Originally published February 15, 2023, in Twin Cities Business magazine.
DEI work is a lifelong journey, not just an initiative. It's time to stretch. Here's how to move forward.
Allow me to introduce myself. Hi, I’m Seena Hodges (she/her), the founder of The Woke Coach. I am a connector. I am a fierce antiracist and an intersectional feminist. I am an equity, diversity, and inclusion champion. I am also a friend, an entrepreneur, and a Black woman. I love helping people develop equitable and inclusive environments and circumstances. Above all, I want to create places where people like me feel welcome.
In my work, I help my clients become the best, most understanding, and empathetic versions of themselves around issues of racism, bias, inequity, and injustice. I also help them get woke, stay woke, and be woke. Okay…now, before you roll your eyes or your chest gets tight, let me give you some context. For my team and me, “being woke” isn’t complicated or negative. Woke means you understand that your lived experience isn’t the quintessential lived experience, and because of that, you are constantly committed to awakening to others’ experiences. It simply means that you are paying attention to social and societal injustices.
Underrepresentation and exclusion have long histories, and if we’re going to change where we are, we need everyone to develop an ongoing antiracist practice that challenges the status quo and to take consistent, equitable actions in our personal lives and workplaces. Yep, we’re going to have to get a little uncomfortable and really examine “the way things are.”
Why I do this work
Speaking of the way things are:
- As of 2022, the average family wealth for white families was four times that of Black families and 4.3 times that of Hispanic families.
- In the history of this country, we’ve had only 11 Black U.S. Senators. You read that correctly: in 232 years, we have had only 11 Black senators.
- In 2021, 34% of Black people reported feeling unfairly treated in the workplace due to race or ethnicity in the past year, and 42% felt unfairly treated in the past five years. Of those reporting being treated unfairly, 72 percent said it happened between one and five times, so these are almost never isolated incidents and may be happening at your workplace.
Those are just a few data points among many across industries and sectors that incontrovertibly underscore how racism affects every aspect of our daily lives and collective history.
I believe we can’t sit back and simply hope that our circumstances change. Everyone is responsible for creating more equitable environments in our circles—me, you, everybody. As Shirley Chisholm said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.”
Why you should do this work
If you were failing and didn’t realize it, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you? If you came back from lunch with spinach in your teeth, would you want a colleague to pull you aside, so you didn’t embarrass yourself?
This column and newsletter (sign up here) is me telling you that you have spinach in your teeth. It’s me telling you you have a lot to learn about DEI work, and it will be a lifelong journey, not just an initiative. It’s me telling you that what you think you know about DEI work or your company’s DEI progress might not be correct. It’s me telling you that despite heightened awareness, greater participation, and increased attention after George Floyd’s murder, the racism and inequity that were present in 2020 are still present now. This is not a time to pat ourselves on the back for talking about diversity more at staff meetings or hiring a few DEI roles; we still have work to do. Yet, many people are already expressing fatigue and exhibiting less commitment as time goes on. If you divest from DEI work now, you will end up even further behind than you are, and no one can afford that. At the end of the day, racism wastes time, and time is money.
Listen, folks: in 2023, leaders can’t move through the world as uninformed about racial inequity as they’ve been until now or operate with the limited knowledge they’ve gained recently from the few books they read or podcasts they listened to. Leaders can’t be who they’ve always been if we’re aiming to achieve different results. It’s time to stretch beyond all that we’ve done so far. Even if you’re stretched a little, I’m asking you to stretch farther.
This is all personal for me, too. Not only because I’m a Black woman, but because of what I experienced at many workplaces before starting my own company. For years, job conditions were not set up for me to succeed as a Black woman, and people did not know how to interact with some very basic and important aspects of me and my identity. Maybe my supervisors didn’t fully understand what success (for both of us) would look like. Yet, a leader can only be effective, and should only feel successful, if they are willing to create optimal conditions for every employee. That’s what DEI work can do for you and your company. It’s a tool for personal and corporate growth. But we have to do it consistently for outcomes to take hold.
Do you have to do this work? No. But you should not dismiss it just because you have the privilege to do so. If we each committed to DEI work with a level of fervor that we reserve for the most essential parts of our business, we could transform so many lives. Imagine the attention you pay to your monthly financials. If you observe an anomaly or a red flag, you act swiftly and immediately. You should apply that level of energy to your DEI work every day. While the work is not easy, it’s also not the most difficult thing you will ever do. It’s a journey we are all on—even me, as I lead in this work.
Progress is possible, but it’s not inevitable. We must be intentional if we’re going to create equitable and inclusive environments and circumstances. If we all took responsibility for a small part of change, we’d solve so much. In the upcoming newsletters, I hope to help you commit to DEI more fervently and demonstrate the thinking and action this work includes. I will share stories, anecdotes, and advice. Give me a year, and I will change how you live and lead.
For now, I’ll leave you with a few questions to reflect on about your DEI journey and your work circumstance:–How seriously do you take DEI work at your business? How much budget have you dedicated to it?
–How do your employees feel about your efforts so far?
–If you recently hired BIPOC to diversify, are those employees still there, and what do they say about their experience?
–Is your C-suite or leadership team all white?
If service is the rent that we pay, rent’s due.
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