George Floyd's murder by police in 2020 created an urgency in many organizations to address diversity in a new way.
At many companies, talks among colleagues became more open. New investments were pledged. Policies were reassessed.
Some reached out to Yohuru Williams, professor of history and director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, who also consults with companies.
He taught company leaders a different way of approaching diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, starting with history lessons instead of implicit bias training or inclusionary practices.
Now he fears that companies are losing momentum.
"What worries me is that I've seen some organizations that have doubled down and say that we're in this for the long haul and others that say the moment is passing — and that is why we constantly end up in this cycle," Williams said. "I would encourage those organizations that either started something in 2020 and have moved away or haven't done it yet should [get started]. While the immediacy is still here, we have to make that collective investment."
In an interview, edited for space and clarity, Williams talks about his strategy and how companies can be effective changemakers.
Q: How do you approach your work with businesses?
A: I often tell folks I don't do diversity, equity and inclusion work directly. What I do is the work of historical recovery. My model really pivots on the idea that the reason it is hard to get buy-in into the DEI work to begin with is that people just don't know the history behind where we got to the position we're in. If you can ground people in that history, you're in a better position to help them understand A) why DEI efforts are necessary, and B) why the entity, the corporation, the organization needs to take proactive measures.
Q: How do you lay that historical foundation?
A: The first thing I do is a deep dive on the company itself. I want to look at its mission statement. I want to understand its primary market. And I want to have a kind of snapshot of its internal challenges and opportunities. Is it primarily hiring? Is it retention? Is it community engagement or community involvement? I want to tailor that presentation around their value statements.
The problem with most diversity, equity and inclusion efforts is that over time whatever compels that organization to take action seems to have passed, and there's a moving away or less investment, or in some cases an all-out jettisoning of those efforts. I think what is absolutely essential to long-term engagement is making DEI efforts central to the company's values and identity in a very tangible way. There are some organizations locally that are doing a great job at that. Best Buy is one of them.
The next step then is for me to put together a tailor-made package including homework for that organization — a sprint through U.S. history with a specific focus on racial justice and the African American experience, a refresher with a specific focus on Minnesota, the Twin Cities and the unique challenges we've had here around racial inequality. That includes readings and documentaries like "Jim Crow of the North," which is on redlining in Minnesota. And then specific readings or documentaries that speak to the unique commercial or business interest of the entity I am meeting with.
Q: For example?
A: When I worked with Delta Dental, it was focusing on oral health care as a civil right and looking at disparities in that particular arena.
That way if an organization wants to make a deep dive, they can do so in a space where they have an interest, where they have longstanding value proposition and investment or where they can have a great impact, and more important, a community where they have sustainability. That helps them make that long-term investment. All those things matter for the tangible communities that are impacted.
Q: Why is learning the history important?
A: Here in Minnesota, the George Floyd murder put the focus on the African American community, but I often think about Suni Lee winning the [gold] medal in the Olympics and then making the statement that "I grew up in Minnesota, I won a medal for my country," and very few people know anything about the history of the Hmong. They're a huge part of our community.
Language is an example. Take preferred pronouns. For some people, who are on the other side of that, it sounds like cancel culture. They're not seeing it as a conversation about identity, about marginalization of identity for people who are not binary. They simply see it as being imposed. But once they understand the history, they see it less as an imposition and more of an opportunity to think more broadly about identity and the diverse people who make up the workplace — and the market and the community.
This history becomes the foundation, the glue on how we can build bridges and standards in terms of how we engage in community. This is how we can show up and be authentic in those conversations. We aren't just doing it because everyone else is doing it. We're doing it because we are really working to be more inclusive.
Q: What are the next steps after learning the history?
A: There are three things, and they're both internal and external. The first thing is to do an audit and get a real sense of internal commitment.
Second is to reimagine how you interface with community. How you do that is thinking about ways to invest in community that demonstrate both a sustainable and legible interest in [what] produced the circumstances of 2020 to begin with. People don't think about this, but solid waste management and pest control were civil rights issues in the District of Columbia and in Brooklyn. Trash collection and pest control in communities of color were practically nonexistent. The city simply didn't pay for it, so there was a huge rodent problem. It wasn't that the community was unclean. It was that there was no sanitation applied in those areas. So in that audit, you need to try to think of how to take action in a space where you have tangible involvement.
The last piece is we need to be more diverse in terms of who is there. We have to be intentional, and by that I mean, not just the number of people of color you can count. It's more about building muscle memory within the fabric of the organization to recognize those things that will make people feel heard, seen, welcomed and included so that it becomes the kind of signature of the company authentically. So it doesn't look like marketing.