Meeting the Moment: Navigating DEI Challenges in 2023 and Beyond with Jennifer and JBC's Elfi Martinez

Jennifer Brown | | , , , ,

This episode was originally recorded as a DEI Community Call and features a conversation between Jennifer and JBC 
Vice-President Elfi Martinez as they discuss the most challenging issues facing DEI practitioners today and the challenges that can be expected over the next few months. Jennifer and Elfi reveal how to keep pushing for real change and how senior leaders can create a work environment that fosters trust and psychological safety. Discover the inherent urgency of DEI work and the impact that the shifting demographics of the labor market will have on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. 

You can also listen on iTunesStitcher, and Google Play.

Elfi Martinez:

People are afraid of being canceled. They're afraid of saying the wrong thing, and having it blow up in their face via social media or something to that effect, but the reality is that the people that get canceled are the people that we don't know and that we don't trust. Because when they fall, nobody helps them get back up. We know someone. We trust them. We believe they're coming from a place of good intentions. If they misstep, and they stumble and fall, we help them get back up because there's an element of trust and safety that is theirs. So, we have to make ourselves known to each other so that we can get that help along the way, because when we're mysterious, we're alone, and we need to have community, but you have to be known if you want to have community.

Speaker 2:

The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author, and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. Now, onto the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. The conversation that you're about to hear was originally recorded as a DEI community call, and features the conversation between Jennifer and JBC vice president Elfi Martinez as they discussed the most pressing issues facing DEI practitioners today, the current DEI landscape, and the challenges we can expect over the next few months, how to keep pushing for real impact in the DEI space, and avoid performative or check the box DEI as well as how we can meet the moment and what to expect in 2023 and beyond, all this and more. Now, onto the conversation.

Jennifer Brown:

I just want to start, Elfi, with the most pressing issues that we're finding. I know you engage with so many different clients in different industries as part of your role with us at JBC. You're on the front lines hearing all this and endeavoring to solution it for and with people, and the complexity of 2023. There are so many things going on both externally and internally in our organization. So, what are you finding is really top of mind for folks now?

Elfi Martinez:

I think right now, we did a quick pulse check on where energy is. There's a lot of fear when we think about what's going on out there in general. We have gotten an economy that's either in recession or it seems like it, right? When we hear about the Amazons and Googles of the world laying off amounts of people, it tends to give folks a little bit nervous. Then when you throw in some of the recent headlines and what's going on, it seems like DE and I is being dragged into the culture wars, and so people are trying to deal with that as well with just these headlines that are popping up, especially recently with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. I think that was a microcosm of things we've been hearing more broadly for the past year.

As we round the bend towards another presidential election season, we're going to see, I believe, these attacks and pieces just become more prevalent, because they're really good juicy soundbites for these folks and campaigns. I think I'm also seeing a lot of burnout. We've got folks that are running major initiatives with very lean staff right now. So, we'll have like, "Oh, we have a global team. We have one person in Asia and one person in Africa." It's like, "There's a lot of people in Asia and in Africa. You're probably going to need more than one, but we're running really lean now. So I think historically, if we think about this from what happens, and we've seen this before, is that DEI in many organizations unfortunately still are seeing as a luxury as a nice to have.

So when people start to tighten their belts, these are the things that they tend to cut first, because they're not as ingrained as they could and should be in many organizations. So I think, again, that's what I'm seeing around the laws as fear and burnout are the things that I'm seeing from a lot of our clients and a lot of practitioners that I speak to on an ongoing basis.

Jennifer Brown:

Top of mind. We're getting some comments here in chat, the shrinking of DE and I teams, and amplified by a lack of organization design and a solid execution plan. Well said, Mira. How do we execute when our stakeholders are a moving target? It's hard enough to do people work and culture work when the SANS are shifting constantly around us, but DEI, especially, you've got to hang your hat on certain pieces, Elfi, that you can count on not to change for a period of time at least. But when there's so much uncertainty in the organizational body so to speak, it's hard to know who's coming and going and how those priorities are shifting. DEI work is only as effective as how we can connect it to the business care abouts and the business priorities.

So if those are in flux, it creates an uncertain foundation, and I think progress gets really stuck. Elfi, I wonder, as you work with teams internally, they are experiencing confusion, a lack of focus. What is accomplishable right now? What are you finding is doable? Where can we land the plane on this? What feels secure and solid and evergreen about this work that we can refocus folks around?

Elfi Martinez:

I think probably the reality is that there is still inherent urgency in doing this work. When we just look at demographics of the workforce, 75% of the American workforce is going to be millennials and Gen Zers by 2025. They fundamentally don't see themselves DEI as a nice to have, whereas absolutely a need to have in terms of what they want and need from their careers. So, I think that is something that is a north star for us is that, "Look, there's this demographic wave that's coming." These generations are way more diverse generations in the past. What they want to need is different than the past. This wave is coming. You can surf it, or you can get crushed by it, right?

You have to figure out how you're going to handle a very rapidly changing workforce. I think for us that's still the north star is that there is a fundamental business imperative for organizations that get good at this. For those that are for organizations that are diverse, equitable and inclusive, it is an incredible competitive advantage in your fields, because it can't be easily replicated or easily taken away. People want to go where they feel like they belong, where they feel like they're part of the team, where they feel like what they do matters. That's not going to change anytime in the near future. So, I would probably say we still are foundationally on a very solid ground.

Jennifer Brown:

Maybe when we speak of the business case in my early days, learning about how to speak about the business case as a way to convince and showcase the value of this, it was and it is bottom line impact creativity and innovation. These days, the question of belonging and the question of the expectations of the generations you mentioned, Elfi, and the very tight talent market at the same time as we're going through so many reductions in force, which makes your head hurt like, "Which one is true? Can both of these things be true at the same time?" Yes, but it's undeniable. The demographic shifts not just for our talent and what they expect and what the values that they hold and what they expect to be reflected in the organizations they work with, but we also have the push coming from the customer world, the changes in demographics there, the changes in buying power for non-white, non-male communities, just to put a general point on it.

The increase in accountability for institutions to step up, to do things, to speak things, to take a stand, and the accountability when they don't or when they do so in a clumsy way or in a way that is not terribly thought through or resonant. It's very clear to us more and more when organizational leaders are not prepared to address all of these external factors that are happening, and the social movements that they have to respond to. We thought this was a 2020, 2021 thing, but this year, we've got a whole batch of issues that are super intense and are right at the doorstep for companies and closer than ever, I would say, Elfi. I know you help... One of the things we do is we help develop messaging, and work with leaders to develop the point of view, and then how to speak about it.

I wonder, Elfi, this is a tricky time to be leading companies through these waters. It's unprecedented, I think, in terms of the pressure that's happening. Just look at what Walgreens is navigating just to pick one story that's been really, really complex landscape for sure. If you don't know about that story, maybe somebody in chat can find the link and post it for everybody. But Elfi, what are you advising for senior leaders who are already, I think, pretty uncomfortable with the DEI conversation, let alone steering a ship through extremely rough waters with the resistance shape shifting as we go and getting much more intense this year?

Elfi Martinez:

I think if we're talking about senior leaders and developing a comfort about talking about DEI, it's a matter of being authentic and being willing to talk about the things that are exciting, the things that are scary, the things that are working well, the areas where you're struggling, because people respond to the struggle. They don't necessarily respond to the outcome. I think a lot of times still to this day, senior leaders have this idea that they have to be the stoic experts and the great and powerful laws, and I know everything. That oftentimes doesn't resonate, especially in times of uncertainty where people want to know, "Hey, folks at the top, let us know what's going on so that we can understand, and we can help."

When there's a disconnect between that, people can really feel it. Then especially again for younger workers, that feeling of being inauthentic and not being able to talk about what's really going on, it diminishes trust. It diminishes psychological safety. So I would say for leaders and anybody that really wants to get better at DEI, you and I both know, this is a skill, and anything else that you got good at in your life, you didn't get good at it the first time that you tried. You practiced, and you got better, right? It's going to be the same thing with our DEI leaders and our leaders and organizations is you have to proactively engage in these conversations.

You have to expand the circle of people that you talk to and you engage with on an ongoing basis, because there's no replacement for experience with diversity. These conversations become a lot less scary and a lot less mysterious when you actually talk to people who are different from you, and you get a better idea of who they are and where they're coming from. I think that's a journey that we still have to encourage a lot of leaders to do, because it can be scary and it can be uncertain, but it is the path to growth. There's no substitute for doing the work.

Jennifer Brown:

That's so true. Elfi, I wrote a paper on the reverse mentoring program at Bank of New York Mellon a while ago, because I was so entranced by what they built, and the question of executives being mentored, and flipping that structure on its head and considering whom we need to be listening to right now. I wish leaders really had that hygiene you're talking about, the muscle building of daily, weekly discipline of being in conversation and in relationship across generations across difference so that we are not surprised when things happen to the organization. It should not be a surprise. We should be educated and prepared, and we need to not... I think to be disciplined in our messaging, you just said something beautiful, responding to the struggle versus staying focused on the outcome.

So, we need to do both. We need to meet the moment in an authentic way, in an informed way, in an emotionally intelligent way, in a competent way. We can't rush learning. So, you want to reworking ahead of the next crisis because you know crises are going to happen. This is just a fact, but you want to be working ahead of it, and you want to know how to have that preview of the dialogue and what the struggles are and the challenges that are happening for each community of identity that is being, let's just face it, targeted. Then you want to have time, the gift of time, time to be thoughtful and not reactive. Part of the advice is to absolutely feel the emotion, and share the emotion, and have that be extremely real.

I think that's another thing people respond to, Elfi, is not just the talking points but the real unvarnished, whether it's anger, frustration, confusion, disappointment. We want to hear from others, not just leaders, from our colleagues, what we're not okay with. That's so important. But then the focus on the outcome I love, which is where are we still going? Through all of this, where is the shore that we're steering our boat to through the choppy waters? What is indelible for us? What do we still believe in? What do we believe in more than ever? The restatement of those values, so it's that moment to connect, that moment to be real, that moment to not have all the answers, and then that moment to really reinforce what we know to be true.

If we can help leaders follow that arc from a messaging perspective, and really mean it, and I don't think this stuff should be written for people. I mean, I would expect leaders these days to really be doing that work, and to be able to formulate this themselves. Is that too much to expect?

Elfi Martinez:

Ultimately, it shouldn't be. I think at the end of the day, we would love for the folks that we work with to just learn how to become more proactive versus reactive, right? The way you become more proactive is when you feel more confident, when you feel more confident, when you are doing things incrementally that make you better, because then it doesn't feel like it's a bridge too far. If you look at the reason why we have stairs, because we can little by little ascend to where we want to go. If you took away the stairs, and we had to do the leap by ourselves, none of us would ever get anywhere, right? So again, it's about this idea that we're on a journey, and it's okay to misstep.

I think a really big thing about this, Jennifer, if you look at it behind the scenes is people are afraid of being canceled. They're afraid of saying the wrong thing, and having it blow up in their face via social media or something to that effect. But the reality is that the people that get canceled are the people that we don't know and that we don't trust, because when they fall, nobody helps them get back up. We know someone. We trust them. We believe they're coming from a place of good intentions. If they misstep, if they stumble and fall, we help them get back up, because there's an element of trust and safety that is there. So, we have to make ourselves known to each other so that we can get that help along the way, because when we're mysterious, we're alone. We need to have community, but you have to be known if you want to have community.

Jennifer Brown:

What Elfi's saying, everybody, is so important, being known as we're growing in our journey, showing that journey. It's sort of showing how the sausage is made. It is, and it's having people in your corner that you've invested in that know that intent and impact sometimes don't calibrate. Sometimes we don't know the answer, but to be given the grace, and to earn the grace of others. Imagine how we would feel about a leader endeavoring to trying every day doing the work, the grace that we give each other when we know that we're in it. We know that the execution may not be perfect, and we know that there may be things that are missing, but we know that actually that's a safe place and a safe person to give feedback to, which is also so important to the equation, and that there is resilience in that person to take that and grow versus take that and get afraid and retreat.

So, there's also this bend not break. It's this the bamboo, right? It's the resilience and the flexibility to learn and be reminded that I don't know, and that there's more that I need to learn, but the efforts that we make over time need to be noticed. I do think they matter when push comes to shove, Elfi, what you're saying. It matters, but we need to see it. I think doing this privately is something we often default to. Oh, I don't want to come out until I'm ready. I don't want to declare until I'm perfect. I don't want to... I'm not ready to do this, or I don't know how that's going to go, and it's unpredictable, so I'm going to hold back.

But making perfect the enemy of the good, we're going to be waiting a long time for perfect. So in the meantime, I wonder how we can create learning cultures where we can step in, and be our imperfect selves with each other, with the benefit of all the doubts, but also the intent matters, but the actions towards learning matter for something. They build that fabric that can hold and support you when, not if, when you don't show up with all the answers. I want that for all of us. We don't just need to give this to leaders, but for all of us as we're learning, because none of us knows all the answers about identity, and it's changing so quickly at the same time, and how language and norms and expectations. It's incredible.

I used to think I knew all the things. Elfi, do you ever have that moment when you're, "Wow, I do this for a living, and I definitely need to go back to the aware part of the continuum, and do a little more study?"

Elfi Martinez:

I wish I didn't, but there are still plenty of times where I open mouth and insert foot. I think this is part of being on the journey, because like you said, diversity in today's conversation encompasses the different aspects of humanity, all the things that make us different and unique, and there are things that we just don't know, because we don't have the lived experience. We haven't had the conversations. We don't know folks from those identities and communities. So, we have a lot to learn, but can we give ourselves the grace and the space in the meantime to learn and grow, because the reality is safety and trust is built in those moments that are hard, not those moments that are easy.

Something happens, and there's a disconnect between intent and impact. When you say or do something expecting reaction A, and you get reaction B, and people are crossing their arms, and they're looking away. They don't seem happy with what you said or did. What you do next really matters, right? Do you engage in fight or flight behavior that this assists you from the people that are near you, or do you stay and try to find out what is actually going on? Where is the disconnect between what I intended and what actually happened? Because DEI is not about having all the right answers. We're never going to have all the right answers. It's about being able to ask the right questions to connect across differences.

If we can give ourselves that orientation and that space to say, "I have a lot to do. I have a lot to learn. I have a lot to grow with," then we'll get a lot further than thinking I have to be perfect first before I get started, because we never will.

Jennifer Brown:

Right. This dovetails. By the way, there's some wonderful chat. Folks are asking for colleagues if you're navigating collective bargaining and union structures to reach out. Thank you, Maryam. So please put your asks in the chat as we're talking. It's completely wonderful, and I welcome it. This community is so collectively, so intelligent about this and so wise. Elfi, I'm getting in my talks. Can you help our white male leaders feel less alienated and fearful about doing more? I am hearing there's a want to do more, but I'm hearing that there's a blockage there. You know what, I'm not surprised we find ourselves here.

There has been such an enormous focus the last couple of years on lifting up voices, on shoring up, on promoting, on increasing visibility for so many underrepresented identities. So, it stands to reason, I think, that we find ourselves at this moment now where a new group of people are raising their hands and saying, "I don't know if this is about me anymore." Then I point out, "Of course, Elfi, it has been about you for a very long time." I know the absence of privilege feels like that loss, because it is the water you swim in. When stuff does not happen to you in the same way that it happens to others, you don't see it. It's invisible. It's the tailwinds we always talk about that speeds you along, but that they're silent, and you're not really aware of them.

Then when they change, all of a sudden, you become aware of it. That can feel like loss. That can feel like something's being taken away when really to me, it's an adjustment of the system. It's purely an adjustment of a system where there were headwinds and tailwinds that were being felt differently by different people. So, it's not necessarily a takeaway. It is an expansion. But, Elfi, I wonder how you tackle that, because I try to go in 15 different doors and windows. I think it varies on the nature of resistance. I don't know if anybody on the call saw. I wrote a piece on LinkedIn on resistance inspired by a piece in HBR that I would encourage you to go check out, but I was just puzzling through what do we do with resistance as it's showing up now, particularly for that community of identity who fairly enough has not been the focus?

I think too, our detriment, I think too in terms of advancing the work, anytime inclusion doesn't include everyone, we are going to feel the effects of that. I think that that's how I see this, but I wonder how you see it.

Elfi Martinez:

I see it very similarly, because I spend a ton of time around executives, and inevitably, the executives are very homogenous, right? So, we see how this plays out in real life. Like you said, a lot of times, these elements of privilege are invisible when you are the beneficiary. The fish never knows it's wet, right? We're swimming around water all the time, and we don't know because it's always been that way. The reality is that part of the issue, I think, that we have is that if you look at when DEI gets minimized, it's around this idea of DEI being a zero-sum game. Someone has to win, and somebody has to lose.

So if I am a white, straight cisgendered man, and I feel, "Well, if I open the door for other folks," that means I'm closing the door on my own future, and it becomes a me or them kind of mentality. I think that is where we often see the struggle coming from, and this internal struggle with folks that are the beneficiaries in many cases. The reality is that's not how we talk about DEI when we talk about it about the world. It's not about us finding ways to reshuffle the deck, or cut different pieces of the pie. It's about making the pie bigger. Because if our organizations are operating at a fraction of their potential, and they are, if people are feeling like they don't belong, and they're not part of the team, we know engagement in this country is horrendous.

Only about 30% of the American workforce reports being engaged at work. So, think about how much we're leading the table in terms of people being able to bring their innovation, their engagement to the conversation. So, the reality is that this is the story of us, diversity, equity, and inclusion, the story of all of us. That includes everybody. So if you struggle to find your space in this story, then it's really a matter of thinking about, "Where do I have personal stakes in this?" Where can I look at my own life experience and my own identity, and find a place where I can have these conversations, where I have struggled, where I have had moments of fear? How can I talk about those in a way that actually helps connect me with people who are different from me?

Because the reality is that these behavior expectations, these narrow boxes that we put people in, they hurt everybody. We would talk about covering all the time, covering pieces of ourself. We know in the old Deloitte study, 45% of straight white men report that they cover at work. Why? Because the day is complicated. There's lots of different pieces of us that go into it. So, can we create the space for people to find their own personal stakes, and people have their own DEI story, and then enter those conversations organically, and from a place of why do I care about this other than it's written down on a piece of paper somewhere? Because people can tell when you say something that you believe versus repeating something that you read, it's not the same thing.

Jennifer Brown:

Not the same. We can tell absolutely. So, Elfi, what you're talking about is everyone has a diversity story and a way in to this.

Elfi Martinez:


Jennifer Brown:

It's why I think we have to have a more expansive definition of diversity dimensions. You've all seen my iceberg, and I keep adding elements under the waterline as I keep teaching it, because there's new things even coming on my radar screen, new differences that make a difference, new life challenges, new circumstances that I think are so much a part of who we are, and yet especially for that group that we're talking about are largely invisible. So, I think that we've spoken about and approached DEI in a focused way around things like ethnicity and gender, and not made it a fuller conversation as well. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

We can have that tight focus that we need on certain identities that deserve that focus, and we can also have an expansive definition that includes what I might call emerging conversations. I don't even want to say emerging dimensions, because they're with us, but they're emerging in the conversation like neurodiversity, like mental health, like caregiving or chronic illness, or body size, plus size. I just did a whole podcast with a 300-pound woman, amazing author, and climbed Kilimanjaro three times. She studies bias in organizational design and product design and physical space design and all kinds of accessibility issues, being a person of that size. So, it's incredible. This work just keeps coming up with things to learn about and begin to incorporate into our approach and in the way we speak about it. I think we have to just be so careful to not simplify it.

We do need to simplify the work, but at the same time, when people then don't see themselves represented in the way we speak about it, they're going to assume that this has nothing to do with them. I'm seeing a lot in chat about our leaders don't know a way in. They don't know if they're welcome. They don't know they aren't being welcomed or they don't... Whatever. They don't feel welcome. They aren't welcome. Perception is reality. Elfi, you and I know who has the accountability for that. We could argue all day long, and say it's other people's responsibility. You need to step in. You need to be proactive and get involved, but I might also hold us accountable as a community of practitioners to say, "Are we truly welcoming in a way? Are we being inclusive ourselves? Are we putting effort towards that?"

I don't think we can just expect... What gets measured gets done. Yes, so you can make people accountable all day long, and they have to show this. They have to be involved. But how do you awaken? How do you make an invitation, and how do you awaken someone to go on a journey, and investigate their story and their care abouts, and why they might get involved, and what they would say, and how they would lead even from a place of allyship? I just don't think there's... It's a combination of not knowing fear permission that I think needs to be made much more explicit, and more proactive inviting, and more of a pathway I think to, "Well, what would I say if I were invited? What would I share?" Because I don't think I'm a part of what the focus is.

I don't think that's relevant to my life. I don't think it's relevant to my teams. I don't think it's relevant to our performance. So to me, just if I take myself out of my own biases, there's missed messaging. There's some problem in the way that our work is being described, and the way that people are being invited in or not, and how they're supported to then make the contribution that we know we need, right, Elfi? So, there's a breakdown there, and I live in that. I think about it a lot. I'm like, "So, is it us? Is it how we're... What is this?" Because otherwise, I can't sleep at night, because then it's all somebody else's thing to solve. I think it's our thing to solve too. So, do you agree?

Elfi Martinez:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is all of our mutual responsibility, creating an environment of inclusion, creating an environment of equity. It is a collective responsibility. I think a lot of what we see in terms of DEI initiatives that are not sustainable or not successful are really put around this idea of it's one group's responsibility to do the work, and especially the group that gets put into those categories, the ones that don't have the power to actually create the results. So we see a lot of initiatives where, "Oh, we're going to help the women in our organization, because a leadership program, and we're going to teach them to act like men, and then they'll be more successful."

It's like, "What?" We're going to have the women in this group, then somehow spearhead ways for them to be represented in other parts of the organization. It's like that's not how reality works. The folks that are outsiders, the folks that are marginalized, they're not there by choice, and expecting them to unwind or dismantle their own outsiderness is a mission impossible. So, the reality is it is a collective responsibility. It's not someone else's job. You can't punt it to HR. You can't punt it to the CDO or someone else that is in charge of this stuff. It is a mutual responsibility. I think that also goes to this idea you said earlier, Jen, that we have to reframe what diversity means, because diversity at this point has been the punching bag of these conversations.

People think diversity. They go back to the 1960s, and they think about affirmative action and the EEOC. They still think diversity means three things, race, gender, sexual orientation. Why? Because that was on an EEOC report, and a lot of people still have the mentality that this is what you mean. So, yes, if I am a white cisgendered man, and I'm thinking race, gender, and sexual orientation, well then, this diversity thing is not something that's happening with me. It's something that's happening to me. When people think something is happening to them, they respond very differently. So again, how do we create that space where people can see that this is a story of us, that the pieces of my identity matter, that I can't bring these into the conversations, and that I can model these behaviors and be okay?

I won't get canceled, right? I will actually be able to have more authentic and more meaningful relationships across differences, but the reality is that these invitations have to, I think, sometimes be explicit. When I talk to executives in early stages, and we talk about the DEI story, and them creating their own DEI story is it is inevitably one of the scariest, most anxiety providing things that they have ever done in their life. There's an inevitably a major freakout in that. I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to engage. It's like, "Okay, you can feel all those things, and you can do it anyway."

We're all here to support each other. We're all here to create a community where if you happen to stumble and fall, we're going to help you get back up. Again, it is about can we create a community where people have this space and the grace to learn and grow? Because if people think that the first mistake they make is going to be the last mistake they make, they're just going to wipe their hands and disengage, and we can't [inaudible 00:35:19].

Jennifer Brown:

That's right. That's right. Everybody, go back and read Carol Dweck, the growth mindset book, failing forward, moving through change, having a space for the grace for the misstep or the imperfect, the flexibility and resilience to bounce back to not punish. But you're right, if they're afraid of that first step and then the worst happens, you lose a potential ally in those moments as well. Elfi, you and I both have seen people really take this on and grow from sometimes even from a resistor to an advocate. I mean, that journey can happen. I know people like that. It's so exciting and heartening to know, but it takes a lot of support, I think, and leaders are worth it, because of the power that they hold.

That investment is very worth it, I think, because that power is exponentially, whether that's positional power, organizational power, social and professional capital. However we want to define power, that ability to make things happen at scale is held by some of us more than others of us. So, that's just a fact, whether I agree or disagree in how I feel about it. I'd like to redistribute power. I'd like to have that build a new table. At the same time as we're trying to pull our chair up to the one that exists, we have to be doing that at the same time, but I do think the investment is so worthy.

There are some comments in chat about spaces for white male leaders to gather, whether it's an ERG structure. I agree there's somebody that said, "I mainly see this work only happening in community spaces and higher ed." I wish that were not the case. My strong recommendation has always been there, whether it's an ERG format or not. Elfi, I'm curious what you think, but there does need to be a learning space that is a closed door space for, as you just laid out, story discovery, and language practice, and fear busting, and all the other things that we all know on this call. We've benefited from affinity spaces. We've benefited from a place where we can go deep, and be vulnerable, and be angry, and be frustrated, and not have the answers and or feel sad and dispirited.

I really wish for every learner of every identity to have that opportunity. Yet, we provide it to some in our organizations and not others. I understand why, but it feels like a real miss, because I just don't know where else and how else the learning is really going to happen.

Elfi Martinez:

It is tricky. When we work, for example, in a lot of our client systems with our clients, we intentionally create a cohort space, because the reality is that we all need a squad. We can't do this work by ourselves. It's just not sustainable over time when you're trying to do everything by yourself. So, who is that community that's going to help us with the struggles, with the supports, with the challenges, with the celebrations along the way? So oftentimes, we often say start small. When we think about our inclusive leadership series, we have small home groups, small cohorts of people, five to seven people that get together to have these conversations, and to do these things.

We find that even after our series is done, those cohorts stay together, because they bond over the struggle. It's just the human experience. We bond over the struggle. There's a reason why military has the bootcamp happens first. It had to happen first because all that struggle, all that hardship, all that pain, it galvanizes people into a collective identity. So, it's the same thing when we think of our communities of support is where can we find those spaces to have those conversations? Whether we're talking about a cohort of leaders learning together, whether we're talking about a space where different leaders can get together from different organizations and talk, we have to create these spaces.

We have to give people a chance to practice, to find their voice, to express themselves, and to misstep and be okay. People have to go through the experience of misstepping and not dying in order for them to believe that they can actually do the thing. We've all got to do it. There's no substitute for experience. I know, and you [inaudible 00:39:59] both know, look, a lot of times we have stumbled and fallen, but because we're so public and clear and intentional about what we're doing, we're getting second, third, fourth chances. So again, another thing I would say for the members on our call today, and the people that are in positions of power is just to remember, give yourself the permission to do the work.

It's okay. It's a journey, and you will be okay. A lot of the people that we work with that have gotten really good at this have had to go through the initial struggles along the way, and it's just part of it. It's part of [inaudible 00:40:34].

Jennifer Brown:

Somebody just said, Elfi, it's beautiful to be scared together.

Elfi Martinez:

Yeah, exactly. We're still saying, Jennifer, if you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, go together. So, that's the reality. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. We need squad. We need a community of support. We need people that will grow with us, because I know... I think you and I were talking about this earlier. We tend to gravitate to the people around us. If we see people around us that are striving to do amazing things, we strive too. We work harder. We put in more effort. If we see people that are coasting, and not really trying and half-assing it, then we take down our energy level to match. So again, who we surround ourselves with, in many cases, this is going to tell us who we're ultimately going to be.

Speaker 2:

That's right. That's right. There's some talk about ERG support and new ERGs in chat. This is just a great time to... When you're setting your strategy down, be mindful of the optics of being focused on race and gender and sexual orientation. Fortunately and unfortunately, there's the pluses of single identity spaces, which by the way need to be intersectional. So as you're laying the groundwork for networks, make sure you insist on intersectionality, insist, because it's imperfect. The way that those silos are typically have been created over many decades in this work are "single identity." I mean, in the LGBTQ plus community, clearly, there's million identities that are very distinct from each other, but we collapse things for convenience.

Yet, that sends a message, I think, around inclusiveness that we have to almost counter in our messaging. I would encourage all of you, allyship... I know we've been talking about this for years, but it's more important than ever to have a pillar of your strategy, something very robust and well-thought-out. How will you be allies and show up in other communities at the same time as you're in a certain affinity, and how will you proactively invite, encourage, equip and grow allyship for your community as well? I think we have to break through some of the way DEI is perceived, and part of it is the way we've structured the work is that we name community, and you said EEOC data, but it's also how we name, and we look for certain communities. We look for data, and that's the way we present the gap and what we need to do differently and all that.

So, you can't blame somebody for saying, "Well, I don't come up. My identity doesn't come up, and I don't understand therefore what the engagement model is for me." To me, that's very logical, but it's where it's a huge opportunity now. I think there's another question, Elfi, and I know our time is short, but people are doubting whether they're feeling shaky about the DEI work as a practitioner. Should I seek a different role? Should I stay in DEI? Should I... Is it worth it? It's so right now feels it's either alternately being very invested in or not invested in, and it depends on the organization. I mean, I have plenty of clients, and Elfi, you work with a bunch who are doubling down, who are staying the course, who are building their teams, and actually have the biggest team they've ever had in 2023.

So, they're on the rise, and then others are shifting their resourcing. So, it feels to me... Obviously, you know my answer. The need is growing. It will be evergreen and growing for this work, and people who can guide this work. But, Elfi, what would you say if you had any advice for practitioners right now who are feeling a little unsteady and not sure whether to continue to look for roles, perhaps change roles, perhaps change into an environment that's not as certain, what a wonderful learning opportunity also anyway?

Elfi Martinez:

I think for practitioners at a nervous right now, I think it is part of the role. This will never be certain. This will never be 100% simple. I know there's space here about, "Oh, this is easy to do this in higher ed, right?" Well, there's a reason for that. Tenure is a hell of a thing. If I know that I can be open, and I can be expressive, and I'm not going to get fired for better or for worse, I tend to be a little more engaged. The reality is, I think, for a lot of us right now, we are in turbulent times, but we're always in turbulent times. There's always something that's going to happen or has happened. What's happening now is not it may feel new, but these things have happened before. We go rewind the culture war clock, and remember the new [inaudible 00:45:35] and the Pat Buchanans of the world.

This is not new. These are things that have happened before. So, I think at the end of day, we need to realize the work that we do is incredibly important. The idea of creating a world that's more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive is incredibly important. I think about... Go back to my North Star and all of this. I have two kids, two boys. By the time my youngest son is my age, he will literally live in the United States where he is no longer the minority, literally. So, we're not talking about something that's going to happen 100, 200 years from now. We're talking about something that's going to be happening within our own lifetimes. This world is coming. This reality is here.

This country is incredibly diverse. What are we going to do with that? Are we going to allow it to... Are we going to empower it to create a more United States, or are we going to continue this polarization where we are the divided states of America, and ultimately, this whole thing comes crashing down? Because America is an experiment. This idea of democracy is just that. It's fragile, and it has to be something we constantly invest in because if we stop paying attention, it stops working.

Jennifer Brown:

It's not promised. Not promised. A couple wonderful points in the chat I just want to say. I see some departments renaming DEI roles and departments in preparation for... That's one strategy. I mean, I have to say as a teacher of this, I challenge myself to frame the work that we all know and love in different ways, in ways that can speak to people where they're not going to throw up the resistance right away, and ways that are tied to leadership, tied to product, tied to design, tied to impact. I always try to do that because I'm aware. I'm aware that it carries some weight to it. While internally, we can speak about what it deeply means to us, we have to acknowledge that perception is reality, and take that apart, and not push and force, but actually work with and think about how can we, again, getting creative in our approaches?

I appreciate the point though. I do wonder if that will be a strategic choice at some point. Look, language is always changing. Language is always developing and evolving, so there's nothing... I don't know if things are wrong with that, unless the language is changing to avoid the topic.

Elfi Martinez:

It always-

Jennifer Brown:

Then of course it's a problem.

Elfi Martinez:

It always is. Language is never static, right? It is always changing. So, we have worked with clients who had had to use a backdoor in order to have this conversation. So they say, "If I say diversity, it's going to shut down the conversation." So what do I say instead? So, same things along the lines of inclusion, belonging, innovation, engagement, retention. Those are all ways. All those are all entryways into the same conversation. But again, it's about what people choose to hear, and what they don't choose to hear. So just remember, one of our biggest things as practitioners is we are value translators. We have to be able to know a particular audience, what they want and what they need, and be able to frame DEI as a way to alleviate their pain points.

If we can make their lives easier, they're going to listen to us. If we can't, then they won't, right? So what can we do, and what can we say to have these concepts live and breathe for the people around us? That is our job. That is our burden. That is what we do, but we have to know how to do that. So if diversity slams the door shut, open the window by talking about inclusion, by talking about belonging, by talking about retention, by talking about engagement, it all takes you to the same point.

Jennifer Brown:

Value translators, I hope everybody, Elfi, is like... The nuggets are just as usual. Somebody said in chat, "Lots of gifts and opportunities to be had in turbulence." Thank you, Walter. That is beautifully said. These times of difficulty are times of great change, and maybe we can use these times to shift the things that we've wanted to change for a while that we know we haven't cracked the nut on. I think there's a unique openness right now, because of the uncertainty and the shifting landscape. So, let's take that opportunity to get in there in a new way, like Elfi says, in the window, in the back door. I love that. We were saying, Elfi, before we started, and I know we need to wrap up. All of this sharpens our saw.

It's our craft, the craft of organizational change, the craft of human behavior. What instigates people to change? I can't change you, but what I can do is encourage and set the circumstances in which you decide to change. You decide that you care about growing and evolving. I can set that table, and I think that's the work, because none of this can be forced. Yes, it can. I mean, it can be measured, and it can be accountable and driven from the top and all that great stuff. But then you're going to have people who are parroting the talking points that haven't really embodied the change in themselves, and they're still going to be looking for external input to be forced or held accountable for it.

What I really want us to have the energy for is that we are really helping to birth an awareness and a new set of leadership traits in others. We're looking to encourage a new side of leadership to emerge. I really think that's what we're going after, which is so much bigger, I think, than we think of DEI traditionally, because literally, we have a front seat at the table of the changing definition of what it means to have healthy workplaces thriving, and for leadership at all levels. It's going to look different. It needs to look different, and we all have the ability to impact that and influence that, which is just such an incredible thing to do for a living. So, very fulfilling, and I hope this felt... Some people are writing in fills my cup. Thank you so much.

Feel the strength of this community, the collective wisdom, the courage, the resilience, the positivity here, because we need to remember we are literally going after something that is core to our human happiness, and the happiness of others is to be seen, is to be seen, is to be heard, is to be valued. At the end of the day, if we get to work on that, how incredible. What a wonderful privilege it is.

Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at 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.

Speaker 2:

You've been listening to The Will to Change, Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit Thank you for listening, and we'll be back next time with a new episode.