Camber Co-founders and Partners Brian Leslie and Ted Schneider describe their, and the firm’s, journey to center racial equity in our work. This post includes an update on our progress and commitments for the future.
Introduction and Context
Over the last 12 years we’ve been fortunate to work with incredible colleagues and clients to drive impact and grow Camber Collective into the firm it is today. We always believed that launching a consulting firm during the ‘Great Recession’ took optimism, courage, and luck. However, as white founders, we have come to understand how much we benefitted from whiteness and systems of racial inequity throughout our lives. While these systems were designed to be invisible to us, they played a critical role in our ability to start and grow this organization. We also recognize that Camber has contributed to the systemic inequities that are present in the social sector as well as the consulting industry. We carry significant privilege because of the resources, power, and influence of the clients and partners we serve. We are striving to both be better and do better through our own equity learning and action, to ensure we are better able to understand and correct for the role that systems play in restricting access to power and resources.
In early 2019 Camber launched the first diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) effort in our firm’s history. The effort was inspired and led by a small group of BIPOC team members who pushed the firm to think differently about our values, our culture and our role in the social impact consulting sector. In 2020 we fundamentally changed our DEI work to center racial equity. There is a clear through line from the legacy of racial oppression and historical extraction of labor and lands to the inequities and disparate outcomes that Camber seeks to address. Understanding these systems, and our role in them, can be difficult and uncomfortable. Our belief is that if we do not center racial equity in this work, we would center our own comfort and find ways to focus on other, less challenging aspects of equity. We also believe that if we can build the internal muscle and approaches to address racial inequality, it will allow us to effectively address other systems of inequity.
Over the last year we’ve seen a growing movement for racial justice in the United States, sparked by ongoing police brutality and the high-profile murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the health and economic disparities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. We were compelled to support this movement last year, through our voice, through additional resources committed to racial justice organizations, and support for our team members who marched and protested. But we are in this work for the long haul, to examine our own complicity, and work towards transformation or our organization and the systems within which we most closely work.
Over the last 12 months, in partnership with our Equity Working Group, we have worked with Dr. Heather Hackman of Hackman Consulting Group and Lindsay Hill of Sojourner Advising to facilitate a learning journey for our team and firm. While we still have a long way to go in our learning, to achieve our equity goals internally, and to create more just and equitable societies around the world, we wanted to provide a snapshot of what we have learned thus far and where we are going next.
Our key learnings
- This is a journey with no end. Transforming our organization will require ongoing structural change, evolution of our culture, internal systems and processes, and a commitment to ongoing learning and listening. As with any long journey, we are defining goals and milestones for ourselves, and periodically checking in on where we need to do more, and where we have made progress. We will continue to align this work with our Camber Values, which provide a north star when this work is challenging or when there is uncertainty on our path.
- This work requires deep personal commitment, confronting uncomfortable truths, and the ability to engage in difficult conversations. Progress comes from individual discovery and emotional vulnerability based first in emotions and feelings. As a former colleague on a nonprofit board once said, “some people will bring lived experience to this work, some will intellectualize it, but everyone has to feel it”. Our conversations with the team over the last year have been challenging, and we’ve grown in our capacity to authentically and emotionally engage in this work.
- The draw of business as usual is strong and requires intentionality to pull out of the grooves. The status quo of our society has been constructed to create and maintain inequities in outcomes across wealth, well-being, and belonging. As white leaders of an organization, comfort with the status quo has been learned and entrenched throughout our lives. Imagining new ways of doing things that disrupts business as usual is critical to achieve equity; disruption feels risky, and yet finding new and more equitable ways to do things leads to better outcomes for everyone.
- Pursuing a racial equity agenda internally means that respecting the backgrounds and demographics of our team is important but insufficient. As individuals, and as a firm, we are beginning to understand the day-to-day experiences of our BIPOC team members. We must continue to invest in a culture of belonging, where our people can bring their full authentic selves, and each person’s unique set of lived experiences and perspectives contributes to our organizational mission and our client engagements.
- We have to focus first on evolving ourselves and then on transforming Camber. Our team is driven by the desire to create impact and drive equity in partnership with our clients. Our starting point is a commitment to ongoing individual learning and action, while integrating learnings into our collective practices, norms, and behaviors at Camber. That will in turn enable us to effectively influence the systemic changes needed to create more equitable and just societies with our clients.
Our commitments going forward
We will continue to invest Camber resources, including budget and staff time, in our racial equity work. After our current learning phase, we will develop an equity roadmap to guide our ongoing work, including our commitments to:
- Transform Camber’s structures, policies, practices and culture to be an anti-racist organization
- Diversify Camber’s management team and ownership structure
- Integrate racial equity into our Camber theories of influence and our work with clients in pursuit of equity in health, climate, prosperity and democracy
- Continue to listen and learn so that we can better understand and dismantle the systems and structures that inhibit racial equity
One way we will continue to be accountable to this work is to provide updates on this work in this space on at least an annual basis. We also know that many of our clients, partners, and peers are undertaking this important work in parallel. We welcome your thought partnership, feedback and learnings – the work of dismantling systems of oppression will not be accomplished in silos but rather in coordination and collaboration.