The Room Where it Happens
Among the many conversations about inclusion in society and about increasing participation from groups that are underrepresented, I often see a common pattern that troubles me. At a societal level, we see that the systemic racism leaves some groups without direct access to essential services and opportunities. The pandemic has shown how lack of health care disproportionately impacts communities of color. Participation in higher education shows how under funding of K-12 impacts communities of color. Last Spring (2020) when K-12 schools closed due to the pandemic, society became painfully aware of the lack of daycare and even food services in communities — many children and young adults depended on the schools for their day care and sustenance. The impact of the lack of inclusion into society for members of many groups should be clear and obvious by now.
There is another aspect of inclusion that also troubles me and it is often dismissed too easily. I am talking about membership in administrative circles, committees and governing boards. Call it “The Room Where it Happens” (thank you Lin-Manuel for such great inspiration). Look around your university’s committees or organization’s governing boards, look at professional organizations, look at board of directors, even look at the wall of pictures of “former leaders” and what do you see? Or better yet, what DON’T you see? What you find is a systemic lack of representation that should give you reason to be concerned. How can all of these different groups have the same lack of representation?
We often ask these organizations: “what are you doing to improve diversity in your groups?” The responses often include a mix of these statements:
- We are open to and want more diverse participation.
- We don’t have the numbers we would like, but look at what we are doing to help.
- We invite the community to nominate more diverse candidates.
I really believe that a lot of well-intention people say these things as a positive statement. But I have to admit that I read these responses in a less than positive light. Let me address each of these in turn.
We are open for more diversity is a positive statement indicating the willingness to accept others into the inner circle. It is often an unneeded affirmation that says defensively “we are not excluding anybody.” To me, this statement is in the same category as the “I am not racist, I have a black friend” statement. It is a sad state of affairs when people have to continuously say “colored people are allowed here.” You would have thought those signs came down after the Civil Rights Act was signed in the 60's. I often wonder: Are you really doing the right thing? Or are you doing enough to look like you are doing something? Are you honestly examining why your system is racist? Which leads to the second point often made.
The distraction — What we are doing to help often includes:
- We have a diversity committee…
- We have training to prepare the future leaders…
- We have a subcommittee that you can join and participate…
- We send students to conferences...
- Look at <insert ethnic name here> and all the awards they earned.
If after all of those you still don’t have diversity in your organization then these are just smoke screens to divert the attention away from the problem that still exists. If these don’t directly translate to having more diversity at all levels, then they are distractions. They serve two purposes: make the organizations feel like they are doing something (i.e., pat in the back) and distract us from the fact that none of those things are making a difference.
I stipulate that these just keep us entertained without inviting us to “The Room Where it Happens.”
We invite the community to participate — the most troubling part is the closing argument. “We invite you to apply. It is good for you to be part of this group.” Here is why this bothers me the most.
It implies that we (people of color) are the ones that are self-selecting ourselves from the opportunity to serve. We are the ones that are not running for office. We are the ones that apparently choose to be involved in other opportunities instead of applying for these committees. Never mind that we often lack the networking connections, mentoring and sponsorship keeping us on the outside looking in. We often don’t even know about these opportunities. It also ignores that we are overloaded with other service responsibilities. It ignores the fact that we get put into numerous subcommittees that are part of the smoke screen and reinforces that we must pay our minority-tax.
It also makes it clear that this opportunity is there for us, but we just aren’t taking advantage of it. Almost like we are not, I don’t know, smart enough to want to participate? We don’t know what is good for us? As if participating in a very white and exclusive group is really at the top of our list. I don’t wake up thinking: “Oh, I can’t wait till I join an exclusive club of white-folks where I am going to have to answer all the racists questions again.” You know the questions. Why did you go to college? You have a Phd? How was it for you at that fancy college? Did your mom and dad go to college?
These are all asked with good intentions, I am sure. But we hear them as racists questions. Do you ask your white colleagues if their parents went to college? Just to be clear, it is OK to ask that question if we are engaged in a conversation about family legacy or the importance of helping first generational students, etc. In that context, it is perfectly OK to ask “were you a first generation student?” But if you ask that question right after you find out that, I don’t know, one of us got their PhD from say, Cornell. Asking about first generation implies that you somehow got there under some “freebie, social program.” Not OK. Or asking a confirmation question “Wait, did you say that you went to Georgetown?” shows that you think that it is unusual for people like us to go to an exclusive college. (By the way, I didn’t go to Cornell nor Georgetown, but family members did and they get ask that question routinely).
This passive-aggressive response from organizations misses one big point. The benefit of having a diverse committee goes to the organization. The benefit is not just for people of color. I am not arguing for some liberal-agenda, equal-opportunity action. All the research shows that having diverse representation in boards, teams, and committees produces positive results. Organizations with more women in leadership positions tend to have higher profits. Organizations with more diverse employees tend to have more clients. Mock juries with heterogeneous composition make better and more informed decisions. Teams of individuals outperforms teams of experts. Teams with more diversity tend to be more creative. The evidence goes on and on. Scientific American’s October 2014 special issue makes this point clear. Here is the article-in-brief for one of the stories in that issue:
Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way — yet the science shows that it does.
This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.
The benefit goes to the group, to the organization. However, the group is just sitting back passively saying “why don’t you apply?” Could it be that the group doesn’t even know what is the best for them? Maybe they are not interested in doing the best possible work? Maybe they are happy lamenting the status quo but are not ready make a change? Again, think of the lack of representation from the organizational point of view. The organization will be better if it has more representation. Period. Sometimes is really obvious to me, at least, why we haven’t improved.
What I find most troubling in these statements is that I don’t get the sense of urgency from groups and organizations to be better. I don’t see them realizing that the lack of diversity in their groups is hurting them on getting new information, new ideas, and alternate viewpoints.
So what do we do? Here are a few concrete suggestions:
Change the rules — Find a way to include diverse voices in your committees. Sometimes committees have restrictions, like only Full Professors can participate in Promotion and Tenure committees. Ask yourself why. Why is this committee for Full Professors only? Do you realize that this translates to a proxy for white professors? You know that academia has a very low percentage of people of color in the Full Professor rank (low % of women too, by the way). By holding the line at Full Professors Only, you are guaranteeing a white-only (and possibly man only) club. Think of all the informational and social diversity that you are missing.
I know, you are thinking “only people above the rank should vote” on promotion decisions. Fine. Add representation to the committee in ex-officio capacity. You need the social, information, and sometimes functional diversity to make better decisions. A group of men should have no business making a decision that impacts women without having women in the room explaining the point of view of the people impacted. That’s the informational diversity that the Scientific American article talks about.
Force the diversity — Most committees have “representatives” from other organizations. Select those other organizations to ensure you have social diversity in the group. Here is an example from universities, but easily applicable to other organizations. I am often surprised how few members of the Black, Latinx or LGBTQ+ faculty/staff caucuses on campus are invited to committees and boards. President/Chancellors reach out to us the moment they need us. They call us when a crisis erupts that affects our communities.
But when it comes to being part of the decision making, we are excluded. Why not give a seat at the table to a representative of each of these groups? You will clearly say that our opinion, point of view, and representation matters. The organization will benefit by having more voices. Our groups will benefit by getting exposure and networking opportunities.
It is a bit offensive if you get a call from the chancellor/president only after a social unrest takes place, only after the media says “majority of infected with COVID-19 are from communities of color,” only after the institution has been sued for discrimination, etc. At that point, it is too late for us to help. We should have been in the “Room Where It Happens” already. A “help me” call at this time is more about you than us. It is clearly motivated by getting your ass off the fire. It does not appear genuine or informed by the value that we have to contribute. It really doesn’t feel like we are now part of the “Room Where It Happens.” It feels like we are being given a glimpse at the room, get to see the pictures on the wall, knowing that soon enough we will be pushed out again.
You need us possibly more than we need you. Society is changing fast. The recent pandemic and the protests against police brutality have left many groups and organizations saying “oh, shit, what do we do now?” You need us. You need members of traditionally marginalized groups in all of your committees, and boards so we can help brainstorm about how we address societal problems. We bring in social and informational diversity, unique points of view that you don’t have readily available, and lived experiences that will probably surprise you. You need us.
Some institutions are afraid of showing that “we are needed” because they fear that our value is increased in the process. I have had a dean tell me “we don’t hire black professors, they are too expensive because they are in high demand.” Yeah, uniqueness has a value. If you want it, you must pay for it. And if you don’t want it, well, what does that say about your organization?
In closing, let me reassure you that I want to help and many members from groups that have been historically marginalized want to help too. We want to make society better for our children and honestly for your children too. We want a better society where equity and justice reaches out to everybody. We want a society that is more than a marketing campaign used to make us feel better.
Change the rules of participation, make us first class participants, and let us be part of the “Room Where It Happens.” I am sure that the problem of under representation will begin to change very quickly.
PS. I wrote this essay late in the Summer of 2020. It was based on 20+ years of experience in academia where all of the examples I have mentioned have actually been 1st hand experience for me.