By: Jennifer Simpson
Growing up, I moved around a lot, including several stints living overseas. I was the new kid in school almost every year (sometimes twice in a single year) between third and ninth grades. I’ve often said that this experience taught me early that the world was much bigger than me and that there was no “right way” to do most of the things that humans care most about.
My childhood experience with difference(s) and the ways we relate and respond to them (usually along some spectrum from curiosity and interest to aversion and resistance) had me interested early in issues of diversity and inclusion. From my late teens on I volunteered with the YWCA on programs like Take Back the Night, facilitated learning circles and dialogue groups on racism and intercultural awareness. I also worked in social service agencies designed to support the underserved and marginalized.
While my earliest experiences taught me about the interpersonal dynamics around difference, my first jobs opened my eyes to the ways in which inequities become institutionalized and put justice out of reach for us all. In my early 20s I saw up close how minor offenses like truancy, petty theft, vandalism, and even “insubordination” could strand children inside foster care and social service systems. When families didn’t have deep pockets, the ability to take long stretches of time off work during “business hours,” or the education or experience to navigate often intentionally complex bureaucracies, kids were removed from their homes “for their own good.” And, while there are thousands of caring social service providers and both families and children who really do need help and support for all manner of things, once inside “the system,” getting out is arduous if not impossible.
Those early experiences shaped my interest in studying JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) issues and to building a life rooted in a fierce commitment to making things better at all levels—from the intra- and inter- personal to the institutional and systemic. In the more than 25 years since then, I have come to deeply appreciate the interdependence of these dynamics.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
What this means in practice is that as long as injustice persists, even those who experience a feeling of “justice” are really experiencing privilege. When the system is skewed, the playing field is uneven, or the deck is stacked, (pick your metaphor!) real justice never prevails.
A few months ago, my team asked me to write an article reflecting on these experiences, to summarize my experience living and leading JEDI principles in practice. While I immediately said “yes!” to the request, I also asked them to pose questions for me to answer, interview style, because one of my first beliefs is that the route to justice begins with curiosity and unfolds in conversation. What follows are their questions, and my reflections on being “in the work.”
Q: “From your experience leading JEDI work, what do you think is the biggest obstacle to bringing a JEDI philosophy into practice? Can you provide an example of a time when one of your clients struggled with this? And how did you advise them?”
A: I don’t know that there is a single “biggest obstacle”, but I would put a “zero sum” mindset high on the list. When people operate as though “granting privileges” to some means restricting or losing benefits for others it tends to create defensiveness and resistance. Instead, shifting to a “grow the pie for everyone” mindset can make JEDI efforts feel like a win-win and make adoption and implementation easier.
Here are a just a few examples. For years people fought simple disability access issues like converting stairs to ramps arguing that it was too costly and created an expense for everyone that only benefitted a few. Now, most of us recognize that ramps are superior to stairs in lots of places from airports to sport stadiums to schools and university campuses. Ramps don’t just benefit people whose mobility is chronically impaired, but also helps anyone carrying heavy things, wheeling suitcases or carts, the elderly or injured, parents with strollers, and are far superior to stairs for moving large crowds through a space safely.
Likewise, the fight over bathroom access for gender fluid people has faced extreme resistance as a safety or privacy concern for cis-gender people despite zero correlation between gender identity and criminal proclivity. Yet providing “all-access” bathroom spaces are beneficial not only to non-binary folks, but also to people who need companion assistance of any kind, adults visiting schools or other made-for-children places, and anyone who needs a little extra space or privacy while they “do their business.”
Finally, a client recently reached out to me for guidance on how to best communicate the gender transition of one of her staff members to her Board and members. One option was to do something perfunctory and “quiet” so as not to “make a fuss.” Instead, we worked together to craft a message that was informative, educational, and reinforced the organization’s values and mission in a way that had the employee feel well supported through their transition. Their response to the message was, “It’s beautiful.”
Q: How do you incorporate your own identity work into how you lead JEDI work?
A: This is such an important question. I’ve found throughout my life and career that self-awareness and “doing one’s own work” is crucial to affecting change around us. Gandhi’s statement that we must “be the change we want to see in the world” is well known. I’ve often adapted that by saying that we must “change the world from the inside out.” As a cis-gender white woman, much of my early identity work was gender-focused. I spent a lot of my teens and early twenties deepening my understanding of women’s rights and the history of various women’s movements. As my understanding of and exposure to other dimensions of diversity have evolved, I’ve spent more time digging into whiteness and exploring the ways in which light-skin privilege has shaped everything from access to opportunities to my own perspective and world view. My experience is always that bringing deeper levels of self-awareness provides more freedom, flexibility, and choice in how we engage and respond. My best advice for folks wondering where to begin is to find a group that can be a meaningful mirror for you and to do your own reading, research, and inquiry. Our JEDI Journey cards are a great place to begin if you aren’t sure where to start!
Q: Can you share some examples of how you decenter yourself in your leadership practice?
A: Ooof! This is also important, and tough…. I just talked about the importance of self-awareness, but that is different from self-centeredness. In fact, the more self-aware one becomes, the easier it is to become an observer of one’s own choices, behaviors, and actions so that we can recognize that most things are not about us! For me, this means noticing reactivity, paying attention to when I might take things personally, and consistently bringing myself, and any group or team I am working with back to purpose. This sounds straightforward but takes intentionality and commitment.
“Decentering” also means asking myself what meetings or decisions I can NOT be a part of. When cultivating shared leadership and working to foster JEDI principles, I find that being intentional about whose voices can and should be elevated and where power can be shared more broadly is as important, or more important than any specific expertise I might bring. I’m far from perfect at this, but even the act of letting the team know this is important to me creates more space for others to step in and lead, to ask me if I really need to attend a meeting, and/or to challenge a perspective or opinion I might bring.
This also means being conscious and aware of the “weight” of my opinions and both being judicious about when to share them (giving others space to speak first so I can add, build, and reinforce) and qualifying when something is “just” an opinion or perspective for the group to consider. I can’t count the number of times I’ve “thought out loud” with a group over the years only to find out weeks or months later that someone had taken something I said as a directive or request for action. Disrupting power dynamics starts by naming them and making them visible so that alternatives can be co-created.
Q: Discuss/describe the “trial and error” of finding and using your voice from the position of power (CEO) in an organization.
A: My response above really started to get into the opportunity and challenge of this. Creating more just and equitable systems does not mean anarchy over hierarchy…. The antidote to unhealthy power-over dynamics is the intentional creation of forums that promote participation, increase voice, and model power-with. For many of the reasons listed above this is easier said than done as we are still deeply embedded in a national culture where the exercise of dominance and authority is still a highly visible model of “leadership.” And it’s also true that not everyone has the experience, expertise, or even “stake” in an issue to have an equal say—shared leadership doesn’t mean no leadership, or that everyone gets a veto.
Instead, it means actively, and proactively, cultivating leadership—creating spheres of leadership where people get to practice decision-making, refine their judgment, grow their own self-awareness, develop system-level sensibilities (if I spend this time or money here, how will the organization or system support that investment…), and learn to exercise their voices in service of shared goals.
For me, this is absolutely a “trial and error” effort, and that’s ok. If we are afraid to ever fail, we will never try. For me, the willingness to give it a go, and risk error, imperfection, discomfort, or embarrassment is the most powerful move we can make. The even harder part is developing the willingness to then say “wow, that didn’t go the way I had hoped it would” and then to try again, from a new place, with a little more information. If you are willing to “muck up and make up”, my experience has been that the path to progress can actually be faster and that over time you will cultivate courage in others to try things even when they aren’t sure they will turn out. That’s how innovation of all kinds happens.
Q: What does it look like to meaningfully invest resources in JEDI at an organization that you lead? What is challenging about this and how do you overcome these challenges?
A: When I tell people that in two years, we have gone from a team that was 80% white to one that is 65% members of racial and ethnic minority groups, I’m often met with incredulity and “how did you do that?” kinds of questions. My answer that “you just have to decide to do it” is not nearly as flip as it sounds. Our team is amazing. Every single person on the team is highly qualified. Some people were added to our team after being members of our Extended Network of contract partners and consultants for a period of time, a great way to “try on” the relationship in both directions. Additionally, every search we’ve done has had a very diverse pool of nationwide candidates to select from. We simply decided that to be who we want to be and make the difference we want to make in the world, we needed a team that more closely reflected the communities we are committed to serving and went looking.
For any organization trying to improve its JEDI practices, recruitment and retention of a diverse team should be priority number one. Building more inclusive and resilient systems requires more diverse voices to set and shape priorities. At the same time, it’s important for leaders in positions of institutional power not to depend on staff people from underrepresented groups to “carry the load” alone. Whether it’s starting book groups, bringing in consultants, or doing foundational training and development on JEDI issues, keeping a diverse workforce engaged requires systems to evolve in ways that have everyone feel appreciated, welcome, and that their contributions are valued.
This piece is a lot longer than I usually write, but I so appreciate these questions and hope that if you’ve made it this far, you’re also finding success on your JEDI Journey. As always, we’d love to hear what’s working for you and/or what challenges and struggles you are facing along the way.