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 first-generation immigrant, I’ve been navigating spaces as first, only, different my whole 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 hope that there would be better if 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. This blindness is a result of the 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 worth. Being seen is necessary. It’s what gives breath and relief. And it is an absolutely essential factor of a functioning and 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 tricky and complicated work, particularly because success wholly depends on leadership’s ability to truly see the situation. The biggest part of this work happens at the beginning, internally with each of the individuals at an organization’s helm.
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. I start by asking executives to tap into that and reflect on that experience. This helps them reflect on and begin to see the experience of what it might be like to be a person of color or a “first, only, different,” in a space, on a team or as a leader in an organization. My hope is that these experiences provide a window into better equipping 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.
I’ve been doing this work at Bremer for over two years, and I am particularly proud of the diversity statement that our senior executives put together, on their own, emphasizing the company’s immigrant founder and its commitment to seeing all employees.
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. It has to be deliberate and it has to make change. Our future of cultivating thriving communities is depending on it.