"Let's Talk About Race," My Boss Said to Me
August 23, 2017
By Paola Peacock Friedrich
Countless years in this brown skin, over 100 stamps in my passport, study sessions with Cornel West, and I was wary of this invitation. In the fall of 2016, I was asked to lead the first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team at AchieveMission. I said, no. As one of two people of color in our small firm and not yet a member of the leadership team, I was worried that somehow this invitation was at odds with my professional goals. I wanted to lead our consulting practice in a few years, multilingual and brown as I am. I wanted to continue to learn our talent management and leadership development practice. I wanted to be seen as a leader in strategic thinking, in partner engagement, in client impact, and in adult learning. I was worried that I might be tokenized and that I would not have the informal authority to influence the initiative in a deep and meaningful way. So, I said no.
When I think back to one of my greatest leadership failures, I think of this moment when my boss said to me, “Let’s talk about race…will you lead?” In essence, though not exactly, I had said, “no thank you.” My response tormented me. It was completely in conflict with my values and existence. I could already see that what I was disguising as perseverance and focus was actually born from stubbornness, righteousness, and fatigue.
Today, in the wake of vibrant expressions of violence, anger, and hate, I am again haunted by my initial wariness. My hesitation did not come from a tension between my personal values and our work contributing to diversity, equity and inclusion; it came from self-doubt. I wrestle on a daily basis with my identity as a mother, a Latina, and a leader in US K-12 education. My mother was one semester short of earning her college degree in Psychology at the UNAM in Mexico City when she and my father came to the United States in 1974. Both of my parents devoted their every waking moment to my education and that of my two sisters. They chose a magnet school for me in San Diego where I delved into a French immersion program in first grade. The forty-five-minute bus ride each way and the richness of learning that I experienced with Madame Bell that year absolutely set the course for my life.
Now, as mother of two young boys, I often struggle to feel adequate in my devotion to their lives and education. I began my Doctoral studies at Harvard with Diego at 11-months old, and gave birth to my second son, Francisco, just as I began my residency year and Doctoral Capstone. The demand on me as a leader, a learner, and a mother is something that I had not anticipated. I was raised to believe that I would and could contribute meaningful work, be a leader in my field, and have a family if I so chose. These elements of my identity were never at odds with each other until I began to truly transform and grow as a leader. I searched for female role models who had done this before. What I found was that, anecdotally, many phenomenal leaders of color did not have children while their white counterparts did. I am often torn between knowing how to uphold the overwhelming devotion to my family that my parents continue to model together with the desire to delve deeply into a demanding career and learning.
In August 2016, I returned to work and said, “ok, let’s talk about race at AchieveMission.” I was not sure where to begin. I knew my own experience of how race intersects with poverty, education and health through my family, community, and travels across the world. But how should we hold race here, at AchieveMission, both as a team and with our clients? In true AchieveMission fashion, I did not do this alone. We formed a phenomenal team of reflective and courageous people, committed to building a learning relationship with one another where we could explore race. We started with our ultimate area of expertise: ourselves. Our conversations were by no means easy. They did, however, lay a foundation for us to support and probe each other. Then, we began to craft a practice where we would hold a conversation that isolated race after every client facilitation. The first time we did this, we smiled nervously. We did not know how to begin, and we remembered Glenn E. Singleton’s principles for Courageous Conversations about Race, namely: speak from your personal experience, isolate race, and agree to the fact that you may feel unresolved at the end of the conversation. After a few rounds we gained comfort exploring how race showed up in the room, in our own minds, and in our interactions with others. And we began to find a flow.
Today, I hold my initial hesitation and self-doubt in check with the help of others. I see my roles as mother, learner, and leader more aligned than ever, and I try to allow the dimensions of my identity (and the tensions they bring) to fuel my motivation and devotion to bringing about true equity for our families and communities.
Today, if you said to me, “let's talk about race...right here, right now,” I would respond, “claro que si.”