Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)
12 minute read

“Racism eats culture for breakfast”: Talking diversity and equity with Melissa Andrada

Melissa Andrada is a Creative DEI strategic advisor, motivational speaker, leadership coach and workshop facilitator who collaborates with organisations that have included Amazon, Union Square Ventures and City Surf Project to develop a culture of radical self care and social justice amidst a global crisis. She is based in Oakland, California.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Companies need to consider what diversity, equity and inclusion mean for their specific organisation, and how they can be reflected in concrete commercial goals and cultural behaviours 
  • For leaders, the process of building a “radically equitable” organisation starts with the “inner work” of in-depth reflection into your own belief systems, organisational culture, and individual behaviours, as well as setting metrics to measure progress
  • You then need to move on to the “outer work” of having the difficult conversations and creating psychological safety
  • To create psychological safety, start by developing community agreement around communication practices that reflect your company values. Normalise the action of calling out microaggressions and oppression 
  • To become an ally to non-dominant communities, start by actively listening with empathy, then taking action with courage. As a leader, model allyship by sharing your own mistakes and what you’ve learned

 

Gabby: What do the words diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you?

Melissa: For me, the key word in diversity, equity and inclusion is equity, which is the one that often gets left behind. Equity ties to the value of social justice. In our history, there have been communities that have been historically, proactively and unconsciously excluded from our societies, from our workplaces, from our streets, from our leadership. Without an equitable approach to inclusion, you're essentially reproducing the unequal norms that have existed for so long within society. 

More than the words themselves is the way in which you live those things. Because what equity means to me and what inclusion means to me are different from what they mean to you. So, when I’m collaborating with clients, I start by helping them to think through questions like, “What’s your specific articulation of this value within your organisation? And then what are the examples across product, across marketing, across culture, that demonstrate what equity or inclusion means to you?” 

For some organisations, this might mean that they all share pronouns at the beginning of the meeting. For other companies, it could mean that they have silent brainstorms to allow for internal processing before jumping to the loudest person in the room. 

The more you can make equity tangible, the more it’s a set of lived actions and examples, the more powerful it becomes.

 

In your work, you talk about helping businesses build “radically equitable” workplaces. What does that mean?

Radical Equity rights the injustices and inequities of the past. It goes beyond diversity and inclusion to look at how you can proactively design a culture around the specific communities that have been historically excluded from the workplace and society, and in the process make everyone feel safer.

It is not about treating everyone the same. It is about offering different levels of authentic and meaningful support – being aware, for example, that someone who is Black, queer or nonbinary is facing and has faced oppression and bias that someone who is white, straight and cisgender may have never had to think about or deal with. 

 

How would you advise a business to action this? 

What everybody wants is a strategy. They want to know, “What am I going to do on Monday?” And that’s definitely something that my fellow colleagues and I do. But the real work starts with looking inward and asking yourselves the difficult questions. 

For example, I was facilitating a session with an almost all-male, all-white exec team in a tech company in the Bay Area. And the brief was to create a set of actions for their DEI program.  But I didn’t want to get straight into tactics and actions, because on their own, these things simply don’t create the necessary cultural shift.

There’s that phrase from HR, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I’d add that “Racism and oppression eat culture for breakfast.” Unless you understand, and you start to dismantle, the underlying beliefs and behaviours that underpin your DEI strategy, your strategy is only going to go so far. 

There’s a really beautiful podcast – “On Being with Krista Tippett” with Resmaa Menakem, who’s a racial trauma therapist. And Krista Tippett says, “In America in the 1960s, we passed all these laws to help ensure civil rights. We changed the law, but we didn’t change people’s hearts and minds.” And so that’s why I start with spirituality, with getting to the essence of what makes us human. 

I’ll ask questions like:

  • “What is the impact of having a mostly male, mostly white executive team on your organisation?
  • To what extent have you promoted white supremacy in your life?
  • How are you contributing to this?”
And not being afraid to have the difficult international reflection and conversations.  

I feel like in American, and perhaps in British society, there’s this desire for a quick fix, for a solution - “I want to solve racism now.” Unfortunately, this is a multi-century problem that is probably going to take many years to solve. So, we have to pair strategy with what I call inner work - a radical reflection into why things are the way they are.

Ask yourself what your role is in upholding the system and what you are doing to dismantle it. 

Then it’s time to do the outer work of having the difficult conversations and being a proactive ally, in order to make your strategy a reality. If you’ve done the inner work first, when you start to put together a strategy, you’re really able to do it with the right intention and with the emotional maturity you need to make things happen. 

To give an example, if you are looking at hiring more Black employees, you first have to create an environment where your Black employees will feel safe. That involves a lot of questioning, it involves a lot of dismantling and discomfort that many people don’t really want to go through. 

To break it down to practical steps:

  • Often, we’ll start by looking at the organisation’s vision or mission statement, and we’ll consider how it could be a more equitable mission, how we could shift the language to be more inclusive
  • Then we’ll look at the organisational values. We’ll examine every single value through the lens of DEI, and we’ll create one specifically about inclusion and equity. 
  • Then we’ll move onto setting metrics. For example, you could set metrics around who you want to hire, or to what extent people feel safe, and to what extent they feel like they can bring up hard questions
  • Then you can correlate your results against data on race, gender, disability, language, etc. 
  • You should combine this with different methods to engage all employees — from executives to individual contributors— such as interviews with executives, product brainstorms and employee community town halls
  • If this feels overwhelming, you can start with what I call a “DEI MVP” — minimum viable product — to jumpstart cultural change the following Monday. Start by setting up a DEI Leadership Committee with at least 3 employees across disciplines and levels with executive participation. Their aim should be to define a 6-week plan that works for you and your organisation. We collaborate with clients to set up these committees over two group strategy & coaching sessions and one executive alignment session over two weeks 

Honestly, you just need to have some heartfelt conversations. That’s what matters to people. And acting on feedback that comes from the grassroots. Then you create the strategy and you implement it. 

Working, as I do, with VC-backed companies, I’ve realised that it’s very hard to be an equitable business when the system in which you’re set up is profoundly inequitable. But I do believe in incremental change. We can change one person at a time, we can change one organisation at a time, we can change one community at a time. 

 

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Could you tell us a bit about what psychological safety is, and why it’s so important for a business to create it? 

There are some widely cited studies by Amy Edmonson that confirm that the highest performing teams have one thing in common - psychological safety. 

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished if you make a mistake. It’s the belief that you can speak your mind.

We don’t live in a society that often makes people feel safe. I think the default in workplaces is often “unsafety.” So, creating an environment of safety requires a lot of attention. 

One of the key ingredients is community agreement. As a manager, you need to create the container for the conversation. Take a look at your company values, and then articulate what that means for how you want your discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion to go. 

Some agreements you could make, for instance, might be:

“If you tend to speak up, step back. If you tend to speak less, take up space. Don’t wait for your turn to speak, but truly listen to other people. And if things get tough, pause and breathe.”  

During the discussion, constantly remind people, “This is the agreement. This is what we’re trying to achieve.” I heard someone say the other day, “I don’t know what makes you feel safe, but I can aspire to create a space that feels safer.”

Surveys can be helpful here. You can ask your employees, “When you’re having a difficult conversation, what would make you feel safer? What are your accessibility needs? Are you a parent working from home? Do you have social anxiety?”  

 

You mention the importance of having metrics as part of your strategy. How would a business know their strategy is working? 

I think it’s a combination of metrics and magic. Diversity and representation are easier to measure. You can say to yourselves, “We want X number of candidates in our recruitment pipeline from historically excluded backgrounds. This year we’re going to focus on gender, race and disability for example.”  Then you can set a target for that and measure for that. 

Just as in product development, where you commonly have a retrospective at the end of a sprint - maybe you need a DEI retrospective. Ask yourselves “To what extent are we delivering on our strategy? How can we change what we’re doing?”  

Again, you can also survey employees on questions like: 

  • “To what extent do you feel physically and emotionally safe to contribute and be a part of this organisation?

  • To what extent do you feel equipped to identify and resolve biases and racism?

  • To what extent do you feel safe calling out biases and racism?”

You don’t want to ask so many questions that people don’t bother to complete the survey, but you should aim to go beyond the jargon. 

I think it’s important to get very granular about these issues. For instance, maybe your employees feel comfortable calling their managers out on conventional leadership issues, but they don’t feel like they could bring up oppression.

When you ask people about whether they can speak out about racism, sexism and classism in your organisation, you get into a level of nuance that you wouldn’t if you just talked about oppression and bias in general. You get a sense of what the core issues of oppression are within your organisation. Because an organisation that’s mostly white and female, the issues are more likely to be more around racism than sexism for example. 

And then there’s the magic. There’s this magic that comes from talking about really hard sh*t and becoming closer, building a loving as well as an equitable organisation. To quote from bell hooks’ book All About Love, I believe that “Love is the desire for the spiritual growth of another person. It’s an action, it’s a verb, not just a feeling.”

 

What does it mean to be an ally, and why do we need allies to build equitable organisations?  

Our organisations are dominated by white, mostly male, mostly cisgender, very Western, English-speaking communities. And so, if we’re fighting to dismantle racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all forms of oppression, we need everyone to be on board. Most people are in the dominant group, and we need them fighting for the non-dominant groups. 

One of the key principles of allyship is proactivity. You take action without being asked. You’re not only reading books or listening to podcasts, you’re proactively analysing, “Who are my friends? Are they all white? Who do I buy from? Who’s leading my team? Who’s speaking in my Zoom meeting and who’s not?” 

As an ally, you conduct a critical analysis of what you’re doing, and then take actions to change things.

But even before taking action, being a good ally means really listening. There is something truly powerful about being present and giving someone your undivided attention, without judgment, with compassion. There is so much power in just bearing witness, in holding someone’s pain so they don’t have to do it alone. 

Empathy, as an ally, involves taking some of the emotional labour from those communities that have been historically excluded. Don’t expect the person of colour to call out racism. It’s not their job. Actually, White people should do more of it.  

The third most important aspect of allyship is courage. An HR Manager in one of my workshops said, “I want to see how far I can push this before I get fired.” Courage can be the action of doing the right thing and challenging existing power structures to the point where you might lose your job. I’m not saying that everyone needs to go that far – people have the rent or the mortgage to pay and families to support – but I really admire that courage. I want to see more of it. 

At the outset of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was so much collective courage. We felt that we could say things that we would never normally say in the workplace. And some of that fire has gone. I think we need to maintain that torch as a society, because the more that we speak our truth to people in power, the more that we encourage others to speak their truth, and the more we expose the inequity and the injustices that exist in our society. 

The role of the ally is not to speak on behalf of historically excluded communities, but to hold the space and to amplify the voices of those who have historically not had a voice.

 

What can employers do to help employees be better allies and speak out when they see injustice? 

One thing that employers can certainly do is to normalise it. For instance, if you’re a CEO, you could share an experience of when someone has called you out for racism, and what you learned from that. 

As a leader, if you want to encourage allyship in your organisation, you need to start by role modelling it.

Offering training and coaching is a no-brainer of course. Employers can also establish safe spaces for people to talk about oppression. Communicate that everyone is welcome. Everyone should feel safe. If you do commit a micro-injustice or micro-aggression at work, then you may be called out, but in such a way that feels gentle and kind. 

As we discussed earlier, creating a container for your employees to talk is also very helpful. It is really hard to do this, because most people don’t really like discomfort. However, as my meditation teacher said to me, “If you can stay with discomfort of any feeling, it gives you freedom.” People don’t want to do the inner work, they want more “tactics.” But I’m afraid that inner work is where the tactics come from, so we have to start there.  

 

Sometimes people can feel scared of saying the wrong thing or making a mistake. How can white cis-gender men and women in particular be allies?

I think it goes back to the original principles of listening and empathy. Sitting with the discomfort of your feelings. Not being afraid of making mistakes, not being afraid of not being perfect. We live in a very perfectionist, “politically correct” culture. White, cisgender people need to have the self-compassion to know that they’re going to make mistakes, people are going to give them hard feedback, it’s not going to be easy. 

My friend suggests having an anti-racist mantra or an anti-oppression mantra. For me, that’s “Creating a loving and equitable society.” It’s also helpful to have reminders in front of you for why you’re doing this work, because otherwise you might just feel like, “Oh my God, this is so f***ing hard, this system actually benefits me, why should I bother?” 

This can be a good moment to connect to spirituality, to that sense that there is something bigger than all of us, and ask yourself, “What do I want to remember at the end of my life? How did I show up for the civil rights movement?” 

For me, I find it useful to keep the Maya Angelou poem in front of me, called “Still I Rise.” Or there’s a Japanese proverb that I find very helpful: “Fall seven times, get up eight.” 

 

Summary

Building radically equitable organisations is not an overnight process. It will take time and a lot of hard work to get it right. But we can make a start today. Companies can begin by building a psychologically safe environment, so that employees can start to have the hard conversations, to reflect deeply on underlying biases, to listen with empathy, to call out oppression without fear, to admit mistakes, and to offer allyship.  

If you’d like to learn more about Melissa’s services, including workshops, leadership coaching or strategic consultancy, please visit https://www.melissaandrada.com/

 

To find out more about a 6-month programme close to her heart, visit DEI & Social Justice Leadership