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Decentering Whiteness in Congress and Beyond: a 5-Point Equity Commitment Framework

Jocelyn is a humanistic leadership practitioner and rising scholar on a mission to create a more just and equitable world.

For most Americans, 2020 has been a year of clarity that has exposed the painful truth of our history and existing inequities. For others, like me, it is merely a reminder of the America I have always known. I was born into this America, but my ancestors were not. They experienced horrific atrocities that linger as systemic disparity in the present day. Part of being American today is understanding that our forefathers intended liberty and justice to be applied to a narrow definition of humanity—excluding women, people of color, and those not wealthy enough to own property. Without reckoning with this misguided notion, we cannot transform our social, economic, political, and judicial systems to be more inclusive. Part of our history is understanding the failures resulting from not foreseeing the diverse America we inhabit today, with all its beauty, suffering, and complexities. We all have a responsibility to help reverse the injustices and inequities of the past, and we are at a pivotal point in history to create momentum for change and a better future.

Leading the Path to Change with Congressional Staff Leadership Action

Over the years, my work has focused on creating programmatic offerings, policies, and strategies grounded in the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) that operationalize more inclusive and equitable realities in our workplace, communities, and beyond. It is born of my belief that intentionally redesigning our systems and institutions is the path towards creating an America that manifests freedom, justice, and wellbeing for all. To that end, I recommend that congressional office leaders commit to changing the culture of congressional offices to become more multicultural and less white dominant.

What does this mean? First of all, “white dominant culture” is one of the most misunderstood DEIB terms of all time. It is not an explosive term and simply refers to the ways of operating that are inherently baked into our systems and institutions as a byproduct of our overtly discriminatory past. White dominant culture permeates our institutions; it’s all around us— like the air we breathe, the water we swim in, and the fog we can’t escape. It determines what is proper and improper. It tells us who is intelligent, trustworthy, and capable of leadership. Looking at our legislatures, you can see who is represented and how it reflects a default mode of operating from a radically racialized past—in which white men were at the top of the social pyramid. It is a legacy of exclusion in our social and political institutions.

Our country created inequitable systems by design—remember who could vote in the late 1700s and who could not. The fissures exposed in 2020 illustrate how our governing systems have failed to transform America to reflect its changing demographics and values. This is precisely why it is such a big deal that after 244 years, Kamala Harris is our first woman, black woman, and Indian American to be elected Vice President of the United States of America. This is seismic disruption to the status quo. It is, in essence, shifting the culture of American politics and opens doors to many possible futures.

But for true growth to occur, it must be through inclusion, not “diversity for diversity’s sake.” Through inclusion, we can shift culture; culture change is the key to workplace inclusion and equity.

In a recent media interview, Vice President-elect Harris was asked if she was bringing a socialist or progressive agenda to the White House. She responded: "No. No. It is the perspective of-- of a woman who grew up-- a Black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India. Who also, you know, l-- likes hip hop."

If Vice President-elect Harris is able to bring her true authentic self to her role as vice president of the United States of America, that is meaningful growth. If she is supported by a Commander in Chief who prioritizes inclusion by encouraging different ways of knowing, thinking, and being among his cabinet and trusted advisers, this could serve as a catalyst for change throughout our governing institutions. Indeed, it will benefit all Americans to have varied lived experiences informing the internal culture of government and the ensuing policies and practices.

President-elect Biden is designing the most representative cabinet in our nation’s history. One highlight is his pick for Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg. If Pete Buttigieg is confirmed by the Senate, he will make history as the first openly gay cabinet member to be confirmed by the Senate. This is progress for America. But the President-elect also has to prioritize inclusion, not just diversity for diversity’s sake. Representation does matter but focusing exclusively on diversity is not enough.

In the DEIB world, another way to phrase this is that our nation’s leaders should hire for culture add (e.g., What do you bring that’s additive?) versus culture fit (e.g., How are you going to affirm the status quo?) It is the difference between tokenism and growth within an organizational culture due to inclusion. It is going beyond the “D” in DEIB.

And remember because inequitable systems were intentionally designed, the invigorating news is that we can redesign them with intentionality, rigor, and empathy. We are being called into the important work of fostering healing, belonging, and unity for our country. This work requires both changing hearts and minds and a shift in policies and practices. To that end, I have laid out a 5-Point Equity Commitment Framework to help congressional leaders and their staff actualize the vision of creating a more interconnected, equitable, and thriving country.

1. A Commitment to Acknowledgement

We must commit to acknowledging the harm of historical inequities and how they have morphed into present-day inequities and continue to shape our institutions, organizations, systems, and policies—as they are microcosms of our larger society. With this acknowledgment comes a responsibility to decolonize. It’s important that we don’t let the discomfort that comes with acknowledging past atrocities keep us in a place of choosing comfort over truth. Our country is hurting from past traumas that have impacted the American psyche for over 400 years. We can’t heal from traumas we don’t acknowledge.

2. A Commitment to Unlearning

Like me, you may not have learned the full truth about our racialized history and the ensuing consequences we face today. Being on this DEIB journey requires an active commitment to unlearning. We must shed the harmful biases that perpetuate narratives that nonwhite people are inferior to whites. Unlearning will require us to unpack our deeply rooted assumptions and schemas in order to create new constructs of power and organizing. Unlearning means that we reject the status quo characterized by division, scarcity, and us vs. them mentality and embrace creating a new narrative around wholeness, healing, and belonging.

3. A Commitment to Learning

DEIB Learning begins with learning about self in relation to systems of inequality and oppression. Copious learning opportunities exist—from understanding self to dismantling inequitable systems—to help you explore DEIB related skills and competencies. Some of these trainings come with a hefty price tag, but don’t let that discourage you. Seek out free tools and resources that exist in the space such as this website.

4. A Commitment to Reimagining

We can’t work toward a new future without a clear and compelling vision. This work requires an exercise in using our imagination to co-create radically inclusive systems, structures, and policies. I recently read a quote by Author Adrienne Marie Brown that said, “I believe that all organizing is science fiction—that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced.” To me this means we can’t be limited by our realities; we have to use our imaginations to create radically different ways of knowing, relating, and existing. We must imagine new systems, policies, and practices that tend to all stakeholders, created for those on the margins.

5. A Commitment to Collective Action

We must commit to acting alongside others to build diverse coalitions for change. No sector should be untouched, as sustainable change can’t happen without every sector committing to do their part to focus on healing, unity, and belonging.

I hope this 5-Point Equity Commitment Framework provides you with useful guidance as you work to make America’s Congress a more inclusive and equitable workplace. In turn, we believe a diverse and thriving workforce will develop and implement relevant, people-centered, innovative solutions that make the country a better place for all its people. Congress, the heart of our democracy, could be the model institution for how we create organizations and institutions that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable that foster a sense of belonging for all. But Congress can’t and shouldn’t go at this work alone. It’s time to build coalitions with the private, nonprofit, and philanthropy sectors who continue to engage in this hard and complex work and have many lessons to teach. Our country has been on a long journey of change and our institutions and organizations must catch up. Only then will we be able to realize the full potential of America.

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