A Vision and Framework for Radical Worker Solidarity

Inclusive Leadership
Minute Read

Who is responsible for what diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) outcomes? How do we practice equity and justice as we collaborate on this work? 

Representation on corporate boards and executive teams has become the popular metric for DEIB. The idea is that employees from historically resilient groups will feel more included if they see people who look like them on leadership teams and those voices will make decisions that support and advance their shared identities. 

However, Ethos CEO Alida Miranda-Wolff doesn’t believe representation on executive boards and teams is the right way to measure equity and inclusion. She’s come to this conclusion after years of in-depth strategic work with organizations across industries, and while actively studying social change. She sent me Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s article on Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference to kick off a conversation about how “being in the room privilege” tends to perpetuate systems of privilege—and what approaches actually lead to justice—that is, a redistribution of power. 

During an interview, I gathered some of Alida’s reactions to Táíwò’s ideas and some practical guidelines for people who are advocating for equity and justice within their organization. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Táíwò suggests that racial solidarity is the solution to the problems caused by our deferential approaches to DEIB. Since he’s speaking as a philosopher, his suggestions aren’t quite specific enough for DEIB practitioners in the workplace (and it’s not the easiest read). In your words, what’s wrong with popular approaches to DEIB? 

What I’m suggesting is that elite capture is the current diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging model. So when people are talking about DEIB, they're actually talking about elite capture, and that's why DEIB is broken: because it's representation politics. It doesn't take into account the fact that being in the room privilege is in fact privilege that perpetuates privilege. 

There's a phrase in UX that started to be really popular in like 2018, which is “empathy is not enough. We need to move to solidarity.” The idea that researchers go out in the field, interview users, and then make the products is insufficient. They need to actually be making the products with the users.

Ultimately our throughline at Ethos is to serve underrepresented, underserved employees. So we’re here to create the conditions for everyone to thrive. The problem with DEIB in my view is, it's not creating the conditions for everyone to thrive, it's creating the conditions for a select few to thrive. And so, yes, we are talking about tokenism, but not only that. This idea that because I am from a social identity group, I will do the right thing for that group is inherently flawed. And I think that Táíwò articulates that better than anyone else that I've seen.

A Forbes article on Why Diversity Programming Doesn’t Work asks “How do we know what we think we know?” and “What are the implications of being wrong?” These questions get at the core of what’s wrong with deferential approaches to DEIB. Can you give us some quick definitions of Elite Capture and Standpoint Epistemology? And what negative effects do you see these dynamics causing in the organizations you work with?

Sure thing. Elite capture is “the control over political agendas and resources by a group’s most advantaged people” and epistemology is the philosophical study of how we know what we know. So standpoint epistemology is the idea that marginalized people are aware of things that privileged groups aren’t and that we should defer to people with certain identities when we’re writing stories, making decisions, or creating systems that will affect them.

To borrow some language from Táíwò, what we’re seeing is predation by elites. We've worked with a number of nonprofits that have been called out and whose leadership teams or boards are more often than not, mostly white, mostly man-identifying, mostly straight, cis, [and with an] elite education. And without fail, who ends up being the representative, the spokesperson, the face of the equity action plan or the equity commission? It's the one or two people who have marginalized identities, but that means if, and often when, anything goes wrong, who’s left holding the bag? It’s the person from those identities. 

They're the ones leading the DEIB initiatives and they're the ones who are doing the crisis management and they're the ones writing the statements. They're out in front, and that makes them vulnerable. This is why we see so much scapegoating within leadership teams. If you ask the other board members, they'll say, “well, but we have to defer to them because they have lived experience, because they're experts on this.” But let's also be realistic. If I’m on a board, I’m not really coming from the same lived experience, most likely, that the people calling us out are coming from. And so while I'm still very much at risk and vulnerable in my identity, and I also very much have gaps in my knowledge [based in lived experience]. 

So what’s the experience like for the “tokens” who are chosen to represent minority groups? What kind of pressure does this put on them?

Standpoint epistemology is usually focused on the importance of lived experience, which in and of itself is not negative, but it’s a traumatic experience more often than not. When we say “lived experience,” we’re usually asking people to relive their trauma and perform their trauma for us. And these groups don't necessarily want to be identified with their trauma and adversity. 

That's certainly not fair to our, you know, tokens. And it incentivizes some pretty mercenary behavior. It's how we end up with all of these situations where people will exaggerate or lie about the adversity that they've gone through. Or adopt marginalized identities as a form of power—we wouldn't have a Rachel Dolezal because there would be nothing to be gained by her passing as a Black woman.

If I’m being elevated because of my social identities and I'm the one person who is elevated, I have now been transformed into a tool of the elite. To give you a practical example, [think about] ERG leaders. How often do they feel like they've just been turned into a mouthpiece for the leaders in their organization? That the only way that they can get anything done is if they cave and compromise and adjust who they are and what they advocate for? So that maybe they get the crumbs.

The problem with privilege and power is that the more of it you have, the more of it you want. And so the fact that it’s unequally distributed is polluting to the people who hold it, along with the people who don't. If  I'm a member of a marginalized group and I get increasingly more power and privilege at the expense of other members of my group, there's something fundamentally dark about that for me and my existence.

What does Táíwò’s antidote to Standpoint Epistemology look like?

What he's saying is what we hear in DEIB and disability justice all the time, which is “nothing about us without us.” He's just saying it in a more authoritative way, and he's also explaining why it's necessary beyond the feel-good inclusion piece. He's talking about the dangers, the stasis and stuckness, that exist when we don't take that approach.

The counter to “being in the room privilege” is to give people the space to build new rooms. One that puts all of the players in the same room together. I liked the way that Táíwò focused on Flint, Michigan. The mayor and the city and the Department of Environmental Quality were all saying “We support healthy communities and we're telling the truth that this water is safe to drink,” but the residents resisted because they knew their tap water was not safe.

So, we don't just say, “Okay, well the scientists are the ones who know what's going on with water, so they're going to make these decisions.” We put in the residents, we put in the activists, we put in the community members. And I love that he uses the citizen science campaign as an example because a citizen science campaign encompasses so many different kinds of people who are necessary for beneficial outcomes.

So as a DEIB practitioner and consensus facilitator, what are your recommendations for those who want to build new rooms within their organizations? How do you reach out and involve people who will be affected by these decisions when there is no precedent? What can you tell us about what an epistemology of radical worker solidarity might look like?

I can give you a really simple example. Let's say that one of your organizational goals is to launch a new performance feedback system. In an elite capture model, you’d likely involve a select amount of leaders or people managers and the HR team. The bigger your organization, the harder it is because you can't have an unwieldy number of people making decisions. 

If we’re thinking about radical worker solidarity, though, before we even invite people into the room, we ask: Who does this decision most impact? What have we heard? What have employees asked for? Have we created a forum for employees to ask for these things? And have we created a forum for employees to say they want to be part of this without it being forced on them? Because there's a difference between saying, “I nominate you for the DEIB committee because you have X, Y, Z identity” and saying, “There's this project that directly impacts you. Would you like to be involved in looking at this project and doing it together?” 

So what you would do is put together a coalition of people at all levels: entry-level folks, individual contributors, people managers, and you would be looking at social identity as well. You have essentially this advisory group of people who don't necessarily have to execute the project if they don't want to, but who are involved and who are essentially the approvers of it. And if they aren't on board, then they have to get on board, right? They have to see something that they can stand behind and think will positively impact them. 

There are a lot of things that go into making that advisory committee successful:

  1. Some of the hours that the team would have allocated to other work have to be allocated to this project. It shouldn't be extra, it shouldn't be homework, it shouldn't be extracurricular. It's part of their job. 
  2. There has to be a community of peers who are good with these people being the ones chosen. That might not always be an election process, but you could have nominations or you could just have people yay or nay. Or you could essentially start with a big group and whittle down to a small group. That's another way of engaging in radical worker solidarity, because you want somebody who's going to represent the interest of the group, not just themselves or an elite on their team.
  3. You'd also want to make sure different departments are represented. So, if we're working in a tech company, we don't want to see engineers overrepresented in performance feedback because the way that they might like to receive it or what they might want feedback on could be very different than customer support. But we're more likely to think about our engineers because they cost us more money, they're harder to recruit, and we're really focused on their retention. Being able to say we need to balance and kind of check our own biases in building this room. 
  4. Finally, the process needs to be iterative. We can't just say “this is the performance feedback process forever and it can't be changed or adjusted.” There has to be some room for it to be messy and difficult and conflict-laden, and there has to be some work done with adding in facilitators or project managers. In a sense, whatever you're doing when you haven't built a room like this before, is a pilot. You’d start with something smaller and more manageable so that after a few of these, you can start doing it for bigger and bigger decisions.

You’ve shared with me that you believe the short-term role of DEIB work is providing a balm or support and care in periods of uncertainty, and the long-term goal of DEI work is emancipation, which means redistribution of power. How do you balance those two when you’re building new rooms?

That's actually something that’s foundational to Ethos: it's why we use healing-centered engagement versus a trauma-informed approach. Shawn K. Ginwright developed the healing-centered engagement model specifically for working with youth in communities of color. The central idea behind healing-centered engagement is not the question “What happened to you?” or “What’s wrong with you?” but “What is right with you?”

The idea of building up, being in solidarity, sharing, collaborating, focusing on consensus, I think that’s so valuable and useful, and I think that there are lots of examples in the work that we do at Ethos where we have actually done this and recommended this. We had a client that was doing a major development on indigenous and religious sacred land. We were suggesting that they were in an adversarial relationship with the community members, and [that instead of thinking of it as] a PR problem, [to think of it as] a co-creation problem. 

When we look at other folks who've done successful development projects here, one of the key things that we notice is that they went to the community members and residents first, whereas this group went to landholders and politicians. It made a big difference in the acceptance of the project, but also how the project ended up coming to fruition: the different elements of it, the environmental responsibility, the relationship to culture and religion. Because who is in the room dictates how something gets done, and when it's the elites in the room, whether they're native or not, there's going to only be an elite perspective.

And to be clear, it's not like everything [workers] ask for is totally fair or legitimate or right, or like their interests are all aligned with each other. It's messy. 

I facilitate consensus. You can see when we're in a place of scarcity, if we're not principled, if we don't have another epistemology, if we don't have another framework, how easy it is to start fighting over resources and comparing our griefs and our slights and our injuries and comparing our discriminations and harassments. The idea is there's only so much in the pot and I have to compete with you, who should be my partner, who should be my peer. And so that's why I think that the need for another epistemology, the need for another way exists, because we have to stop cannibalizing ourselves in the movement for change on the grounds of identity within organizations, but also just generally.

Ultimately what we need is to move away from standpoint epistemology and move towards a framework that puts knowledge, and specifically making knowledge and distributing knowledge, in the hands of the people who traditionally aren't given power. They need principles, behaviors, a code, a credo, something that allows for them to stand against. 

Are you ready for a deeper conversation about how knowledge is created and rooms are built in your organization? Let’s chat!


Blog written by Kelsey Hoff

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