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Be the Change: A Multi-Part Framework

Be the Change: A Multi-Part Framework

For years I’ve given talks about how people should “be the change they want to see in the world.” The last several months, however, have brought things down to brass tacks, as some have demanded change and the skeptical have hung back asking, “What is anyone going to really DO?”

I can't predict who will and won't be game for the hard work of creating an antiracist future. But, I can provide the following framework for thinking about the work ahead for those who want to bring dreams of a better world to fruition.

[Related: Eight Ways You Can Support Racially Diverse Colleagues at Your Workplace]

Cultivating a groundwork of knowledge.

The call for expanding the knowledge and raising awareness is real and I do not want to downplay the problem of ignorance. If people do not perceive the scope of the problem in the same way, or cannot accept it as pervasive and long-standing, then there is no good ground on which to plant anything else.

No good gardener tills the soil, amends it, aerates it, removes the stones, and walks away thinking the job is done. So, bring in the experts, lift the BIPOC voices, but then roll up your sleeves, because the hard work is just starting.

Seeds of possibility.

One downside of understanding racial oppression is seeing those systems as immobile and unchanging. One thing I learned from my long engagement as a professional anthropologist and archaeologist is the that nothing we know, beloved or not, “has ALWAYS been this way.” When we let go of that, we can begin to dream up what an antiracist world really look like for us and our organizations.

In my experience, activists dream big and established organizations dream small. But if businesses want to be part of building an antiracist future, they can’t be satisfied with a slightly green patch of lawn. It’s time for management to sit down and do some BIG dreaming about your organization's role in a beautiful, just future. If you cannot dream it, if you cannot plant that seed, then nothing will grow.

Growth and abundance mindset.

Fear is a killer, worse than any chemical I might apply to the weeds in my garden. Creating an antiracist world is a big change and means all sorts of uncertainty and trying new things.

Anybody who has ever gotten really good at something did it through practice and making a ton of mistakes. Questions to ask of your organization might include:

  • How is fear of change, scarcity, or failure influencing our policies?
  • What happens if we value our people – either employees or clients – ahead of profits and shareholders?
  • Where can we take risks to try something radically different and support employees in making big leaps?

Inputs, or what we bring in from the world.

A master gardener I know told me about “good luck gardening,” where - soil tilled, seed planted, and early watering done - the gardener walks away, hoping for luck to do the work.

Similarly, I have had organizations abandon projects when they got to the point of doing the hard work, like doing an audit of inputs into the organization such as:

  • Services not performed in-house, such as banking or marketing. Are they black-owned, woman-owned? Who’s in their C-suite? What does their diversity look like?
  • Purchases to supply offices, produce product, and reward employees and clients. Where do they come from? How are they shipped?
  • Clients and patrons who come through our doors. Where are they recruited? How are we accessible or inaccessible in terms of buildings, neighborhoods, and interior spaces?

This can be time-consuming. It can feel awkward to ask tough questions, disheartening to see where money was spent, and frustrating to find alternatives. But, as Laura Clise, founder and CEO of Intentionalist, says:

We create the world we want when we spend like it matters.

[Related: Everything is Changing: Why It's Important for Businesses to Change and Adapt]

Internal structures.

Like a gardener who knows when to prune things back, install supports for plants before they’re needed, and weed out unwanted growth, organizations seeking transformation need to consider their internal processes and structures, looking at money, influence, barriers, and control points:

  • Move beyond a basic audit of diversity to see if you are paying people equally and where talent pools in your organization.
  • Map out career paths. Not all paths have to lead to the C-suite, but few people want a dead-end job, so make more pathways accessible to more people.
  • Engage your gatekeepers, whether recruiters or others, to rethink their processes and act with intentionality.
  • Look for leaks in your pipelines, tracking attrition and being honest about the reasons behind it.

Just as a gardener cannot have a diverse harvest if they create conditions that only support some of their plants, so too we cannot create an antiracist organization without an antiracist infrastructure.

Outputs, or what we give and how we give it.

Asking why we produce or sell what we do and how it impacts the world is rare, so long as our organization is profitable. Those serious about supporting a racially just future, however, need to measure their social footprint, with a hard look at where the good and the harm they do in the world shows up and for whom.

Again, this is scary, but like any good gardener, you’d want to know that your jam tasted toxic or your flowers were crawling with slugs. If you know, you can make changes and contribute differently.

Learning to be a better gardener.

This framework kicks up dust personally and for organizations. We can feel defensive, raw, and vulnerable, especially when the work is difficult and time-consuming. We can feel tempted by quick fixes and results, rather than the slog of doing better by doing differently. In other words, making real change is hard, just like growing a verdant garden is hard.

But that is all it is: uncomfortable, hard work. Seems to me that a beautiful, verdant, antiracist world is a garden worth growing and we can all learn to be better gardeners.

[Related: Four Things to Consider When Hiring an Implicit Bias Trainer]


Jo Burkholder is a leader for positive change in communities, organizations, and industry. She is experienced in developing and leading programs and projects that span administrative units, diverse social groups, and international borders. She has engaged community partners and promoted creative, sustainable, research-based solutions to problems of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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