Early Morning Lessons: Theory to Practice

NYU class

Seeing your face projected on a classroom screen hundreds of miles away before noon on a Saturday could be a bit much. But not if you have the chance to speak to a group of folks doing the hard work of turning theory into practice.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld’s graduate class at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. Students (many of whom are already accomplished practitioners in their field) were working with Sean to learn about the dynamics of race and inclusion within organizations. They were spending several weeks diving into rich articles and frameworks on identity development, organizational development, and the intricacies of change projects. At the end of the course, they would be working on their own projects to try out applying some of what they had learned in a hands-on context.

I was excited to share some of my learning from working with organizations to leverage practices of diversity, equity and inclusion in their day-to-day work to increase impact.

Here are a few notes from what I shared with them:

  • Change is possible. In our current political and judicial climate, addressing issues of race in the workplace can seem like an impossible feat, if not a nuclear one. Despite the challenges before us, I have seen folks of all political and cultural persuasions make meaningful in roads in this work. The key has been matching intent to impact, and inputs to expectations. So many change projects never get off the ground because they feel incredibly daunting, so this message felt like an important one to start on.
  • When designing an exploration of race/identity in the work place it is important to match inputs to expectations. So many times, orgs say they want to move the needle on race or inclusion, but only have about 2 hours in a month (or less to do so). If that is the case, then that shouldn’t be the expectation. Identity projects should be accounted for with in the core operational plan of an organization, and tied to real impacts to ensure that the appropriate investments are made for change.
  • As an organization begins to explore race, we need to make sure that folks have the right tools for the job. Often the skills and practices that make us successful on concrete tasks and projects (strict timelines, quick decision-making, debate and discussion, immediate next steps) may not be the ones that make us successful in shifting the culture around race on our team. There are a few skills I encourage all folks to practice early on in their exploration: dialogue, critical inquiry and an approach of curiosity, adaptive leadership skills, holding discomfort, being OK with uncertainty, generosity of spirit, self-reflection/inquiry, among others.
  • Explorations of race and identity often need to be iterative, both because repetition is an important part of adult learning, and because it takes time to uncover the implicit and unknown aspects of our identity in the workplace. Coming back to an exercise or topic multiple times can surface new learning and useful insights.
  • As practitioners who seek to lead in this work, we must also seek our own mentors and supports to help us navigate this rocky terrain. There is a deep amount of humility needed to delve into the intricacies of embarrassment, rage, pain, and revelation that come up in social justice education. Very little in our lives can prepare us for that, and so we must actively seek the learning experiences that allow us to grow into our roles, and humbly accept the mistakes, lessons, and victories along the way.

Have questions about how to get an exploration of race/identity in your workplace off the ground? Let’s connect.

Founder of Up With Community -- Builder -- Lover of Liberation

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