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Challenging the Norms

Kate Locke, Senior Affiliate, Integrated Initiatives

Molly Schultz Hafid, Associate Director, Philanthropy

Debika Shome, Affiliate, Nonprofit Effectiveness

Tiffany Smith, Associate Director, Integrated Initiatives

At TCC Group, we’re committed to integrating conversations about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into our internal culture and our engagements with our clients. We realize from this work that as a firm we are starting in many different places, as are our clients. We recognize that we don’t have all the answers, and that change requires a willingness to adapt.

The conversation below represents a small step in our collective evolution. It contains insightful perspectives from four members of our senior leadership—Kate Locke, Molly Schultz Hafid, Debika Shome, and Tiffany Smith—each of whom has been active in our firm’s efforts to advance DEI conversations. The team attended Race Forward’s 2018 Facing Race Conference in Detroit, MI, in November 2018 which was followed by a firm-wide training in December. Their discussion below shares the team’s reflections on how the Race Forward conference displays excellence in centering racial justice, the impactful ways that presenters shared their stories, and how TCC Group is working to incorporate what we are learning from Race Forward’s conference and training within our organization and in our client work.

By sharing this conversation, our hope is twofold: We hope that you—the reader—gain insight into our learnings and processes, and that you’ll be inspired to engage in similar, meaningful conversations in your organization and communities.

Moderator: In each of your opinions, how did the conference challenge norms related to the traditional treatment of race that you’ve witnessed at conferences?

Molly: It stands out as noteworthy—and not necessarily in a good way—that at most of the other professional conferences we attend, there’s a person of color on a panel, or maybe two, and there’s still some places where the panel is all male. One thing that Facing Race really did well in all regards—not just panelists but moderators, session designers and attendees—was it was not about a conversation in response to whiteness, white supremacy, and white institutional culture. It was more proactive. The conversations people seemed to be having were the ones that genuinely needed to be had. It felt expansive, and not reactive or defensive, but imaginative in a way that allowed folks to speak from their whole selves, versus a piece here or there of their identity.

Tiffany: It made me think a lot about who are we designing things for the comfort of? Are we designing it for the comfort of white people, or brown people, or whomever? We’re working towards changing a culture and the conference did a great job of challenging the norms that I think we usually see in conference settings.

Kate: I also appreciate that it’s a conference that compensates speakers and honors their labor, which doesn’t always happen. It’s an even greater burden when a conference is more tokenizing and a person of color or a woman or a queer person might feel like no one looks like me up here, and there’s a financial burden. Race Forward is really proactive about honoring people’s labor and their expertise.  The other thing that struck me is that conversations about race were just so normalized and centered.  At lunch there were breakout groups where you might go to a session based on your racial identity and it wasn’t anything that people got upset about. It’s such a different space when you don’t have to tiptoe around those issues.

Tiffany: To add on to what you were saying about compensating speakers, there was also a tiered system of registration. You could register at the highest, most expensive level, which then guaranteed the registration of other people who couldn’t afford it.  But then there was the base builder level—around $185—which for a conference this size is pretty cheap. The other thing that I thought was unique and cool was that in addition to compensating speakers, they offered housing and other support for presenters.

Kate: Yeah, most conferences don’t even do discounted registration for speakers. You might get a little ribbon. That’s it.

Debika: They even had free childcare available during the conference, which I was really impressed by. I met a few people who brought their children to the conference because of this option.

Moderator: Can you expand on how presenters shared stories or crafted workshops in a unique way?

Tiffany: It was really important that there was a lens of ‘shifting the narrative’—which came through in all the sessions I attended. One session I went to on reproductive justice started off with a gallery walk with images and quotes of women. There was a thread of trying to find different ways to start conversations through telling a story first or letting other folks’ stories be told.

Kate: People didn’t need to show up as their conference selves, but as themselves. I once presented at a conference and I was wearing a short-sleeved sweater and slacks. When I got my session’s evaluations, someone noted that while I was a very qualified presenter and my content was good, they found it hard to concentrate on my presentation because I was wearing a T-shirt, which I was not, and because of my tattoos.  I felt like I could never present at a conference again. At Race Forward, I could not imagine that anyone would be complaining about the appearance of any presenter.

Molly: What also really stood out to me was making the content understood and valued using a wide range of change strategies. I loved when Bree Newsom was talking about taking down the Confederate flag not because the act would forever get rid of the flag in South Carolina, but because symbols matter. This symbol means something to the people that require a 2/3 vote to lower it, and taking it down means something to those of us that don’t agree with that.  It was aspirational. What are the stories that we want to tell? How do we want to imagine a different conversation? It resonated because of the storytelling. It buoyed my spirits.

Kate: It was nice to see so many different change levers, with no centering of one over the other. We had this diversity of speakers not just in terms of race, but in terms of what they were bringing to the table for us to learn from and to connect with.

Tiffany: It strikes me that this was something we all noted, because storytelling is a huge part of black and brown people’s culture. And it’s something I hear more and more about in my work for ViiV Healthcare. That is, incorporating Latino gay man stories into our work on the recommendation of our advisory board. The power of stories is rooted in the culture of most black and brown people. I heard someone in one of my sessions say, “our activism is meaningless unless it’s accessible to my mom and my grandma.” These are people who don’t have the language, but they have the stories. That was an important reminder.

Debika: In addition to individual presenters, I liked how the conference organizers incorporated the arts and creativity into all aspects of the conference. Keynotes and plenary panels were interwoven with music, dance, spoken word, visual art, and film in what felt like a very effortless way. It made this conference have a very joyful, celebratory, and reflective feel.

Kate: There was so much reference to departed leaders—the conference being held in the Detroit home of Grace Lee Boggs, an amazing activist, leader, and thinker who mentored so many people in the community. The city of Detroit was also centered, how people show up in Detroit. I appreciated how even though there weren’t as many older folks there in person, there were efforts to honor their spirits and their contributions to movements. That doesn’t always happen.

Moderator: In light of TCC Group’s recent internal DEI training with Race Forward, how do you see the conference as being relevant to TCC Group, both internally and externally?

Kate: I feel very privileged to have both the conference and training together. We heard about a lot of challenges with our culture during the training and during some of our discussions. I see the conference as the possibility of what we can become.

Tiffany: I think sometimes it’s hard to articulate what that looks like – that is – being in a space that does not center whiteness. We can try to model it but if we’re not quite articulating what we’re modeling, I think it’s hard to implement in an abstract way—unless you have an experience that you can compare that to. I had a conversation with someone recently who was trying to establish a work culture that’s not modeling these norms. He tries to dress down and not change his tone or dialect, for example. It’s this very conscious thing that he has to think about all the time.

Molly: I love that story because it represents the idea we got from our TCC Group Race Forward training, which is the idea of choice points. A bunch of our clients want to put equity at the center—all of the right ingredients are there. But then things happen where they revert back to what they know. Because again, there isn’t an imagination of what it feels like to work in a different space, to do business differently, to think differently about our purpose and what we’re doing out there in the world.  For me, the real lasting impact of attending the conference is to open that imaginative space, to feel more comfortable asking the question why are we doing it this way?  At some point choices were made to do it this way.  We can make different choices.  Our office culture was made.  It can be made differently. It can be unmade. The funding strategy of a foundation was made through a series of decisions.  It, too, can be unmade.  To proactively make different choices changes your relationship to the question of equity and racial justice—because it isn’t about this overwhelming sense that I can’t do anything. It’s about having some agency and saying there are choices that we all make every day, which are not just habits.

Tiffany: During the TCC Group training and then during our internal follow-up conversation, folks have been wondering, what do we do next?  Let’s start chipping away at some of these things.  We need to keep reminding ourselves that systems built this culture. To your point, Molly, the decision points were built over the history of this firm. Applying the culture from the conference that we experienced will take time, and it will take a lot of people wanting to make that shift in how they show up. I don’t think it can be a firm choice point that’s mandated. Everyone has to make those choice points.

Molly: There were 3,500 people there. That’s not a marginal, 50-person conversation. There’s something really powerful about imagining that the conversation we’re having at TCC Group isn’t unique to us. There’s a groundswell of meaningful conversation and action. I can’t imagine us not having this conversation at TCC Group. I don’t think there is a right way to do it; I think it’s something that we’re going to make a lot of mistakes in our work with clients, in our work with one another, in our work as a firm.  But I would rather be making those mistakes than not doing anything at all. That’s what we’re going to have to do to learn and move forward.

Tiffany: As an example of that—my Uber driver shared how an earlier rider spoke about being mandated to attend the conference because of an incident. It made me think in a way that I haven’t before—there were probably a good handful of people who attended because someone told them they should go as part of their diversity, equity, and inclusion training. And yes, forcing them to do it might not be the greatest motivation for them to change, but at least it’s forcing them into a space that they haven’t had to be in before and probably be uncomfortable in ways that they weren’t.  I think that lesson is probably true for TCC Group.  We would hope that everyone is onboard and wants to be part of this kind of thing, but if they’re not, that’s okay, too, because they’ll benefit from the conversation.

Kate: There’s been a nice conversation around how we can make this standardized and more normative for everybody at TCC Group rather than some people. We are looking at a more collective model versus different teams competing for resources and attention. We also have external pressure from our clients. There are clients that won’t hire us because of how we look and there could be more of them if we don’t change. It’s not just an internal firm culture thing. We also must be better at this to be able to serve our clients and collaborate with our partners more effectively.

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