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Dan RobertsonMay 24, 2024 1:27:56 PM4 min read

Re-defining activism for DEI leaders

Re-defining activism for DEI leaders  

As a kid, I grew up in 1980s Britain on an urban council estate. 1980’s Britain was dominated by the politics of Margert Thatcher and the Conservative Party. It was a time of radical social and cultural change. A time of radical social and cultural conflict. The minors where striving and in almost daily battles with the police; the police where know for their brutality towards black communities in the inner cities, resulting what the media termed ‘race riots’. It was time of the AIDS crisis, and the gay community came under-attack driven by a moral panic.

As a young, gay, working class kid, it was time of chaos through change and constant 'Othering'.

As a response to overt oppression - racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination and social exclusion we witnessed the emergence of what the great writer Bell Hooks calls 'Alliance Politics'. Based on the principles of seeing beyond a single focus point of exclusion, Alliance Politics is based in collective multi-group efforts to achieve social change.

This approach was adopted by the anti-racist movement, having its roots in cultural moments such as Rock against Racism where white and black folks joining together to stand up against race discrimination. And between members of the gay and lesbian community and the Welsh minors. And many other examples.

This as an activism based on having a shared visions for social, cultural and a politics of inclusion for all. It was based on the understanding of the intersectional nature of discrimination, exclusion and power, and how collective power and allyship could be used as strategies for change. 

The importance of dialogue 

A core aspect of achieving social change is the ability to engage in critical dialogue, often with stakeholders who hold views that we may fundamentally disagree with. Psychologists often refer to the skills of perspective taking - this is the ability to understanding, appreciate and indeed seen seek merit in a viewpoint that may be different from our own.

Many years ago, I would travel to Switzerland as part of the Initiatives of Change programme, where worked as an international facilitator on inter-group conflict. The most successful outcomes where those were two opposing sides could see legitimacy in the views of others (even though they may have fundamental and values-based disagreement). The success was based on the willingness to compromise. Many years later, while working in the US, I heard the former US President Barack Obama make the point: Sometimes leaders to have to take the small losses to achieve the bigger wins. It’s the ability to put personal interests to the side and work collectively to achieve sustainable goals.

Part of this process requires communities to avoids the identity politics of today. Today’s dialogues are facilitated by 'smash and grab' interactive that have little intent, but to project insults towards individual with differing perspectives.  

Activism at work

Within our corporate spaces, we as DE&I leaders need to avoid the politics of 'Othering' by entering the Grey Zone of Perspective Taking. We need to move beyond the current inclusion agenda that is focused on promoting inclusion inputs, by developing strategies that place corporate cohesion at the centre of thinking and decision-making. It's this approach that will drive equitable outcomes.

DE&I professionals need to avoid the paradoxes of judgement-making. In our desire to course correct inequity we as a community have become intolerant of viewpoints that we consider are counter to our ways of thinking. We have entered a world of algorithmic and heuristic thinking, where confirmation bias run large. Our own echo chambers are preventing critical thinking and reaching out to engaging with those we consider our 'Other'. 

Three forms of activism

In order to create real change, we as DE&I leaders need to adopt three forms of activism.

  • Quite influencer: This means being pragmatic in our approach to change. The pragmatists are the ones who look for compromise. They seek to avoid open conflict and work openly and behind the scenes to achieve their end game.
  • Ally: The key focus of the ally activist is on creating change through institutional practices; working on hiring or promotions policies and processes. They act as mentors, coaches and sponsors to diverse groups, and publicly stand up against bias.
  • Challenger: The challenger actively and publicly calls out bias, discrimination and exclusion. They adopt alliance politics as their centre of gravity. they are comfortable with (non-violent) conflict.

Throughout my 25 years of working in community development, international cross-cultural dialogue and as DE&I leader consultant, I have and continue to adopt all three approach. They are situational in design, and the skills is knowing when to adopt which approach for to maximise the chances of achieving your desired goal.  

Let’s work together 

My call out to my DE&I friends is simple: We are collectively working to create a fairer world and workplace for all; our success, will depend less on what we want to achieve, and more on the approaches we take to reach our End Game.

Get in touch 

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Dan Robertson

Dan Robertson is MD of FAIRER Consulting and Global Head of ED&I Advisory Services at Hays International. Over the last 15 years Dan has spent his time supporting global business leaders to transform their ideas into meaningful action, with a focus on inclusion as a strategic management issue, bias mitigation and inclusive leadership.