At a recent family event, I found myself in a typical (and harmless) back and forth with my father. We each offer our take on a hot topic societal issue and proceed to 10% listen and 90% dig our heels in trying to convince the other that our perspective is the right one. It’s a swell time. Sure, it gets heated now and then—especially since the last three years has been an endless barrage of firestorms—but we usually walk away closer than when we started. This last time, however, something different clicked for me. It was a moment that forced me to undig my heels and listen more deeply than I had in the past.
It’s difficult for me to imagine a time in the history of humankind where chasmic rifts didn’t exist between the multiple generations that occupy our planet at any given time. From all I’ve experienced, this dynamic seems to be both an expected and accepted part of what it means to be human. Even the most shallow of engagement in social media will expose this age-old tug of war in a bombardment of content poking fun at the absurdity of groups and individuals at every point along the generational spectrum—the youngest, the oldest, and all those in between. It’s often the source of pride as each of us wax poetic about the uniqueness and fortitude of the generation during which we came of age.
But during this last conversation with my father, I realized that despite how different my perspectives may be, my story doesn’t exist without his. I was working so hard to make him think differently, not realizing that the experiences that have led to my own “profoundness” only exist because of his life, experiences, choices, and values (even if, at times, in spite of those things). Regardless, it was a feeling of closeness that felt fresh and new, and it made me wonder if there were other areas of my life where this same understanding could be helpful.
As EDI practitioners, our vantage point offers us the unique opportunity to glean important lessons about how this dynamic can show up in professional communities engaged in equity-centered conversations and processes. As with any community, the ways in which we engage one another can lead to the building of bridges or ensure the creation of walls.
Over the past few years, we’ve found ourselves working directly with presidents, CEOs, directors, or other organizational leaders who, while authentically committed to creating more equitable outcomes for their professional communities, often identify those younger members of the community as the source of an existing tension. The word “entitlement“ certainly comes up a lot as these leaders share their feelings about a generation that doesn’t understand what it means to “work.” At best, these leaders attribute this to those individuals being new to the workforce. At worst, a true prejudice is slipping through the cracks and pointing to a generational flaw. The irony here is that the generational gaps aren’t always that wide. This can easily show up in an individual in their late 30s talking about someone in their late 20s. While age disparities aren’t meaningless, there is no single meaning that justifies sweeping generalizations that render individuals as one-dimensional.
Sliding toward the other end of the spectrum, we’ve engaged with individuals who might be newer to the workforce and/or are closer to having completed a secondary education and identify those who have been part of an organization longer as being complacent, conflict-avoidant, risk-averse, and committed—be it consciously or unconsciously—to professional norms that are dehumanizing. Depending on the nature of the organization, these younger individuals often deem the “gatekeepers” as eager to please donors, politicians, or consumers rather than prioritize the human needs of those who work within the organization.
There are many ways to look and interpret this dynamic. But our job as consultants is to take what we’ve seen and learned and help our clients avoid the pitfalls we’ve seen happen in this work. This isn’t because pitfalls can’t teach us, but because they can cause harm to the overall goals of an organization’s equity work, and to the people who are committing themselves to that work.
If we think that the work of EDI is about finding the right or best way, we’re missing the point. Our society is ever evolving. What “works” today may not work tomorrow; what works for the organization in New York City might cause real harm to the company in El Paso. The only constant is the need for skills for professional communities to work together through conflict (using an equity lens), and toward what feels possible, bold, and inspiring.
EDI is interesting because it takes many of the principles we’ve inherited from civil rights movements and practitioners and puts them through an organizational context. But the generational experiences that inform theories of change remain present and can cause tension. Consider the civil rights movements over the past 70 years and what generational narratives were at play, and how those narratives shifted as the children of those who protested on the front line became the parents of children protesting on the front line, and so on, and so on. The script of each group stays eerily the same while the actors shift and evolve.
“You have no idea what it’s like to be in my shoes.” “When I was your age we did/didn’t…” “Change takes time.” “Change won’t come if we don’t take bold action.” ”You don’t listen.” “You won’t listen.”
To be clear: this tension is not a bad thing, nor does it need to be avoided. It does, however, require models for what it looks like to move through it and find a way forward together. Of course, our work in EDI asks us to examine and think critically about which bodies and identities are granted the decision-making ability that informs what the future looks like, and which are historically denied? So, what might a paradigm shift look like? Below, we share some imperfect offerings gleaned from our experiences in the field:
- Generational wisdom is a gift, and it exists across the entire spectrum. Wisdom and experience may be correlated, but we all have experiences that are worth sharing and worth being heard. Despite what values we may have inherited that tell us to respect our elders, we believe that the wisdom of lineage flows from all directions, and that respect for that wisdom can be abundant. Imagine how conversations might change if space for this value was created and made visible. Imagine who we each could be as listeners and co-conspirators in diverse and complex communities. At True North EDI, our aim is never to negate or make small of the values we inherit, but rather to offer the opportunity for individuals to examine what values continue to serve them, and which no longer serve them in the context of equity work.
- In their resource entitled, “White Supremacy Culture” Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun describe ‘either/or’ thinking as “things are either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us,” and that there is, “no sense that things can be both/and.” Yes, within organizations there can be a wide spectrum of beliefs about what creates real change, but if we slip into an either/or paradigm, a desire for change can become secondary to the desire to win. In our experience, there is no single right way. There is always a tapestry we help our clients create that includes threads from the multitude of experience, values, and drive that exists with professional communities.
- Organizations can make choices for how to move forward in equity work without having to label or justify which direction is right and which is wrong. Having done this work as long and in as many contexts as we have, we know that the landscape on which we overlay maps for change is constantly shifting. When we dig our heels in believing that we know the best way, we lose our ability to step back and assess the needs of the moment. Our humanity ensures not that we will always make the right choice, but that we are equipped with the capacity to adapt, iterate, and learn. Our ability to do so is made stronger and more formidable when a diversity of perspectives and experiences are included in the process, and when those who have been most marginalized are centered and honored for their deeper understanding of the ways in which systems have caused harm and can potentially create healing.
- It’s easy to disguise power as “experience.” Every one of us, if we are lucky, will grow older and accumulate meaningful experiences that accompany the aging process. But that experience and wisdom do not negate the existence of power and the role it plays within organizations. Eliminating power dynamics isn’t an option, but being honest about when those dynamics are present and in operation is very much within our ability and one of the principles of equity work. Making those dynamics visible also allows us an entry point into creating systems and structures that mitigate or eliminate the abuse of power. Many things can be true at the same time, but we can practice the skill of parsing out and making visible what is present and how what is present is aligning with who we say we want to be.
Finally, there is nothing wrong with being committed to a specific model for organizational change. This work relies on the energy and conviction of committed and inspired people. Individuals who find that the values through which they operate are misaligned with the direction of the equity work happening at their organization or even in their field overall deserve spaces that represent a better fit. But we are complex human beings and our commitments aren’t immune to bias and harmful behaviors that can reinforce the very systems we are trying to undo. From moment to moment, the diagnostic is for each of us to run on ourselves in an effort to assess which values are informing how we are showing up and which are driving our decisions. If there’s nothing else I’ve learned, it’s that no one can be expected to hear, learn, or grow when they are being related to as inherently wrong or one-dimensional. In the case of my father, I learned that seeing myself as part of his story and him a part of mine was vital to our ability to move forward in a healthy and meaningful way.
If we want to design complex and whole solutions that lead to more equitable and just outcomes, we must treat each other as complex and whole.
As always, we are here and ready to partner with you as you work to reimagine what is possible for your organization.