Catching the dream ….Advocating change in organisations

I was but a small girl when Martin Luther King made his ‘I have a dream’ speech on that late August day in 1963.  

This morning on the Radio 4 Professor Clayborne Carson introduced a deeply moving reminiscence of those days and a roll call of civil rights champions across the last fifty years read out the speech. 

Professor Carson went on to say that it changed his life.  Listening, I agreed.  Not that it had changed my life but that it had helped shape it.  So how, you may ask, could a little white girl in a far away suburb be so affected? 

For my generation civil rights formed the backdrop to our growing up.  Reading my parents’ tabloid newspaper and listening to the radio I learned with puzzlement, consternation and indignation that treating people with dignity and respect, giving people access to education and good jobs was far from a reality in the most developed nations. 

Watching the television I learned of the shooting, the fires, the murders and the marches and the fight for civil rights.  At that point in my own young life I had already experienced an out of the ordinary injustice and I was ready to understand that injustice of whatever sort happens.

The great social movement of race equality is the backdrop of our time.  The USA and South Africa give us the big picture.  The details are played out in the workplace.   So on this remarkable anniversary I want to talk about Issue Advocacy in organisations.

Issue Advocacy in the context of Diversity means bringing to an organisation what it may not feel it needs.  Issue Advocacy invariably picks up an emerging theme in wider civil society.   Perhaps it is not mainstream, perhaps is it not a popular concept but it is nearly always on the horizon.   Is at the heart of change in Diversity and Inclusion. 

Diversity professionals, at their best, not only respond to their organisation’s Diversity & Inclusion agenda but shape it too.  At their best they will be able to spot these themes and will draw into the organisation ideas which will re-shape its values and outlook.

Organisations realise that in order to change and develop and reflect society they must engage with Diversity. The job of the Diversity professional is to distill what it is important for that organisation and to society and to shape a vision and achievable set of goals.   This means introducing concepts that challenge the status quo. 

This is where it gets tough, even in the most enlightened organisation.   When the Diversity professional offers a new set of concepts or a view through the diversity statistics to show the gaps, the missing women, the unappointed yet talented BAME people and pay disparity among disabled people the organisation may react with indignation and resistance.    ‘We didn’t bring you in to do this’ it is said in many indirect ways: we brought you in to win prizes, attract talent and engage our staff.  

So organisations may be disappointed that the road to the good news is long and hard and means changing the way things are done.   ‘The Golden Bullet’ and ‘quick fix’ are phrases learnt quickly. Reluctance to change comes in many forms: questioning data, seeing only the trees not the forest, requesting iteration after iteration, not permitting access or simply saying ‘what has this got to do with our business’. 

Introducing a new issue needs care and attention, sampling opinion, introducing a view from a credible outsider, providing a new look at the statistics and suggesting a pathway forward.  There will be vociferous and sometimes defensive replies:  ‘But I’m not a racist’ when the implications of the statistics you are presenting sink in.   ‘Are you telling me that we do not select the best people’, when managers see that there are few women or people with disabilities considered for promotion in their area.

Sometimes society itself brings the issue to centre stage; work on the advancement of people of colour in US organisations started in the 60s, propelled by the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent laws.   Much later the Stephen Lawrence enquiry gave the UK the vocabulary to understand institutional racism.  Based on neuro-scientific research, Unconscious Bias has provided an important tool to re-emphasise the need for vigilance over our own thought processes and behaviours and shows us how bias is absorbed into the fabric of organisations.

Issue Advocacy is tough on leaders of change.  It calls for resilience, mental toughness, agility and an attention to detail and, just when you think that the gains are held and progress is made, the ball edges down hill again .…

At our most difficult moments we comfort ourselves that we can all see the dream but to catch it remains, frustratingly, just beyond our reach.




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