On diversity and inclusion, it’s not what you think you should be doing

February 28, 2024

Guest blog

GUEST BLOG: This post has been reposted from Climate Outreach

The Race Report for 2023 shows the climate sector still has huge strides to make to achieve race equality. In organisations, there is often pressure to present a diversity and inclusion plan with SMART objectives and results. Our Organisational Development Manager, Martha Wiltshire, shares her view that genuine change doesn’t necessarily work like that. Here, Martha shares some of her reflections from her role in the sector, and sets out three things Climate Outreach has tried to do that have had some impact.

I am a white, state-educated, middle class woman who grew up with liberal values in 1990s Birmingham. I joined Climate Outreach five years ago in a junior role and later progressed to management. At the time, Climate Outreach was a very white, predominantly middle class organisation with a principled mission to widen and diversify narratives about climate change. I knew that the leadership was very aware of the lack of diversity in the organisation, and wanted to change this. But I also observed that we were struggling with overwhelm, perfectionism and a sense of urgency.

So here are three areas we’ve worked hard to explore and learn from in the last three years:

Supporting conversations about white privilege

It often falls on people of colour to educate those with white privilege about how racism works.  Most white people are not used to thinking about it because they don’t need to. It often brings up feelings of discomfort, shame and even anger. This plays out as white fragility which shuts down the necessary conversations and awareness required to move forward on our journey. Models like the ‘glass cliff’ or the narrative of the ‘problem woman of colour’ reflect how this can undermine progress. I have personally seen these models play out in real life. I have seen the personal toll it takes on people, especially women of colour. I’ve seen how it affects an organisation. It is unfair. More than that, it’s heart-breaking.

As we started moving towards becoming a more diverse organisation, we saw that people didn’t have the language to understand and express how they were feeling about racism when it was brought to their attention. We needed to challenge our worries of “we don’t have enough time” (urgency), or “I don’t know where to start” (perfectionism).  We did this by resourcing self-reflection and education. I set up a voluntary learning circle based on Layla F Saad’s book, “Me and White Supremacy” and facilitated discussion during work hours. This helped lay the ground for rolling out online mandatory training with The Other Box. We were able to build on a shared language across the organisation to make it easier for people to talk about, and call out, equity and inclusion issues.

Cultivating brave spaces

One of my biggest learnings has been that it is impossible to create safe spaces for everyone. Why? Firstly, because people in organisations are often at very different points in their journey of understanding and educating themselves. By focusing on creating safe spaces for everyone, we were unintentionally upholding white supremacy (see Layla F Saad’s book, “Me and White Supremacy” for a fuller interpretation of the term) and hindering progress. I believe being an anti-racist who also has white privilege starts with being brave enough to face our fears of conflict, discomfort and heart-break. Brave spaces mean we can prioritise the safety of our non-white colleagues. Secondly, what is safe for someone  significantly varies from person to person. Not all people of colour are impacted in the same way by historic trauma and present-day systemic oppression. This is why representation matters.

HR as a powerful medium for cultural change

One of my main remits as an Organisational Development Manager is to embed anti-racism, equity and inclusion into our HR function. Cultural change is often emergent and can’t be planned for specific outcomes. Decision making is based on constant temperature checks while holding ourselves to equity and anti-racist principles. We have made changes to a number of HR policies, including safeguarding and strengthening our line management. We have also worked to remove process and procedure from our systems where we can, so that we have the agility and room for new approaches to inclusion and belonging.    

A lot of this initial work really only happened at CO because we had a woman of colour in charge of HR, Noora Firaq (now Deputy CEO). I say this, not because I think it should have all been on Noora, but because it highlighted how much I didn’t know what I didn’t know. If you don’t experience it, then you have to take proactive steps to gain and build on your knowledge. Don’t wait around for someone to tell you, and if someone does tell you, take it on board and find out more.

Moving towards being an anti-racist organisation isn’t all about goals and outcomes. Aiming for x people of colour or y increase in retention rarely ends in genuine change. And that’s because those interventions don’t focus on the conditions that continue to uphold systemic racism. I say “moving towards” an anti-racist organisation, because it is a constant, non-linear journey we can’t expect to come to an end. It’s about consistent self-awareness and self-leadership; genuine compassion and acceptance of different life experiences; active and deep listening. And, as someone with white privilege, I know it involves personal inner work in processing guilt and shame, and emotional regulation skills. Ultimately, facing the heartbreak is something that I get to make a choice about, while for many people of colour it is a daily confrontation to their existence. By making this choice, we can move beyond intention, and take continuous action.

The Race Report 2023 can be read here.