Inside Building Diverse and Equitable Organizations, Teams and Newsrooms: Expert Q&A

Image distributed via Creative Commons

As part of ongoing research for Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation exploring how philanthropy can support diverse, inclusive newsrooms and strengthen local journalism, I visited local newsrooms, interviewed experts, community groups, sat with journalists and listened.

One of these interviews intended for a section of research dedicated on building shared language was with Jill Raney, the founder of Practice Makes Progress. They pulled back the curtain on the processes, challenges and investments necessary to coach newsrooms on building more effective, equitable and diverse workplaces.

Their insights shared in this conversation deserve to be shared in its full form as they were immensely valuable and instructive for any newsroom leader. With permission, I am publishing our interview below in Q&A format, edited for clarity and length.

Highlights from the Q&A include:

  • The distinction between discussing diversity and restructuring power and the necessity to address inequality in newsrooms in order to produce stronger journalism,
  • Building the skill sets, institutional leadership and staff time necessary to steward diversity and inclusion work within organizations,
  • How media funders can make meaningful investments to support long-term programs and change leadership.
Image provided by Jill Raney

Sabrina Hersi Issa: One of the questions that repeatedly come up when we talk about building diverse, inclusive newsrooms is, ‘What do you mean when you say ‘diverse?’ My response to that question has been: I don’t know. What does that mean to you? Does it mean racial and gender diversity? Does it mean diversity of ideas? Does it mean cognitive diversity? Does it mean all of the above? None of the above? Getting to a place where we’re coming from the same set point, I understand that to be a process. So my question for you is, what does that process, to make sure that we’re actually all talking about what we think we’re talking about, look like?

Jill Raney: My response to anybody who wants to talk with me about diversity is to challenge any overt or covert ideas about bean counting or about optics and talk instead about power.

I am less interested in the appearance of diversity than I am in shifting culture to root out oppression because right now in American culture, we’re steeped in hundreds of years of a really explicit abusive set of power dynamics that our workplaces haven’t healed from, that our workplaces were actually designed based on.

“If we want journalism that tells all of our people’s stories, we can’t have that when journalism as paid work and as volunteer work and as unpaid but professional work is still based on an abusive set of power dynamics that relies on hiding some of our truth from lots of our people.”

So whenever I hear the word “diversity” I do a lot of investigating with whoever is asking me about it, about whether the intention is to improve the look of things or whether the intention is actually to shift power dynamics so things are less abusive and eventually not abusive at all. The rub there is that that’s really hard and it means people who have had a lot of access to power up until now have to give some of it up. That’s hard to do for anybody. As much as I’m not here for white male feelings, it’s understandable to have feelings about having to give up some of your power, and especially in the context of journalism because the job market for paid journalism is so, so, so tight right now because of the dynamics about the great recession and the switch to digital first. Giving up your power means giving up your job, or it can feel that way. We haven’t yet figured out a way to fairly compensate journalists for their work in this new environment where most people don’t pay for most of our media, and that adds a really real, scary dynamic to doing anti-oppression work in newsrooms and it makes it even more appealing than it is in any other industry to talk about diversity just as a change in optics instead of a shift in power like it needs to be.

SHI: What do you do when you realize, once the intention is unpacked, that they actually don’t care about shifting power but they care about optics?

JR: A lot of my work in coaching organizations and in training people and giving people stronger skills is really akin to therapy. So we’ll dig into why changing optics are so important to people. Some folks, because they haven’t had access to the kind of justice theory and justice organizing that I have, don’t realize that these power dynamics are so deeply entrenched. A lot of folks don’t realize that the particular ways that most professional offices operate are deeply white supremacist because the system hides that from them. We’ll dig into “Well, why are these optics so important to you? What do you think is going to change as a result of this?”

Often, I find it really helpful to give folks examples of “So if someone wants to wear saris to the office every day instead of suits, what would that be like if the board of directors were visiting that day, and can you tell me more about that?” Or “Why do you want to change things in a particular way you’re talking about?” Giving people concrete examples helps tease out what their motivations are.

Some folks really, whether they want to say it or not, just want the optics in order to feel good about themselves and in order to give themselves cover so they’re not going to get attacked on Twitter for being racist. Those are not people I’m interested in working with. That is a lot of the community I come from. I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia and I was raised by really moderate Democratic parents who taught me to vote Democrat so that poor people don’t starve but they also taught me to shame poor people for every choice they make that keeps them poor. That kind of attitude is just as damaging but in different structural ways than overt oppression. I see that kind of attitude in a lot of people who want to do diversity work but don’t want to shift power. As a business owner I’m selective about who I work with, and folks who care about optics because they don’t know about the structural stuff underneath, there are lots of educational ways to get at that and to help hold people’s hands to move them slowly over time to really understanding how deep the stuff goes. The folks who want to put a polite veneer on their unstated racism cannot get that help from me.

SHI: What you’re saying is that it’s not just two camps: people with the intention to change power and then people who kind of want to do optics. But that there is this area in between, where many are blind to what they don’t see or recognize and lots of — I hate the catchphrase “unconscious bias.”

JR: Yes.

SHI: So there could be a spectrum of interventions between these two polarities.

JR: Yes. I focus on building skills in the work that I do because people are in all different kinds of places on their personal prejudices and their awareness of their personal prejudices and how deep those go. They’re in all different kinds of places about whether they need to feel brave in order to talk about this stuff out loud. They’re in all different kinds of places on their ability to listen to criticism or even listen to non-direct criticism, comments from people with life experience different from theirs. A lot of those baseline listening and conversation, and other emotional labor skills, we don’t teach people, and people really need those skills in order to move forward from wherever they’re at today to a month from now, to a year from now in order to be better at their jobs.

Even journalists who are trained to listen in a very specific way are often trained to listen with a goal in mind. That makes it harder to hear when somebody’s expressing something that you were not familiar with before.

SHI: When you say that you train for skills, are there explicit skill sets that you help people build?

JR: The one skill that is most important in all of my trainings is how to listen to and really hear, and absorb and chew on information about the world that goes counter to your understanding or that threatens or scares you.

Exercises I do include reading something that is completely outside of your experience and writing down all the moments when you feel a negative emotion about it, whether it’s shock or outrage or fear, or disagreement. Disagreement is really important. Noticing explicitly when you are reading about some of these life experiences and your brain tells you knee-jerk, “That couldn’t possibly be true,” and essentially like cognitive behavioral therapy, thought challenging those instincts, examining where they come from and deciding to make different choices.

Telling that white supremacist jerk in your head to shut up is a skill set and it’s one that I found is really, really important to explicitly teach.

SHI: I am floored at how clear and explicit you are and I am aware that I can never say this.

JR: I learned a lot of this because I had to do it myself, because I grew up in a racist environment and was one of them myself for a really long time. It takes years to dig this stuff out of your brain and learn how to talk about it. It’s totally possible and it’s also a totally baseline part of being a moral person.

SHI: Now you start this from a place of figuring out people’s intentions usually from these two polarities of “Do you care about optics or do you care about restructuring power?” Now, what is the process that you pursue when you surface that the intention is not about optics but to actually address power?

JR: Then we start examining what the policies and practices of a given individual or workplace are, and what those both written and explicit policies and the explicit and implicit practices, who among the people at the organization and who among the people who the organization is trying to work with or reach out to, who does that center and who does that marginalize? Does that actually make sense for the kind of power dynamic they want to have in that workplace? Does that match their stated values?

For explicit examples, some workplaces have an unwritten expectation that you’re supposed to be on email all the time. So who does that center and who does that marginalize? Workaholics, people who don’t have family care responsibilities, people who don’t have arthritis who can be on their phones all the time without their bodies yelling at them. We go through specific examples like that and then have people look through their employee handbooks and look through their calendars and how they operate with their colleagues and bosses and staff, and really think about what structurally is baked into their organization in terms of oppressive power dynamics.

In many cases, folks who really care about changing power dynamics already have really beautiful written statements about what they’re trying to do but it’s amazing the extent to which they haven’t already thought about the everyday choices they’re making in terms of policies and practices. We’ll take a look at those beautiful ringing statements about being the inclusion they’re trying to create and match them to the reality about who they’re marginalizing, either by choice or by accident, and we work on designing structures that are actually going to, as well as possible, meet the needs of everybody involved.

Typically, what workplaces do now is organize things around the people who have the fewest limitations who can roll with all different kinds of options, and we just do whatever the preference of cis white men is. If we organize, and if we organize workplace practices, if we design products and practices around folks with limitations — limitations is kind of a politically sticky word around the folks who have the most specific sets of means or — yes, limitation actually isn’t necessarily politically sticky if you don’t judge the people for it. Then you can get to practices that actually work well enough for everybody.

Part of the trick here is that you’re never going to create a perfectly safe space for everybody. In order to have reasonably accessible spaces for everybody, you need a wide variety of spaces, which is especially important in these conversations about journalism because media is consolidating. Many journalism jobs are unpaid or are freelance and that makes me especially worried because in order to have a network of professional opportunities that are accessible to everybody who has important things to say as a journalist, you need to have broad-based national or international newsrooms that can reach lots of people with stories from all over the country or all over the world. You need those to be reasonably accessible to all different kinds of journalists, and at the same time you need local papers that can focus on the language of that particular community.

Like The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia has got to report on the Muslim ban in a different way than the Washington Post four hours north is going to. The journalists in that newsroom need to be able to speak the language of the folks who live there while still sharing the values of no human is illegal. At the same time, you need to have some newsrooms that are predominantly black, predominantly LGBT, predominantly women to have a different kind of inclusive space where you can have a minority-dominated culture that informs all of the language and practices of that newsroom because there are just certain cultural touchstones that don’t make sense to focus on in a Washington Post article that are still a really valid form of journalism. Like the tone that Teen Vogue uses wouldn’t make sense for the New York Times but both of those tones need to exist in reporting about the same topics.

As we’re talking about what funders can do to support inclusion in journalism, we’re never going to have one newsroom that is perfectly inclusive of everybody so we need to have as wide a variety as we can to help get all angles of it.

Image provided by Practice Makes Progress

SHI: What conditions must be met for someone like you to guide a newsroom through this kind of this process?

JR: What particularly Practice Makes Progress would need in order to do real work with a newsroom? It’s a pretty short list and I found that it’s difficult to meet all these conditions. First of all I need to be paid for my work. I’m a professional with unusual and really important expertise that capitalism doesn’t value because it’s largely emotional labor, and we need to get over that and value this set of skills and this expertise. This is my paid work and I need to be paid in order to do it.

If an organization wants to bring on Practice Makes Progress to do this work is they need to really prioritize staff time to do the work. This isn’t something that you can do in a one or even two-hour workshop. A three-hour workshop might be a reasonable kickoff. If you’re really talking about changing power dynamics in a workplace, that means a lot of time for a wide variety of their staff. It might mean an overhaul of their hiring and onboarding process. It might mean a research project that results in changes to their style guide. It might mean changes in the physical layout of their office space. It might mean any number of things: that will require thinking; that will require meetings and conversations; that will require trainings; that will require nose-to-grindstone making it go work.

It requires a lot of staff time to make the kind of changes people want to see, which is especially challenging in an environment where people are afraid for their organization’s business model, which is the case for a lot of newsrooms.

If you invest the staff time in making your newsroom actually accessible to all of its employees, you’re going to keep people longer, you’re going to make better journalism that meets the needs of your readers better, and you also might be able to find the niches who are excited to pay you for your work. Just like I struggle to get paid, a lot of journalists do. I think there can be a kind of solidarity there at some point.

The final thing is folks who are committed to making change need to actually be ready to make change. Meetings and trainings and talking about it are an important part of the process. They’re an important part of the process alongside actually making tactical everyday structural changes to the work.

SHI: I’m thinking about the newsroom leaders that I’ve interviewed who are truly adaptive leaders, they see a problem, operate within a system to be the drivers of the solution to that problem. How do we create dynamics where these leaders feel supported enough to want to drive through newsroom-wide systemic changes? Where it is possible to operationalize the type of process that you’re talking about?

JR: Many of these leaders may feel their jobs are on the line. Some may be getting pressure from above in order to make optical changes. If they want to make power dynamic changes, that takes longer than just hiring somebody who makes the bean counting different, so they may feel pressure from the folks who write their paychecks to have faster but less structurally meaningful results. Folks may need both legal and emotional support in doing this work. Doing this work and being the staff member who’s leading a project like this means you’re going to hear a lot of upsetting negative reports from a lot of people and you’re going to be held to higher account than folks who aren’t doing this work. I found really consistently that people who do diversity and anti-oppression organizing are held to extremely high moral standards far above what we hold typical power holders to. We want people who are doing moral organizing to be moral, and there is pretty rampant perfectionism around folks who are doing this work which is, to a certain extent, a good thing because we want anti-oppression work to actually end oppression. But for the individuals who are leading, it can be really emotionally and mentally draining and can take folk's attention and brainpower away from the work itself. Really, a part of the work I do is hand holding and listening to people’s feelings. That’s got to be a part of it. I know capitalism doesn’t want to pay for that, but this is valuable and it’s the only way the work can continue to go if folks feel supported as individual people through really hard, challenging things.

They also need, at least, some individuals in their organization, whether it’s peers, bosses, direct reports or junior staff in other chains of command who are really excited to lead on this. One individual in an organization of more than five people is not going to be able to make change on their own. Internal organizing is — it’s not even just a part of it, it’s another way of explaining the whole project. You’ve got to have a team of people who are, on one level or another, excited to do the work and make this go, who also share the values of changing power dynamics to remove abusive dynamics.

SHI: How do you ensure that the values are shared?

JR: Conversations, asking people why they’re excited to do this work, what an anti-oppressive organization or workplace would look like to them, what their personal motivations are. It’s not easy to define but it’s pretty easy to tell if people just are in it for the glory essentially. There are some folks who want to be on the team because it looks good, and that’s pretty easy to tell at the margins by the tone of voice or the way people show up. I’d love to be able to give you a checklist but it’s usually more of a vibe thing. Everybody’s at a point in their journey of rooting oppressive systems out of their own brains and everybody’s going to say weird stuff now and then, and consistent learning and trying to do better and wanting to learn and do better is a set of intentions and instincts and practices that you can see that people either are doing or not, and you just tease that out over having conversations and listening to people.

SHI: And watching outcomes?

JR: Yes. If you wanted to have an explicit test, you could essentially pick a fight and see how people take negative criticisms, see how people take being corrected if they say something oppressive. Often, picking a fight is not necessarily the most productive.

SHI: Or healthy.

JR: Yes — or that.

SHI: What should I know that I’m not asking you?

JR: The one thing coming to the top of my head that I really want to put on the record here is that because this is something that funders seem to be brand new to, that staff have been doing for ages, now that funders are interested, the folks who are willing and able to do the work might be different than was true five or 10 years ago, or even one year ago.

Now that funders might be interested in supporting diversity and anti-oppression and inclusion work, these projects might attract people who are good at talking the talk but don’t actually share the values, who don’t actually want to shift power dynamics, which is a frustrating risk but is a reality of most professional environments.

More than that, I think unless funders are really ready to throw down with long term projects that are going to result in real change, we’re going to see a lot of skepticism from folks who’ve been doing the work one-off, unpaid just to survive for years and years. I think we’re going to see a lot of skepticism from people who’ve been invited to the one training at every job they’ve ever had, and then raised their hand and said, “Now that we have that training that taught us to do X, let’s do X,” and nobody listened.

One-off programs can’t be the solution anymore, or we’re going to attract people who are not bringing the kind of skills and intentions that are necessary, and we’re going to lose folks who really need these programs in order to do their best journalism and are best positioned to make these programs successful.

Sabrina Hersi Issa serves as a Senior Advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she leads research on journalism ecosystems and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms.