Racial Equity in the Workplace: Q&A with Karen Thomas

Inclusive Leadership
Minute Read

Over the past several years, we’ve seen organizations respond to the demand for racial equity and accountability in many different ways. Unfortunately, even leaders who want to create positive change can have a hard time finding the right resources and making real progress. So what are equity-focused organizations doing to support Black employees in 2023? 

This is the big question I had in mind when I interviewed Training and Programs Facilitator and Content Facilitation Manager Karen Thomas. Karen transitioned to Ethos from a 13-year career in education fueled by her personal mission to create learning environments where all children could feel like they belong. In her view, the systems we’ve built to manage education, adoption, and nonprofit work contain all kinds of “ugly truths wrapped up with beauty.” Today’s leaders can stand to learn a lot from how teachers like Karen create cultures of belonging with elementary school students. Karen also played a big role in developing our Race in America Workshop

Keep reading for a glimpse at Karen’s personal story, her philosophies on racial healing work, and how her education experience informs her work with Ethos.

A Developmental Perspective On Race and Racism 

From her earliest childhood memories, Karen was very conscious of how she and others didn’t belong in the classroom and in her community. She identifies as a Black biracial woman and was transracially adopted, which means she grew up with White parents. Having dyslexia compounded her difficulties with feeling accepted at school. Karen has done compassion and healing work of her own in order to lead these conversations: when she saw that adoptive parents in her school community needed advice on how to best support children from different backgrounds, she felt called to facilitate workshops.

“That is what I believe drew me to want to become a teacher…to make a space for kids who felt the way that I felt.” Karen felt successful in building classroom cultures where kids felt like they could thrive and their parents could see them thriving. However, she ultimately left both the education and nonprofit industries because of how she saw these systems limiting the individuals within them from making a bigger impact, creating real change, thriving independently, and being able to support themselves. Karen was drawn to Ethos partly because she gets to work closely with leaders in different kinds of organizations, helping them create structures that really support their people. 

While making the switch to organizational development and DEIB from education has been a big adjustment, Karen has noticed similarities between these two worlds. Starting fresh with new client teams reminds her of beginning a new school year with a new group of students: as a facilitator, she has to re-learn to communicate with each new group and reset new norms and dynamics. She notes that you can’t get high scores from students if they don’t feel safe, and even though we can take our psychological safety for granted as adults, the same is true in the workplace. Adults are actually more likely to be harmed because we come with more baggage: we’ve learned how to act and developed preconceptions from our previous experiences. 

Racial Equity in the Workplace 

I asked Karen for her perspective on the work we do at Ethos and what leaders need to know about race and creating cultures of equity and belonging in 2023. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the biggest challenges leaders and managers face when they start on the journey toward cultural awareness and racial equity?

Shame and guilt are big parts of it, but when we really see how we’re connected with these issues and we live in these systems every day, that changes the feeling of overwhelm. You start to find the tools and develop self-compassion practices, and it could even mean connecting with mental health resources.

Not having trust in the organization is also a big issue, especially for People of Color who bring trust issues and loss from other places, and for those who have tried things that haven’t worked. 

I think clarity on where people are at, what the next step should be, and timing are also big things that prevent people from doing this work. We tend to want to do everything right now and overhaul entire systems all at once when long-lasting change is actually built with small pieces over time. The process doesn’t seem linear and it can be messy, but the step of coming back to regroup and adjust the plan is what changes everything.

Can you tell me a bit about the Race in America Workshop and what your process was like creating it?

In our Race in America Workshop, teams explore how race affects who we are, how we are perceived, how we relate to each other, and what we can do to advance a more just environment. One unique thing we provide in this workshop is practical tools that can be implemented as soon as the next day. We show you the small steps and behaviors it will take to restructure the socialization process in your organization.

The first step in our creation process was doing a lot of research. Most of what we learn in school about history and race isn’t an accurate portrayal of what really happened, so we focused on the un-learning that needs to happen and found more accurate accounts. Race is embedded in our history and the foundation of this country, and a lot of people don’t make that connection. 

We also thought a lot about how to make the content accessible. Race is a hard topic, and it can be hard to find common entry points in order to talk about it with people on different journeys. Thinking of ways to soothe people’s nervous systems so they can actually take in the information was also a huge feat. It took understanding trauma and racialized trauma, and then incorporating that with the history. 

What are the most effective leaders doing to advance this work, and what do business leaders need to understand about race in America?

Effective leaders will take responsibility for training people on social competency skills from management on down. This involves everything from emotional regulation to bias training, how to have compassionate conversations, and how to provide effective feedback. Ultimately, you need to learn how to move in this space for your people.

I have three takeaways that I would share:

  1. Understand that racial dynamics are present in your organization and that if you can’t spell out your specific expectations, the default culture in our society is white supremacy. No one is exempt from this.
  2. Understand that the issues surrounding race are traumatic, and that trauma lives inside of people and affects how we operate on every level. Your approach to DEIB needs to respect that and bring everyone in where they are in order to move forward together.
  3. This work is intentional. It won’t happen on its own, it won’t happen by rewriting your company values. The intentionality comes in reworking the systems and processes you have in place. 

What other practical suggestions do you have for leaders who want to do this work?

I do have a few practical suggestions for leaders:

  1. Learn how to hold Compassionate Conversations.
  2. Read My Grandmother’s Hands
  3. Take a serious look at the processes you have in place. Look at things like how feedback is given and who gets training.

Final Words On Race in America

During our interview, Karen squinted to read a quote by Reverend Jennifer Bailey that she has posted in her workspace: “Relationships move at the speed of trust. Social change moves at the speed of relationships.” 

Every February during Black History Month we hear that we should be doing racial healing, compassion, and equity work all year round, but most people still don’t receive this message in a context that’s familiar and easy to understand. Karen suggests that “If you think of relationship as the foundation of what people are coming into when they come into your organization, that’s what you’re building.” We know relationship-building in our personal lives is a fluid process that takes a lot of time, but at work, we want to fast-track it. It’s especially tricky for organizations because people are always coming and going.

One great question that came up was “How do I create teams that need each other to function, that are truly cooperative and not independent?”

“Teamwork” is a word we hear in organizational settings all the time, but how well can leaders really expect people to get to know and respect each other if we’re not talking about race? Karen points out that being a “team player” means different things in different contexts, from playing soccer to going to school or working on a project management team. In the classroom and in the boardroom, getting really explicit with the language around these expectations instead of operating on assumptions is critical.

Are you interested in hosting a Race in America workshop with your team? Book a free discovery call and let’s chat.


Blog written by Kelsey Hoff

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