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"V" in the moment of change: Q&A with diversity and inclusion expert Vernā Myers

By Sarah Stealey Reed

Last updated December 30, 2020

In Act I of Avenue Q—the play oft called “Sesame Street for adults”—two of the central puppet characters launch into a rousing ditty about racism. “Everyone’s a little bit racist…sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing… hate crimes. Look around and… you will find… no one’s really… color-blind. Maybe it’s a fact… we should all face… everyone makes judgments… based on race.”

The song and its message, coming shortly after “If You Were Gay,” is hilarious in the moment. But it carries a bite. If you’ve seen the show before—I’m on round four—you glance around the audience to gauge the internal dialogue. “I’m not racist. Stupid puppets. I love everyone. Everyone is equal. I’m not a racist. How dare they call me a racist.”

Why do the puppets get it? Why do the puppets understand what we humans seem to struggle with? Everyone’s a little bit racist. And everyone is a little bit sexist, and a little bit classist, and a little bit mono-culturalist… If we don’t acknowledge our biases, we can’t interrupt them.

Do you get it?

Vernā Myers gets it.

The Vernā Myers story

Vernā Myers once practiced law in Boston: “I was the first black or any person of color in 1985 that this law firm had ever had. I thought that was peculiar because now ’85 was a long time ago, but then it didn’t seem like a long time ago. And I certainly didn’t think that I would be breaking the color barrier at that point. But I was.”

Another firm and seven years later, Myers was invited to be the executive director of The Boston Law Firm Group, a consortium of private law firms. Their mission was to raise the representation—the diversity and inclusion—of attorneys of color in Boston.

According to all the numbers and graphs, Myers was making a positive difference. And then things plateaued and the employee churn started. “I call this the invasion of the body snatchers,” Myers says. “Because these are different bodies. The number looks the same, but we’re just replacing people. The most junior people in the organizations are diverse, but they are leaving and being replaced by other new diverse people. So you’re never really saturating the environment to the point that diversity is having its desired effect.”

And that’s because people don’t naturally know how to work and invest in people who are different from them, Myers says. It’s more than just hiring diverse talent, it’s about cultivating the competency of change. That was Myers’ “AHA” moment.

“So now, I say that diversity is about counting, but inclusion is about cultivating. That’s relationship based, and relationships are hard when you are not comfortable with difference.”

Myers took a few moments out of her busy life—activist, author, speaker, consultant, cultural innovator—to answer a few questions about the state of diversity and inclusion, about the state of our culture—at home, at work, and on the street.

Why are diversity and inclusion so important?

Diversity and inclusion are important because acknowledging and respecting differences shapes culture—it influences what we think is good, and right, and smart, what it looks like, what it acts like, what’s the best way to talk, and be, and dress and all of that. Diversity and inclusion became a focus when people started to recognize that while we believed in equal opportunity, we hadn’t quite figured out that “difference” was an asset.

Traditional leadership and culture were very monocultural, in that a group of people of like minds got together, created work environments, and created institutions that were reflective of them, which made a lot of sense.

But there were also sanctions and intentional exclusion of other groups. Once we figured out that was wrong, we started opening the doors, changing the laws, and ultimately changed the culture for the better.

What made you decide that this is the conversation that you were meant to lead?

Inclusion, unlike diversity, is something that only, I would say, in the last 10 years became more of a focus in the workplace. You can have a lot of different types of people at work and they are still not fully integrated, seen, respected, included. My favorite saying is, “diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Amy Gallo, of the Harvard Business Review, talks extensively about conflict in the workplace. According to Gallo, conflict is statistically going up because of several things—remote workforce, globalization, and diversity. We are now pushing people together from very different backgrounds and ideals. And we aren’t putting the training and competencies in place.

To me, the workplace has become the last place we have in our society where there’s a mix of people even though a lot of people still go home and live with their own. I am inspired to lead this conversation because I see a wonderful opportunity. It’s a field of opportunity to teach people how to understand, respect, recognize, We’re not putting the conversation around conflict, by the way. We’re just saying, “All right. Now we have to have diversity. And so you all just need to figure out how to work together, because this is the right thing.”

How, as a leader, do you build that inclusion?

All of us are leaders when it comes to creating inclusion, because all of us have a sphere of influence, even if it’s just your girls you hang out with at work, or even if it’s just who you sit at the lunch table with. So there’s a language and culture going on in that little sphere. Therefore you can be thoughtful about what jokes are being told or that kind of thing. So really, everybody is in charge of creating inclusion within whatever little environment they’re in.

I think what happens with leaders is that everything starts from the personal. Leaders are sending messages constantly whether they know it or not, just by how they speak, who they speak to, whose names they know, who they bring into their company, not the organization, but into their company—into their office, who they joke around with, who they spend time with, who they put their arms around, and who they bring into their office and close the door with. These small things are what people are reading.

In order for leaders to make true progress on diversity and inclusion, they need to work through not only the personal, but the interpersonal, organizational, and ultimately cultural level. If they do not work on all four levels, it’s really hard to see a shift.

How do you recognize that you have an inclusion challenge in front of you? Or do you always have an inclusion challenge?

It’s especially important to know what policies and practices your company is involved in. For example, what are we saying about maternity? What are we saying about leave? What are we saying about how the evaluation or the assignment processes work? Those are all formal, but then there are informal things as well that sometimes are even more important.

It’s hard for people to notice culture if the culture’s working well for them. It’s almost like you need a person who comes from somewhere else to come in and go, “Wow, this is really interesting.” Because they are comparing the feeling, the unspoken rules and values. So the best leaders are cultural leaders. They can see it and feel it and set it and change it. It’s not easy because there are lots of leaders. They all have to get on one accord. They have to get on one accord and say, “This is how we’re going. We know our culture was this.”

Would you say, though that we’ve made things more complicated? Have we made it so complicated now around, “What do I say? How do I act? What do I do?”

I would call it “complex,” instead of “complicated.” The reason why it wasn’t before, is because we kept the complexity out. But the thing is—the world, is complex. So to say, “I don’t want to have to learn how to change or to pay attention” is to say, “I don’t want to be relevant moving forward in the world. I don’t want to be competent. I don’t want my customers. I would like to offend my customers, actually, because I’m just not interested in the complexity of it.” Right?

This is not just your workforce. This is everybody you’re serving, so you better figure out the pronouns. Other people have parents who are older. They have kids that are transgender. They have kids who are younger. The generational differences, the age differences, the fact that we have this aging population of brilliant people. What are we going to do with them? Instead of going with the old view that old is bad and obsolete, so put them out to the fields, we have to re-understand a lot of things. You can learn it if you want to—it’s an attitude. I think in every culture the dominant group has made the world simple for them, but incredibly difficult for the marginalized folks.

We all have situations where we screw up. Where we ask, “What should I have done differently?” How should those scenarios be handled?

This work is humbling. I’ll say, “It’s not about perfection. It’s about connection.” The way you achieve connection if you’re not perfect is to say you’re sorry. Saying you’re sorry, recognizing it, saying, “Oops. My bad.” Anything that says, “I’m working on it. Give me some space. Give me some immunity and I’ll do my best.” That’s the way to deal with it. Any other way would be to think that somehow you could be perfect at this. I can say, “I’m sorry. I’m working on it. You okay?” It’s something like that. And then you just keep moving.

How should the other person handle it? Ask: “How can I correct, but not be damning?” We have this thing we call “no blame, shame, or attack.” I feel like if people know you care, they don’t need to blame, shame, and attack. Blame, shame, and attack comes from when people think you’re not going to care one way or the other.

Beyond that, there’s a great need for compassion.” We’re not going to get through this together without compassion.

How does one effectively bring in the concept of compassion at work without it coming across as weakness or as, “I’m being ultra sensitive to this person or this group, but not everybody?”

You know, I’m still working on that one.

I really wish I could remember who it was, but, I heard someone say, “Compassion is the ability to understand those who are not understandable.” Compassion is the big, big move where you’re looking at a person and you’re like, “How the heck can that person exist that way? Act that way?” Whatever. And you are understanding things that cannot be understood.

Prior to compassion is something called empathy. So I think you start there. You start saying to yourself, “What would it be like to be that person?” It’s a difficult exercise trying to step into someone’s shoes, especially if you’re underexposed.

Some people will say, “Well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man.” True. But do you have an experience where someone couldn’t see your worth? They could only see some other identity that they thought of as not being worthwhile. And sometimes it’s something like: you were the only kid in your neighborhood whose parents were divorced or your father was an alcoholic and kids at school made fun of you. It’s not always around social identity.

We all have something, don’t we?

Occasionally, I get in a room with some well-off, white men and they’re just looking at me perplexed. And I’m like, “I know it’s going to be harder for you. It’s harder.” That’s the downside of privilege. The downside of privilege: the more privileges you have the harder it is to locate what it feels like not to be privileged. It’s a huge blindspot. Again, I have a lot of compassion for them, because they’re in a changing world and it feels like they don’t have an anchor, a way to understand.

So what is that trigger that usually gets them past that privilege?

You know, it’s a daughter that comes home from Thanksgiving and tells them [her da] she was treated badly at work. It’s like, “What? They asked you to order the flowers? I’m going up there right now.” It’s that kind of thing. Somebody close to them who they know are people of excellence and quality being treated poorly.

To me, compassion is more courage than it is a weakness, because usually if you go to compassion, you have to change your world view. And that is a very courageous thing to do—to change the way that you’ve been putting the world together.

I’ve read in a few places that you believe we need to be motivating people to interrupt bias so that we can all “reach our full potential.” What is that full potential?

We have no idea! We have no idea what it would mean for people to actually see themselves as fully whole, worthwhile individuals. People are walking around and you can tell that they have absorbed the message that they are not as good.

The whole value behind diversity is innovation—the creativity—because the different characteristics, the way that people solve problems, those are going to all come together and it’s going to break out new possibilities. But just because they’re all gathered, it doesn’t mean that the chemistry is going to work; when someone speaks up and suggests something, another pretends he didn’t hear them because it’s not coming from the person he thinks is the smartest in the room. Unless someone says, “Yeah, that’s a really interesting idea. Let’s work on that,” then the fact that the different person is there will not make a difference.

What does it mean for people to interrupt themselves and others to create the space so that people feel like they could make a full contribution? It means that we have access to energy. We have access to new ideas. You see it in art. When you look at this art and you’re like, “Where the heck did that come from?” And then sometimes you look at the artist and you recognize your bias because you didn’t think that that person could create that. And it’s because you have an idea of what “artist” looks like. You have an idea of what “astronaut” looks like. We call that descriptive bias. If we could interrupt the bias, we wouldn’t miss talent. We’ve been missing talent for years, and years, and years.

Other than interrupting, what else can we do to help each other reach our full potential?

Diversity and inclusion is in our enlightened self-interest. It’s not about externalism or condescension. It’s not about social philanthropy. It’s about recognizing that we haven’t been getting all that we can out of human beings. And as a result, we’re not as good as we can be. We need every person operating at their fullest capacity to deal with the issues we have in our world, but also to solve problems. I was in church and the minister said, “You don’t ask your children what do they want to be when they grow up. You ask them what problem do they want to solve.” It’s changed my thinking for everything ever since.

If you see it [diversity and inclusion] as, “Oh, my life is going to be enhanced as well,” or “This company is going to be enhanced as well,” or whatever. If you see it as in your enlightened self-interest, then you are, I think, more willing to do the work. And it’s work.

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