Equity Lessons for Organizational Leaders

Marcus Littles
May 11, 2018 · 7 min read

By: Marcus Littles, Founder and Senior Partner, Frontline Solutions

I moved to New York for my first job out of grad school almost 20 years ago. After just one week in my new apartment, I got a $65 ticket for putting tin cans and milk cartons in my trash can. Having spent most of my life in the American South where no laws required it, I had never recycled before.

After the ticket, I started rethinking the contents of my trash can. I have learned that landfills are harmful to the planet and how recycling saves energy and helps to slow global warming. I now keep multiple bins in my kitchen because I want the planet to be a good place for my son to grow up in. To be clear, though: the catalyst for my commitment to recycling was an annoying citation from the City of New York.

I lead Frontline Solutions, a black-owned consulting firm that helps organizations working on the front lines of change. Clients engage our enterprise for variety of consulting services from evaluation to capacity building. Our practice and values are to apply an equity lens to each engagement. We believe in working towards intersectional equity, because building just communities demands dismantling the barriers created by both racism and patriarchy.

Sometimes I’m suspicious of institutional leaders whose interest in operationalizing equity in their organization becomes most acute once they feel the social cost of not pursuing equity. Why does doing the right thing require an HR blow-up, a public protest, or a scathing blog post that has gone viral? Why is it often driven by guilt from seeing a news reel of yet another police-involved shooting of an unarmed person of color? Why doesn’t the motivation for building an equity-centered organization come from a sincere desire to see communities of color thrive? Each time I’m on my high horse of equity superiority, I am reminded of my environmental awakening — how environmental sustainability didn’t matter to me until the City of New York fined me for not doing the right thing. I now appreciate the value of meeting organizations where they actually are in their equity journey — even if they are in the early stages of responding to a social, political, or financial penalty. I enjoy the opportunity to support, challenge, and walk alongside organizations as they become more equity-centered in their values, practices, and pursued outcomes.

The most profound knowledge I’ve gained about building organizational equity has come through personal experience leading Frontline as an organization. Our successes, my leadership mistakes, and the inevitable processes of learning how to relate to one another have led to our ever-evolving pursuit of intersectional equity. Equity is not merely what we do or how we think. Equity is the character and culture that our organization seeks to embody. As we falter and grow in our understanding, I’d like to share a few lessons that we’ve learned along the way.

Take Your Organization’s ‘Equity’ Pulse

“Any good trainer regularly takes his (or her) client’s pulse…”

Over the last five years I’ve become an avid (well, more consistent) gym-goer. The first time I exercised with my trainer, he started our session by taking my pulse. I assumed this was because I was early in my journey of trying to lose weight. But as I watched him work with the experienced young athlete scheduled after me, I noticed that he started her session the same way. I asked him about it. “Any good trainer regularly takes his client’s pulse,” he said. He explained that — no matter how great of shape someone appears to be in — a regular read of their heart rate is paramount.

Frontline is a firm predominately comprised of people of color and we are often hired because of our equity analysis. Over the years, we have engaged outside professionals to take the pulse of equity in our own organization’s culture, policies, and practices. The first time we invited a consultant to assess our internal culture, we were humbled when we heard the results of the consultant’s interview process. Staff had used the terms “hetero-normative” and “male-dominated” to describe our culture. It was a wake-up call.

Since then, we have repeated the process with other trusted partners and consultants. Taking a pulse regularly is a necessary process for any healthy organization pursuing equity. It doesn’t matter how dynamic or progressive you are as a leader, how much your corporation does in the community, how diverse your staff is, or whether everyone wears Black Lives Matter t-shirts on Tuesdays. The practice of assessment facilitated by an outside, objective party is imperative. It will provide you with valuable information about the extent to which equity values, principles, and practices are embedded in your organization’s culture.

Work with Consultants and Partners who have a ‘Reckoning Story’

“Don’t trust a person’s advice if they won’t also offer a piece of their own story.”

My maternal grandmother taught me to recognize the wisdom that emanates from Black mamas and grandmamas. My childhood memories of her take place in the midst of community — in a household full of relatives, at church, or in a political organizing meeting. As I watched her navigate her the web of relationships that made up these worlds, she would warn me to be careful who I took advice from and to only trust those who back up their advice with a story from their own lives. At least ten other Black mothers and grandmothers have shared some version of the same adage with me over the years.

Consider this wisdom while wading through the countless articles, YouTube videos, and blog posts that prescribe steps to achieving equity nirvana. In a world of systemic racism and patriarchy, no one wakes up woke. Anyone giving advice about equity should have done some serious soul searching and subsequent re-wiring to pursue equity in their own organization.

Frontline Solutions was founded by three cis-gendered, African-American men. Over the years, there are a number of ways in which our founding partners (led by me) unknowingly established a culture that was been male-dominated and most appealing to those who identify along a gender binary. We created a work culture that was easier for men to navigate than women. We did not always pay staff equally and equitably. We did not sufficiently interrogate how gender identity impacts workplace communication, relationships, and employee satisfaction.

In the midst of one of our attempts to engage an external consultant to take our equity pulse, Black women within Frontline called out the incongruence in the values Frontline’s founders claimed to espouse and the realities of Frontline’s culture. The resulting conversations were intense and difficult. They required humility and patience, action and urgency. The bravery and pressure asserted by women on our team led to a committed process toward concrete change. While Frontline culture will always be a work in progress, we continue to ‘take our pulse” and monitor how we are living up to our pursuit of a culture that embodies intersectional equity.

This was an important chapter in Frontline’s reckoning story. While our capacity to support other organizations in their pursuit of equity is informed by our training, staff composition, and analysis, our story is foundational to how we experience and give advice on equity.

Identifying, documenting, and claiming your reckoning story is an important benchmark in committing to honest self-reflection, concrete action, and structural change. When looking for partners, consultants, or advisers to help you in your institutional commitment to equity, make sure they have their own story of grappling to make equity a core — not merely cosmetic — tenant of their work.

Don’t Dabble, Commit

‘Having drank a beer and being a beer drinker aren’t the same things.’

One of my best friends is a man named Tony Canady, affectionately known as Tone. Tone is 6’4 and thirteen years my senior, with a stoic face, huge smile, and a deep, almost surly voice. One of the first times I was hanging out with Tone he asked me, “Yo, Marc. Are you a beer drinker?”

Now I thought Tone was dope. I said, ‘Yeah man! I drink beer sometimes!’ Tone looked at me, shook his head and said, ‘I didn’t ask you if you drink beer sometimes. I asked you if you’re a beer drinker.’ Tone reminded me that dabbling in something is not the same as being competent in it.

Dabbling in equity is markedly different than committing to the organizational reflection and ongoing effort that it requires. Developing an equity statement, hiring a trainer on implicit bias, planning a brown bag lunch on diversity, or going to a conference on inclusion are all helpful steps. But if they are deployed in isolation and devoid of a long-term committed process that challenges the organization’s foundational culture then they are insufficient to create meaningful change.

We all need teachers. A self-administered curriculum for pursuing equity is often less effective than one accompanied by a guide. My beer education took place in a number of Brooklyn bars, over the course of eight years, with a great teacher: Tone. I now actually know what people mean when they say a beer is “hoppy.” I’ve also had wonderful guides in my journey of organizationally owning and committing to equity. I am eternally grateful to Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson and Miami Dream Defenders co-director Umi Selah for sharing so much wisdom with me about their approach to leadership. Both Color of Change and Dream Defenders are dynamic organizations with an explicit organizational commitment to embodying work, culture, and practices anchored in racial equity and social inclusion. They do not rest on the laurels of how righteous their work is, but rather fight to be righteously comprised. They have built organizational cultures that are interrogative and intentional. They know they will not always get it right but they are always trying to improve. Their thought partnership has pushed me to think more deeply about how I lead Frontline and commit to equity.

Don’t Wait for the Fine

Moving towards equity is both a radical change and an iterative process. It requires learning to take a regular pulse of your organization’s culture, coming to terms with your own organizational story, and committing to embody justice and inclusion. Don’t wait until you get fined to start the process. Make the investments today of time and resources to equip your organization for a more equitable future.

Marcus Littles

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