Picture this scenario: you’re part of a casual conversation in the office, and an employee brings up a recent news article she read that morning about a new law in a neighboring state. She expresses that she’s frustrated by the news, and that she wishes she didn’t have to start her day on that note. You ask, “Wait, why is that law a bad thing?” The employee shares a pointed look with her friend and says to you, “Google it.” She changes the topic, and after a few moments walks back to her desk.
The employee is now in a bad mood, and you’re feeling bewildered and stung by the interaction. You were only trying to learn. What happened?
Situations like these can take even well-intentioned leaders by surprise. As a consultant who works with startups to Fortune 100 corporations, I’ve seen many leaders who back their organization’s diversity and inclusion initiatives but are stumped when it comes to having constructive conversations with colleagues about police brutality, sexual harassment, or LGBTQ+ issues. They want knowledge about social issues and identities like race, ability, gender and sexuality which their diverse employees possess but which they themselves don’t. And they’re puzzled when employees don’t seem to want to share.
The leaders I work with come away from interactions like the one I describe above assuming that their employees dislike them, aren’t willing to share information with them, or even can’t have a civil discussion. All of these assumptions are wrong.
When employees tell leaders to “Google it,” “look it up,” or “teach yourself,” they are saying two things. One, that a thorough discussion on the topic in question requires background knowledge beyond what they assume leaders have. And two, that in that moment they aren’t willing to take on the extra work to do the teaching. Minorities and women don’t have the responsibility to provide social justice education — for which consultants like myself do as part of our full-time jobs — for free, and on demand.
But then, where do well-intentioned leaders find the information they need?
First, Do Your Homework
Searching the internet about complex social issues is not so much an information-gathering process as it is an information-sorting process. The incredible amount of information concerning, say, racism, is challenging to sort through even for seasoned diversity and inclusion experts. For beginners looking for quick info, it’s completely overwhelming. To help, I’ll share two practices that I use in my own self-education work:
Be intentional with the content you search for. Ask yourself what you’re trying to learn and how you’re trying to learn it. Take LGBTQ+ issues as an example. Look for TED Talks and similar mediums to find digestible personal stories and big ideas. Look to leading nonprofits for storytelling initiatives, overviews of issues, and basic 101 education materials. Look for academic journal articles, survey research, and nonpartisan fact tanks like the Pew Research Center to find both qualitative and quantitative data on the subject. Always opt for sources that originate from the communities being discussed, and academic sources that are transparent about their methodology. Avoid sources that involve individuals talking about communities they do not belong to and sources with missing or biased methodologies.
Look for curated content compiled by experts in the field. If you’re looking for more guidance on the content you gather, search instead for “reading lists,” and “guides” compiled by experts on the topic you’re thinking of. For example, see reading lists compiled by the American Anthropological Association (race), the African Studies Center at Boston University (colonialism), and Sisters of Frida (intersectional disability). Similarly, you can find educational webinars, online courses, and workshops on the topic of interest. While less readily available, resources designed specifically for allies can be good places to start. A great example of this is Fractured Atlas’s “Resources for White People to Learn and Talk About Race and Racism.”
Just because you’ve done your homework doesn’t mean that you can return to your coworkers to further your education. But you may need help deepening your understanding. Here are some practices to ask for help respectfully.
Ask someone whose job it is to teach. Not every member of every under-represented minority group is or needs to be an expert teacher. Direct your questions toward someone who not only has expertise on the topic of interest, but has likely answered your question before and can do it again. These people include educators, workshop facilitators, outreach coordinators for advocacy organizations, and consultants.
Learn on others’ schedules. There may well be some women or minorities in your company who are willing to help you learn. Many do know quite a bit about social issues and are perfectly happy to share that knowledge — on their own terms. When a woman casually shares information about motherhood, a Latinx person shares some of the history behind Día de los Muertos, or a low-income person shares their experience with food stamps, listen. If an individual does this in front of you, it means that they trust you to receive what they’re saying. Respectful questions like, “What was that like?” or, “Why is it like that?” can deepen the conversation and be valuable (and vulnerable) learning moments for you and anyone else in the conversation. Remember that these moments are offered by under-represented minorities and women, and shouldn’t be forced.
This practice extends to more formal teaching moments as well. Your organization may have employee resource groups (ERGs) that offer learning opportunities through guest speakers, storytelling initiatives, teach-ins, and other events that offer windows into other people’s experiences. Don’t ignore these resources. Chances are that your organization may already have events that can teach you what you want to know. You just have to make time on your calendar.
Build Opportunities for More Teaching
You might still, after doing these things, want more information. If it’s important to you to receive more immediate coaching, feedback, and education on social justice topics, use your influence and power in the organization to support initiatives that would allow for more teaching opportunities. For example, do what you can to increase funding for ERGs specifically to develop more content. Make sure that side projects like working on diversity and inclusion education are recognized publicly and in performance reviews. Lobby to hire a Chief Diversity Officer and other diversity and inclusion roles. Bring in external consultants to build a curriculum or training. Make learning about social justice issues an organizational responsibility, not an individual one. It’s this literacy that serves as the baseline for the most successful diversity and inclusion initiatives out there.
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