Leading Organizations as Social Justice Moves from the Streets to the Boardroom

In late 2014, I took on a new organizational role in diversity. What I didn’t realize at that time was the impact that several recent incidents would have on the work of diversity and inclusion. On the night of February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Sanford, Fla., and in the summer of 2014, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in the impoverished town of Ferguson, Mo., sparked protests and riots. Although these incidents are nothing new in many poverty-stricken communities, the power of social media catapulted these incidents into a national conversation on race and violence.

Months later, a group of students contacted me — in my new role as chief diversity officer (CDO) at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University — to engage in dialogue on race. Their shared experiences were painful but were part of an all too familiar narrative. In fact, my own son, home from college for Thanksgiving that year, was not allowed to drive at night due to such events. As parents of a young black man, my husband and I remained cautious.

A Shifting Focus
The past two years have seen a clear shift in how some of the country’s business and institutional leaders are listening and responding to what previously had been external issues that had no effect on their organizations. Today, CEOs, college presidents, and leaders of all industries are not just responding to issues of diversity, innovation, and globalization, but are also addressing issues involving race in America and their socioeconomic effects on many of our nation’s communities.

These enlightened leaders realize that these issues have gradually crept into their personal lives, corporate offices, and the C-suite. They are issues that we can’t take lightly or be afraid to tackle in the workplace. But, until now, dialogue on race had all but disappeared when it came to diversity efforts in many organizations. Once, such conversations were the foundation of diversity programming, but despite diversity practitioners walking away from discussions on race, those conversations were happening in our homes and communities. Race, socioeconomic status, and equity are issues of inequality that show up in social media and the news on a daily basis. These topics are in our face and must be addressed — because we can no longer remain silent.

Preparing to Address Social Issues
Recently, I went back and forth with the dean and other business school leaders regarding her message in addressing the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration. The key question was not whether she should have a message, but what that message should be. As a CDO, I was not alone in addressing this issue. Diversity practitioners in corporate America and elsewhere in higher education were also focusing on this important topic with their leadership teams. The question in my mind was, “As professionals, are we prepared to adequately address such issues?”

Many of us often use the terms “diversity” and “social justice” interchangeably; however, they are different. Social justice refers to equity, opportunity, and privilege and often evokes an emotional reaction. It implies action, but it can also be polarizing and can often impede diversity progress. For many years, we have put social justice on the fringes. Diversity — because it is less emotion-evoking — is a more acceptable business term and still often addresses equity and opportunity, but more as a destination for all.

The work of diversity continues to become more challenging to navigate given the current political climate. The demands of university CEOs, presidents, and deans — who feel compelled to address issues they are passionate about — often conflict with those of their organizations. When those same leaders reach out to their CDOs, asking for advice and counsel, we must be prepared to support them despite any obstacles. As Marilyn Sanders Mobley, vice president for inclusion, diversity, and equal opportunity at Case Western Reserve University, stated at the 2017 National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) conference, time is not always on our side. “Often,” she said, “we don’t have 24 hours to respond, and sometimes not even an hour.”

Without diverse populations, we will never achieve our vision of inclusion. The time is now for diversity practitioners to re-educate themselves, as well as leadership, on current social issues to ensure social justice and diversity are not interchanged but are understood and addressed appropriately. 

We have spent many years avoiding these tough issues in the workplace and in our homes as we moved from the ideals of affirmative action and pluralism to inclusion. Without diverse populations, we will never achieve our vision of inclusion. The time is now for diversity practitioners to re-educate themselves, as well as leadership, on current social issues to ensure social justice and diversity are not interchanged but are understood and addressed appropriately.

In recent years, some have chosen to exclude diversity, only to reference inclusion, thus evoking less emotion. Inclusion takes the volatility out of the work, decreasing diversity resistance, because it includes everyone. Inclusion can’t be successful without diversity, and the acknowledgement of social justice is necessary to support the need for diversity and inclusion.

Engaging in Change
Finally, when employees are distracted — and not engaged — it affects the profitability of organizations. This intersection occurs when the CEO calls the CDO into his or her office to support him or her in addressing these issues. You may not know how to navigate that conversation successfully; however, if you start by accessing all relevant data to support the issues at hand and confirm that your organization is ready to address them, you can immediately begin to support your CEO in the right way.

Next, convene all who have a stake in the issue and present a unified voice with consistent messaging that’s supported by your organization’s values. Be sure to listen to and acknowledge the emotions in the room so that you respond appropriately and don’t react too quickly. Furthermore, always understand your customer, as your business depends on it.

This work requires acknowledgement and understanding of social justice, communication, and engagement, as well as active listening. A non-response to social issues is no longer acceptable. A misstep in understanding or communicating — or a total lack of communication — can ultimately affect the profitability and sustainability of your organization.●

Anise D. Wiley-Little is chief human capital and diversity officer for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.