This episode, originally recorded as a DEI Community Call, was moderated by returning guest Amber Hikes, the Chief Equity & Inclusion Officer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Joining her were the leads of two of ACLU’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): the Black Women and Non-Binary ERG, and the Black Men and Non-Binary ERG:
- Raquel Fossett, Program Coordinator to the Director of Board Relations and Special Projects
- Whitney Barnes, Manager of Strategic Partnerships
- Brandon Felton, Marketing Executive in National Brand Engagement
- Jason Williamson, Deputy Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project
The five panelists spoke to the critical nuances that distinguish their respective groups, but a common through line emerged: empathy leads to action. The more we engage in transparent and honest conversation, the more we begin to understand one another. And the more we understand one another, the more we feel compelled to fight on their behalf. Amber says, “if Black History Month is about study, Black Futures Month is about action.”
In this episode you’ll discover:
- How to manifest a new future of justice and liberation (14:26)
- The need to create spaces for specific ERG’s (26:00)
- How organizations can create a culture of belonging (38:00)
- How to keep momentum going (40:00)
- What leaders need to think about when it comes to DEI commitments (45:00)
- Why words matter (46:15)
- The importance of self-care (51:00)
- How to create safety in virtual spaces (53:00)
- Restorative justice practices and the connection to inclusion (57:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Greetings, Will To Changers. This is Jennifer, and I wanted to let you know that we are running another cohort of our popular DEI Foundations course starting March 9th. This course is meant to be for the learner, meaning someone who’s getting started on this work and the domain of understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion, whether or not we do this as a job that we’re paid to do, whether or not we are an advocate interested in deepening into our own diversity stories, which we all have one, as we talk about a lot on the Will To Change.
And also, just thinking through, “How might I apply this work as whatever role I have in terms of being an advocate, being a full-timer, being a part-timer, being an enthusiastic volunteer?” which so many of us are before we become professionals in the space. And I would just encourage you all to invest in this way in your own education, in your own skillset, and really mindset as much as skillset. So, check it out and as I said, the next cohort begins March 9th.
We have a special code for podcast listeners that gives you 20% off, so if you text DEIFoundations, all one word, to 55444, you will get information on how to register and use that coupon code, PODCAST, all one word, all caps, for 20% off of the tuition. So again, the program begins March 9th. Please consider making this investment in yourself. It is a six-week course that is a blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning.
You will meet amazing people that are traveling the same journey and road that you all are, and you will also have an opportunity to learn from some of our fabulous team at JBC. So again, starting March 9th, six weeks, check it out and if you missed that text to download, you can also go to jenniferbrownconsulting.com and look up more information on our courses. And it’s just called the DEI Foundations course so check it out. Use the code, and consider joining us.
WHITNEY BARNES: I think it was very clear over the summer which companies were just listing diversity, equity and inclusion commitments they already had and weren’t being very responsive to the moment in their employees’ feedback. And then there were companies who were saying, “This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re planning to do based on employee feedback in the moment at hand, and this is what we’re going to do.”
And I think with those statements, words matter. I think there were companies saying diversity and inclusion as catchall phrases. If we’re talking about police brutality, let’s say police brutality. If we’re talking about racism, let’s say racism. There shouldn’t be these catchall phrases, and I think that was kind of, as Amber said, a cringe moment to see during these uprisings over the summer, not even naming what was occurring over the summer.
And then I think a big piece of this, and a lot of our communications were centered around this, of what work are you doing internally? After you donate to us, what is the action plan to make sure that external work aligns with your internal values?
DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to the Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. Of course, I’m here with Jennifer Brown and boy, what an episode that you’re going to listen to today. We have some real powerhouses from the ACLU on this episode. One of them you should be very familiar with if you’re an avid listener to the Will To Change. Amber Hikes, the Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at the ACLU, but along with her are four of the ERG leaders from the ACLU.
Whitney Barnes joins, the Manager of Strategic Partnerships at ACLU. Raquel Fossett, Program Coordinator to the Director of Board Relations and Special Projects, Jason Williamson, Deputy Director Criminal Law Reform Project at ACLU, as well as Brandon Felton, National Brand Management at ACLU, so what a panel you put together here, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug. I can’t take credit for putting it together. I know that Amber, in response to all the energy that we got when we had the first Community Call featuring the ACLU, there were so many questions about the strategy and how unique it is at ACLU for obvious reasons. It’s an unusual organization with lots of powerful stakeholders in the mix and also a huge responsibility obviously, stemming from the work that ACLU does in the world.
There naturally was a lot of curiosity amongst the community about how do they structure their strategy and specifically their ERGs, and they have, I think, 14 of them, so listen closely in the first 10 to 15 minutes of the Community Call to hear Amber go through all of them. She names them all and her favorite name. They have some funny names as well, so there’s a real spirited sense of fun, I think, at the ACLU too, as much as they sort of work on these pressing, important and difficult issues.
I know they’re also very dedicated to having some levity when they can, so that comes across on this call, too. But Amber specifically, given that it’s Black History Month here in February, or as they call it, Black Futures Month, which I thought was excellent. And actually, Doug, I’m hearing from a lot of our different clients that there are some new names being introduced for this month.
DOUG FORESTA: I really like that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, Black Excellence was another that I was talking to a client yesterday, so it’s interesting to think about what do we need to celebrate and call to people’s attention this year in 2021, given the year we had last year, right? And I think, like everything, we’re all sort of evolving quickly, coming out of last year, and I’m so grateful for that.
I mean, it’s overdue in so many different ways, but I love that we’re getting more specific, I think, about what we really feel that we need in this particular February, right, given what we’ve been through. And the ACLU really landed on this Black Futures Month as inspirational, an opportunity to really have deeper, more honest, more truthful, yes more difficult conversations, but also really inspirational conversations about all that’s possible now that I think we weren’t even talking about a year ago, so just a note to realize how much has really changed.
And speaking of change and really unique things, the two ERGs that joined. We had two co-leaders for each that joined. It was the Black Men ERG and the Black Women and Non-Binary ERG leaders, and we had a lot of discussion on Community Call about the identity-specific character of how these networks are set up and who they are for. And there was a lot of questions in chat about the role of allies who do not identify as Black, and also the inclusion of non-binary identities in separate ERGs, one for men and one for women.
Again, as usual, ACLU is kind of blowing our minds in terms of how they have structured these, and what strikes me is the way that they have prioritized the need for single affinity spaces, single identity spaces. Single, if there is such a thing, gender spaces, if I can say that, because the Men and Non-Binary and the Women and Non-Binary is named so that it is inclusive of all gender, but at the same time, there is a dedicated space for Black women and non-binary and a dedicated space for Black men.
And so the leaders go into why, and then they also go into how do then allies to different identities pursue their own development in the ACLU context? Where does that happen, because normally, most of you that are listening to this, if you have affinity groups in your organization, the vast majority of examples are inclusive of allies in their strategy, sometimes even in the leadership and executive sponsor ranks for the networks, sometimes because we don’t have a critical mass of a certain identity.
So there’s a big presence of allies, but what’s interesting is ACLU has gone the other way and opted for something much more specific, and I think probably perhaps even smaller in number, but a more specific space that has particular goals of safety and sort of a safe space, a community space, a support space, and a place for specific dialogue about our identities and how they differ, even within the Black community, for example, right?
And you and I know Doug, within the LGBTQ+ community, to pick another community that I know obviously extremely well, the diversity issues within the diversity is where it gets really interesting, and so when you talk about single identity spaces within a diverse community, you have space for women, X and non-binary people. You have space for the conversation about being Black and Brown and LGBTQ+, so exploring intersectionality.
You have trans-specific space and conversations where we can speak about that identity and the needs and the support and the experience, so it’s fascinating to see how the ACLU has gotten extremely specific and as a result, I think had a very cutting edge result from that, which is building exactly what’s needed for the community, with the community, speaking to the needs of the community. And I don’t mean to say that the presence of allies can water anything down per se, but it’s just that there’s way more sort of variety of learning needs, I’d say, and a variety of safety needs, too, when you start to have diverse, multiple identity spaces, right, I would say.
So, I think that the way they’ve structured it is a very interesting case study and we’ll hear in detail about that, the Whys, the Wherefores, what they think they’ve been able to accomplish in this structure. And Doug, news this week or last week, was the appointment of Deborah Archer, who’s the first Black person elected to be the ACLU’s president. And I was learning about Deborah, who’s a professor at NYU’s School of Law with a focus in civil rights and racial justice, and being reminded that the ACLU is 101 years old and so she is the first Black president to hold that position in that over 100-year-long history, and is only the eighth president of the organization since 1920.
So just really a momentous announcement and someone that I’m going to be following, and who will be partnering then with their executive director, whose name is Anthony Romero. So they have a lot of work to do. I was thinking about the fact that they filed 413 lawsuits during the last four years, so that’s a lot of activity, but what an important organization for all of us, and what an organization in the midst of such a dynamic conversation about freedom of speech and all of that.
So they do go into that as well on this call, the unique position and voice that ACLU has and the unique tensions, I think, that they navigate, probably between the work they do in the world and the wants and needs of the workforce, right? So listen for all of that and more, and enjoy this episode.
And so without further ado, Amber, I’d love to welcome you again, back by popular demand. Welcome back to our time together and you have amassed an incredible group from the ACLU of leaders and you have so much to share. And as usual, I know it’s going to rock our world and inspire us and stretch us and just impress us, because that’s how you roll. So Amber, say hello to everybody and just kind of level set us today, if you’d like, about what we’re going to be talking about and whom you’ve invited to the call.
AMBER HIKES: Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction and thank you all for the incredible welcome. I swear you all just know how to make a person feel really good, so it’s so good to be back with you all. I am thrilled to be with you all this afternoon, morning for those of us on the West Coast, and of course, happy Black Futures Month, my friends, my Futures Month.
I want to take five minutes to talk about Black Futures Month because in February, as Jennifer already let you know, we are expanding our traditional celebration of Black History Month and we are pivoting to a new framework that re-imagines tomorrow, Black Futures Month. So for us at the ACLU, Black Futures Month gives us an opportunity to think beyond what has been and envision what can be, and so we are looking at this as an opportunity to continue elevating the legacy of Black folks while reminding each other that we are manifesting a new future of justice, of joy and of liberation, of course.
So the way I want you to think about it is, if Black History Month is about study, Black Futures Month is about action, so that’s a little bit of that, what we’re doing with Black Futures Month. I welcome folks to take that to their corporations and to their organizations. We’re really thrilled about it at the ACLU, so you all, let’s get into this, right? One of the very important tenets of the approach that I have to this work is that our inside must match our outside.
And by that what I mean is, if we are going to fight for equity and justice externally, then we’ve got to be a beacon for that internally of course, right? And so what I have found in that effort, at my approach, is that it’s not just made better by our Employee Resource Groups, but that kind of work is made possible by our Employee Resource Groups, which is why I’ve brought these incredible leaders to talk to you all today.
I see our role as EDIB professionals is to think of our Employee Resource Groups kind of like the secret ingredient to our own theories of change, and then engage with our ERGs like they make the difference between lip service DnI, and I know we all know about lip service DnI, and actually true, equitable and inclusive culture, because we know that the difference really is in our Employee Resource Groups.
Okay, before we jump into our panel, I want to set a little bit of context for how our ERGs are shaped at the ACLU, how they’re shaped in a way. I think this will be really important for you all as you’re thinking through questions you may have for the folks that we have here today. Now, not surprisingly, we do things a little differently at the ACLU and our ERGs are no exception, so I’m going to focus on three of the things that we take a somewhat different approach to.
The first thing is that our ERGs determine the membership of their own spaces, so what that looks like at the ACLU, is the ERGs are spaces for folks who hold that identity. Now, I know this is different from some of the other structures that folks are accustomed to. I know it may even be a little bit controversial, but I’m going to tell you, the only reason that I know that some people think it’s controversial, is because they gasp a little when I tell them.
But there has been no controversy at the ACLU about this, and actually this piece is actually the key to our ERGs’ successes, because it ensures that the group is being led by the people that are most impacted. I think in my career I’ve seen so many LGBT ERGs where there have been allies that have been the chairs of that space, and I’m not knocking that kind of thing, but I do know that we know the communities are the strongest when they are self-led and our ERGs are no different in that.
So having these groups carved out for members of the communities they serve also allows us for some deeper reflection, some foundational trust, and more profound connections and I know our leaders are going to tell you more about what that looks like for them. So I think that’s important to elevate the sacred spaces that we have here.
The second thing, we have a lot of ERGs at the ACLU, a lot of them, and if you all will bear with me for one minute, I am going to give you a little visual display of how many ERGs we have. If I can share my screen, that would be fantastic, and I am not sure that I can share it if there’s another screen being shared at the same time, so if I can just get a little bit of help on that, that would be great. And what I’m going to do for you all is show you our ERG structure.
All right, let me share this so you all can see here, and pardon this. Here we go. We have 14 ERGs at the ACLU. You can see them here, so we have an LGBTQ ERG, known as ACLQ and AMEMSA, Asian American Pacific Islanders. Black Men and Non-Binary, Black Women and Non-Binary, Caregivers, Disabilities, Early Career, Feminists, Immigrants, Indigenous, Latinx, People of Color in Communications, People of Color in Philanthropy.
I usually have it memorized and I didn’t want to forget and leave anyone out, so just take a minute to take all of that in. If you have any questions about these, definitely write those down because I promise we’ll get to them, but I wanted you all to be able to visually see all the ERGs we have at the organization. I’m going to stop sharing so I can try and see you all’s faces again.
All right, so that’s a really important piece right now, a lot of ERGs and we have two that are new on the way, Formerly Incarcerated and ACL Jew, which I think is probably the best name that we have for an ERG. Having so many identity-specific ERGs has done two things for our program.
The first is that it allows us for serious and specific focus on the goals, needs and interests of each community, and the second is that these are almost entirely staff-started and they create a culture of inclusion for us, which means that if you can get two people besides yourself that are signed onto this, then you are welcome in our ERG tent, so really exciting. It’s a lot of work but it’s been phenomenal for us.
And the last piece is that our ERGs are unwaveringly intersectional, so the groups are identity-based, as I said, but we also prioritize intersectionality at every step, so this means our ERGs collaborate with one another, they partner together, they share ideas and visions and resources, and our ERGs uplift each other’s work and make space when there is a need for a community to take space.
So, number one, number two, they only work because of number three, right, so we can’t ever let up on our commitment to intersectionality. All right, you all, that was a lot, but I think that I’ve piqued your interest because we have a phenomenal panel for you all today. We’re going to be talking to the leaders of our Black Men and Non-Binary, and Black Women and Non-Binary ERGs, and we’re going to be hearing about their wisdom, their brilliance and their advice for ERGs and racial equity in particular in the workplace.
And I think we may have some ideas about what you can execute on for Black Futures Month so all right, you all, we are going to get started on it. I think I might kick this to Jennifer, but Jennifer, maybe you want me to tee up our ERG leads. What do you want to do? You want me to tee them up?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s have you welcome each voice and let’s do that first.
AMBER HIKES: Let’s go ahead and do it. So let’s start with Raquel with love and we’re going to go through everybody. Tell us your name, your pronouns, your role at the ACLU, ERG that you lead, and then a little bit that you want to tell us about your ERG and how it functions. [crosstalk 00:20:19]
RAQUEL FOSSETT: Cool. Well, hi everyone. My name is Raquel, she/her pronoun. I am the Program Associate for the National Advocacy Institute of the ACLU, and to quickly explain what that is, it’s an organizing advocacy program for high school and college students around the country and I am the co-lead of the Black Women and Non-Binary Employee Resource Group. And a little bit about the ERG that I help lead with Whitney is that, I think the reason why we kind of put it together was that there weren’t a lot of Black women non-binary folks that we were aware of at the national office and that’s exactly why we wanted to bring this space and community together, so we were able to get to know who each person was.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I think we’re maybe… Oh, Amber, hey.
AMBER HIKES: Let’s go to Whitney next.
JENNIFER BROWN: There you are.
WHITNEY BARNES: Hi everyone. My name is Whitney Barnes, pronouns are she/her, and I’m the Manager on the Strategic Partnerships team at the ACLU and I co-lead the Black Women and Non-Binary ERG with Raquel. We really started this ERG, like Raquel said, there’s strength in numbers and we wanted to have a space for all of us who are Black and women and non-binary at the ACLU, could come together and discuss some issues that were plaguing us, not just at the organization but in the non-profit sector at large. I think we really saw a mass exodus of Black women and non-binary folks leaving the sector, and it was just a call to action for us to create a space to really interrogate why that was.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Whitney. Thank you. Let’s go to Brandon.
BRANDON FELTON: Good afternoon everyone. My name is Brandon Felton. My pronouns are he/him. I’m brand engagement at the ACLU. I’m co-lead and a co-founder of the ACLU’s Black Men and Non-Binary ERG and also part of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Council. I came to this work out of a need first ignited by events in the world and in the country, and under a pretty watchful eye I had on the organization and how they navigated those, as Amber spoke about earlier, holding the organization to a standard inside its walls and living its values that it does outside in the world.
If you all know about the ACLU, it has an incredible mission. People who work there are very passionate about that, but navigating the issues of race and class in an extremely talented and very complex organization with very many nuances requires that we engage empathy, and so it’s been nothing but progress and I’ve been grateful to be a part of this solution, especially with Amber leading the charge as the organization’s Chief Inclusion and Equity Officer. So I’m very honored to be here with my Black co-leads to talk about it today.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks Brandon, and Jason?
JASON WILLIAMSON: Hi guys, Jason Williamson. I am Deputy Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the national ACLU office in New York City, so that means I work in our legal department and spend most of my time suing government actors of all sorts, and trying to protect civil rights and civil liberties across the country. Sorry, he/him pronouns, if I forgot that. I also want to say how incredible it is to see all of you on here. I’m really impressed and encouraged that somebody at least showed up for this.
I think I saw somebody here from India, which is just amazing, so thank you for all the work that you guys are doing. I’ll say, just as an initial comment, about why we started the Black Men and Black Non-Binary ERG. I’ve been at the ACLU for a little over 10 years and have seen a tremendous development, particularly over the last two years of efforts inside the organization to make folks feel welcomed and particularly given the work that we do in the world.
For those of us who are people of color and representing the kinds of folks that the organization is representing around the country, it’s just critical for folks to feel like there’s a connection there between what we’re doing externally and how we’re treating one another internally. And so it’s been an amazing ride, particularly since Amber arrived in the building and started to turn things around, so looking forward to talking in more detail with all of you about how we got here.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Jason. Yeah, so Amber, I mean, I think we’re already getting some questions, so we’re making a note of those.
AMBER HIKES: I was actually looking, Jennifer, and you can correct me, it looks like we’ve had a few people ask about the rationale behind the gender split, right? And I think that would be a great thing to jump into. Actually, Whitney, not to put you on the spot there, but I think both Whitney and Raquel, and also of course, Jason and Brandon, have some really kind of pertinent examples they can give to you, to why this choice was made and really the benefits that we see in being able to create these spaces. So Whitney, start with you, and Raquel, we’ll have you all take that, and then Jason and Brandon, why don’t you also give us some of your reflections on why the split around gender?
WHITNEY BARNES: For sure, so like I mentioned before, this mass exodus of Black women and non-binary folks leaving the non-profit sector, we felt that there needed to be a space to address those issues specifically, and that was our initial thinking. And then when we brought it to the group, when we started to really formalize the ERG space and getting feedback from our membership, which I feel is crucial to doing this work, that was the resounding “Yes! We want this space specifically for Black women. We want it specifically for Black women, non-binary folks to discuss issues that affect us.”
There was also a desire to join forces with the Black Men and Non-Binary ERG for specific topics, specific events, specific discussions to be had, so we do do a lot of joint programming, but that’s the rationale for why we decided that we wanted to split up, because there were specific issues we wanted to tackle, and our membership was right alongside and saying, “We want this space just for us.” And I’ll pass to Raquel.
RAQUEL FOSSETT: Yeah, I think just even further explain why our ERGs are split is that for me personally, I work in the executive department and before Amber joined us, there were two other Black women in the department and those were the only Black women at the ACLU that I was aware of, just because with my position, I don’t work with a lot of the different teams at the ACLU. So not only did we want to make sure that we were aware of each other, but we also have affiliates in every state.
And a lot of people that I know that work on the affiliates are the only Black women at the affiliate. So then the question was, how can we not only get an opportunity to know who we are at national but then also meeting people at the affiliate level. And so making sure that we were able to meet each other, create those spaces to acknowledge that there are issues that we all kind of want to come together and talk about, was exactly why we wanted to make sure that we were split.
AMBER HIKES: Brandon and Jason, why don’t you all tell us about some of the conversations that you’ve been able to have in the Black Men and Non-Binary ERG, when there have just been Black men present, and maybe if you can specifically focus on how the Black Men and Non-Binary ERG responded this summer?
JASON WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I can start, Brandon, and please jump in. I think setting the context is important as Amber suggested. Last summer, in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the uprising that followed and the millions of people that took to the street, the ACLU was obviously doing work in the world related to what happened and trying to develop programming that addressed the issues, but of course, those of us who are people of color inside the organization were both doing the work and also processing what was happening.
And particularly as Black men, who have been a consistent target of law enforcement since law enforcement started in this country, it felt important for us to be able to come together and share our experiences. All of us, of course, have our own or had our own stories to tell about experiences with the police and close calls and so on. Particularly when you are dealing with a traumatic event, it felt essential for us to be in a space where we didn’t have to provide background or explain why we were feeling the way we were feeling, that everyone was coming from a certain baseline of experience, which made the space that much more supported.
And I have to say, even I was not expecting that space to be as critical as it was in the moment and we were really able to use it as an opportunity to bring folks together and allow people just to be present. Not to say anything in particular or do anything in particular, but just to be present with each other and to support one another, but Brandon, I don’t know if you want to add to that.
BRANDON FELTON: No, you touched on it. I mean, the organization had a staff conference that was nation-wide and so people at the affiliates were there, national was there, and as Jason indicated, there was a room because the organization was already thinking about “We’re going to have to start addressing the concerns about how we deal with race.” What happened in Charlottesville was an impetus for that. You can Google that. And so there was a space set up at the national conference and we walked in and we were blown away.
So there was a space set on the agenda, Black Men ERG space. It was originally divided and so we casually walked in and we were blown away, because that was the first time that all of us had been in the room within the organization together, and immediately there was vulnerability there and people could see each other and talk about what they’re experiencing in this environment.
It’s important that we build community. If you know, when you have an extremely talented workforce, but the work is extreme, when you get things done it’s through relationships, so one of the benefits of having this group is information share along a high matrix to organization where things fall through the cracks. There’s implicit bias at times. It’s subconsciously, when people are not given the information, you have a back channel here where people can actually benefit from.
I mean, the community is very important and also in the wake of things that have been happening since I’ve been at the organization in America. George Floyd is just one of many and so how do we comfort and lean into empathy with each other without having to speak the language of the organization, and as Jason said, explain. So it’s very specific for us to be in community with each other first, to be able to provide that support system. And then we do have allies supporting us in other ways and that’s something we might be able to talk about later.
AMBER HIKES: Sharing a brain right now for those of us that go there. I see a lot of questions and you all blowing up this chat. Brandon said it just then. It was like Twitter. I can’t even keep off, though I’m going to try. I see a lot of questions about more of the identity and the membership of some of the other ERGs, also have allies get involved so we’ll lead into that.
I will just take kind of a point of personal privilege here to remind you of the other, again, 14 ERGs the organization… These are just two of them. The other 12 ERGs, again, every ERG is able to make up the kind of membership requirements for the space. I will tell you, our Immigrant ERG is one of the ones that has a more expansive definition, right? Our Immigrant ERG are folks who identify as immigrants, they are children of immigrants or folks who are deeply committed to and work on immigration work, right? So that’s something that’s pretty broad, right?
Our Caregivers ERG is very similar with that. Folks who are currently serving as caregivers, folks who have cared as caregivers in the past, right? Even with those two distinctions, that’s a broad, wide range of folks, and of course the definition of caregiving is also expanding at the ACLU. It could be caregiving for a child, caregiving for an elder, caregiving for a friend, a close friend, if that’s the case as well.
So there are ERGs that have more expansive definitions. The Feminist ERG again, you see a lot of places that have a Women’s ERG. This is a feminist ERG very intentionally, in terms of gender inclusivity there, but again, it’s open to everyone who is aligned with a feminist vision, right? So it’s really important for the membership of the ERG to be able to define who is going to be included in that group, but I just want you all to know that there are other expansive definitions there.
So let’s lean into this ally-ship question. Raquel will tell us what support and ally-ship looks like from non-Black colleagues and what it looks like without them being members of the ERG. Perhaps give us some examples of some of the intersectional programming that perhaps our Latinx ERG have done or AMEMSA and AAPI ERG have done.
RAQUEL FOSSETT: Yeah, we’re actually working on some programming right now with the Latinx ERG on colorism and anti-Blackness in the workplace and they had the idea to do a colorism series on their own before approaching us with this, so really taking on the labor themselves to interrogate how colorism, anti-Blackness shows up in the Latinx community and how that’s often perpetuated onto Black folks. So they’ve had a series of conversations over a couple of months with resources and information sharing and different breakout groups to really discuss solutions and go through scenarios.
And during this month, during Black Futures Month, we’ll be having a conversation alongside them as the Black Women Non-Binary ERG and the Black Men and Non-Binary ERG about our own separate conversations around colorism and anti-Blackness. We’re now coming together to discuss solutions, how we can be accomplices and allies in the workplace for one another and how colorism shows up, even specifically in our workplace and how we’ve seen this show up in other workplaces.
So this next workshop’s going to be on solutions but the Latinx ERG really leaned into this conversation and said, “We’re going to need this label first before coming to the Black ERGs to have a joint conversation.”
JASON WILLIAMSON: So I have just a couple things. One, just to be clear, I don’t have a textbook definition, but I think I saw a couple of questions about colorism as a concept and kind of what that means. It’s part of what we were trying to get at as a part of the conversation among our Latinx colleagues was really about complexion, right, and the extent to which there are folks within the Latinx community or within the Black community who are closer to a White complexion and White pass in complexion versus folks who are darker-skinned and the implications of all of that in all sorts of contexts, so just to be clear with that.
And it’s a sensitive issue, both internally within the Black community and the Latinx community, and as it relates to how White folks respond to lighter skinned versus darker skinned people so it’s a complicated conversation and really excited that we are trying to dig into it. One other thing I just wanted to add about ally-ship. I’ve been a part of organizations where there’s been a lot of push-back from White colleagues against the idea of a sort of Black-only space, and people feeling excluded or feeling like it is counterproductive or insulting somehow.
And I will say that I’ve been really pleasantly surprised that we’ve gotten very little of that kind of pushback from our colleagues at the ACLU, and I think that’s been a process of people understanding why it’s necessary for their Black and Brown colleagues to have a space that is unique to them and that it’s not about exclusion of White folks. It’s about creating a safe space for Black and Brown people to be able to express themselves and without having to justify or explain themselves.
And it also makes it that much more productive for us to come together and have conversations that include everyone if we’ve had a chance to kind of work through our own stuff, so I just really appreciate the quietness, really, of our White colleagues in that respect, and the work that they’re doing separately to bring themselves up to speed, to continue to be allies for us going forward.
BRANDON FELTON: I just want to add that the ACLU is a unique organization. I mean, we don’t expect companies who are starting to figure out DEI and ERG and acronyms to start talking about colorism within the Black community. I think the first thing that organizations need to do is ask the question, “What would make you feel more comfortable in this space because we recognize that there are differences that you might not be comfortable with?”
And naming that will allow people to start opening up in trust that you actually care and that you’re not trying to check a box. Because this momentum of DEI work is requiring companies to change at a very rapid pace, they’re not asking the Why questions, so when you ask, “Can I join? Why can’t I join?” First of all ask, “What is the purpose of having a unique space for a particular identity?”
And you think about your own, I mean, we all show up to work with our own stuff and there’s something that you’re dealing with and if you could see someone else that dealt with that same, exact issue, when you spend eight to 10 hours at work, it’s going to help you to not only translate what’s happening to you, but to navigate in that environment because what we do is spend a lot of time in trying to sustain our families.
There’s a common human element to that. It’s when we take ourselves out of the maze and start thinking about the human impact of allowing this to organically happen for the benefit of the organization, then you change your mindset on the reason behind it, and sorry for [inaudible 00:39:47] myself a little bit. I also just want to say, because the ACLU is unique, ally-ship, so the organization thanks to Amber, she introduced some anti-racism training, and yes, there are organizations that specialize in that.
And she’s created these restorative policies, so you think mediation, when it comes to anything that might have an equity lens that provides some language. It also creates an awareness buffer between people. We’re dealing with people, we’re assuming the best intention so that there’s communication. Moving in that direction as an organization is huge, and I think that in itself makes the organization move into ally-ship because it’s very hard to tackle these issues.
And another thing I appreciate about the ACLU, in March 2019, a colleague of mine, [Sarah Bleddes 00:40:39] she invited me to a casual group to discuss the anti-racism. It was awkward. I showed up, there were nine people. There were two Black people. One had to leave early, and they were like, “Here. Here’s a book, White Fragility. Let’s talk about it.” And so I wanted to continue the momentum of what she started, so we continued to communicate because I recognized the intention there.
And so what started from there ended up turning into a Slack channel of over 160 people. That grew into June, reacting to the murder of George Floyd, into another Slack channel around self-education. Both of these Slack groups are active to this day and it’s been a tremendous support and awareness when people are talking about the language and uncovering the history so that now, Black people within this organization, we don’t have to have a big conference on it, but we know that there’s some empathy around what it is in a lived experience that we’re going through.
So no one has complained at the organization about them not being able to join, but they’ve taken action to educate themselves and really look at how can they lean into empathy. So I just tell that story because there’s not one way to create an ally and the organization has really made some strides in that area.
AMBER HIKES: Thank you so much, Brandon, brilliant. I think that we’ve covered the ally piece quite extensively here and I really, really appreciate that. I saw a few questions earlier, a little bit about how this work is done, a little bit about compensation as well as I just want to be transparent here. Our ERG leads are doing incredible, extraordinary, heavy-lift work at this point. They are not compensated outside of their actual salaries.
What I do want to say to another question that folks were asking is we do encourage ERG leads to do ERG work during work hours, right? So there are spaces for ERG meetings. ERG meetings almost exclusively take place during the work day. Both our managers, our senior leadership, our executive director are all deeply invested in the success of our ERGs, and recognize that the success of the ERGs are directly connected to the success of the organization, and that culture of belonging is directly connected to the success of the organization, so we carved out spaces both for ERG meetings, for events.
We have seven different events for Black Futures Month, all of those taking place during the actual work day, so it’s an important component of this inside to outside piece that I was saying. Let’s make sure that we’re making beyond the right case. We’re making the business case for this work as well internally and carving out spaces in our everyday work, even as important as the ACLU’s everyday work is, to be able to uplift the experience of the folks who are affiliated with our ERGs, so I think that’s a really important point to make here.
What Brandon was saying, I think was really resonating with some folks around how folks can get involved with ally-ship and accomplice-ship, I would even say, and I think elevating folks as the ERGs have done. I would also want to say that our AAPI, and that’s Asian-American Pacific Islander ERG, our AMEMSA ERG, which is Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim South Asian community, so that’s AMEMSA. That may be a new acronym for folks.
All of those ERGs also created self-education spaces this summer, so again, doing that work themselves without asking Black folks to do that labor around anti-racism work, so really important point there. This is the job of allies. This is what an accomplice-ship looks like. You all hear me all the time, “Do your internal work first before you ask other folks to do it for you.” There’s a lot of resources out there.
So related to this, I wanted to kick to Whitney to see if Whitney wanted to talk a little bit about how we saw companies respond in all kinds of ways over the summer for the [inaudible 00:44:43] uprising for Black Lives. Some were inspiring and accompanied by some real change and then some were rather cringe-worthy. Whitney, especially in your full-time position outside of the ERG, I know that you do a lot of work with corporations. What were some things that you saw that worked? What didn’t work, and worst, what do you feel like caused harm?
WHITNEY BARNES: Yeah, just for a little bit of additional context, my team works with companies in the private sector to further the ACLU’s advocacy marketing communication goals and of course fundraising goals as our team sits in the development department. So we had a slew of interest from companies, especially over the summer, to donate to our racial justice work, and I believe the accountability work, and we really wanted to take pause and interrogate those donations and say, “Why are you donating to us?”
And through that, we were really able to come up with this analysis of what works best during these moments and what doesn’t, and just to go through a couple of them, I think first it’s really checking on your Black employees. I don’t think any communication should be going out, no statements should be released until there is a space or at least an email to your Black employees to check on them first and see how they are mentally doing at work.
I think it’s taking the time to really outline your commitment. I think it was very clear over the summer which companies were just listing diversity, equity, inclusion commitments they already had and weren’t being very responsive to the moment in their employees’ feedback. And then there were companies who were saying, “This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re planning to do based on employee feedback in the moment at hand, and this is what we’re going to do.”
And I think with those statements, words matter. I think there were companies saying diversity and inclusion as catchall phrases, and then if we’re talking about police brutality, let’s say police brutality. If we’re talking about racism, let’s say racism. There shouldn’t be these catchall phrases and I think that was kind of, as Amber said, a cringe moment to see during these uprisings over the summer, not even naming what was occurring over the summer.
And then I think a big piece of this and a lot of our team’s communications were centered around this, of what work are you doing internally? After you donate to us, what is the action plan to make sure that external work aligns with your internal values, and are you donating to us because we’re just a recognizable name and a lot of other companies are donating to the ACLU at this moment? Are you also donating to grassroots organizations on the ground?
And a lot of companies took that feedback and said, “We’re going to donate to the ACLU. You guys have been one of our racial justice partners for a while and one of our criminal justice reform projects that we support for a while, but here’s a list. We’re like, “Here’s a list of smaller organizations on the ground that need your funds now, today.” And the companies who took that feedback, it really showed I think, to those other organizations.
And then after statements and after donations and all of that, how are you taking action? How are you encouraging your audiences to take action?” And I think there are some really great examples of this. I mean, Ben & Jerry’s is an incredible one, its White supremacy. There’s no need to wiggle and work our way around that. Glossier interrogating the beauty industry and saying, “We’re going to not only build Black beauty creators into our pipeline, we’re going to pay them to do so,” so it’s not just lip service.
The same with Sweetgreen. We’re having an anti-racism resources training internally and we’re also going to tell our customers externally that they should be reading alongside us. So I think it’s making sure that all of that external statements and values and all that, that you’re making sure it really, really matches internally.
BRANDON FELTON: Amber, just because that kind of relates when we’re talking about corporations, what’s the organization doing, because we have our own initiatives and how we want to change things and how we deal with vendors, et cetera, et cetera. Can you touch on that?
AMBER HIKES: I’m sorry. I’m sorry, what were you saying, Brandon? What [crosstalk 00:48:33]
BRANDON FELTON: I’m saying we have our own initiatives that we were launching, similar to what Whitney is discussing about other organizations, and I think you are the most qualified person to talk about the direction ACLU’s taking.
AMBER HIKES: Systemic equality, yes, and we have a huge campaign that’s launching next week. I don’t want to get too ahead of our comms department. You’re going to get my hand slapped, Brandon, so I won’t say too much. I will preview that we have a massive initiative that has two components, both internal and external around racial justice, and we’re calling it a systemic equality campaign.
Again, I cannot say too much more about that for fear of getting my hand slapped by our comms director, but there are external components that represent the future of racial justice work in this country and internal components that speak to retention, promotion, recruitment and hiring of course, of Black staff at the organization for at least the next five years, and very, very bold commitments which are true, of course, at ACLU.
I can’t give you all too many details, but it goes all live on February 9th, so make sure that you take a look at that. All right! Jennifer, what do we have next? I’m trying to keep an eye on the chat but it’s really moving [inaudible 00:49:47]
JENNIFER BROWN: There is just so much. I don’t know, maybe the panelists have seen any questions come by. We’ve already talked about compensation. There’s a question going on in chat, actually, about companies offering compensation to ERG leaders, so if you would not just say that we do here, but name the company you’re with, I think we might get a list together just to know, so that we can benchmark and see how this is working, et cetera, so that was one thing I see over here.
AMBER HIKES: Questions about budget, so yes. Each of our ERGs do have their own budgets and I’ve kept them the same even in quarantine and on remote work environment. But in a normal context, usually the budgets go to a lot of programming and events, right, things like that, that we want to provide in this environment can go to training, bringing in virtual speakers for events and anything else that ERGs are interested in, and that can also be wellness events.
I know that our [inaudible 00:50:50] Black Women and Non-Binary ERG, and this actually speaks to the flexibility that these folks have and how they respond to the needs of the group. In one month they were able to hold a really sacred space for Black folks who were grieving and struggling with the lack of decision in the Breonna Taylor murder and just a few weeks after that, a kind of heart-wrenching space, were able to hold a yoga and wine event, right, to be able to take care of ourselves and be able to do that self care and wellness piece as well, right?
And so just being able to be flexible and be responsive to what your members need, I think that one month shows kind of the range and the possibility of what our ERGs are able to do and what they do actually accomplish, so that’s really important. That self care piece is just as important to having difficult conversations around colorism and anti-Blackness.
JENNIFER BROWN: Amber, let’s stay with that for a second. I’d just love to know from the ERG leaders, I guess, what growth in you has been enabled in your leadership positions? How have you, I guess, accelerated any sort of skills? And this is my friend here who wants to say hello. How have you all, and maybe it’s a furry one that’s been the source of self care, but how would you say it’s transformed you in terms of the role you’ve played and also the self care piece, I think?
What’s restorative about this work for you? And there’s a question about restorative, that word, restorative justice. Amber, I know you use it a lot, too, so could we contextualize that a little bit more for the audience? Anyway, that’s a bunch of questions in one, but anybody can take it.
RAQUEL FOSSETT: Well, I can actually talk about the skills that I’ve learned just being a part of the Black Women ERG. I also actually co-lead the Feminist ERG, so I feel like there’s so many different skills I’m consistently building on a month to month basis, but one of the things that I think is really interesting about my role is that I work with a lot of high school and college students around the country about the ACLU and how to organize and advocate for themselves.
So what we found in the summer was that not only were our staff needing a space to figure out how to truly be vulnerable and talk about the feelings that they were having and the reactions they were having to the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Immediately I was kind of thinking, “Okay, if we’re doing this for our staff, we have to do it for the high school students, especially in this virtual space where they don’t have the opportunity to hang out with their friends as much as they were when they were in school.”
So one thing that I did was pretty much replicate all of our Employee Resource Groups that we have at the ACLU and bring it to the Institute, so we’ve had pretty much all 14 of those. I’ve reached out to Whitney, I reached out to Amber, so I could use all their Zoom accounts and for them to help me with it, but the affinity groups that I’ve been hosting for all of our high school and college students are exactly the same thing that we’re doing with our Employee Resource Groups.
And I definitely don’t sit in with all of those affinity groups because I don’t identify with them, but what I could say for the Black affinity group is that I’ve asked them multiple times, “Is this something that you want to happen every month? This is what we do with our Employee Resource Group. How can I replicate that?” And the response is always, “We just want a space where we can talk to people and have an opportunity to tell adults that this is how we feel.”
And I think there was one student who is now my intern at the ACLU, but she reached out to myself and Amber and said, “Look, we’re all by ourselves. We don’t have anyone to talk about what’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, and we have a lot of people that want us to educate them, but we need our own space.” And so we just sat there. I think it was a two-hour meeting and students just sat there and we all just kind of needed that opportunity, so that’s one of the things about the skills that I could definitely speak about.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. Any others? We can also talk about the fatigue and how you manage it, the heavy lifting that you’re doing for yourselves, for your community, for the organization, for the world. The work is intense, as somebody said earlier, so how do you manage all of that and recharge yourselves and ensure that, whether it’s pacing yourself or filling your cup or finding a safe space to just let it out, process it, what are some of your coping mechanisms?
JASON WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I think I’ve mentioned this earlier and in some ways it’s obvious, right, that an organization that is doing the kind of work that the ACLU is doing in the world, in some ways has even more of a responsibility, I think, to try to replicate that inside of the organization. One, just because it’s the right thing to do, and also because if you don’t, you’re going to end up with a lot of demoralized employees who feel disconnected from the work that’s happening in the world.
So that, to me, one of the most important benefits of these ERGs is that it does give folks both that space to recharge and connect with one another and all that, but also just reassurance that the organization is taking this seriously. The organization cares about your wellbeing and your ability to be able to do the work effectively, so that’s important to all of us individually.
I also think it’s an important message to be able to send to the organizations that we work with on the ground, who are often a lot closer to the action. Look, I signed up for this job so this is not a pity party, but I mean, we deal with traumatic things every day, very kind of sad and discouraging events, things that are happening around us and we’re here to do that work.
And the people that we work alongside of are experiencing that often even more acutely, so if they don’t think that the ACLU has a real connection to the work and it’s taking care of its Black and Brown employees, that’s going to have an impact on our relationships with those organizations and activists as well, so just across the board all of this work sort of plays off of each other. And I don’t think that we could sustain the work that we’re doing if the people who are doing the work are constantly being kind of beat down without an opportunity to build themselves back up.
AMBER HIKES: Thank you for that, Jason, because I think I’m going to pull on that thread and talk a little bit about the restorative piece, if that’s all right. I saw a couple questions about restorative practices and we’ve created, I think I spoke kind of quickly about this on our last call, but created at the ACLU, what I’m calling a restorative inclusion practice. And essentially, if folks are familiar with restorative justice practice, is you can think about it in the same vein but we’re applying it to a workplace context.
And so just kind of very quickly, you all understand wherever two people are gathered, there is going to be conflict, right? And especially when we are talking about gathering folks across lines of difference and identity, then there’s going to be EDI-related conflict. And so the kind of core premise of this is that we recognize that, at times, regardless of our intentions, we are going to be engaged with our colleagues in ways that we’ve been feeling excluded, alienated and disregarded, right?
Again, despite our best intentions, we will impact our colleagues in ways that erode the culture of belonging that we’re committed to creating. And we know especially for folks from impacted people groups, folks from marginalized identity groups, we know that microaggressions are one of the kind of top reasons that folks end up leaving a workplace feeling like they don’t belong, right?
And so what I want to do is be able to meet that harm where it happens and through a few different methods be able to navigate around that harm, bring folks into a space to communicate and mediate this effectively, and help people understand how deeply impacting and harmful microaggressions can be and how that kind of harm can lead to a person leaving an organization. This is an opportunity. It’s not necessarily punitive. Again, we’re thinking around restorative inclusion.
It’s an opportunity to bring folks to the table, and for the person who unknowingly or knowingly committed the harm and the person who was impacted by the harm, have them get aligned. Have an opportunity for the person impacted by the harm, because we always center the impacted folks, have them be able to communicate what the harm was that was done, and what restoration looks like for them, and have the person who committed the harm be able to have an accountability, an accountability plan, have an apology, to be able to talk about kind of where they were coming from, but most importantly, what they’re going to do to be able to heal that harm so that they can move forward together.
It is a deeply transformative process. It’s a messy one at times, but truly I feel like if we’re able to recreate these kind of processes in workplaces, in corporations, especially in non-profits, then we’re going to be able to have people be able to do the kind of learning and the growth that they need around EDI work in particular, and have us be able to actually build this future that truly means, [inaudible 01:00:40] to borrow the ACLU language, truly means we the people move on.
That’s how we’re going to be able to get to that future we all want to realize, but we won’t be able to do it until we actually confront our own biases and interrogate our own privileges and how we’re showing up for each other in the work.
BRANDON FELTON: And I would just like to add that I think everyone is dealing with how to approach these conversations together, and we’re all headed in the same direction or intention. No matter what your background is, you can identify with in the workplace wanting to belong, wanting to have the space to improve, to have agency and choice, be treated fairly and to be recognized for your work, and having some kind of impact from your work.
I mean, that is the standard human value and what you show up to work each day for and if we keep that in mind, then it’ll help guide how we approach diversity, equity and inclusion. And that’s why these are universal human values at work, and so I’m excited about the future because the workplace is changing. We’re not just supporting organizations that say that Black lives matter, but we’re fact checking.
And I had someone tell me the other day, there was a job description that came across and I sent it to them and they said, “Does this organization, this company that you’re sending this to, do they have any Black staff at the senior level?” And I couldn’t answer and I was like, “I’m not sure, or any other impacted people,” and the person told me that they’re no longer interested in working for organizations that don’t reflect their values.
So as we know, there are new ingredients happening in the workforce. To me it’s a little more [inaudible 01:02:30] but it is becoming different and you have to adjust. There’s a business case for having to adapt to that change and that’s making sure that everybody feels that they belong and they’re recognized for their work and that they can bring their human self. There’s a little bit of a generational difference in that, but the future is here and we have to embrace that and being accountable to that.
JENNIFER BROWN: That was such a wonderful point, Brandon, and just the world is changing. The accountability, the responsibility is changing, the transparency that we expect and we, almost out of the gate, I hope this next generation of talent says “I want to be seen and heard from the jump.” And as somebody, Gen Xer, LGBTQ, we were closeted, just as a way of life, I mean, to survive. And when you meet younger people who bring their full selves to work and all of that beauty and intersectionality and what’s visible and invisible, and expect it to be honored, expect it to be seen and expect it to be represented in the organization they work with.
The organizations need to catch up, right? We have a lot of work to do and that’s where I focus my efforts, to say “We are behind and the harm is continuing to be caused, and we have not addressed the systemic issues and we are losing talent.” They don’t even want to come, and if they come, can we keep them, right? There is a very different question around retention and culture and the sort of lived experience of a workplace. I mean, if we have to end anywhere, that’s a beautiful call to action.
The train is leaving the station. I always say to leaders, “You’re behind. I can tell you that without even knowing anything about you, and you need to catch up and start doing much more work than you’ve done in the past.” Much more, from a volume perspective but also strategic work, and also not leaving it to the ERGs and the EDIB team to carry all the water.
We’ve got to engage the accomplice behaviors and put the power to create change appropriately with those who kind of have that kind of power, that seniority-related power, right? To me that makes the most sense, and we need that partnership, so Amber, I’ll give you the last word, but I am so appreciative of this. This was amazing.
AMBER HIKES: Thank you, and thank you all so much. Appreciate all the love that’s coming in the chat. I just wanted to close up by uplifting these folks’ incredible work. You all [inaudible 01:04:56] Black Futures Month. At the ACLU we have six, maybe even seven events that are coming, including two panels, one that’s about the future of Black political power. Incredible panel with ACLU folks, impact ACLU folks all over the country talking about what Black political power both on a local and a national level looks like.
The Black Women Non-Binary ERG doing the future of Black work, so folks representing all kinds of sectors, talking about what it looks like to be a Black person showing up in the corporate space, the nonprofit space, and education and medicine, all over the place, which is so brilliant. Of course, our systemic equality launch that I tend to, but also hope and joy. It’s so incredibly important and so we have what we call a Community Hour, which is a kind of nation-wide variety show where we get to showcase our talent.
And so we have a nation-wide Community Hour celebration of Black futures, and then of course, our second annual Blackout, which is a happy hour for Black staff where we just Kiki and have a very good time. So we have all kinds of events, all of this and much more that’s coming up and I just want to thank you all for being on this call. I also want to remind you all, these are just two of our 14 ERGs that are doing extraordinary work, and our other 12 ERGs are doing awesome work, too. So, of course, have us back and we will talk all about all the different communities that we have at ACLU and what else that we can learn and share together.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
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