Hanna Naima McCloskey: Hi, you’re listening to the Fearless Futures Podcast. I’m your host Hanna Naima McCloskey the CEO and Founder of Fearless Futures. And this is the show where we unpack and interrogate mainstream methods for equity and inclusion. I’ll be sharing new perspectives as well as alternative approaches we have developed and deployed working alongside daring companies across sectors around the world. Each week we will explore a new angle you won’t want to miss, so stick around.
Our episodes generally focus on packing and interrogating methods that are in the mainstream for inclusion and equity work in our organizations and they’re generally rooted in critical analysis. This episode is about what ingredients we require instead in pursuit of equitable company ecosystems, and they come under three headings: The first is rigorous analysis, the second is courage, and the third is iteration. Enjoy!
So by now you might have gathered that rigorous analysis is really important to Fearless Futures and is key to our approach and what we think is necessary before doing almost anything. And we’ve been offering up and sharing that analysis over previous episodes. Analysis is key because only then we will be able to have a cohesive view of what we’re up against. And most importantly as a kind of follow on, only with rigorous analysis, we would be able to identify which levers we can pull or should pull in service of our goal. Misdiagnosing our particular context or the issue that we’re up against might produce outcomes that will lead us to spend either more time tackling a particular issue or working on the wrong part of the system. We need a robust analysis to know where to take action.
And I was actually listening to a really short interview from scholar and practitioner and abolitionist Craig Gilmore and he uses an analogy that I actually used and didn’t know that he also used when I’m speaking to some of our partner organizations. And I used the analogy of a car, if you have a broken car you might see that perhaps a light is broken, maybe your indicator isn’t working, maybe the car just doesn’t even start. If you’re a mechanic you have a really robust understanding of the mechanics of cars, you are able to kind of look at this outcome as this symptom of all the things that are broken and know where exactly you need to focus your attention. You will be able to go to the right point within the ecosystem of the car to take action to work on it in order to produce different outcomes which in this case might be that the indicator works, the light is now fixed, the car can start. If you don’t have any understanding of how cars work, but maybe you just have loads of good intentions and maybe you could just point to things not being in line with your particular goal, it will take a really, really long time to fix it. And that is why having that rigorous analysis and spending that time at that analysis level is so key for everything that follows.
I do want to say that in the context off systems of oppression, the outcomes that we see for people that are experiencing that oppression I wouldn’t characterize as broken or outcomes of a broken system, rather the designed outcomes of a system working perfectly well. So just to clarify in my analogy where there is a gap, but overall that’s the way that we want to think about the power of a really rigorous analysis in terms of everything we then do next.
The next ingredient in meaningful work in service and in pursuit of equity in our company ecosystems is of course action and for that action we need courage. And there are a few things worth highlighting in this context. The first is that with any sort of meaningful action, particularly in the context of challenging inequity and oppression there are going to be personal risks involved. This is almost certainly an arena in which being liked cannot be relied upon and it’s probably not even worth having as an expectation, given the stakes involved for those for whom the status quo is obviously preferred. It’s also worth recognizing in all of this that the cost and the risks aren’t going to be distributed equally among everybody who is involved in pursuing change within the organization. Those who have skin in the game and who experience oppressions have heightened and greater risks of retaliation and of the consequences of those for whom change is not preferred kind of acting upon them. And for those where those experiences of oppression that are being challenged aren’t lived, that reality isn’t there.
And therefore for those who don’t experience an oppression but are in solidarity with those who do, there’s a greater responsibility to demand more, push further, and expand upon the horizon of possibilities. The other reason why courage is really essential and kind of necessary for deep action is that as I’ve already touched upon, not everyone is going to be happy with the changes, with the redesign, with the new ways of doing that are going to be advocated for or indeed enacted. And again that’s because that’s probably impossible for those people for whom the status quo is already deeply comfortable and serves them, and what more is that they will have significant influence and power in an organization more often than not. They might also be hierarchical, more senior too, and so because of all of these things coming together the power is afforded to them by way of this system of oppression and their hierarchic power. Their voice and their needs are going to be attended to and prioritized. We see this actually a lot in the work that we do, in the education that we do, it’s always the people who may complain right at the end of a deep capacity building program like our Design for Inclusion program, to whoever brought us in, whether it’s the kind of head of learning and development or it’s a business leader or it’s the kind of head of human resources.
They may complain to say that they felt uncomfortable and you know there were points at which there was a clear agenda being pushed and they will have all of their various complaints and it’s often because of their positionality and the fact that ultimately the status quo is in service of them and our education is about confronting that and mobilizing action for a different goal. Now what’s always interesting to us and my colleagues is that we never have people raise complaints about how unjust the organization is for those on the margins as a consequence of our program, and that’s not because it’s not raised and it’s not because it’s not something that emerges very deeply when people are analyzing their company contexts in our educational programs. But it’s always the voices that come to the surface of those who are on some level endorsing the status quo and are resistant to the change that might be being spoken to through our educational programs.
The kind of final key reason for why courage is a key ingredient in that next stage of taking action is because of course, the pervasiveness of oppression is such that meaningful change can’t happen by conceding to the needs and demands of making people feel good about themselves in the process of the analysis that’s required or indeed the reorganizing that needs to happen is part of the action that you’re going to take. If our goal is to make people feel good about the spirit of change and that that’s a priority, it might be a sort of outcome for some people but where that’s the priority it’s almost certainly the case that the endeavor is flimsy, ineffectual, and superficial. And if the priority is making people feel good we have to kind of question who are these people where them feeling good is the kind of soul motivator for their interest in engaging in ultimately reorganizing power in our organizations. If they’re there to feel good or to accrue other material benefits, you know in terms of the business case brigade and their primary concerns, the real hesitation that we need to kind of acknowledge is that they’re likely to not remain around long enough to be productive in the fight alongside you.
They’re what we might call fair weather friends, fair weather allies and they’re probably going to be very unreliable because it’s contingent on their ego or contingent on their feelings and they once more have their priorities of what’s required in equity work somewhat upside down. Instead what you can do and what we would advocate is seek out those who are eager to learn to roll their sleeves up to get it wrong, to engage in new thinking. Now this is often seen as something very difficult to do, but what we really recommend is starting small, find one other person and obviously in large organizations starting small is never really a recommended approach because people need to prove how fast and quickly they’re moving and they need to have all of these outputs for their superiors in some instances. What we really recommend here and I think where there’s great courage to be had in action is to engage people one conversation at a time to find out who are those people that are eager to learn to roll their sleeves up, to get it wrong, to engage in new thinking. Build coalitions with them! Better to have strong and few than many and superficial in this regard.
And slowly, slowly catchy monkey is something that I say regularly to people that we partner with. It doesn’t have to be a wham bam razzmatazz rollout. We can build slow and steady, we can build with great depth and build coalitions of people who are committed to one another and to a wider goal of equity and that might be precisely how we move to very, very deep action. And I think departing from traditional approaches that are razzmatazz oriented or you know large rollouts may also be the most courageous thing we can do in these contexts. It allows us to build that analysis with others and to courageously engage with other people no matter how small they might be in number in the deep thinking and then the deep action required to move ourselves and others in pursuit of that longer term goal.
The final ingredient that we want to touch upon is this idea of iteration. And the first thing to say when it comes to iteration is that we won’t all agree all the time on the tactics we need to deploy to design and build equity into our companies. One thing that I’m certain is the case, we just can’t necessitate that we can agree or that we will agree on which tactics we deploy. One thing that we’ve learned at Fearless Futures in our own internal work is that disagreement, conflict are generative and if we haven’t learned it’s something we’re trying to practice and it’s a generative aspect of human relationships and something that we can lean into and expect. And I would say especially so in the context of what is for many emotional personal hard work particularly if they’re situated within a site of oppression doing this work in company cultures. There is not one single answer to the question how do we build a company that is equitable. And so embracing the possibility and potential of iteration is really, really essential in doing this long term.
We have to bake this into the ways in which we communicate what it is we’re doing and I think that does on some level require transparency from those who are kind of leading on this agenda and organizations to share what it is they’re doing. The outcomes that they hope to achieve and the principles again, we talk about principles is going back to the analysis part here, the analysis and the principles that they’re relying upon that have informed what it is that they’re pursuing. And I think that operationalization is actually also part of the work of doing accountability publicly when it comes to leading this work in organizations. However, embracing integration also doesn’t mean just doing things willy-nilly or doing things just to say that we’ve done them or doing what other people have done or what we read in an article somewhere about what one company once did and they said it was brilliant. Too often that is what happens that those leading on inclusion equity in companies frequently opt with so called quick wins. Perhaps you know they’re going to get a keynote speaker in or they’re going to launch a mentoring scheme, and that’s because we exist within a paradigm where for many people it’s about how much they’ve done rather than perhaps the quality of what it is that they’re doing.
And so something that’s really important in pursuing iteration is, I would say kind of holding a couple of things really close. Is what it is that we’re going to iterate and experiment with aligned with our rigorous analysis and the underlying principles of what it is we’re trying to do when it comes to building equity and inclusion in our organization? And kind of very closely following on is what we’re doing in line with our sort of strategic vision and ambition, so that’s really important — Not, Can we easily get this signed off? Will it make people the happiest, will everyone want to high five, will I get lots and lots of praise? Now of course this all comes back to point to courage and you’ll start to see that the rigorous analysis, the courage for action ,and the iteration are all deeply intertwined and connected in terms of how we direct our energies. So I just want to give an example here of something that can quickly get signed off and is often pursued.
Mentoring programs are everywhere, they happen all the time, they’re lots of people’s go-to tactic when they’re leading on inclusion and equity in their organization or involved in those conversations in some way, and it neatly fits into a lecture with doing things kind of schema. Now if we were to take mentoring programs, and maybe that could work for an organization, and I’m not you know pooh poohing all mentoring programs in the entire world, bear with me as we work through this. If we first do our rigorous analysis on the kind of concept and notion of a mentoring program, we might see that mentoring programs are rooted in a negative idea and when we have our kind of system of oppression hat on we would kind of come to this. That there is some sort of a deficit in/among people who experience marginalization and who are underrepresented in certain kind of dimensions of a company. And there are certain people who don’t have that deficit who can kind of top up the person assigned to the mentoring scheme and sort of support to fix them in some way.
Now what a mentoring program does or mentoring scheme does, when we bring our analysis to it, is it locates the problem of inequity at the individual who comes from a particular marginalized group. And it says if we can solve you and your skills then we’re going to be able to kind of make the changes we need to see in the organization. What a mentoring program can do is it can deny the wider dynamics of a system of oppression. Well it misses out the fact that it’s locating the problem in the individual and therefore endorsing the ways in the kind of root ideas of a system of oppression. It also ignores the structures across society/within organizations that produce the conditions of the negative outcomes that are the underrepresentation of certain people in there and how they’ve devalued their talents and skills and so on that lead to their underrepresentation, which is a negative outcome of our system of oppression.
So a mentoring scheme could be deployed tactically, but does it meet with our analysis of the ways in which these issues manifest? According to the analysis that we’d kind of engage people in Fearless Futures, it doesn’t and that’s probably why mentoring schemes are rarely effective. Many, many companies we work with have had them in place for years with very little change to their organizational structures, yet they are continually deployed. So when we’re thinking about the spirit of iteration, of course yes we need to give things a go, of course of course of course, but what we also need to do is ensure that what we are experimenting with has some foundational motive beyond speed or ease or you know jazz hands to those in power or that frankly people will let you do because they’re not, it’s not going to bother them too much and therefore you’re likely to get sign off because senior people who don’t, who aren’t really invested in any of this meaningfully are just happy for you to just do something.
So in this context mentoring arguably doesn’t meet the criteria of either being tactically useful, aligned with the rigorous analysis, courageous in ambition, or something that produces the desired outcomes. So that wouldn’t be something we iterate with necessarily, we’d let it go and we think about other things we could do and this is where we ultimately need to be clear about what outcomes we’re accountable for when we are pursuing inclusion and equity. Iteration therefore is important and we would say start small and build up as we’ve kind of shared in the courage section, kind of deep and small might be more powerful than perhaps what we’ve been led to believe in the past or by others. And embracing iteration is kind of really connected with that.
So in this What Now episode, we’ve looked at the value and importance of rigorous analysis. We’ve seen that courage is essential for bold action and the action is necessary. We need action, we can’t just live in analysis mode, but without deep analysis our action is likely to be futile and we also know that iteration is going to be key in our endeavors but not iteration pursuing things willy, nilly, iteration in line with our analysis and by ensuring that we’re iterating because that is what is required when we are engaging with the spirit of accountability. If the outcomes that we have committed to are not being produced or generated, we must iterate. We cannot just keep doing the same thing over and over again simply because it’s quick and easy. We do need to do that hard work and we need to give ourselves the flexibility to move and shift in pursuit of that accountability where we may not in the first instance live up to our core goal.
Thank you for listening to the Fearless Futures podcast. If you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe, rate and share this episode with a friend. If you’re interested in learning more about the work that we do at Fearless Futures, please visit our website fearlessfutures.org. ’Til next time.