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Racial equity education is leadership development

May 7, 2018 | M. Clay, Communications Specialist

racial equity leadershipWorking my way up the ranks at the Chicago Tribune, I often had leadership development, conflict management, and coaching training to help support my staff. This work is consistent with not just journalism, but also across industries and disciplines globally.

Recently, at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH), we finished work on developing our mission, vision, and values. Shortly thereafter I, along with the entire IAH staff, encountered the most important education in my career: training on racial equity and inclusion with an organization called the Racial Equity Institute (REI).

This is not a place to get camping gear.

Full disclosure: I identify as Mexican and African-American. Before I attended this training, I thought, “I am overqualified for this two-day session on an equity issue with which I am well-acquainted. But I will go.”

I could not have been more wrong.

Equity and inclusion resources are a mainstay of most human resources departments. These can cover a wide range of topics from genderism, ageism, economic classism, inequities against indigenous populations, as well as race and ethnicity.

When I think of equity and inclusion training, I often think it’s just a trendier term for diversity, a word that has mostly lost its teeth. What we often don’t learn in these seminars is how to use it to inform strategy. Equity and inclusion education is crucial to learning how to navigate so-called wicked problems.

Notice I did not say “solve,” because wicked problems, as first discussed and defined by Rittel and Webber in 1973 are distinct:

“As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable… those of social or policy planning-are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best, they are only resolved over and over again.)”

Many of the challenges facing industries (manufacturing, technology, trade) and issues (poverty, health care, environment) are of the wicked variety. They go beyond the tried-and-true methods we employ from leadership training or how to conduct a meeting. It’s the framework for addressing and re-addressing challenges that will continue for generations.

In a recent interview with UNC Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser for an upcoming “Institute” podcast episode, he said universities are preparing students for “careers that do not even exist yet.” To do this, he said, we are training the next generation to think on their own.

Not everyone who was present at REI was there on their own volition. Many volunteered. Some were “volun-told.” I was on the fence, I must admit. This is key. There were academic coaches from Wake County Schools, retired professionals, students, other organizations. Despite our different backgrounds, and even our reasons for showing up, we learned together. It was often uncomfortable. ‘Difficult conversations’ does not adequately describe the experience. I often disliked the answers I heard from others when we were all questioned openly. But I also learned how hard it is to see through the numbing veneer of privilege, even when one wants to do so.

During the Phase I sessions over two days, I learned about unconscious bias, which originates in my system 1 (gut reaction) and system 2 (computing mind) thinking, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. I learned that my computing mind, the one that could combat cumulatively learned prejudice, is actually pretty lazy and tricky to work through. Unfortunately, I am not alone. Every one of us face these learning challenges without knowing it at the time.

I learned that institutions are set up to perpetuate themselves. It takes more than innovation to steer them differently.

I learned about the psychology of markedness. In linguistics, markedness is the way words are changed or added to give a special meaning. For example, what do we call the institutions of higher learning that were founded when African Americans were barred from seeking higher education? We identify them as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. What do we call historically white colleges and universities? Colleges and universities.

The best of us who want to see progress in human relations could take this information, throw our hands up in the air and give up. But that’s not what leaders do. They are undaunted by a task when they cannot necessarily see a solution. We have the image of the leader who rolls up her sleeve. Even using ‘her’ there is a change in language and imagery. Leaders learn from each other, they take action, continuously improving or re-imagining the entire framework for how things are done.

REI is not the only way to learn about the institutions of inequity. Though it provided a certain foundation for addressing institutional racism, it failed to address other issues. Also, REI did not adequately navigate multi-racial identities and challenges for me. In total, it focused squarely on racism mostly in one specific sense: The Black and White dynamic.

Should the REI continue its work even though it will never finish the job? Yes, of course it should; there is value in its mission to take a stab at re-solving this wicked problem. And that’s the most important lesson.

Leadership is a social science. Successful leaders are not entirely measured by numbers. There are certain competencies in leadership that don’t measure in terms of inputs and outputs. One of those is the ability to rise to a serious challenge.  There are many times I have learned from mentors, my bosses, my colleagues. And sometimes, I have had to go back to school. I sought these learning opportunities when I felt my creativity in framing a challenge was lacking, even as my success on paper looked impressive.

About this social science, Rittel and Webber said that “the classical paradigm of science and engineering—the paradigm that has underlain modern professionalism—is not applicable to the problems of open societal systems.”

Such systems include markets, governments, laws, education, media, and society at large. These are the systems through which we move constantly. True leadership requires a different kind of thinking. I am so grateful to the Institute for the Arts and Humanities leadership, especially Director of Operations Tommie Watson, for the opportunity to stretch myself mentally with my IAH staff colleagues. I was encouraged to learn that the Department of City and Regional Planning also participated in this immersive training.

An education in equity and inclusion provides the perfect platform to test ideas and our relationships toward a greater good. This is a crucial education for us as we support the faculty who teach Carolina students and the leaders of this fine university.