Revisionist Diversity and Organizational Excellence

I am still recovering from the opening scene of the Game of Thrones premiere – yes (or maybe yassss!) I was screaming with excitement at the TV; no, I was not dressed as Khal Drogo yet. (That’s clearly a mid-season reveal.) Harnessing my inner Lady Mormont, I mentally prepared myself for the day ahead whilst getting in an early morning walk on the beach before Miami transitions from mildly uncomfortable to “stuck-on-subway-during-morning-rush-our-commute-flop-sweating-with-no-AC-and-now-idling-on-the-tracks-with-someone-dripping-what-I-pray-is-only-sweat-on-me” levels of Hades, and I checked out an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s delightful podcast, “Revisionist History.”

The episode in question, “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” dives into lesser known aspects and ramifications of the historic civil rights ruling in “Brown v Board of Education.” Gladwell is far more eloquent and compelling than I in diving into this era of Jim Crow, and he, as usual, if nothing else, gives you some ideas to chew on moving forward. Central to the podcast is the idea that the focus of the ruling in desegregating schools, and much of the ensuing energy, focused on black students – which is natural. What gets left out is what happened to the tens of thousands of black teachers whose schools were desegregated. Long story short, guess who largely didn’t get hired into newly desegregated schools? Gladwell then pivots to discuss what happens next, and as a former high school educator in Atlanta, it had me nodding my head, as it’s backed by a plethora of research in educational attainment and achievement. The wholesale removal of black teachers then – and the lack of black (and other minority) teachers now – continues to have outsized ramifications across the country.

But this isn’t just about the hallways of America’s schools – these truths span beyond the realm of education. They impact every sector, every industry. Every organization with big dreams competes in the diversity decathlon to attract the best and the brightest. Those incoming recruiting classes are beautiful to behold – brown, black, 50% female, veterans, rainbow-flag-waving, recent refugees, gender nonconforming, rural, first-person-in-family-to-graduate, etc. – and represent everything that is unrivaled in its ebullient optimism about the American dream. Fast forward a few years and/or cascade up the org chart, from Managers to Directors to Executives to Boards of Directors, yields a fairly different picture of what success looks like in this nation of ours. A bit of a bait and switch, a bit of revisionist diversity if you will.

This hits home for me. And Urbane. We recently had the opportunity to take a few minutes out of the grind collectively to get some professional headshots, and what’s striking to me – beyond longing for my hair back – is that we’ve created a vibrant and growing team that lives our ethos. How many firms that operate in the world of social enterprise, economic and community development, real estate and affordable housing – and yes, we do all that – are owned by a black man, have other minorities in leadership roles, and provide access and pathways to opportunities for other talented, high-performing individuals? How many have a Collaborative that is this level of accomplished and fabulous? How many small businesses ensure that their own procurement of contractors –  from Pinchina Consulting to Freeform + Deform to Dr. Amanda Alexander –  are examples of supplier diversity done well? And this matters. I cannot understate the importance of being part of an organization where you see brown, black, LGBT, and female excellence every day. Every. Day. It energizes you, even when you feel like you’ve just been through the Red Wedding and it’s only 11AM on a Monday.

But finding the right talent can be exhausting. And investing your time in coaching and developing others can be taxing. And ensuring you do the right work, the right way, can feel like an uphill battle. But being in the position to provide others with opportunity is rewarding – and a responsibility that we take seriously. It is this internal development of our team that allows us to pursue bold community-driven visions of neighborhood development.

Circling back to Gladwell’s podcast, it is not only students (of color) who benefit from educators of color. More broadly, when diverse employees can collaborate with, learn from, take risks with, and be mentored and coached by diverse managers and leaders that push them to excel through ambiguity and raise them up to new heights – good things can happen, great things are likely, and the impossible challenges of today become tomorrow’s book of work.