A few weeks ago I spoke to the national alliance Voices for America’s Children. During the Q&A someone asked me, “Could you tell us what real diversity looks like?” This person had filled out many of those funder diversity forms that asks the racial, gender and class identity of all your staff, board, and participants, but she noted that just being able to count off some colored faces doesn’t mean you’re actually meeting the needs of communities of color.
The next week, I was with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, of which I am on the board, for their annual membership convening in Chicago. ROC-United is a deeply multiracial organization, reflecting the full range of people working in the industry. The organization focuses on high-end restaurants, where most front-of-the-house workers are white, and most back-of-the-house workers are immigrants. In addition to those folks, it also organizes black workers who are shut out of high-end restaurants altogether and largely relegated to fast food. ROC-United members helped me identify markers of equity and inclusion within organizations, which is key to generating equity and inclusion out in the world. So here are three signs you’re on the right track:
1. In a truly inclusive situation, everybody sets the agenda and participates. When people come to the party, they influence the venue, the food, the music and the games. They speak. They bring friends. Members chose ROC-United’s national campaigns to fight for paid sick leave and to raise the tipped workers’ federal minimum wage. At each step, members weighed the information they had (much of which they collected themselves through the largest national survey of restaurant workers in existence), discussed pros and cons, and then decided where to invest their energies and how. At this convening, restaurant workers set up the technology, cleaned up after dinner, ran small group discussions, analyzed the industry, showed videos they had made, served on the board of directors and so on. And they spent a lot of time thanking people, going so far as to bow down to each other. There are certainly leadership roles and structures—everything is not flat. But one can figure out without trying too hard how the structures work, and can rise in the organization by showing up and taking part.
2. People stand up for each other. A lot of political education takes place in truly inclusive settings. That’s the process by which people learn about why everyone else is in the room with them. I watched a set of video interviews with various members—Nepalese, Mexican, African American—and in each one, the person acknowledged the hardships that people of other colors face in the industry. At these gatherings, it is not uncommon to hear five times a day these two sentences: “We’re ROC-United. That means we look out for each other.” The organizational chant is very simple, just four easy lines, and at last count they can do it in a dozen languages. Of course, you can’t just say that; you have to actually do it. This isn’t just cosmetic. Standing up for each other shows in ROC’s very strategy, which is designed to back up all of the people who are trying to do the right thing in this industry.
3. It is messy and hilarious and joyful. There’s so much angst around working across race. When we also have violent reminders of how many people are threatened by multiculturalism, as we did in Oslo just two weeks after this gathering, a lot of heaviness can accompany the work. But being in truly inclusive groups is liberating. It’s fun. It doesn’t look seamless because it’s not—individuals and groups have to make decisions all the time about which way to go, because inertia generally drives us away from each other. But in the chaos of working things out, we learn, our sense of humor expands, and we laugh, even in the thick of our suffering. You can see that fun in action at the flash mob that ROC United did at the Taste of Chicago this summer. They had little time to practice, and, frankly, they’re a dancing mess. But everybody’s in here, the Millennials and the baby boomers; the U.S. born and the immigrants; the front-of-the-house and the back. They had a damn good time, and so did the crowds watching them.