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  • Jennifer McClanahan-Flint

Corporate Social Justice Starts Within

In the past few months, we have had many organizations reaching out to Leverage to Lead for support in building their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. We talk a lot about corporate culture and safety, so it’s encouraging to see leaders understand the need to create environments where women and people of color can bring their full creativity and innovation.

In this article, we want to address the urgency with which corporations want to take action and be part of social change. And we want to dig into our first steps in working together—our approach and philosophy when engaging with a company’s need to build equity and inclusion in their culture.

Take Action Inward


Many organizations feel the social pressure to take action in response to the swell of racial justice movements sweeping across every state. Often, their desire to do something is rooted in uncertainty and discomfort. In their haste, organizations will make outward-facing declarations on their commitment to social justice. At the same time, their internal cultural values are a slap in the face to employees of color who are experiencing inequitable pay, lack of transparency, or constant micro/macro-aggressions (racial abuse).

We have been approached with requests for a plan on how they can transform into a social justice organization. They want to reach for steps like diversity seminars, trainings, and retreats. Or initiatives like a media campaign, a new employee perk, or philanthropy.

This is when we redirect the company inward and remind leaders that social justice and racial equity starts with you, your team, your practices, your values—are they just and inclusive? Taking action looks like building a company culture that values diversity, invites authentic and uncomfortable conversations, builds accountability measures, and creates systems that nurture and support.

All of this will set every employee free to do their best, most innovative, collaborative work. Most leaders are unaware that our default adherence to white supremacist cultural values and structures of society are harming all of us.

We start our work with organizations by focusing on values because it gives leaders the ability to center everyone’s humanity. We all get to be human in the process together as we work from a shared center. Additionally, we know that people and organizations build strengths and skills based on what they value. It’s true for all of us—if we value time, we will develop executive function and efficiency skills. If we value our network, we will build relationships.

But, if your company values are unclear, unfairly applied, or unspoken, the default is white supremacist cultural values that have a negative on equity and belonging.


The Real First Step


None of this transformative work can even begin until the leadership steps forward to openly examine the company’s values. You may have them written down, but do you really know what your values are? Are they default white supremacist values? Are they applied equally across the organization—in hiring, retention, promotion, financials, strategy, management, product development? Are they too vague to stand behind? Are they set up to support all employees or just some? Are people held accountable to them equally and consistently?

Across the board, we see one consistent factor determine a company’s success—whether they make profound, lasting change, or simply gestures toward them.


It’s humility.


Admitting their knowledge gap. Assessing where they have or lack competence in addressing these areas. Listening to their people and then taking action based on what others need. Owning that being “nice” or “a good person” isn’t the same as being anti-racist, and it isn’t enough. Acknowledging that racial injustice is a company crisis, on the same level as a financial crisis, an HR crisis, or a lawsuit.

From this stance of openness and courage, leaders can determine their level of cultural competency. There are typically four:

· Unconscious incompetence: when leaders are unaware of structural racism and inequalities and the impact that these inequalities have on an organization.

· Conscious incompetence: when leaders are aware that structural racism and inequalities may be impacting company culture or structures and do not know how to address the problems.

· Conscious competence: when leaders take thoughtful, effortful actions toward addressing structural and cultural inequalities—like reforming systems, changing practices, educating themselves, and enforcing accountability.

· Unconscious competence: when leaders can operate within an ecosystem of clearly defined values and a well-structured system that equally supports all employees. They address bias, accountability, feedback, and company practices according to their values and structures.

Let’s be clear: if company leadership isn’t willing to go here—to own what they don’t know and take a hard look internal structures, DEI work can’t be done.

What Matters to Your People


Every company’s DEI goals and needs are unique, but we want to leave you with some basic foundational ideas to keep in mind when you’re ready to bring your leadership to this work.

  • People want to be heard and listened to. If you take a climate survey, be ready to take action based on the feedback.

  • DEI work isn’t about dismantling all structures; it’s about dismantling structures driven by white supremacist values. We need structure, and structures don’t have to be oppressive or stifling. They can be aligned with your values. They can be nurturing and supportive.

  • People want to feel safe enough to do their best work. When they’re not bracing themselves for disenfranchising biases or constantly worried about their value within a company, they are free to innovate, take risks, handle conflict, sit with discomfort, collaborate, and create real value for their organization.

  • Successful DEI work doesn’t magically eliminate racism or injustice. Rather it establishes clear accountability measures for not living up to core values. People may still cause harm, but everyone will be clear on the consequences and the road to repair.

  • Leaders must be willing to learn new tools, recognize the facets of white supremacy culture, invite healthy conflict, listen, and take action.

If your organization is contemplating how to take formulate values that support equity and inclusion, feel free to be in touch at any time.

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