Have you heard the Good News? Beyonce is on the cover of Vogue, September Edition. Not only that, she discusses so much of her private life that makes me love her even more. Not only that, but she had complete control and decided to use that control to hire a relatively unknown young, Black photographer to shoot the cover. The first black photographer in the magazine’s entire history (embarrassing).
If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own.
Do you see what she did? She didn’t discuss the benefit of diversity for those of us that are often left out, no, no. She mentions the often ignored benefit that comes with diversity–a benefit to those already in power–she reminds them that they are lacking without us. And encourages them to reach beyond their comfort zone because that will ultimately make them better. And this is so, so true. It really is important for those in power to recognize the benefit they gain by thinking beyond the status quo.
But as for the rest of us, she further proves her intelligence by showing us that once you have access to power you have a prime opportunity to create access for others.
Yes, celebrate when you break the glass ceiling, when you’re a trail blazer, when you get a seat at the table…but then you have to ask yourself, “what’s next?”
How can you use your power, even when it feels limited, to make changes where you are? It’s not easy, and it’s a long-term game. You have to be patient, strategic, and smart in what you do. And yes, I know–why is it our responsibility to make things better? It’s not. It’s not a mandate that you look out for others or do work beyond what you’re tasked to do. Buuuut, we all know there is strength in numbers and the more of us in positions of power the more likely we can create real and lasting change.
So, let’s say you are one of the only attorneys of color at your firm and want to increase diversity, what can you do?
One. Gain goodwill. Goodwill is the capital you use in office politics. You want to gain as much goodwill from decision-makers and stakeholders as you can so that when it’s time to ask for that favor, or policy change, or get buy-in for a diversity initiative, people are willing to go to bat for you. How do you gain that goodwill? When you’re starting out, it builds slow. You have to be vigilant that you’re producing quality work, show your investment in the firm, and behave in a way that shows you are someone they can trust and that they should value your judgement. Doing that will earn the capital that you need.
Two. Decide how to you use that capital. Ask yourself, what type of change is needed in your firm? Do they create diversity initiative that seem aimless? Is there a lack growth opportunities for attorneys of color? Does OCI only focus at certain schools that lack diversity? Look at where you think there could be changes, consider possible solutions, and then pull the trigger. And pulling the trigger doesn’t have to be a massive act.
Take OCI for example, maybe you notice most applicants for summer associates are white. Talk to the firm’s recruiters and ask if they’ve considered sharing job/internship posts with HBNA or your local/national BLSA. Something simple like sharing job postings with more diverse candidates, can be a great first step. It will also allow you to gauge the response from those in power as to how receptive they are to change. Work on those quick wins and then consider bigger projects/changes.
Three. Be patient, but not naive. As I mentioned, this is a long-term game. Changes don’t come overnight. There is a lot of swallowing those microaggressions on your way to earning those goodwill points. And yes, there is the heavy-handed approach where you go in demanding change, but I don’t think that works in the long-run. You may win the battle, but it may negatively impact on your career in a way where you won’t be able to make more strategic change in the future. So being patience is key–but also let’s not be naive.
The truth is that most leaders in firms or legal aids may value diversity in an abstract way (or claim to), but the reality is that dismantling an unjust system is hard. And when they have to look at the bottom line, they very easily decide to just keep it moving, as is, because they don’t see the value a change (and the hard work that comes with it) would make. There are some people who will never understand the beauty of Beyonce on a cover. They will always prefer the same mainstream white actress every time because it’s easy.
So a major part of your work will be to dig through the “we value diversity” facade and really see if your firm’s actions match what they claim. And if they dismiss the majority of your suggestions each time because it’s too hard, or expensive, or worry about the impact it will have on the firm’s overall quality of work, then really take consider if you want to continue providing your value and assets to that firm.
Overall, remind yourself that your voice and experience matters. When you see a gap in access to opportunities–an opportunity you or women like you could benefit from–you have the right to speak up and if your firm values you, they will listen.