Systems Change, People, and the Case for Optimism

Many skeptics and detractors of the current movement for more diverse teams and systems question “diversity for diversity’s sake.” But it’s never been an aimless movement.

Our political and social systems are built by people working in their best interest. Or, for the best interest of those they care and think about. Nothing unnatural about that. Humans are pack animals, too – that’s why we seem to love teams and political parties and our countries – it’s hard to associate as an entire human race. It’s hard to zoom out far enough until the lines between us are blurred – much easier to look at some immediate identifier (race, gender, class, etc.) and operate within and for that group. So, anyone at the table (or, anyone with power) is going to build a system that favors their group.

Here, we-the-change-makers have a choice. Do we challenge a fundamental feature of human nature? Do we demand that power-brokers start acting out of a more egalitarian respect for all? Well…yes. That should still continue. But go too far down that path, and lose enough times, and one becomes a little pessimistic. I haven’t seen enough people, especially those in a fox-hole of power, willingly give it up. (That power must be taken is one of the premises of the entire social justice movement and is further explained by many social justice experts and activists, like bell hooks and Angela Davis and Paulo Freire).

What else, then? If the folks making policies and decisions are most likely going to look out for their own tribes, shouldn’t we interrogate the pathways to power in the first place? Yes – we should look at housing policies that segregate neighborhoods on race and class. We should learn about education inequity that prepares students very differently based on zip code. We should understand hiring and HR policies that treat people on different parts of the gender spectrum unfairly. And, we should attack (and change) the policies that allow for such discrimination. So, protesting and campaigning for specific laws and corporate policies to change is critical. But, even when we win those campaigns, we’ve convinced the people in power to act against their self-interest. That might work with sustained public pressure, but it more likely leads to one-off changes on an unperturbed hierarchical foundation. If the people at the decision table haven’t changed, even a small victory begins to look feeble in the face of long-term power inertia.

Let’s check the tape:

  1. We’ve tried to convince decision makers to act against their self interest.
  2. We have protested policies and rules that those decision makers may have implemented.

But is the system changing substantively? We’re chipping away at it from the top. Pessimistically, that just gives way for the “ice below” to rise up and reestablish the power dynamic. Alternatively, with enough people chipping, the whole iceberg (read: system of inequitable policies stemming from historical racism, sexism, classism, etc.) crumbles. And when the whole thing crumbles, what do we think will happen? That the iceberg will stay strewn across the great ocean of fairness? That power will remain unconsolidated? Maybe, but that’s yet to be demonstrated. The iceberg seems to always rise, because people are always looking out for their best interest. In a resource-constrained reality, that means a recreation of power hierarchy.

See – that iceberg analogy always gives me heartburn. Ironic, I know. It makes our world seem so inevitable. And that led to pessimism – things will always be this way, the best we can do is make micro-changes, and hope a little of that sweet sweet ice water makes its way to the people being crushed by the iceberg.

I’m done with that. I’m frustrated by the thought that we’re working so hard to close the opportunity gap for kids and families and non-dominant communities only to scrape a slice off the iceberg. I’m not interested in aimless movement (note: serving and providing opportunities to people who are a part of that “slice” is not aimless. It is wonderful, it is joyous, it is necessary. AND, it’s incomplete). I’m interested in making the most sweeping changes possible in our society, in service of the under-supported, immediately and lastingly. My end-game is idealistic (an idealistic end-game should be the only end-game), but my means are not. I’m not proposing an all-or-nothing approach, because I’m too risk-averse, and we’d be too likely to end up with nothing.

What am I proposing, then?

It’s not new, and it’s not my idea. But I do love it. If we can’t convince current decision-makers to act out of egalitarian interest, and we can’t see sustained change through single-issue protesting and campaigning, let’s change who’s at the table. Let’s direct political, financial, and social resources toward electing and placing people from under-represented backgrounds to seats of power.

What could that look like:

  1. A female, black mother being elected to city council
  2. A trans man getting more patient Venture Capital for his startup that facilitates a more equitable way to onboard talent and understand teams
  3. LatinX business partners getting reasonable interest rates for their new investment in a social-impact incubator
  4. Funds specifically geared toward women and/or people-of-color entrepreneurs
  5. Including a “distance-traveled” criteria for admission into higher education
  6. Leadership programs geared toward leaders of color to strengthen flow from middle-management to executive level
  7. A differently-abled State Senator sponsoring bills on the Congress floor

These things are happening. For example, Berkeley-Haas’s MBA Program recently added an optional essay into its admissions process for exactly this reason (#5). For number 6, check out Surge Institute. For funding innovation, check out the New Voices Fund that was just officially announced at Essence Festival.

Let’s do more of it. I would love to see more funds (read: money, read: power, read: change capital) focus on minority founders. I would love to see public advocacy organizations and cities make sure their most marginalized communities have easy access to the political system. I would love to see minority owners of small businesses with a place on the local business council.

Because, no matter the amount of inertia, no matter the complexity and compounding of unjust policies, no matter the volume of this iceberg, we have to remember that this is NOT an actual iceberg. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but think of it this way: an iceberg is a natural phenomenon. It happens. It’s nature. And so, it’s reasonable to shrug our shoulders and say, “hey, that’s just how it is.” It is SO easy to look at our society, shrug our shoulders, and say the same thing. But our systems are designed by humans. Humans (white, educated, politically significant men, predominantly) designed them with quasi-self interest in mind (if you bring up the American Founding Fathers’ Declaration that all men are created equal or the subsequent unalienable rights, I shrug my shoulders at you and hope you know that means I’m thinking about all the women and slaves and Native peoples who didn’t enjoy the fruits of that liberal sentiment).

What might have happened if some of those minority groups were in the room, had rights, and held influence during the Declaration? We’d likely have a more inclusive foundation! What might happen if multiple women and people of color were on a board when deciding the priorities for a startup? We’d likely have more inclusive products, services, and workplaces! What might happen if leadership in a particular sector, like education, actually mirrored the racial makeup of the beneficiaries (students and families)? We’d likely have a more responsive and empathetic educational system!

For those who are concerned that these different humans will also act in favor of their own tribes – maybe, and maybe that’s not a bad thing if we’re trying to level a playing field. But maybe, if we have diverse rooms of leaders making decisions, we’ll all keep each others’ tribes in mind when designing the game going forward. This is not diversity for diversity’s sake. There’s a better, more inclusive society at the end of this movement, and I’m feeling pretty optimistic about it. 


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