25 Jun 2020

Standing Together: A Q+A with Jennifer Eliason, Associate Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (Part 2)

Jen Eliason

by Shona Simkin

In Part Two of our conversation with the HBS Associate Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Jennifer Eliason, we dig into how to engage in anti-racist work at HBS.

How do we begin to do this work at HBS, in our own departments and with our own colleagues?
First and foremost, this is an opportunity to have continued conversations with your team. Many are having these conversations in staff meetings or at separate designated times. It's important to be very intentional as you have these conversations. I am very happy to help guide that process so that it is productive, so that folks feel that they are heard, so that everyone has an opportunity to speak. It’s also important to allow people to step back, as these conversations may not be everyone's preferred method of communication.

We're all on a journey together. People learn differently, and express emotions differently. This is deep work, and it requires some deep self-reflection and people are going to become upset, hurt, and agitated. Many managers and leaders may not be comfortable with managing those emotions. As we start to have these facilitated conversations, think about how you want to set up boundaries and ground rules so that we all have a common understanding of how to conduct a productive conversation on race at work.

What are some of those ground rules or methods?
Things like using “I” statements and speaking for yourself. Non-Black folks discussing anti-Black racism should be mindful that important to not speak for other people's experiences. We also do not want to cold call or force people to share their experiences if they're not ready to do so. We know that very often staff or students of color get placed in those uncomfortable situations in discussions of race and racism. Have a set of prompts ready instead of having an open-ended conversation about how everyone is feeling. Because quite frankly the answer for most of us right now is “Not great.” A lot of us don't know what to do next. Having prompts allows for a guided conversation.

Then, make sure that you're offering time and space in that conversation for feedback and suggestions. It's one thing to talk about race or racism in the broader world, but it's very important to think about what that means for our experience in the HBS community. We need suggestions about what people want to see here at HBS—what are the changes we need to make? Once you've collected that feedback, it's a great opportunity to do some planning on how you want to increase your diversity, equity, race, and racism knowledge. That may mean thinking about recruitment and hiring, or developing procedures and policies for your own unit. I'm always happy to come in at any point and help department leaders reflect and think about next steps that can be beneficial.

What about diversity and unconscious bias training?
That’s an interesting question. We read about trainings, or hear about them from friends or colleagues, and folks tend to think that it would be a perfect solution. But I’m in favor of meaningful conversations. Many people want to treat unconscious bias or diversity training as a magic bullet. If you conduct or attend a training, then you can check a box and think that all of the challenges regarding diversity, inclusion, and bias in your unit or department have been solved. That is very much not the case. This requires deep, ongoing work.

Do you have any advice for someone who is worried that they might have offended a colleague who is Black or a person of color?
The first thing I always say is that no one is going to be harmed by an apology. Even if you apologize and the person doesn't know what you're apologizing for, that's okay. One of the most powerful things we can do as human beings is to admit when we've made a mistake. It is how we grow as people. It is how we get better, how we learn, how we move forward in this trajectory as we dedicate ourselves to social justice work and to becoming fully anti-racist people. I was very moved by Dean Nohria’s apology in his recent email. That sets a great model for all of us. We can all admit we’ve made mistakes. Everyone is open to people who are on a journey of growth.

Do you have any advice for how to be an effective ally for our Black and diverse colleagues?
One step is to amplify those colleagues. In a meeting, perhaps you observe the ideas of your colleagues of color ideas not receiving the same traction as others. You can help amplify and re-center their contributions by saying something like “I thought (Person X)’s idea about this was interesting. Could talk more about that?” There are spaces and places where we as white people can use our power to allow communities and people of color to have space to share their expertise and knowledge.

Why does that space have to be created, don’t we want everyone’s perspective?
We do want to hear all perspectives. That is what inclusion and belonging is all about. But we know that racism is institutionalized, and HBS is nothing if not an institution. The structures, policies, and procedures that we've built over time have components of race and racism baked into them. We have a culture that validates the experience of those of us in the dominant culture—primarily white, male, cis, hetero-normative. Those who fit into one or several of those dimensions feel that this is a fantastic place to work, that in this workspace they can be themselves, they can share, challenge, offer feedback, and ask questions.

But we know that if one does not fit into those categories, there is fear that if they do the same things, they will be questioned. If they offer feedback, propose a new idea, or speak in a meeting too frequently, they feel they will be judged because of the biases and stereotypes that we have of different communities of color. These are pre-baked and pre-existing narratives that result in people feeling that they can’t fully engage and let their voices be heard. When we talk about hearing all voices, we have to first and foremost create venues and opportunities for all of those voices to be heard equally. We want our colleagues to feel that whatever their identity backgrounds are, they can bring their full selves to work. That they can share their efforts, knowledge, and expertise—the things we've hired them to do here.

What are resources that HBS has for furthering this work?
We have a new website with Dean Nohria’s statements as well as resources from HBS and beyond. That includes resources developed by the Gender Initiative, which feature fantastic intersectional work around equity, race, and gender. There is a link for the Diversity and Inclusion info blast that I developed with KLS colleagues, which provides monthly updates on current readings around diversity and equity; it gives a quick snapshot of what's going on in those spaces. June's info blast has a special section on race and racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. If your first question is "How did we get here?" this may provide you with some background to set up the conversation that we're having as a nation.

It's important to stress that these resources are primarily to help those who are not Black or from communities of color. We owe it to our communities of color to think about resources, spaces, and venues that we can provide them, because currently we do not. We need to think about developing lunch groups, identity perspectives, and dialogue spaces for people to join with like-minded folks and create spaces of affinity and community for colleagues of color. That's on our list of priorities.

What are other priorities for HBS moving forward with this work?
I’ve spent my first year at HBS listening and learning. We are moving into our next phase, diversity and equity action planning, in this moment in which every single person on this campus wants to talk about race and racism. This gives us momentum to move forward this work because of the current laser focus of our community. Dean Nohria listed clear goals for our diversity and equity work in the coming months. I’m also very encouraged that HBS community is not looking for quick solutions to race and racism. The expectation is that HBS will work together deliberately to develop systemic solutions to systemic problems.

To become an institution that is truly equitable, we need to be reflective of intersectional experiences and identities. It is currently PRIDE month; how are we including queer and LGBTQ+ communities into this conversation? How are we having this conversation with our queer colleagues of color, with those in the disabled community, and our disabled colleagues of color? What are their experiences? We need to consider the intersectional questions of identity and how those dimensions impact race. And what that means for you when you come to work.

Thank you very much, Jen. How can people contact you for conversations and assistance around these issues?
I’m always available on email (jeliason@hbs.edu), and I also have open office hours for conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Read part one of the Q+A

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