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Through the Lens of: an Emerging Leader of Color

In retrospect, 2020 was an unprecedented year, yet still too eerily familiar.  As early as Jan 8th, 2020, there were warning signs that the COVID-19 virus was bound to rapidly propagate outside of Wuhan, China, an eventuality many governments and organizations were not readily prepared for. Additionally, following the surfaced video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing – which despite occurring in February 2020, a trial is yet to be scheduled – the US experienced a widespread rise in protests and civil unrest in response to the systemic racial injustices and violence targeting Black Americans; events of which are now so easily and frequently exposed on social media.

Only a few short weeks later were we experiencing the widespread US civil unrest as a result of the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and starting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities. Those early “warning signs” – both in health care inequality and the atmosphere of systemic racial injustice – were always present for Black and Brown folks. However, as countless others have expressed since then, living through the collective continuum of COVID and these events of racial injustice were uniquely heartbreaking and overwhelming.

photo of sign saying love black people like you love black culture

Personally, I am a Black man, a husband, a brother, a new uncle, a nephew, a grandson, a friend, and so much more. I couldn’t help but be angry, exhausted, motivated to action, but also fearful that something similar could as easily have happened to myself or someone I love. In fact, I can personally recall an event several years ago where a close relative was subjected to an excessive use of force by officers in response to a call to assist them in resolving a familial dispute at a party, which ultimately resulted in that relative, the victim, in the hospital for several days. With all that was happening at the time, how could I manage to effectively balance self-care, care for family and friends, and still be able to come to work and be present, professional, and effective? 

Professionally, I was a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Lead, and an emerging leader within the Thoughtworks North America (NA) business. I had a responsibility to help foster an inclusive environment that would enable my NA colleagues to bring their best authentic selves to work. As a leader, what example and expectations should I help set for Thoughtworkers?  As an emerging leader, how might I walk that fine line of being an empathetic and emotionally available colleague, while also maintaining an appropriate level of neutrality when addressing the perspective, messaging, and most importantly the action the organization could support?

black lives matter march

As a Black leader, I felt a responsibility to advocate for the wellbeing of my fellow Black Thoughtworkers who were likely wrestling with similar emotions as myself. Without seeming too partial, how could I create an environment where they could show up to work without having to pretend that the events happening outside of Thoughtworks didn’t affect them? More broadly, as a NA D&I Lead, I too had to advocate for the care and wellbeing of our non-Black Thoughtworkers who were also processing their own disbelief, grief, and/or anger in response to the current climate.  Many of these folks wanted to know how they could be better allies, but were concerned with centering themselves and burdening their Black colleagues with educating them during such a traumatic time.  There were some who were less familiar with the inception, messaging, and necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, simply because such was not part of their lived experience.  Further, for various folks, the reactions to the witnessed injustices were also perceived as unnecessarily violent, destructive, and too anti-police.

Of course, there were no clear or easy answers.  Fortunately, as shared by Thoughtworks leaders Chris Murphy and Xiao Guo, hundreds of Thoughtworkers proactively came together to have honest, uncomfortable, but genuine conversations acknowledging the injustices and the unique ways we each may support these systems at Thoughtworks and beyond. Within Thoughtworks, refusing to rest on our past successes, we’ve since undertaken various new strategic initiatives to put additional scrutiny and intention into our inclusion practices:

Using our Social Change Framework:

Individuals: Started a Racial Justice employee resource group, who drafted resources to guide individuals on how to support local anti-racism organizations and movements. 

Industry: Curating more inclusion and anti-racism training content and materials, made diversity metrics core to additional regional and global business functions, increased the intersectional diversity of our leadership development programs, trialing new engagement models between our employee resource groups and our marketing and leadership teams, and piloting new talent acquisition (HBCU recruiting, and Black and Indigienous POC internship) and retention programs for underrepresented racial minorities.

Organizations: Continuing to partner with organizations like the Invisible Institute.

Movements: Pursuing certification from and engagement with organizations like Great Place to WorkThe Valuable 500, and more to both learn and hold ourselves accountable for making progress.

To quote the great late Rep. John Lewis, “Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”  As such, we ask others in our industry to also rise to the call-to-action, and make a commitment towards fostering a vibrant community of diverse and passionate technologists, towards a more equitable future for all.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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