Our Current Marker on an Endless Road

Nov 29, 2021Insights, Perspectives

Ultimately this, Camber Collective’s update to the progress of our Racial Equity work, would merit a collective byline, considering the team’s many hours of co-learning, reflecting, appreciation, de-centering, and design of our pathway towards being an equitable firm and a collaborative partner for our clients and their missions. However, as Camber’s new and first Director of Impact and Equity who joined the firm earlier this fall of 2021, I am excited and proud to share my perspective on what we have discovered so far, and the efforts we will continue to pursue. 

When staff members approached the Partners in 2019 with a request to engage upon a Racial Equity learning and practice, we were living in a different world. This was before COVID-19 shut down the planet; before George and Breonna and Ahmaud’s murders and the Atlanta shooting rampage changed how the US, and its majority-white society, media and corporations engaged in new soul-searching and commitments.

This is a meaningful observation, as it demonstrates that Camber was not jumping on what feels to some—a year on, and with some concerning societal backsliding—like a performative bandwagon of institutional hand-wringing and solidarity statements. Over the past two years, the staff at Camber Collective has been led by a thoughtful team of external experts through a deep curriculum about the history of racism in America, an exposure of white privilege, and white supremacy, white-dominant cultures and racial narratives. From this expanded lens, the team began its internal, preliminary efforts to pro-actively build an anti-racist practice. Team members diligently balanced their duties of client work and subject-matter eminence with many additional hours of learning about race, racism, and racial inequity. There remain many other factors of inequity to navigate through, including race relations beyond Black and white, the global context of colonization and the struggle for human dignity, agency, and well-being at a universal, humankind level, but it is a start, and the team’s dedication to continually learn, grow, and improve (and the creation of my role) are remarkable. 

As per usual, this labor at times weighed disproportionately on Camber’s BIPOC* staff, and yet there has been an indisputable willingness from the white** team members to recognize their colleagues’ heavy load within our racialized societal context, and to step aside/make space for BIPOC leadership and perspective while at the same time striving to avoid the misfortune of a “teach me/show me” attitude. So far, I have seen signs of radical gratitude and grace from all team members towards each other. Now we are at a juncture where breathing, rest, and celebration are appropriate: for our BIPOC team-members whose lived experience harbors so much strain from being Othered in society at large, and for our white team members who have faced down the discomforts of recognizing their inherent and often unacknowledged privilege while reckoning with their place in a society that has historically and contemporaneously sought to harm, plunder, exploit, and erase. 

This is grisly work, to put it lightly! And it doesn’t ever end. Because Camber values and emphasizes an adaptive journey, we must admit that mistakes have been and will be made. Working in a data and evidence-based sector, it can be conceptually derailing to admit the inevitability of not always getting it perfect, yet we commit to learning from our mistakes and missteps, listening as well as leading, and testing the parameters of what can be. This New Rome will not be built in a day or even a year, but this is the task before us, and the team is eager to rise to the challenge. 

Considering the paradigms of our sector, I salute my teammates’ honesty, humility, and dedication to moving forward. At the same time, climbing this mountain of racial equity (not to mention other justice and equity levers: gender, sexual expression, age, class, geographic location, ableism, and on…) is a never-ending effort; as soon as we reach a plateau where we might want to pat ourselves on the back, a steep cliff face of reality appears right before us, testing our mettle. Expecting to never falter is a tenet of Either/Or thinking as well as Perfectionism, two of 20 “White Supremacist Culture”*** principles we are examining as we build our deeper practice. Derived from Zara Zimbardo of Partners for Collaborative Change, and drawing heavily on the “Dismantling White Supremacy Culture” work of Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones, “Pivoting Away from White Supremacist Culture” is a fascinating and powerful blueprint for institutional Equity design. We cannot hit 100% of the levers, many of which are anathema to the very structure of a consulting firm’s business model, but humility and a commitment to expanding what we can where we can are important parts of how I see the collective work moving forward. 

From both a domestic and global standpoint, much of the scourge of inequity originates from an imbalance of and access to power. Power-hoarders, of course, are not going to just hand over the proverbial car keys to activists and community leaders. The longer game I believe we are working towards, as an Equity-focused, mission-aligned for-profit firm, is to leverage and expand access and influence: by working in consort and trust with community and place-based experts—both domestically and abroad—we can seek to share power in order to ultimately shift it (or at least broaden its parameters). It’s a long and challenging process, and humility, honesty, and trust must be at the core. This is a priority for our internal and external partnership design as we move forward.  

The next phase of our Equity journey is detailed in my job description. I am here to help lead the development of our internal DEI and belonging work, building towards our DEI goals related to culture, policies, and processes. Almost every member of the team has been involved in one of our many committees as we continue to try to model a firmwide community where everyone feels, as Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) puts it: Seen, Connected, Proud, and Supported

As we continue to build out the policies and structures that will anchor these practices, I am also tasked with helping develop Camber’s external Impact and Equity practice, including how we disseminate our theories of change into our client work and business development and how we measure our sector impact. Once again, a reality check offers an opportunity to reject Either/Or thinking. Although a particularly egregious tenet of White Supremacist Culture is primacy of the written word, we recognize that our clients and sector will not be satisfied with pictograph reports and infographic landscape analyses—yet there are many other ways we can more deliberately assert the human face of our work and impact. This is an exciting moment to reaffirm our position within the sector. 

Another important element is creating and uplifting cultural relevance. We have an office in Paris, which is the portal to a great deal of our current and future work in the EMEA regions. And yet France’s history and current navigation of race, ethnicity, and culture, plays out in an entirely different universe than that of the United States, so we will include critical reflection and action on systems of oppression in Europe and other global contexts. (Certainly, though, the imbalance of power and oppression is a bottom line that connects all these systems of oppression, no matter what the country or region.) 

I will repeat: this is never-ending work, which makes it both exhilarating and at times, exhausting. Making space for rest, reflection, and celebration is an important part of our collective journey, and we will continue to build out our internal and client-facing approaches. There are some Dismantling elements we will not be able to deliver upon, given that we are a global management consultancy firm and not a nonprofit, a think tank, or a governmental entity—yet there are ways we know we can be impactful, and we want to be a leader in our sector in how we do this. (We intend to lead through influence—coercion would be mightily hypocritical!) 

Banter aside, I will close with a reflection. In interviewing for this position, I had many interesting conversations with my fellow teammates about “DEI” or “EDI” or now as some call it, appending a J for Justice, “JEDI.” (A term which, frankly, irks me, as it bends the mind towards the Star Wars franchise and somewhat sullies the seriousness of the matter).  While Equity is important in hiring, retention, and professional development, its true purpose, is, I think, in shaping how we live in our work. 

An example of this is how we even talk about the work of workplace Equity. I personally prefer the unpronounceable acronym DEIRB, which reflects how an organization can move past the first three waystations towards authentic and lasting Equity. Diversity means realizing that the majority white default narrative or landscape is not reflective of reality; de-centering the whiteness norm in every aspect of Western society is an important first step. Equity is about embarking upon a learning voyage about oppression, racism, and other unpleasant but real pieces of our history, and making both a personal (for it really does begin and end in what is in one’s individual heart, mind, and actions) and institutional effort to resist and reject these standards. Inclusion does not stop at just bringing Black/brown/younger/gender expansive, etc. faces into your company or group, but ensuring that they are set up to succeed and thrive professionally, and given the grace to grow into and grow the mission, a mainstay of business practice that is often elusive for BIPOC leaders. To navigate through and plan for these three first areas, many firms and groups benefit from outside help, including us. 

The next two steps of the journey recognize the never-endingness of the process, and to deliver upon them addresses a firm’s inner work. Representation goes further than inclusion, ensuring that the kaleidoscope of faces and personas proudly displayed on an “About Us” page begin to reflect living individuals—the magnificence of difference—and that “diversity” in the org does not remain bottom- or middle-heavy and light at the upper echelons. Fixing that is the work of our entire society together (and this is where our external partners in community, policy, and engagement are essential allies), but it is important to recognize the extent to which in-group preference and bias shut out those very people who will help make your system resilient and sustainable. The final letter, B is for Belonging, the ongoing work of creating cultures inside and out where people matter most, and Othering is not tolerated. 

What an incredible calling, and what an enormous challenge. Yet, herein lies the actual work, the power, the honor of marching ever on towards Equity. Onward! 

* As I write this, the term BIPOC is already being challenged as ineffective, particularly among Black people and other people “of color” in society. Nomenclature is ever dynamic, and while we continue to use this acronym for now, we recognize its imperfection and tendency to conflate people into the stricture of flat categorization. 

** An important first step in this work, as we have learned from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Robin D’AngeloIjeoma Olou and so many others, is to not shirk away from using the term “white.” My favorite book so far this year on why we have to say the words and know the history is Heather McGhee’s “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” but more work is being released on the topic with encouraging regularity.

*** Tema Okun’s refreshed website is highly recommended. The piece of advice I consider most memorable is “don’t weaponize the framework.” Anti-racism progress, and the rejection of White Supremacy models is more effective with calling-in, as opposed to calling out. UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute is a helpful resource for more on these concepts.