Brittany J. Harris: Embedding Justice Into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

July 14, 2020 Aaron Kinne

6-minute read

Brittany J. Harris

“Diversity training gets a bad rap sometimes,” observes Brittany J. Harris, vice president, learning & innovation, at The Winters Group. “It’s oftentimes positioned as a one-off and not effective.”

In a lively and wide-ranging interview with Workhuman® CHRO Steve Pemberton, the diversity, inclusion, and equity facilitator explains how she and her team at The Winters Group map “the intersection between what has traditionally been corporate diversity and inclusion work into social justice.”

In today’s charged climate, Brittany believes it’s “more apparent than ever that organizations don’t exist within a vacuum. They are part of a much broader solution change, an ecosystem. And for leaders to rise to the occasion takes capacity building, skill building, and disrupting the systems we’ve become so accustomed to. And a lot of that starts with engaging folks. And learning.” 

She sees her role as an opportunity to “intersect passion, purpose, and profession” that can “embed justice into the work we’ve come to know as diversity and inclusion.”

The role of language in historical context

How should organizations respond during these unprecedented times? Brittany cites a recent virtual learning lab, geared specifically toward diversity and inclusion practitioners. Part of the session focused on understanding the role of language in historical context. “In my experience, that’s been a gap in diversity, equity, and inclusion work,” she says. “We certainly have done a lot with understanding the human mind, unconscious bias, understanding belonging. But I don’t know that there has been enough work around historical context. How did we get to where we are now?”

She cites the West African principle of Sankofa which means, “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” “I think about that in the context of equity and justice work – how we’re experiencing patterns of history repeating itself.”

As leaders look to increase their power as inclusion and diversity catalysts, they have to be intentional about examining the nuances of language. She cites the example of “rebellion” and “riot.” “Rebellion,” as Brittany sees it, is a deliberate, intentional response to existing structures that have oppressed a specific group, such as Black people. “This is not lawlessness or without justification,” she notes. “This is in direct response to systems that have existed. And how we frame our language is important in our response.”

She adds that a key component of her learning labs is “being frank about using the language of justice in our communications and training. One of the things we talk about is how the subtle nature of the ideology – the dominant norms in corporate American – show up and create and perpetuate systems of exclusion.”

Cultivating a more equitable and inclusive culture

In her view, organizations often want to respond quickly – perhaps too quickly – to situations “without giving equal attention to making sure the right people are part of the conversation.” According to Brittany, organizations need to be more strategic and less reactive in their efforts to cultivate a “more equitable and inclusive culture.”

Steve points out that since the early 1970s, “we have been engaged in matters of equity and inclusion within organizations in corporate America. We are going to have to wrestle with the reality that they have not been successful. And part of that is complicity.” He then poses the question: “What does an organization that successfully creates an environment of belonging and uniqueness look like?”

In Brittany’s view, it’s about making people feel like “I am an organizational insider, and what makes me different is valued.” She believes organizations can advance this through a systematic way of thinking, or an “equity lens.” “When we apply an equity lens, it’s about implementing processes that account for historic insults happening within the organization or beyond. Systems or processes that have continued to perpetuate the same outcomes. It’s less about creating a culture, and more about disrupting a culture.”

She uses the example of how “fit” has defined the way hiring managers and leaders identify talent. Brittany advocates a more holistic approach – one that goes beyond data and complements it with qualitative insights. As she notes, “Things that get measured get done, but this thinking fails to give equal attention to simply listening to people – especially those who are most impacted by systems of exclusion.” In her view, if an organization is truly looking to achieve racial equity and inclusion, they need to talk to the people “who experience your organization – actually bring them into the policy-making decisions.” 

Bringing the right people to the table – and paying them for it

There is an assumption in most organizations that its leaders know what’s best. The problem with that thinking? Those same leaders often fail to consult the people who are most impacted by policy decisions. Brittany believes a model called “equity-centered design” is much more just. It creates “systems that actively engage those who are most impacted by policies. And compensating them for it.” 

She points to the “emotional tax” that people “who are underrepresented in the workplace experience because they’re expected to bear the burden. They show up for ERGs [Employee Resource Groups].” The answer? “We need to bring people to the table who have not been there before, put our money where our mouth is – and pay them for it.”

Expanding on the subject of ERGs, Steve points out that while they’ve been a fertile source of innovation, insight, and perspective for many companies, they are voluntary, unpaid roles. “These people have other jobs,” he points out. “They are asked to bring much of their life experience to the efficacy of the organization. So for many, it becomes an additional job.”

Diversity in executive leadership

Steve pivots to the challenges of achieving diversity in the most senior levels of organizations. He knows of no Fortune 50 company that can say, “I’m satisfied with the composition of the senior leadership of our organization.”

For Brittany, it starts with accountability. Is your organization partnering with companies that have a diverse representation on their executive leadership team? In her view, organizations must have a stake in how well their partners are invested in executive diversity.

When we think about process, we have to look at who is involved in sourcing and recruiting – and that includes executive search firms. “To what extent is diversity not just espoused, but enacted? Who and from where are they actually sourcing candidates?” She challenges organizations to “think more unconventionally” about the background and leadership capabilities they are looking for. “We conflate very subjective qualifications that are, more often than not, rooted in dominant norms.”

Reimagining leadership

As Brittany sees it, organizations today must reimagine leadership all together – while being directive about how it is shaped. In short, they need to ask themselves whether their current approach to leadership “perpetuates the idea of sameness? Does it collude with it? Or does it disrupt it?”


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About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.