'Our Combined Experiences and Knowledge Can Make a Difference in the Future' - by Willette Neal

define cultural intelligence dei difficult discussons make real change may 2022 motivation willette neal May 16, 2022

I am exhausted, but I can't quit. This "thing" we do, this work that encompasses us, this moment in which we exist requires me/us to continue our work in DEI. Our dedication to assisting and encouraging others to see the need for this work at this moment and feel why this work is essential can be mentally and physically exhausting. As I attempt to move forward in this diversity sphere, sometimes I feel as though I am trudging through this process in a fashion like walking in mud. It is messy, it's dark, and it's heavy, but I can't quit. I must intentionally seek to find spaces where light exists, and our work is evident. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, our newest member of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, is my current moment of light.  

Seeing Justice Jackson confirmed to the highest court in the land, this moment of light filled my soul with joy while simultaneously visualizing the heavy load I and others expect her to carry. Before she sits in her new seat, I need her to represent about 20 million black women, keep that look of pride on her daughter's face, maintain her marriage, keep smiling, respond nicely to public insults, keep the look of pride on the face of her parents, answer for any past rulings in which others didn't agree, defend her position on a school board, continue to attend school board meetings, correct whatever injustices I believe to have previously occurred and finally serve in this position for a lifetime because it's a lifetime appointment. Insanity in this form is to expect this from anyone, and this is only the tip of the iceberg referencing the load she is expected to carry. 

Black women around the country heard her "heavy sigh" before responding to the Senator. We translated so many things in that unspoken moment. We knew- that she knew that how she reacted in that very moment carried so much weight for future conversations. If she came off to strong, then she could be perceived as angry, if she refused to respond to the insanity of the moment, then she could come off as arrogant; if she responded with all the education she possessed, then she would come off as dismissive. So, in the end, she lowered her tone and answered, which is where many black women can relate. We often hold back to remain in the spaces where we find ourselves. And this is the segue for our work in DEI. How do we help develop spaces where instead of "heaving a heavy sigh," I/we can voice responses as a minority in the same vein the majority responds?  

How do we help develop an environment that genuinely values the expertise of the individuals on the team? How do we get into a "reality" mindset and realize that the world outside of our organizations has a nefarious impact on our work environment? When are we going to acknowledge that the heavy load that is expected of Justice Brown is indicative of most black and brown women in the workforce? Yet, instead of discussing this, instead of addressing it, we are relegated to the "heavy sigh."  

We have screamed about the impact of implicit biases, but what are we saying about the apparent biases that occur? Implicit wasn't present in the interview/questioning of Justice Brown; it was more closely related to apparent biases. Unfortunately, there are many of us who have experienced both obvious and implicit biases in the interview process.  

Our duty in our profession is to discuss these realistically. I recently was part of a panel, and one panelist admitted to something like; we realize that most African American women that apply for positions within our organization never make it past the interview stage." It is not enough to recognize that this exists; our efforts must be on determining why it exists and make concerted efforts to eradicate all remnants of the reasoning behind the existence of such practices. To that end, in this same organization I am advocating for accountability from leadership as the first step. I want this followed by an actionable response such as developing an entire office (this organization does not have a DEI office or officer) to address barriers to productive and diverse environments at all levels of the organization. I must explain, sometimes loudly, how impactful it would be to have employees operate in an environment in which they are valued and represented. As a DEI professional, I often reflect on how I would react and respond if I were in the majority. I use this culturally intelligent approach to guide some of the most in-depth conversations around barriers in the workplace. But to go back to the beginning of this dialogue, this is exhausting, but I can't quit. This is exhausting, but I won't quit. I believe that if we are in a moment in history in which our combined experiences and knowledge can make a difference in the future. 

We can start by understanding one of the dimensions of cultural intelligence- motivation. What motivates individuals to respond in a specific manner in situations? When we can understand intrinsic motivations, we can begin to link barriers to actionable items. I am not one to believe that at the onset, individuals collaboratively decided to ensure African American women wouldn't make it to the interview, but I do think that there are systemic barriers that are grounded in intrinsic motivation. I will continue to drop small nuggets in these conversations in the hope that they will inspire readers to start a realistic dialogue around making real change.   

Willette Neal, Director
Membership, Outreach & Diversity