By Guillermo Mayer

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.
– Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

You would think that with a mission like ours –to challenge the systemic causes of poverty and discrimination – having frank conversations about how race and other dynamics play out in the workplace would come naturally, right?

Well, not quite.

It takes work. Simply being part of a social justice organization, or choosing careers in civil rights, is no guarantee that open exchanges about our social identities and experiences as employees will routinely occur among colleagues.

These conversations do happen anyway, of course. But they tend to take place quietly behind closed doors, between select individuals.

This is not necessarily wrong. It is understandable, for example, that two Latino employees would trade comments over lunch about how it feels to be the only Latinos in the office, or that female staff members would discuss the limited number of female leaders at the top. Private conversations like these are, in fact, critical for building internal peer support and organizing for a more inclusive workplace.

But on their own, they aren’t enough.

So we’ve decided to take this on. With support from the Ford Foundation, we initiated a series of profound conversations about power and privilege, including our individual and group identities – whether shaped by race, gender, sexual orientation, class or ability. We’re examining how these issues impact our office culture, the decisions we make, our effectiveness as community lawyers and how to prevent and address the inequities that can result.

It hasn’t always been easy – we’ve stumbled, sometimes insulted each other, and left incidents unresolved. But that has been more than matched by courageous sharing, profound learning, and a greater sense of authenticity and togetherness. Morale is up and so is our ability to address unspoken tensions that can arise. We’ve even started sharing our experiences with the broader legal community.

Still, we find we have a lot of work ahead of us. Over the next year, these conversations will unfold to include not only our staff, but our board, interns and community allies, with the goal of building a stronger office culture.

To get there, we must first be honest, take stock of where we are, and allow these issues to have a regular place in office discourse. Only then, can we build a workplace culture that, like Justice Sotomayor, does not “sit back and wish away, rather than confront” inequities that exist.

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