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Authentic inclusion requires more than setting longer tables

What's the point of welcoming more communities to 'the table' if the first ones seated are talking over them and not passing the food?

Long wooden dining table with place settings

Who will be the 'shepherds' at the table? Image via Shutterstock/ravipat

Lesford Duncan wants you to think beyond the photo op in your company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. 

The CEO of the Greening Youth Foundation urged corporations to ask themselves: How can greater diversity inform and improve business practices? How can broader representation help organizations touch base with their consumers in more impactful ways? 

Using the metaphor of activist-chef José Andrés — that it’s necessary to build "longer tables, not higher walls" to welcome more people into the fold: First, consider who’s not at the table and why before adding to it, Duncan said. "And then really consider deeply, how do we empower a voice at that table as well?"

However, such questions are too often omitted or glazed over in the sustainability profession, according to Duncan and others in a conversation at GreenBiz 23 in February about advancing inclusion and diversity.

It was hard to find speakers for the discussion, according to Bridgette McAdoo, CSO and vice president of the software company Genesys.

"It’s no secret that sustainability leaders don't look like us. Did anybody in this room think that there were more? I don't think so. Have you asked yourself why?"

Doing the work?

There’s been a lot of recent talk about diversifying the profession of corporate sustainability. It’s been nearly three years since footage of George Floyd’s May 25, 2020, murder by Minneapolis police drove tens of millions of people into the streets for Black Lives Matter protests despite the public-health shutdowns of COVID-19.

"It came to the surface in a really uncomfortable way that really pushed organizations, employers, companies, citizens to act and to react in both helpful and harmful ways," Duncan said.

That's when the lack of diversity in environmental circles and the disproportionate impact of pollution on under-resourced communities emerged from a largely unaddressed backdrop into the forefront of discussions among sustainability leadership as well.

It’s no secret that sustainability leaders don't look like us. Have you asked yourself why?

Corporate social media accounts, websites and commercials sprang up seemingly overnight to declare their efforts to diversify leadership, to do less harm to underserved communities and to actively promote racial equity. 

Racial justice pledges and programs by big businesses have totaled $340 billion between then and October, according to the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility.

If 2020 wasn’t uncomfortable enough, the efforts since then to boost organizational diversity have been even more awkward, according to Duncan. "There was an increase in diversity hires, for lack of a better term." 

However, attrition and burnout among people of color is high three years later because people failed to pause and deeply understand the root causes of racism and environmental racism, he said. Yet to move forward, it’s necessary to move past "the tip-of-the-iceberg, performative standpoint of purely increasing diversity."

Honor the partners

The conversation explored how organizations seeking to work at deeper levels toward inclusion can enlist communities.

For example, the privately held Bass Pro Shops reached out to Greening Youth Foundation seeking to collaborate, which resulted in an emerging partnership with South Carolina State University, in which two undergraduate interns studied environmental injustice in the Gullah Geechee coastal community.

Duncan said that during a community stakeholder meeting in Green Pond, South Carolina about water quality problems, an older area resident recognized one of the interns as a granddaughter of someone she knew. 

"There is a different level of trust and connection; their representation in that moment made all the difference," he said of how the intern's suggestions of community action related to her research were received. "We had a different tone to the conversation, we were able to help mobilize the community to take policy action, to help improve the environment, because there was a trust that was developed." 

It came to the surface in a really uncomfortable way that really pushed organizations, employers, companies, citizens to act and to react in both helpful and harmful ways.

That anecdote embodies what corporations spend millions of dollars on in government affairs and community relations, according to Brandi Colander, CSO of Enviva. 

"It's effectively us trying to help you understand that we live, work and play in places where we operate, and we have a commitment to you as well," she said. "Realizing and delivering against that promise is where many fall short."

"The reality is we don’t need saviors," McAdoo said. "We need a voice."

Build that pipeline

McAdoo recalled extensive efforts to find candidates from diverse backgrounds for job openings, including turning to the historically Black university she attended. "We reach back to all of our networks, not because we're trying to keep this kind of narrow focus, but we just want to make sure that the slate is equitable and fair," she said. "And in this space, it is difficult."

"Building the pipeline" of young talent is one solution that often comes up on this topic. How can the leaders across the different sectors and spaces of sustainability nurture diverse talent among high schoolers and college students — or even get environmental careers on their radar?

Duncan recalled not realizing as a middle-class child that the environmental space offered career options. While he was professionally advocating for California children involved in foster care and juvenile justice systems, for the first time he connected with nature deeply and recognized the personal healing value of being outdoors, he said.

There is a different level of trust and connection; their representation in that moment made all the difference.

"From there, I looked around and said, ‘Well, why aren't there more people of color in the environment in general?’" Duncan encouraged youth at his church to go for hikes, and eventually connected with mentorship organizations for children in foster care, adding an outdoor component.

"And what we saw was that when youth found their own resilience in the outdoors, when they found their own healing in the outdoors, they're that much more likely to care for the environment," whether in small daily actions or by choosing a career in environmental policy or in sustainability, Duncan said.

McAdoo said she explains to younger people the breadth of the work, that it’s bigger than "just the environment."

"It’s food deserts; it’s access to wi-fi, education and technology; it’s access to clean air and water," she said.

Shepherd the divides

What will it take for companies to better understand who’s at "the table" and is being affected? The concept of intersectionality emerged as a useful framework for approaching where various contexts and backgrounds come together in ways that inform people’s experiences.

"There's no singular box that probably any one of us sitting in this room today can be squarely placed into that would fully sum up who we are as a person," said Duncan, who noted that his identities as a Jamaican-American, Christian, cisgendered man offer both privileges and adversities.  

Intersectionality involves bridging two or more spaces that have not typically been integrated before, and that requires a "shepherd" with both the soft and hard skills to tackle some of the difficult issues, according to Colander. 

From the conversation, this type of work — of considering the historical contexts and the wide variety of human experiences involved in sustainability, climate and environmental justice — is largely the work of the future and an opportunity that organizations, to the detriment of themselves and the greater good, have not yet seized.

How are you creating open circuits of feedback throughout the company?

The work of the future is incomplete without understanding the paths that led from the past to now. Michael Kobori, chief sustainability officer of Starbucks, noted that his parents lived in internment camps into which the U.S. government forced Japanese-Americans during World War II.

"We're not far removed from these stories," McAdoo said of when racial segregation was more blatantly upheld by the law and other mainstream institutions. "From your story, your parents, Michael. My father and my mother were on the frontlines of civil rights — hosed, jailed, beaten — part of integration and segregation. We're not far removed. It's in our lifetimes, that we are the stories that we want to see elevated."

Ask the uncomfortable questions

When Kobori joined Starbucks three years ago, he immersed with different teams, including one investing in renewable energy projects. "I said, ‘Do we ever use equity as a consideration? Has that community historically gotten access to renewable energy or not?’"

The answer? No, but they could.

As a result, the coffee giant considers equity in its renewable energy investments — including its $97 million community solar projects in New York for 24,000 underserved households, businesses and organizations, Kobori said.

"I wasn't challenging, I was just asking out of curiosity," he added. 

Passion, patience, perseverance and charm have helped him in his work, Kobori said. "It's building those relationships… It’s personal influence, to get people to see things differently, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable question, that has helped me a lot over the years. Because people don't want to be made that uncomfortable."

There's no singular box that probably any one of us sitting in this room today can be squarely placed into that would fully sum up who we are as a person.

Duncan noted that the Starbucks renewable example shows how it is important to challenge the status quo, which sustainability leaders are already accustomed to. "In what ways are the norms of your company or your organization an antithesis to increasing true diversity, true representation and sustained inclusion?" he said.

Duncan suggested other questions as well: What’s the organizational culture? What’s the culture around asking such questions? How are you creating open circuits of feedback throughout the company?

Those questions will help avoid the pitfalls of 2020, in which people rushed to increase diversity without creating a climate where diverse minds and leaders can thrive, Duncan said.

Fix bad HR habits

The sustainability profession should reconsider some of its bad habits in human resources when evaluating or recruiting talent, McAdoo said. This includes setting unnecessarily high requirements for job listings. 

"None of us had any type of direct trajectory to CSR; I think all of our backgrounds are very different," she said.

She asked: What does it mean when you hear excuses about the company not being able to cultivate talent or the lack of a direct career path? Does that pushback mean the company is not willing to invest in talent?

"Because these roles … especially when you get to leadership levels in sustainability, it's really about the ability to have a breadth of knowledge and a passion and the ability to influence change indirectly," McAdoo said.

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