Last week DEI strategist, consultant and best-selling author Lily Zheng reacted (lovingly) to a LinkedIn post referring to a Forbes article by Aparna R. about misleading DEI reporting. Lily Zheng (who uses they/them pronouns) expressed support for the ideas presented, but inquired as to why their image was used as the thumbnail image for the article when no one at Forbes had contacted them about it.
Thankfully, their image was connected to ideas they agree with. But the moment speaks to a trend that often goes unnoticed, and that is glaringly present in the DEI industry. This was the use of an image of a person without their consent, and the importance of that fact can be easily lost under the good intentions and important message of the article’s content.
It’s hard to open up a social media platform like LinkedIn these days and not see a post or two with a screenshot of the all-too-familiar Zoom boxes and a caption like; “Another great Implicit Bias session with ABC Storage Management!” (Business name obviously fictional). When I see them now, I often wonder, did all 27 people on that call say yes to having their images grabbed and posted in public? If they did, were they given adequate time to consider their answer before the image was taken?
The unauthorized use of people’s images is really just the tip of the iceberg, and represents a much larger, more structural issue around consent, or the lack thereof, in our professional spaces. Often siloed to conversations about sex and intimacy, consent is essential to building trust and agency in any relationship, and as such, the absence of consent-forward practices is particularly harmful to DEI initiatives which thrive on strong, trusting, and vulnerable partnerships.
As a DEI professional, I lead sessions for a living. And as I engage in ongoing reflection about my own practice as a facilitator and strategist and my identity as a white person in this work, I’ve been pushing myself recently to consider where consent does or doesn’t show up in my practice. Where in my sessions am I inviting people to opt in or out of certain activities? How am I regularly checking in with the group around their experience of the practices we’re engaged in?
I also believe firmly in my own ongoing learning. Whether I’m attending sessions at a conference or just staying current in my own learning practice, I am also a frequent session participant, and I’ve been noticing more and more we’re being instructed in these sessions to smile for screengrabs, engage in breathing exercises, somatic techniques, guided meditations or share very personal stories without the buffer of basic consent.
It’s important for me to name here that many of these are strong, important practices. For example, there’s a growing body of research to suggest that mindfulness and somatic practices can, in fact, significantly deepen DEI conversations, especially ones centered around more uncomfortable topics like implicit bias or structural racism.
What I want to talk about is how much (or little) we as DEI practitioners embed consent-forward practices into our work, and how difficult it is for participants in sessions to advocate for themselves when certain practices feel patronizing, unsafe or even harmful. And while this noticing could apply to any number of actions we take without people’s consent in a DEI learning space, I want to draw specific attention to what possibilities we put at risk when we facilitate sessions without the important containers that consent-forward practices can create.
Let me first clarify what I mean when I say consent. I’m currently working towards certification as an Intimacy Professional, and I love IDC Professional’s definition of consent. They define it as “…an agreement between two or more parties to participate in a specific predetermined action. Consent can only exist when it is voluntary and allows for all parties to change their mind. In a culture of consent, individuals can choose between “yes” and “no” because both are equally acceptable options.” IDC uses the acronym “CRISP” to define the qualities of consent, namely that it is Considered, Revokable, Informed, Specific and Participatory.
IDC’s definition is so clear. And the more I continue my studies into understanding consent, the more I wince at how little thought I’ve put into consent as a facilitator for so many years. The deeper I dig, the harder the realizations are, because I’m uncovering how few tools I was actually given in my own upbringing to ask for or give consent in my personal or professional life.
If you identify with this, it’s a short leap to understand why so many of us feel so inadequate when it comes to consent. Like so many tools of liberation, consent was a conspicuously absent topic in our educational upbringings. And anyone who is committed to the work of anti-racism and anti-oppression in our educational and professional spaces knows how common it is for systems to erase access to tools that build criticality, agency and liberation. Consent is an essential tool to build equity, and it is fundamental to liberation, because it is a practice that disrupts the mindsets of dominance, ownership, exploitation and colonialism and their impact on our relationships with ourselves and one another.
Ok, but why, you may ask, should we need such a firm approach to practices we know can ultimately help our DEI work? Isn’t that what people hire us to do?
Well, yes and no. Ideally, people hire us to help them create possibilities that lead to more equitable outcomes in professional spaces. And, “Do this because I know what’s good for you better than you do” could be oppression’s sitcom catchphrase. Great facilitators know that one of the worst ways to approach the work of DEI is to relate to the people you are partnered with as the obstacle to the future they’re trying to build. As a facilitator, I partner best with people when I care about getting to know who they are and what they value, and from there I can help them design new policies, practices and systems that are aligned with those values.
Consent is a concept that requires we see people as whole, and if we don’t, it makes sense that our approach is to tell them what they should know, do and think in order to get the work done.
If we see people as objects and obstacles instead of collaborators, that will translate into practices that diminish their agency and render our relationships transactional or even harmful. For example, if we publish photos of DEI workshop participants without their consent, we violate their privacy and potentially their trust by exploiting their image for advertising and personal gain.
If, during a session, we instruct participants to share very personal or revealing stories, engage in meditation, breathwork or somatic practices without their consent or consent-forward container-building practices, we run the risk of any number of the following pitfalls:
- Eroding trust by making assumptions about their needs and abilities when it comes to self-regulation.
- Creating an unsafe environment for people with trauma histories for whom somatic practices and closed-eyes activities are triggering.
- Harming people of color and other marginalized people in the space by flattening the experience of self-regulation and healing into a one-size-fits-all activity that fails to honor how identity and culture inform healing practices for people in very different ways.
- Harming people (especially people with marginalized identities) who find professional spaces incompatible with deeply personal healing work.
With all that said, a joyful photo of a group that has bonded through a powerful co-learning experience, or thoughtful, agreement-based mindfulness practices are oftentimes the artifacts of rich, human-centered engagements. So I encourage everyone who is participating in DEI partnerships, either as a facilitator or participant, to design engagements in a consent-forward way. For example:
1. Prior to hiring a DEI consultant, establish within your organization your values and guidelines (both cultural and legal) around the use of images with employees and share those values with any potential partners. If you’re a facilitator and like to have a photo of the group you collaborated with, consider asking the group at the beginning of the session, let them know how you’ll be using the photo and that they’ll have time to consider their answer. Then consider using the polling option on Zoom to gather their answers anonymously, and invite folks who don’t want to be photographed to go off camera and change/remove their name.
2. If you’re a company looking to partner with a DEI professional, be sure to ask them what kind of practices they typically use in a standard session. If you are interested in finding a DEI professional who engages in mindfulness practices for the work, ask them how they build consent into those practices and feel empowered to partner with them to design an approach that centers the most marginalized people in the space.
3. If you’re a DEI professional, be clear with potential clients from the beginning about your approaches to self-regulation, healing, mindfulness, breathwork, etc. and ask your potential client if those practices work for them. Ideally, you’re able to then have this conversation again with a more diverse group of employees, like a DEI Committee, in order to revisit the conversation as you plan.
4. If you are an employee leading a DEI initiative or a DEI professional leading a session and want to invite participants to engage in a mindfulness moment, use CRISP to guide the instructions and be up front about how long you’re going to be asking people to engage in the practice. For example; “So for our opening together I’m going to be leading a short, 3 minute breathing exercise. (Informed, Specific) In this exercise you’ll be able to choose whether you keep your eyes open or closed. (Informed, Specific) Here’s why I’ve found it helpful to start this way (Considered). You are welcome to participate or not participate (Informed, Participatory). If you opt out, feel free to turn your camera off and rejoin us in 3 minutes (Specific). If you are going to participate, take note of how you’re feeling and feel free to stop the exercise at any time (Revokable). Does this work for everyone? (Participatory) Are there any other needs that are coming up for you right now? (Participatory)”
5. When in doubt, ask! If you need to change course in a session, I like the phrase, “Can I offer a practice to the group that we hadn’t planned for?” or “Can I share a need with you?” as consent forward ways to both ask for permission and establish my own boundaries with others.
I will continue to be deeply committed to building and sustaining trust in all of my relationships, both personal and professional. And as so many of us who have participated in DEI initiatives know, in the work of equity, impact is more important than intent. With this in mind, I invite us all to commit to embedding more consent into all of our partnerships in the most intentional way possible.