is really just the tip of the iceberg, and represents a much larger, more structural issue around consent, or the lack thereof, in our professional spaces. Often siloed to conversations about sex and intimacy, consent is essential to building trust and agency in any relationship, and as such, the absence of consent-forward practices is particularly harmful to DEI initiatives which thrive on strong, trusting, and vulnerable partnerships.
As a DEI professional, I lead sessions for a living. And as I engage in ongoing reflection about my own practice as a facilitator and strategist and my identity as a white person in this work, I’ve been pushing myself recently to consider where consent does or doesn’t show up in my practice. Where in my sessions am I inviting people to opt in or out of certain activities? How am I regularly checking in with the group around their experience of the practices we’re engaged in?
I also believe firmly in my own ongoing learning. Whether I’m attending sessions at a conference or just staying current in my own learning practice, I am also a frequent session participant, and I’ve been noticing more and more we’re being instructed in these sessions to smile for screengrabs, engage in breathing exercises, somatic techniques, guided meditations or share very personal stories without the buffer of basic consent.
It’s important for me to name here that many of these are strong, important practices. For example, there’s a growing body of research to suggest that mindfulness and somatic practices can, in fact, significantly deepen DEI conversations, especially ones centered around more uncomfortable topics like implicit bias or structural racism.
What I want to talk about is how much (or little) we as DEI practitioners embed consent-forward practices into our work, and how difficult it is for participants in sessions to advocate for themselves when certain practices feel patronizing, unsafe or even harmful. And while this noticing could apply to any number of actions we take without people’s consent in a DEI learning space, I want to draw specific attention to what possibilities we put at risk when we facilitate sessions without the important containers that consent-forward practices can create.
Let me first clarify what I mean when I say consent. I’m currently working towards certification as an Intimacy Professional, and I love IDC Professional’s definition of consent. They define it as “...an agreement between two or more parties to participate in a specific predetermined action. Consent can only exist when it is voluntary and allows for all parties to change their mind. In a culture of consent, individuals can choose between “yes” and “no” because both are equally acceptable options.” IDC uses the acronym “CRISP” to define the qualities of consent, namely that it is Considered, Revokable, Informed, Specific and Participatory.
IDC’s definition is so clear. And the more I continue my studies into understanding consent, the more I wince at how little thought I’ve put into consent as a facilitator for so many years. The deeper I dig, the harder the realizations are, because I’m uncovering how few tools I was actually given in my own upbringing to ask for or give consent in my personal or professional life.
If you identify with this, it’s a short leap to understand why so many of us feel so inadequate when it comes to consent. Like so many tools of liberation, consent was a conspicuously absent topic in our educational upbringings. And anyone who is committed to the work of anti-racism and anti-oppression in our educational and professional spaces knows how common it is for systems to erase access to tools that build criticality, agency and liberation. Consent is an essential tool to build equity, and it is fundamental to liberation, because it is a practice that disrupts the mindsets of dominance, ownership, exploitation and colonialism and their impact on our relationships with ourselves and one another.
Ok, but why, you may ask, should we need such a firm approach to practices we know can ultimately help our DEI work? Isn’t that what people hire us to do?
Well, yes and no. Ideally, people hire us to help them create possibilities that lead to more equitable outcomes in professional spaces. And, “Do this because I know what’s good for you better than you do” could be oppression’s sitcom catchphrase. Great facilitators know that one of the worst ways to approach the work of DEI is to relate to the people you are partnered with as the obstacle to the future they’re trying to build. As a facilitator, I partner best with people when I care about getting to know who they are and what they value, and from there I can help them design new policies, practices and systems that are aligned with those values. Consent is a concept that requires we see people as whole, and if we don’t, it makes sense that our approach is to tell them what they should know, do and think in order to get the work done.
If we see people as objects and obstacles instead of collaborators, that will translate into practices that diminish their agency and render our relationships transactional or even harmful. For example, if we publish photos of DEI workshop participants without their consent, we violate their privacy and potentially their trust by exploiting their image for advertising and personal gain.
If, during a session, we instruct participants to share very personal or revealing stories, engage in meditation, breathwork or somatic practices without their consent or consent-forward container-building practices, we run the risk of any number of the following pitfalls:
With all that said, a joyful photo of a group that has bonded through a powerful co-learning experience, or thoughtful, agreement-based mindfulness practices are oftentimes the artifacts of rich, human-centered engagements. So I encourage everyone who is participating in DEI partnerships, either as a facilitator or participant, to design engagements in a consent-forward way. For example:
Written by Cardozie Jones, CEO & Founder
Legacy can have different meanings for each of us, but for most people, it's important to know that they have made some sort of impact on the world, whether big or small. While we may each be, as Elton John sings, a candle in the wind, I truly believe most of us seek to provide warmth and light to the people we care most about. Some of us choose careers, families, and missions that we hope leave some impression of who we were during our lifetime. As the third Cardozie of my name, legacy has always been extremely important to me. As a Black man, this feeling of legacy is compounded by gratitude and, at times, pressure—not going to lie—for those who came before me. I exist because of those who sacrificed and survived trauma and brutality of a different kind of legacy.
Written by Zulla Getahun
Over the past year or so, I've had the privilege of collaborating with incredible individuals and organizations who have shown a genuine interest in understanding the values, approach, and possibilities that come with partnering with True North EDI. It has been an enriching journey, allowing me to not only share our expertise but also to learn and grow from the experiences of our dedicated consultants in the field.
Our consultants have been invaluable sources of insight, sharing both the triumphs and challenges they've encountered while working closely with our clients. Additionally, I've had the honor of learning from those who have sought our guidance after previous attempts with other consultants. These collective experiences have granted me a profound perspective on the current landscape of DEI needs and how we can best support our clients in their transformative journeys.
As the Director of Partnerships, my team and I approach every interaction with genuine curiosity and care for the experiences and aspirations of those who seek us out - whether it's for a brief conversation or a long-term partnership. In the hopes of establishing and maintaining meaningful and responsive partnerships, I would like to share some insights on how we can support these relationships from the very beginning.
Sharing the needs of your professional community
We receive outreach from individuals in a myriad of positions. Be it president, manager, board chair, or Equity/Diversity executive, it’s important in the beginning to recognize the potential blind spots that exist when sharing an experience or the emerging needs that led to a DEI consultant being contacted. While our job is to listen and ask questions for deeper understanding, we also know that we’re only getting part of the story. This isn’t about reliable or unreliable witnesses as much as it’s the nature of how we share our experience. We can only truly do it from our own body and point of view. One way to ensure a broader, more inclusive beginning process is to have individuals from multiple identities and perspectives be present to share about the history and present needs of the organization. More specifically, our own values prompt us to want to hear from those who are part of groups or identities that are historically marginalized.
Some of our most successful partnerships began with some sort of Working Group or Committee to helm this work alongside us. We found that relying on only one point of contact can lead to burnout for that individual. We've seen firsthand the risks of having all the responsibility fall on one person (especially if they leave the org). A small, diverse, and representative group to shoulder this work can go a long way. Having a cross-section of passionate individuals with different perspectives and experiences that can be present at the beginning and throughout the work can lead to more innovative and effective solutions. If the team doesn’t exist when you reach out to us, we recommend, when possible, asking a few individuals who capture the spirit of this value to join the first call. As part of our work, we can help you design and create meaningful practices for a more permanent working group or structure that helps guide your DEI work.
No one-size-fits-all solutions
When working with new partners, we strongly recommend starting with an assessment to better understand their organizational culture and identify any gaps in current DEI efforts. This allows us to tailor our approach to meet their specific needs. While the ultimate goal is to create an inclusive environment that attracts and retains a diverse workforce, we need to first identify the tensions, opportunities, and hopes from your current staff. It’s also important to consider where all team members are in their DEI journey and begin with foundational sessions to develop a common language and understanding of historical contexts. This approach will help us dive deeper into more complex topics and work towards transformative change together.
Naming boundaries shouldn’t lead to shortcuts
DEI work manifests in a lot of different ways. It can come in the form of workshops and trainings, strategic planning processes, coaching, and larger work of reimagining how an organization operates and feels. While we understand there are many factors (e.g. budget constraints, capacity issues, or timing) that can limit what’s possible in a given moment, long-term change can only come from tiered and long-term approaches. It’s important that those who reach out to us understand the boundaries of what’s possible and what that means for the impact of our joint work.
As we’ve mentioned in our previous blogs, there are no shortcuts to meaningful change. While you can hire us for a limited engagement to facilitate a series of workshops, they must be placed within the context of a larger vision for the organization for the present and future of its DEI work. So many staff we’ve worked with have reported that short-term efforts can feel superficial and can do more harm than good. Staff take note and can lose trust in the process if they feel that their organization is only making a minimal effort. Asking people to attend just one or two workshops, particularly those who deal with oppression regularly, can feel like picking at a wound and can do more harm than good.
This doesn’t mean do nothing. A big part of our job is working with you to find a balance, and to collaborate and design a plan that provides you with a meaningful starting point and foundation for the larger work. Leadership Coaching, for example, can be extremely complimentary to shorter training engagements. Coaching positions leadership as a leverage point that can amplify and enrich the work happening in workshops.
There are always boundaries to the work we do. But making those boundaries visible creates an opportunity to imagine what’s possible in ways that are values-aligned. Our job is to work with you to design opportunities in creative ways.
Our dynamic together is a mirror into your organization
The relationship between client and consultants is a relationship like any other, and we will bring the values of health and honesty to that relationship. Like any relationship, power dynamics will always be present. Naming that and making it visible allows us to move forward and co-create partnership values and agreements that leave both parties feeling empowered.
Cardozie Jones, our Founder & CEO, often poses questions like "What do we want this relationship to feel like? How do we want to share critical feedback? How do we want to show up when opportunities for growth are presented? What implicit expectations need to be made explicit? What values have we inherited around relationships like this one; which of those values serve this work; and which of them do we need to surrender?"
We believe it's essential to consider these questions when deciding which clients to partner with, and we encourage you to do the same when selecting a consulting partner.Even on our first call, we are seeking to be a trusted partner who brings valuable expertise and perspectives to help guide your aspirations and achieve your goals. We encourage you to engage us (and anyone you are in a professional relationship with) in such a way that keeps that trust paramount; it is the only way we know of to cultivate a positive and collaborative partnership.
Going into any relationship can feel like a big undertaking, especially when the decision to do so has financial implications. But I hope some of what I’ve shared shows what’s possible when we look at the beginning of such relationships as a seedling that can only thrive when it is given time, attention, and care.
Your friends at True North EDI
Written by Cardozie Jones, CEO & Founder
A few weeks ago, comedian and social commentator, Jon Stewart had some strong words for the DEI industry. Speaking with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria (clip from CNN here - about 2mins in), Stewart argues that so-called “diversity and equity” efforts are, “a salve to pacify and mollify because we won’t actually do the real thing.” He goes on to talk about how essentially meaningless DEI efforts are because; “We won’t actually dismantle the vestiges of all the systemic racism and all the systemic classism and all the systemic gender issues.” It’s a special kind of heartbreak, like when the woke uncle you’ve been mostly proud of somehow goes so far left that he ends up back on the right. That’s not exactly what’s happening here, but it does provoke the same kind of visceral, “Oh, c’mon, Jon!”
While I don’t want to spend too much time talking specifically about Stewart, his comments are worth addressing. Television media is designed to be pithy and provocative, regardless of the harm that sort of information-sharing can cause. Jon Stewart has built a name for himself by leveraging a talent for finding humor and irony in those corners of society we often like to keep hidden. In fact, I’ve found that a lot of what he unearths is well-aligned with the goals of this work, to make visible to the whole what is only visible to some, in the hopes that people are better positioned to align their actions with who they claim to be.
What Stewart shared is not a particularly new stance (especially if you are on the other side of this particular mailing list). Whether you’re someone from the outside looking in—as he is—or you are someone on the inside who has seen your share of trainings, initiatives, and equity-centered action plans. That said, Mr. Stewart, I have notes. What he shared and the way that he shared it has the potential to do great harm. This has been made clear by the fact that one of the main distributors of the interview are conservative media websites that have taken it and run.
Reductive at best, harmful at worst
Stewart kept using the words diversity and equity initiatives as though that means some single thing. So-called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work represents three distinct concepts linked together to cover an extremely large area of work. Despite a wide working platform, he displayed no real understanding of the layeredness of DEI work. Regardless of his purpose, the impact is that an entire body of work is reduced to a single tool that either works or doesn’t. Those of us who do the work know how hard it is to counter the skepticism that accompanies it. It’s often like pushing a boulder uphill, which is only possible when groups of committed people push together. Stewart’s comment haphazardly casts doubt on not only the work those groups have done, but progress they feel they may have made. In essence, his words target the fortitude of spirit necessary to do this work from within institutions.
Targets those it claims to support
The hustle is real ya’ll. Consulting and other freelance work is an extremely difficult path to go down and especially at the beginning of one’s career. But there are smart, passionate, talented and effective practitioners out there working within the constraints they are given to transform key areas of organizations in order to create meaningful change. When a white man with the reputation of Stewart diminishes that work without any real nuance, he diminishes the people who have stepped forward to do that work. The irony here—if you haven’t already caught it—is that most consultants whose expertise in some branch of DEI are BIPOC and/or represent other identities and communities that have been marginalized. The ripple effect of such statements are undeniable and, in this case, hurts the very people he says are being oppressed.
The illusive “we”
Stewart says: “We won’t actually do the real thing. We won’t actually dismantle the vestiges of all the systemic racism…” Have you ever heard anything that feels both true and nonsensical at the same time? There is an undeniable truth embedded in what Stewart is saying. Racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression are so deeply rooted in our systems and institutions that, for some, the idea of pulling up those roots feels almost inconceivable (especially when there is so much benefit for those privileged by those systems). This mindset, which operates at the conscious and unconscious levels, is one of the major reasons our work exists. However, Stewart’s rhetoric points our attention toward the abyss — the collective “we” for whom we can blame for our refusal to take real action. Passionate as he may be, that kind of speech creates an ‘all or nothing’ paradigm in which generations of people who have worked to chip away at systems of oppression at all levels of society have done so for naught. It makes invisible the efforts and progress we can attribute to those individuals, and darkens the outlook for those who might follow their footsteps.
DEI is intervention, not a cure
While there is no single or aligned vision that outlines the purpose of DEI, like anything else, it has inherent limitations. A more nuanced diatribe might have illuminated those boundaries in such a way that we can better understand what we can and cannot expect from DEI as an area of work. Stewart talks about oppression as though it is a disease that we refuse to cure. The problem—at least in the US—is that systemic oppression is not a disease, but rather a purposeful design. The operating system has not been hacked, it was coded this way. As I view it today, DEI practitioners are the hackers. We work to help decode the ways in which current systems create inequitable outcomes, and partner with organizations and institutions to recode those areas in order to align their values with their actions and desired outcomes. The hope is that by recoding enough areas, we can serve the larger transformation of the entire system. We serve alongside activists, policy-makers, educators, abolitionists, leaders, and a plethora of other stakeholders who may or may not fall under the DEI umbrella, but are working toward a unified goal.
True North EDI uses a community health model as our primary equity framework. It allows us to make visible what is present and design what is possible holistically. Like any health model, it recognizes that balanced health requires a variety of interventions that address the needs of the body, mind, and spirit. White supremacy thrives by making things flat and one-dimensional. It will continually be up to those who have stepped forward as champions in this work to push for nuance. We are allowed to be critical of things we care deeply about. But criticism must be accompanied by curiosity and a desire to understand the existence and the purpose of what is present. From there, change comes not from any one individual, but a collective of committed people who honor each other’s passion and contributions.
Your friends at True North EDI
Written by Erin Dunlevy, Vice President & Facilitator
At a recent social event, I had the rare and exciting experience of being invited into an impromptu conversion about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Our host introduced me to a handful of people and we started traversing the classic low-stakes conversation topics like the weather, and of course, work, when a woman offered that her week was particularly dull because she had another mandatory DEI training. Then came the eye-roll. The eye-roll elicited knowing laughs from the group; the classic bonding strategy of finding connection over a chat about what’s terrible at work. It seemed to imply, “who can’t relate?”
I didn’t know these people, and in all fairness, they didn’t know me or what I do for a living. But when I asked this woman if she thought diversity in the workplace was important, she was quick to say “of course!” and then elaborated on her previous stance by claiming that the topic was essential, but the delivery was flawed. This might seem like an evasive move, but it’s actually not uncommon for folks who do in fact think people should be able to go to work and not experience exclusion, harassment or pay inequity (to name a few of the well-documented examples of workplace inequities experienced by people with marginalized identities) to be highly critical of their company’s DEI initiatives.
Usually, the folks I speak to about why they dread their DEI programs (both white people and people of color) they say it’s the how, not the what of the trainings that fails. They’ve shared that they are mandatory, rote, sometimes patronizing and impersonal. And more often than not, they lead absolutely nowhere. Research seems to support these complaints. While much research points to meaningful and lasting change in the field of DEI, there have been a series of studies in the last few years detailing the ways that DEI trainings can be unsuccessful, and the thesis is that too many produce little to no actual structural change.
However, in a recent article in Forbes, Janice Gassam Asare rightfully critiques this research claiming that in actuality, neither the trainings nor the studies conducted about them are designed to center the experiences of BIPOC employees. When we speak to our BIPOC clients about this it’s clear a commonly shared experience is present. Many of them have shared that DEI workshops can feel alienating because they’re clearly designed for white people and now, on top of the harm experienced at work, they have to witness the clumsy, harmful or even violent responses of their white colleagues to these efforts. And all for naught, because at the end of the day, nothing meaningful has changed.
At True North, we established that in order to counter this reality of so many DEI programs, we would have to design a set of values-based policies that guide all of our potential partnerships. Here are a few that have made a huge difference.
We orient towards joy in the work
One of our core values at TNEDI is Joyful Orientation. Nothing in our Joyful Orientation value is meant to deny or divert our eyes from the existence of the individual and collective pain that this work requires us to navigate. It does, however, serve as a critical reminder that we all have a right to joy, in all its complexity and richness, and that fundamentally, we believe it’s ok to pursue ease, joy, and levity while doing hard work. We advocate for DEI efforts that feel fresh, bespoke, and imaginative, and at True North we believe in creating spaces that balance the seriousness of what we’re trying to accomplish with the excitement of possibility.
Tip: We do challenging things all the time. Consider an area of your life where you learn enthusiastically and experience a combination of excitement, hard work and dedication. What are the necessary conditions for you to commit yourself to something challenging in a joyful way? Is it the outcomes you imagine that sustain you? Is it the relationships that make you feel supported? List out those qualities and conditions for yourself and consider how you might create those conditions for your efforts towards DEI. We advocate for a multi-tiered approach, and when possible, avoid “one-offs”
There’s no quick fix for this work, and we learned this the hard way. As with any fledgling start-up, TNEDI needed to get its name out there. So when potential clients asked for single-session trainings, we thought, “maybe we can do it better!”. We tried. But it became clear to us early on that organizations looking for one, all-staff, 90-minute anti-bias training were likely not invested in real, lasting change, nor were they invested in the actual experience of their employees. Our “no one-off” policy was quickly put in place. We offer partnership rather than a product, and at TNEDI, we’re invested in working with organizations to find creative approaches to complex problems.
Tip: Lasting change takes time. Consider a regular, consistent scenario in which you can embed an equity-centered practice and give yourself an accountability timeline (and maybe join or create a community to help support you) to check in on your progress. We design our scopes of work for each client and their specific industry - we don’t offer anything “off the shelf”
At TNEDI, we are committed to tailoring our partnerships to the needs of the organization. Our client intake process is designed to learn as much as we can about our potential partners, the landscape of their field and the opportunities that exist within that field for exciting, equity-centered initiatives. A philanthropic foundation needs a much different approach to the work of DEI than a for-profit company. Additionally, we never suggest a learning arc without knowing what inequities are operating within the organization--our work should be informed by needs. Sometimes this means we engage in an extensive discovery process that includes focus groups, surveys and town-halls. Sometimes, if it’s clear to us that the client needs a more robust equity audit due to size or structure, we recommend one of our partners in the DEI field that specializes in large-scale auditing and evaluation. The goal is to design the scope of partnership through the lens of discovery, learning and action.
We need leaders
We love collaborating with organizations that are enthusiastic about executive leadership participation, commitment and change. This isn’t always the case, and as consultants who have been doing this for a long time, we’ve become very savvy in the ways an organization’s leaders can find detours around the more difficult aspects of participating in the work. This implies any work designed for staff that doesn’t include leadership in any meaningful way. For example, it’s not uncommon for executive leadership to avoid attending sessions by saying they want employees to feel comfortable to “share honestly” and if they’re present, that won’t be possible. While we certainly advocate for understanding how identity and positionality intersect in the workplace, this often feels like hiding a bad motive under a good one. It simply doesn’t work for leaders to place themselves outside the parameters of DEI work because it implies that they are not a part of the problem or the solution. The fact is that leadership is essential for any DEI strategy to take hold, and most employees understand that when DEI efforts are happening and leaders are absent, the implication is that the work is superficial at best. Good DEI leadership logically requires the qualities of good leadership, and vision, enthusiasm, self-reflection, openness and dedication go a long way in terms of creating lasting change.
Tip: If you’re a leader in an organization about to embark on, or continue your DEI journey, consider engaging in an informal discovery process with representatives from all tiers of the organization. What initiatives have worked best for us in the past? When do we feel most engaged in our professional development? When do we feel most connected to initiatives and why?
I don’t consider my experience at the cocktail party to be a “gotcha” moment. I genuinely enjoy engaging people around what makes learning exciting for them, and how we can leverage what they care about most to create meaningful DEI engagements. We often say at True North that we’re here to help the inside match the outside, meaning the values we hold can and should align with our actions. And this is as true at a cocktail party as it is in a conference room. As always, we are here and ready to partner with you as you work to reimagine what is possible for you and your organization.
Written by Cardozie Jones, CEO & Founder
At a recent family event, I found myself in a typical (and harmless) back and forth with my father. We each offer our take on a hot topic societal issue and proceed to 10% listen and 90% dig our heels in trying to convince the other that our perspective is the right one. It’s a swell time. Sure, it gets heated now and then—especially since the last three years has been an endless barrage of firestorms—but we usually walk away closer than when we started. This last time, however, something different clicked for me. It was a moment that forced me to undig my heels and listen more deeply than I had in the past.
It’s difficult for me to imagine a time in the history of humankind where chasmic rifts didn’t exist between the multiple generations that occupy our planet at any given time. From all I’ve experienced, this dynamic seems to be both an expected and accepted part of what it means to be human. Even the most shallow of engagement in social media will expose this age-old tug of war in a bombardment of content poking fun at the absurdity of groups and individuals at every point along the generational spectrum—the youngest, the oldest, and all those in between. It’s often the source of pride as each of us wax poetic about the uniqueness and fortitude of the generation during which we came of age.
But during this last conversation with my father, I realized that despite how different my perspectives may be, my story doesn’t exist without his. I was working so hard to make him think differently, not realizing that the experiences that have led to my own “profoundness” only exist because of his life, experiences, choices, and values (even if, at times, in spite of those things). Regardless, it was a feeling of closeness that felt fresh and new, and it made me wonder if there were other areas of my life where this same understanding could be helpful.
As EDI practitioners, our vantage point offers us the unique opportunity to glean important lessons about how this dynamic can show up in professional communities engaged in equity-centered conversations and processes. As with any community, the ways in which we engage one another can lead to the building of bridges or ensure the creation of walls.
Over the past few years, we’ve found ourselves working directly with presidents, CEOs, directors, or other organizational leaders who, while authentically committed to creating more equitable outcomes for their professional communities, often identify those younger members of the community as the source of an existing tension. The word “entitlement“ certainly comes up a lot as these leaders share their feelings about a generation that doesn’t understand what it means to “work.” At best, these leaders attribute this to those individuals being new to the workforce. At worst, a true prejudice is slipping through the cracks and pointing to a generational flaw. The irony here is that the generational gaps aren’t always that wide. This can easily show up in an individual in their late 30s talking about someone in their late 20s. While age disparities aren’t meaningless, there is no single meaning that justifies sweeping generalizations that render individuals as one-dimensional.
Sliding toward the other end of the spectrum, we’ve engaged with individuals who might be newer to the workforce and/or are closer to having completed a secondary education and identify those who have been part of an organization longer as being complacent, conflict-avoidant, risk-averse, and committed—be it consciously or unconsciously—to professional norms that are dehumanizing. Depending on the nature of the organization, these younger individuals often deem the “gatekeepers” as eager to please donors, politicians, or consumers rather than prioritize the human needs of those who work within the organization.
There are many ways to look and interpret this dynamic. But our job as consultants is to take what we’ve seen and learned and help our clients avoid the pitfalls we’ve seen happen in this work. This isn’t because pitfalls can’t teach us, but because they can cause harm to the overall goals of an organization’s equity work, and to the people who are committing themselves to that work.
If we think that the work of EDI is about finding the right or best way, we’re missing the point. Our society is ever evolving. What “works” today may not work tomorrow; what works for the organization in New York City might cause real harm to the company in El Paso. The only constant is the need for skills for professional communities to work together through conflict (using an equity lens), and toward what feels possible, bold, and inspiring.
EDI is interesting because it takes many of the principles we’ve inherited from civil rights movements and practitioners and puts them through an organizational context. But the generational experiences that inform theories of change remain present and can cause tension. Consider the civil rights movements over the past 70 years and what generational narratives were at play, and how those narratives shifted as the children of those who protested on the front line became the parents of children protesting on the front line, and so on, and so on. The script of each group stays eerily the same while the actors shift and evolve.
“You have no idea what it’s like to be in my shoes.” “When I was your age we did/didn’t…” “Change takes time.” “Change won’t come if we don’t take bold action.” ”You don’t listen.” “You won’t listen.”
To be clear: this tension is not a bad thing, nor does it need to be avoided. It does, however, require models for what it looks like to move through it and find a way forward together. Of course, our work in EDI asks us to examine and think critically about which bodies and identities are granted the decision-making ability that informs what the future looks like, and which are historically denied? So, what might a paradigm shift look like? Below, we share some imperfect offerings gleaned from our experiences in the field:
Finally, there is nothing wrong with being committed to a specific model for organizational change. This work relies on the energy and conviction of committed and inspired people. Individuals who find that the values through which they operate are misaligned with the direction of the equity work happening at their organization or even in their field overall deserve spaces that represent a better fit. But we are complex human beings and our commitments aren’t immune to bias and harmful behaviors that can reinforce the very systems we are trying to undo. From moment to moment, the diagnostic is for each of us to run on ourselves in an effort to assess which values are informing how we are showing up and which are driving our decisions. If there’s nothing else I’ve learned, it’s that no one can be expected to hear, learn, or grow when they are being related to as inherently wrong or one-dimensional. In the case of my father, I learned that seeing myself as part of his story and him a part of mine was vital to our ability to move forward in a healthy and meaningful way.
If we want to design complex and whole solutions that lead to more equitable and just outcomes, we must treat each other as complex and whole.
As always, we are here and ready to partner with you as you work to reimagine what is possible for your organization.
We leaned heavily on the value of Illumination this past year. For us, this value often means we are making what was previously invisible to some of us (or many of us), visible to the whole. It’s become clear to us that the most successful partnerships we had with clients this year were the result of meaningful and intentional relationships. Understanding the client, their field of work, and how EDI could deepen their commitment to their mission and vision set the foundation for the strongest partnerships. We helped make visible to these organizations how the values of EDI can help them be who they say they are in the world. It was even better when we were curious about what kind of learners/doers our partners were and how we could be responsive to those learners, while still designing to center the experience of the most marginalized people in the space.
It’s our experience that the landscape that we and many of our clients entered into when they began the work of EDI was like a 2D map that lacked texture. It was commonplace to approach the work through a deficit lens; “organizations lack this knowledge and these understandings and when they have that knowledge they will behave differently and create better policy”. This is part of white supremacy culture; it renders people and processes two dimensional. Within that space there’s no place for complexity or generative conflict, but most importantly there was no clear vision for what equity would look, feel and sound like both internally and externally if the work was successful. Now that the landscape has become more clear, we’re feeling that reality in a new way in our organizations.
Pain does not live at the center of our work.
Last year, we were asked to participate in a conference that required us to write a description of a workshop we would be facilitating. After submitting a description, the program manager asked that we revise the language by outlining some of the “pain points” we would be addressing. We spent a good amount of time trying to brainstorm additional language that centered these so-called pain points and found ourselves struggling. It wasn’t an outlandish request, but the approach was misaligned with our own.
For a long time, be it intentional or not, our field has centered the pain of BIPOC as the catalyst for white understanding. This approach would show up in our opening questions about experiences and in the videos, articles, and diatribes we would share. The umbrella of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and all the work that falls within it is truly expansive, and while we do not want to shame anyone’s approach or strategies, we’ve learned that like anyone or anything else, we can cause harm if we aren’t careful about who and what we center.
Pain helps us learn by creating fear, but fear can cause paralysis. Paralysis, in this context, is the antithesis of growth. For those who have experienced more than enough pain as the result of oppressive systems, why would those individuals want to sit through a three-hour workshop that is placing that pain at the center of the experience? In 2022, we shared this perspective with many clients as we co-created engagements and scopes of work. Because of this sharing, we found ourselves in more meaningful and healthy conversations that prompted us to reimagine what this work might look like in truly diverse professional spaces. More than ever we relied on our values-centered and organizational health model that aims to allow each individual—regardless of their background—to step in from where they are and walk away with the same opportunities for learning and growth as everyone else.
Nothing in our Joyful Orientation value is meant to deny or divert our eyes from the existence of the individual and collective pain that this work requires us to navigate. It does, however, serve as a critical reminder that we all have a right to joy, in all its complexity and richness.
We’ve learned that grace and perfectionism are unhappy bedfellows. Grace can mean a lot of things. It can mean forgiveness, compassion, and for many, evoke a sense of something greater than one’s self.
For True North EDI, we think of grace as most akin to the concept of ‘space.’ Within that space, all of the above and more can be deposited, and it is up to individuals and collectives to decide what that space looks like. Regardless of what that is, we’ve learned that growth through and toward equity requires the movement and possibilities that only grace can allow for.
The space created by so-called perfectionism, on the other hand, is not human-sized; it is cramped, binding, and forces us into a paradigm of winning and losing. While our TNEDI workshops and learning programs call out the risk of allowing perfectionism to be an underlying operating value, it has proven to be easier said than done. In 2022, we saw many of our clients and their respective professional communities arrive at the crossroad where their commitment to equity and an operating value of perfectionism intersect. When grace was present during those moments, we witnessed restorative practices that allowed for the transformation of conflict and spaces created for sharing and authentic listening. We saw commitments to prioritize impact over intent whilst still acknowledging the humanity of intent. The presence of grace allowed these organizations to proceed clumsily but forward toward whatever ‘true north’ they set for themselves.
Like everything else, we put the concept of grace through an equity lens. To whom is grace historically extended and to whom is it denied? When is grace being used as a reason to wait for change that is long overdue? When do we extend grace at the cost of our personhood and dignity? These are questions we continue to grapple with.Whether you are in a position of leadership or another member of a professional community, it’s important to remember we are creating a world none of us have ever seen. There is no agreed upon standard or model, no manual for us to refer to. We have lessons learned and meaningful data, but those have never been in short supply.
What we need more than ever is the space to imagine and iterate, to stumble and stand, and permission to find our way as a collective of whole and complex human beings.
In the months to come, we hope to share our official values language that outlines what each truly means for us at True North EDI as well as public opportunities to engage with us. In the meantime, we wish you a year of peace and prosperity that comes with the pursuit of collective liberation. We hope for more opportunities to partner, co-conspire, and continue sharing our passion and expertise.
Your friends at True North EDI