What I’ve Learned as a Leadership Consultant in the Racial Justice World
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Nearly two years ago, I was pregnant with my son when I decided to stand up my consulting business. I was just entering my second trimester, and amidst waves of nausea and exhaustion like I had never experienced before, I was also wrestling with feelings of unease and anxiety about how becoming a mother would affect my sense of self. After having grown up as a caretaker for my siblings in a single-parent household (an experience not unique to many people of color), I had worked tirelessly in my adulthood to define who I truly was, authentically and separate from the caretaker role. I was on the brink of becoming a caretaker again, more intensely than I had ever been before. And I was determined to still have a part of my life that was just mine.
I had been doing consulting work in years prior, but only sporadically. I did not rely on the income to survive and I had more of what seemed like passion projects than legitimate clients. About a month before I was scheduled to birth my son, I decided to make it official and set myself up as a business in Washington State.
When I started down my path as an entrepreneur, I had a vision for the work I was going to do. I had a solid business background coupled with education and experience in organizational and leadership development. I marketed myself as a leadership coach and consultant with a lens of racial and social justice. I cared deeply about social and racial justice, but when I started down this road, it felt more like a complementary service and perspective that I provided rather than a full-on focus and expertise.
As I set down this path I laid out for my business, I started to realize that I was accepting more and more work that centered people of color. I was educating, speaking, and contributing blog posts in service of racial equity. I was putting on retreats and prioritizing representation of people of color without it being explicitly marked as a focus of the retreat, and finding that rich dialogue around race was sprouting organically from creating intentional safe spaces with an abundance of ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity in the room.
It was at this pivotal moment that I had to make a choice. What was the work I was going to do? What mattered most to me? I found, through coaching and a lot of self-reflection, that I was not a leadership coach and consultant with a lens of social and racial justice. I was, in fact, a racial justice warrior who happened to work with organizations and leaders to center and amplify people of color. This. Changed. Everything.
I started to evaluate all of the work I was doing with an incredibly discerning and critical eye. How aligned was everything I spent my precious, new-mama time and energy on with my newfound entrepreneurial identity? And how were my existing relationships with [partners, collaborators, clients, and even some personal connections] affected by this realization? I discovered during this process that I was more of a racial justice activist than I had originally given myself permission to be in the past, and it completely shifted the trajectory of the work I was doing.
In that shift, I discovered some things about this work that I felt compelled to share. These are my big aha's, my critical lessons learned during this entrepreneurial metamorphosis. Being a racial justice warrior and advocate is an amazing, exciting, and admirable role, but it is also incredibly vulnerable and, at times, fraught with difficult lessons and even a few traps. Here are the lessons I've learned while navigating this racial equity work.
1. Do your own work.
This is something that I find isn't openly advertised about doing racial equity work. Most of the time, we see racial justice warriors out there, doing incredibly important work, speaking truth to power, and we forget that, if we just peeked behind the curtain for a moment, that each of those warriors have worked tirelessly in their own racial identity development journey. Whether this has been a quiet, personal journey, or something that required group or one-on-one support, or some combination of the two, most of the effective and brilliant racial equity leaders are incredibly self-aware and attuned to where they are in their own racial identity development journey. Of course, this is not to say that these individuals do not have blind spots or are at some level of superior enlightenment. This is never the case, because these individuals recognize that this self-work is a lifelong journey. The one thing that all of these brilliant individuals have in common is that they are doing the personal work required to be good stewards of racial justice work.
My own focused racial identity development work has been about seven years in the making. It was sparked by a conference I went to that was focused on cross-cultural communication. There, I entered into conflict with a mixed race woman who challenged my views of white superiority (views that I didn't even realize I held or expressed). It catapulted me into hours of therapy with my mental health counselor who just happened to specialize in this type of work. I spent a lot of time reflecting privately and with trusted friends and family, asking questions of myself that I had never previously stopped to ask about my personal views and choices around race. It has been a long journey and I am far from done, but I am committed to do the work and continue to learn in curiosity and humility.
2. You can't always be right.
This was a tough one for me. As someone with a deep knowledge and understanding of business and HR, it was generally easy for me to find neat and tidy answers to hard problems. There may be a number of considerations, especially when it came to people issues, but for the most part, there was a right course of action and a wrong or less-right course of action. And as someone that was viewed as an expert in business and organizational/leadership development, people often looked to me to provide the right answer. Even when I coached leaders around topics such as emotional intelligence, it was easy to help them identify their emotions and speak their truth, align the conversation around what would honor their own authenticity as a leader, and proceed down that path. Even when evaluating and triaging super messy problems, some connection could almost always be found to anchor us to the right course of action.
As someone who loves being right (just ask my husband!), entering the racial equity space was incredibly difficult and humbling, because there are so many different viewpoints and ways of approaching the work. Some practitioners believe in a "tough love" approach, prioritizing the message and education/awareness above all else. Others, like myself, find education and awareness to be incredibly important, but prioritize staying in conversation, which allows individuals in the dominant group to gain awareness but takes a lot more emotional labor. Both are valid ways to do the work; however, they are incredibly different approaches and could spark hours of debate among practitioners.
Even going beyond differing practices, each person that chooses to pursue this work also enters with a different set of life experiences and perspectives. We all work from a different life lens. So, inevitably you will say the wrong thing. Go about the work the "wrong" way (as perceived by someone else). Offend someone. Isolate yourself. Be wrong.
It takes entering this work with a level of humility and curiosity that is rarely required when we are dubbed as experts in a specific field. It takes a level of preparedness and openness to simply being wrong. Even the most seasoned, well-educated racial equity consultants will say the wrong thing occasionally. It takes a special level of vulnerability and curiosity to continue to do the work amidst the uncertainty, which leads me to my next lesson...
3. Learn to do conflict well.
Since differing perspectives are simply part of the job, it is critical that racial equity practitioners learn to do conflict well and teach others to do conflict well while doing the work. There is an abundance of resources on this, and my current favorite is nonviolent communication, which prioritizes openness and empathy during conflict. I believe that it is impossible to further this incredibly important work without understanding ways to be effective and productive while in conflict.
4. Self-care is King [Queen].
If there is one thing I hope you walk away with after having read this article, it is this. Doing racial justice work (and really any form of activism) requires us to first prioritize our own well being over doing the work. I attended a wonderful workshop a few years ago put on by the Trauma Stewardship Institute called "Navigating Amidst Overwhelming Times" where the message was clear: research shows that we simply cannot be effective in our work/home lives when we are depleted (energetically). When we are depleted, our brains begin to take shortcuts, we make impulsive decisions (or no decisions at all), and our work/stakeholders/families suffer. If we enter this work with a premise of "Do no harm" (which every single racial equity practitioner absolutely should or do not belong in the field--period), then taking care of ourselves should be our first priority in order to make good decisions and leave the field a better place than when we arrived.
For me, self-care takes on many forms. My daily practice involves morning and evening gratitude (studies have shown that gratitude interrupts depletion and literally changes the way our brain looks and makes connections) as well as 10 minutes of meditation every single day (I'm currently on Day 115 of my meditation run streak, and I use the Headspace app, but there are several that exist and do a great job). I try my best to find time weekly to be creative, practice yoga, and journal because these practices fill up my energetic tank. And, I think it is worth mentioning that my self-care practice is not perfect. In fact, as a new(er) mom, I probably only do about half of what I would like to be doing for myself, but I strive to be better at self-care everyday. For my work. For my family. For my world.
What are the lessons that you have learned in your journey? Please comment below. I would love to hear from you.