In her book “Year of Yes,” Shonda Rimes describes the pressure and responsibility of those perceived as the “first, only, different,” whether they want it or not. It’s a phrase that struck me because, as a Black woman of immigrant parents living in predominately white communities, I’ve been navigating spaces as first, only, different my entire life. These three words have often been part of my story – whether it was ice skating, graduating college, or many things in between. I fell a lot. I got hurt often. But I had faith and, because of my curiosity, I kept going into new spaces, even if I didn’t see people who resembled me.
The abruption and eruption that has taken hold across our nation is, at its core, the result of generations of peoples who have not been seen as fully deserving, fully worthy. We've gotten too comfortable and have rested in our unconscious bias that has clouded our sight from generation to generation. People who are not seen cannot receive the benefits of fully being a part of a society, which means they cannot contribute to that society, participate, and have the same access to opportunity. Being seen and included is necessary. It’s what opens new opportunity and possibility. It is an essential contributor in aiding to create a better functioning and more equitable society.
My career has largely been positioned around diversity, equity and inclusion strategies for companies looking to take serious, thoughtful approaches to first recognizing and then navigating past generations of systemic racism. It is complicated and very layered work, particularly because success depends on everyone’s ability to see the situation and acknowledge where there is disparity.
Everyone has unique backgrounds and experiences that make up their lens and how they see the world, which results in most people coming at their understanding of this work in a different way. My job is to help leaders to be internally reflective, adopt new behaviors and contribute to transformational and systemic changes.
Everyone has had a moment when they felt like they didn’t belong. It could involve being the “new person” on a team; attending a gathering where you don’t know anyone and being the only woman, man, veteran or person with a disability (known or unknown); being self-conscious of an accent or dialect, or something else. I start by asking executives to tap into "time" and reflect on that experience. My hope is that these experiences provide a window to better equip leaders to use their power, influence and authority to challenge, disrupt and eventually dismantle actions and systems that further systemic oppression and barriers that have contributed to keeping people unseen and not allowing them to experience belonging.
I’ve been doing this work at Bremer for over two years, and this work takes time. It can sometimes feel frustratingly slow. But the truth is that systemic racism has deep, deep roots in every single aspect of our lives and perceptions. It is often quiet and so much a part of our lives that often, dominant culture people don’t even recognize it. Undoing that takes time and it’s frankly taken too long. The work has to start now, which is why we announced our racial equity action plan earlier this year. The work also has to be deliberate and it has to make impact. Our future of cultivating thriving communities is depending on it.