Confronting Race at Work: How our Team Came Together in Community

Malaika Serrano has been engaged in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work for nearly 20 years, first as a study abroad advisor, a faculty program leader, and now as the inaugural VP for Diversity and Inclusion at WorldStrides Higher Ed. She regularly presents at national conferences and is an active member of Diversity Abroad, Forum on Education Abroad, the Global Leadership League, and NAFSA. She received a B.A. from the University of Southern California, M.A. from the University of Maryland, a Diversity and Inclusion Certificate from Cornell University, and is currently a Doctoral student at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan.

The story of Amy Cooper’s call to police after harassing Chris Cooper, an avid birdwatcher who happened to be African American, was the thing that almost broke me. By now, you probably know about this incident. I learned the story from my best friend on Thursday night, May 28, towards the end of a horrific week. Days earlier, George Floyd had been killed before our very eyes and we were still reeling from the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

When my friend told me what had happened in Central Park, I was done. The casual ease in which she weaponized her privilege in a way that could have resulted in a fatal outcome for an innocent man, was shocking for many. All I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and cry my eyes out.

For me, it immediately triggered painful memories of harassment, humiliation, anger, and anxiety in both my personal and professional life, including defensive tears and accusations of “reverse racism” in graduate school and an incident in which a white female colleague with whom I disagreed on a professional question called me “aggressive” and “threatening” and promptly hung up the phone in my face.

Summoning strength and doing the work

So, how did I handle this “final straw”?

Like millions of African Americans, I woke up the next day and gathered the strength to mask my emotions, put on a brave face, and begin a new workday. Over the weekend, the protests grew louder and curfews were enacted. To cope, I embraced the healing energy of my family and held my children close.

On Monday, I began engaging in a flurry of conversations with colleagues around the events that had transpired over the past week and weekend. Many people across the organization had privately reached out to me, asking how I was doing and what they could do to be supportive. I appreciated all of this and knew there were other people who were hurting. It was clear to me that our organization needed to come together as a community.

That’s when I proposed Listening Circles, and I’ve been energized by that work during this challenging time.

The purpose of a Listening Circle is to create a safe and affirming space for people to process openly, share what is on their mind and in their hearts, ask questions respectfully, and above all, listen.

In less than 24 hours, and with unwavering support from WorldStrides Higher Education General Managers – Jennifer Acosta, Chris Shepherd, and Michael Smith – we had confirmed three Listening Circles for our three teams that week.

Each Listening Circle was uniquely different and beautiful, and though optional, very well-attended. We began each conversation with Community Requests or “ground rules,” to establish trust and support psychological safety for participants. Next, we celebrated the memories of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many unarmed black men and women whose lives have taken. After a moment of silence, we “entered” the Circle and I posed the following questions:

· What brings you to the Circle?

· What is your understanding of recent events that have transpired? How has this made you feel?

· What is one thing you would like people to know about you or your loved ones?

· What is one thing you would like to learn about someone from another community?

· Anything else on your mind?

I shared my personal experiences as a woman of color and several colleagues did the same. Near the end of the hour, I shared resources with folks to continue learning and invited participants to share additional resources and learning opportunities.

Now, what?

The invitation I offered at our Listening Circles isn’t just for those who were part of that special experience. Change begins at home and we must be willing to lean into discomfort, listen to each other with open hearts and minds, and do the work. How can we take action?

1. Leadership – If you are in a management or leadership position, model vulnerability, and be real with your team. Let them know how you/loved ones are being affected by everything that is happening in the world, against the backdrop of Covid19. Share about what you worry you’re not doing well. Actively engage in ongoing self-reflection and create spaces of inclusion and belonging.

2. Support – We all have agency. What do you need right now, in order to feel supported in the workplace? Communicate with your supervisor and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leaders inside your organization. Being in community with colleagues who share similar social identities (e.g. African American affinity group) can be a safe haven for historically marginalized populations within the organization. If you don’t have these in your workplace (candidly, we do not…yet), ask to start one.

3. Education – Take time to fully understand events, using data from reliable sources. Some of my favorites are:

· The Long Run – Dr. Martin Davidson

· How to Be Anti-Racist – Dr. Ibrahim Kendi

· Policing in Black and White – Kirsten Weir

· Seeing White Podcast – Scene on Radio

· Code Switch Podcast – NPR

· The Memo – Minda Harts

· Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People – Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

· White Fragility – Dr. Robin DiAngelo

I may have been bruised by “Amy Cooper” incidences in the past, but she won’t break me. The international education community is a particularly important place to do the work. There is a lot of energy around supporting historically underrepresented students, which is greatly needed, but we also need to pay attention to faculty and staff of color. Our organization has work to do, and so does our broader network. Building a stronger future will take the commitment of everyone – folks of color and our white allies – to honor our humanity and commitment to inclusion and belonging.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you, Malaika. Always on point! Stay strong. I appreciate your suggestions and love the idea of Affinity groups. Will share with colleagues. There is much work to be done.

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