Conversations for Change: Navigating the New Normal: Renewal, Allyship, & Joy During Twin Pandemics” With Dr. Damon A. Williams

Led by nationally recognized DEI scholar and expert Dr. Damon A. Williams, this session features a discussion on Inclusive Excellence, strategic diversity leadership, and allyship. It also explores other relevant DEI concepts such as microaggressions and unconscious bias and their impacts and roles in learning environments and in the workplace. Dr. Williams also shares simple, yet effective strategies for how leaders can work to confront and address their biases to become stronger allies to diverse and marginalized communities — helping leaders to level-up from bystander to up-stander. By leveraging national data, introspective stories, and the pragmatic voice that can only come from having led DEI-related organizational change efforts at all levels of leadership, this session aims to empower, educate, and inspire hope in all of those that attend.

Originally aired on May 17, 2022


DR. JEFFRIANNE WILDER: Hello, and welcome to the 2022 NCWIT Summit on Women & IT, which continues to be the world’s largest annual convening of changing leaders focused on significantly improving diversity and equity in computing. I’m Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, Senior Research Scientist at NCWIT. It is my pleasure to welcome you to this series today, which features speakers with a diverse range of perspectives, and hopefully, provocative ideas and worldviews. 

I would like to start today’s conversation by honoring the victims of the Buffalo mass shooting by taking a moment to say their names. 

Roberta A. Drury, age 32.

Margus D. Morrison, age 52.

Andre Mackneil, age 53.

Aaron Salter, age 55.

Geraldine Talley,  age 62.

Celestine Chaney, age 65.

Heyward Patterson, age 67.

Katherine Massey, age 72.

Pearl Young, age 77.

Ruth Whitfield, age 86.

We wouldn’t be here today without our sponsors. So, we’d like to thank them for making this event possible. And I’d like to thank you, the viewing audience, in advance for your patience, should we experience any bandwidth or other technical issues. I encourage you to post your questions and comments on the Q&A board throughout the session, or to upvote questions you’d like to have answered. We’ll answer as many as possible at the end of the presentation. 

You can also use the Q&A feature if you have any technical issues. Before we begin, a quick welcome from one of our Summit sponsors: Bloomberg. 

All right. Thank you. Let’s get started. I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to Dr. Damon Williams over 10 years ago. Since that time, I have followed his work, and taken advantage of his resources many times over. I can honestly say he is one of the most well-known and well-respected leaders and scholars in the DEI space. It is my sincere pleasure to introduce you to him today. 

Dr. Damon A. Williams is a visionary and inspirational global thought leader, educator, and scholar, and one of the nation’s recognized experts in strategic diversity leadership, youth development, corporate responsibility, and organizational change. For four years, he led a $250-million social impact portfolio for the world’s largest youth development company, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, representing the interests of nearly 4 million diverse youth and teens as Senior Vice President for Programs and Chief Education Officer. 

One of the original architects of the Inclusive Excellence concept in American higher education and author of the best-selling titles “Strategic Diversity Leadership” and “The Chief Diversity Officer,” he has worked with more than 1,000 colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and government agencies. Dr. Williams currently serves as Founder and Chief Catalyst for the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership & Social Innovation in Atlanta, Ga., and as a senior scholar and innovation fellow at the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB) at University of Wisconsin Madison, where he previously served as associate vice chancellor and as the inaugural chief diversity equity and educational achievement officer. 

Dr. Williams received his PhD from the University of Michigan Center for the Study of Higher Education, Higher and Post-Secondary Education, and Organizational Behavior and Management, and his MS and BS degrees from Miami University in Educational Leadership, and Sociology, and Black World Studies, respectively. I give you Dr. Damon A. Williams. 

DR. DAMON A. WILLIAMS: Thank you for that wonderful introduction, Dr. Wilder. It is great to be with you, NCWIT nation, and all of you wonderful professionals leading out in the area of information technology. Whether in the academy, whether in K-12 environments, or whether in the corporate sectors, it’s my pleasure to be with you today, and have a chance to be in this moment in time where we take some steps together inside of a learning journey. 

The title of my talk for today is “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in a Post-Pandemic World: Renewal, Allyship, & the Imperatives of Leadership” 

As was noted in the introduction, I am Chief Catalyst for the National Inclusive Excellence Leadership Academy, the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership, and, I like to say, friend to thousands of DEI champions absolutely everywhere; the author of the book “Strategic Diversity Leadership,” the first book ever published on the DEI officer role, and “The Chief Diversity Officer.” More recently, a monograph author for the corporate sector, Signal & Noise. And as the pandemic was beginning, our team leaned in very aggressively and offered the COVID-19 DEI Crisis Action Strategy Guide, which was downloaded tens of thousands of times. We had a chance to work with thousands of leaders across the country, in North America particularly, as the pandemic was beginning in March of 2020, and we offered this guidance for the world.

I’m always humbled and grateful for the chance to be in the presence of others who are seeking to do this important work of diversity, equity and inclusion. One of the things I always like to do is to level-set when we talk about this notion of diversity, because it’s an idea that has expanded now for six decades. I talk about my work, the diversity idea: an idea, meaning that it’s evolving; it’s shifting. It’s not simply one thing, one place, one time, one policy, one initiative. 

We talk about it in terms of ability and mental health. Indeed, the American Medical Association defines health in the current era as an intersection of physical and mental health. We talk about it in terms of economic backgrounds and age, religion, gender, sexuality, positional role, nationality, race, ethnicity, and also, the intersectional idea that connects across so many different identities. I know as I stand before you today, an organization – NCWIT – which is focused upon the needs to expand the diversity in the field of information technology, but has, as its genesis, its roots, a connection to the idea and the importance of expanding that participation in terms of women. 

Some of the most important work I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of is the NSF ADVANCE initiatives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, or at the University of Michigan; iconically impactful change efforts which were evidence-based, which were centered on moving culture, which were centered on moving mindset, which were centered on gathering important data, which were centered on all the things that we know to be important when you talk about leading with a strategic DEI mindset of leading change. 

As I sit before you today and broadcast across the nation, I think about the words that are just shaping my mindset, and shaping my understanding, right now. The words of Dr. King, as he has offered that, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And, that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This notion of an inescapable connectivity, this notion of being in a shared fate, never have we felt it more than we have as we’ve lived through the pandemic. Never have we felt it more than as we’ve lived through the elevation of a conversation of structural inequality and racism. That is not a new pandemic, but it is a scourge in our society. It is a scourge in our world. It is a scourge that continues to stain the very realities of our humanity each and every day. 

One of the things that we’ve been talking about for over a decade now is this notion of the perfect-storm dynamics that are elevating DEI and what we refer to as a connection economy; a connection economy that has been crystallized in this 21st-century moment as we have lived through the pandemic. Your work in the information technology sphere has elevated to absolutely the fore of all aspects of organizational life. One of the factors that is accelerating and elevating DEI, and sits at the eye of this storm, is technology and social media; the fact that we live in a world of no secrets, the fact that one-time conversations that were private and intimate can now become conversations that are broadcast to the world. 

Creating risk, in some ways, to all of our organizations, from a DEI perspective. Also too, creating possibilities; as the possibilities that now exist as there’s a resurgence of activism, as the youngest generations amongst us – the Millennials and the Gen Zs are the connected generations. The digital, not just natives, but what we referred to when I was at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America as the digital intuitives; a generation that’s more diverse in every single dimension than any other generations that we’ve had previously in terms of race, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of gender identity and all its myriad forms of expressions, in terms of disability, in terms of mental health, in terms of nationality, in terms of religion. Indeed, they are a generation of activist energy for change, oftentimes promoted and moved across the nation; moved across space, and time, and technology in social media. 

Also too, long and persisting health, economic, and educational inequalities that continue to offer faultlines that lead to a systemic underperformance, a systemic underrepresentation, and a systemic level of racialized inequality and gendered inequality in our world. But in this world that we live in today, and I know I’ve got leaders across sectors that are with me, we talk about an educational and a business case for diversity. 

An educational case, oftentimes defined in terms of how diverse learning environments – whether at the K-12 level, or at the higher education level – are the most powerful learning environments to create cognitive development, to spark socioemotional development, to spark empathy and understanding. That allows us to lead not only with the hard, quantitative skills of leadership, but to lead with the socio-emotional – “soft” or “human factors” – dynamics of leadership. 

A business case for diversity, which talks about capitalizing upon diverse consumer markets. Whether it’s women who lead most decisions in households … I know that. I live with two. Or, we are talking about the burgeoning power, economically, of Black, Indigenous people of color, BIPOC communities, LGBTQ+ communities, and the like. 

But, we also are talking about it in terms of this pandemic. Indeed, this pandemic – and our team has been working broadly in the healthcare sector – has crystallized what those in public health, and those healthcare proper, have known for a long, long time. It’s that the faultlines of health are often defined in terms of health inequalities, in terms of health disparities, in terms of what they refer to as the social determinants of health, which impact so much of the possibilities. We saw that elevate in the conversation during the pandemic. 

But also too, a backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m going to come back to this notion of backlash and what we have seen unleashed since our previous president opened this conversation at a national level, and as we find ourselves marching towards 2024 and the impending elections that will follow. We know that these political faultlines will become deeper. They will come more pernicious, particularly those of you who are in states where the backlash is escalating and growing in force.

I have been spending a lot of time in Florida, working with various different organizations in that great state, which is right at the heart of this conversation. As we are looking to navigate not only these gale-wind forces, elevating DEI in a positive way, but to navigate these gale forces that are creating challenges and ripples that call for a renewal of our commitment, a renewal of our focus on allyship, and a renewal to our focus into the imperatives of leadership. 

When we talk about this idea of committing to inclusive excellence, meaning that we make our organizations – whether it’s K-12, it’s higher education, or it’s corporate, we make our organizations operate in a level that they become inclusive and excellent for all. We’ve been talking about this since we wrote the first guidance with the American Association of Colleges and Universities in 2004, talking about this idea of inclusive excellence. 

I have now crystallized it as a two-part deal. Number one is: a personal commitment to the journey of allyship. I’m not talking about allyship in a very narrow way, where it’s very difficult to find that pathway to onboarding into that journey. I am talking about allyship broadly defined. I’m talking about: Are you sponsoring across difference? Are you mentoring across difference? Are you coaching across difference? Are you a champion to the issues? Are you a confidant who holds space when individuals are experiencing DEI-related flashpoints, and bias, and microaggressive dynamics, and trauma? Are you an ally? Someone who stands up and speaks up and out? Someone who champions the issues? Someone has capital because of your race, ethnicity, gender – your status as a tenured faculty; your status as a people-leader or an executive? Are you committed to the principle of allyship? 

The second piece of this: Are you focused on meaningful DEI change efforts? Not performative efforts; meaningful efforts as you’re moving forward. We are pivoting the conversation from a conversation that’s focused on DEI training to DEI certificates; from a conversation that’s focused on not just voluntary engagement in DEI learning, but expected engagement in DEI learning. As we are pivoting the conversation from central DEI plans with long laundry lists of recommendations to aligned DEI strategies that include the big bets that are going to advance your organizational initiative forward, whether you are talking about an institution of higher education, an institution of K-12, a company, or you’re talking about the schools, the colleges, the business units that sit inside of bigger organizations. 

As we pivot from a lack of accountability to accountability at all levels; organizational accountability, individual accountability. As we shift the conversation from DEI officers with limited resources – set up for failure from the beginning – to aligned DEI infrastructures who are a part of a broader system of change. I have been watching the DEI officer role in its myriad forms for more than 20 years. It is the fastest-growing, accelerating role in all of organizational life. Not just K-12, not just higher education, not just nonprofit, not just corporate sector, not just government, but every single aspect of organizational life; the fastest growing role. We can see it. But yet, our commitment to a role is performative if not a role a part of a broader system of change. 

So, my recommendation to all of you, as allies in this journey: If you’re sitting in a meeting and that conversation comes up: “We need an officer.” If you’re sitting in a meeting and you’re talking about what this one person is going to do, know that that person can be a part of the change. They can catalyze the change. They can be a thought leader to change, but if they don’t have a strategy, structure, resources, people invested in that journey, it will lead to the road to nowhere. 

And last and definitely not least, the need for us to pivot from performative allyship to true allyship. Let me go deeper here. We did an entire signal called “Signal and Noise,” which was a lecture series that we did where I had a chance to talk about signal and noise in various different spaces of organizational life and change. 

When we talk about this notion of authentic allyship, we’re talking about asking hard questions about ourselves. “Who am I? What are my DEI triggers? What are the topics that make the nape of my hair stand up and make me fear and run from the conversation?” 

We are talking about: “Am I holding space for individuals as they are experiencing challenge, and being an ear, and a confidant, to them?” We’re talking about: “Am I leading with a level of cultural humility?” Knowing that, in many conversations, I need to enter as outsider: “Am I embracing that this is a journey?”

It’s interesting, because I am very fortunate that we’ve had an opportunity to work in the corporate sector, higher education, K-12, and government. When we are working in the corporate sector, so often the conversation finds itself, “Well, tell me what to do, Dr. Williams. Tell me what to say, Dr. Williams. Give me the check-the-box solution, Dr. Williams.” 

We have behavioral guidance that we can give you. We’ll talk about some of that today, but we all know is that it’s a journey of personal development. It’s a journey of trying by doing, growth by choice, growth by challenge. It’s about having a self-directed plan to get better over time. 

It’s about internalizing the multiple ways of being an ally. As I said before: being a champion who stands up and leads out on the issues; being an upstander who, in moments, will say what needs to be said; but also, being a confidant, and being a sponsor, and being a mentor, and being a coach across difference as you’re a learner. All of these multiple ways of being an ally. 

Sitting with our discomfort. See, so much, so often, we are frozen and won’t enter a conversation. Because I sit here before you, my gender pronouns are he/him/his. I am cisgender, male. I identify as a man. In many ways, there were conversations around gender identity and its expression, and the fluidity, and the movement, that – even though I am a DEI champion – they made me fearful. They made me frozen, and I had to dedicate myself to learning and experiencing to get better; to understand that sex is different than gender, that gender is different than gender identity, that gender identity is different than sexual orientation. 

To be on a journey to get better, that is about deep listening. So often, we think courage is about what you say, but what we know is: authentic allyship courage is about what you do as you listen. That we spend our privilege on behalf of others – authentic allyship versus performative allyship, which is fragility. Not just white fragility, but fragility in all of its forms: when we run away from the conversation; when we are frozen by fear; when we stand witness to the pain of power; when we virtue signal; when we hold onto colorblind, identity-neutral ideology; when we fail to accept that each and everyone of us has bias.

I was doing some media not too long ago. When I left from the corporate sector, and returned to higher education, and launched my platform working with organizations across the country, I was doing some media. They said, “Dr. Williams, what is different from when you stepped away from your post as chief diversity officer at UW Madison and went to be chief education officer at Boys & Girls Clubs, and now, you are back and leading your center across town. What’s different?” 

I said, “Well, when I left, we weren’t talking about microaggressions and unconscious bias to the degree to which we are now.” 

They said, “Okay. What is the same?” 

I said, “Microaggressions and unconscious bias, because we are not using the evidence-based techniques and committing ourselves to a journey of authentic allyship.” To accept that we have bias, moving beyond our stereotypes, engaging in meaningful experiences with diverse others, intentionally studying to get better. 

Also, engaging in what Anders Erickson, the psychologist who studies high-performance leadership refers to as deliberate practice. See, if you want to know how Federer became Federer, how Kobe – God rest his soul – became Kobe, how Serena became Serena, how Jobs became Jobs, how Gates became Gates, and how you, who are listening to me now, who are top of the game, best in the world at what you do… It always comes in the backwash of … Malcolm Gladwell talked about it a little bit wrong, but he talked about it: 10,000 hours of concerted effort makes you an expert, but deliberate practice will help you build skill. 

People say, “Dr. Williams, how did you become a reasonably effective speaker?” I said, “I became a reasonably effective speaker through deliberate practice.” Self-taught, in the mirror. Being ready for the moment, preparing always. Doing your homework, verbalizing things. Talking about your energy. Studying greatness. Trying to find ways I could steal, and use, and borrow to put into my own approaches. See? Deliberate practice.

If you want to be a better ally, you have to practice being an ally. If you want to have an ability to talk about difficult topics with others, you have to practice phrases, and words, and gestures, and how you will respond when you get that pit feeling in your gut and don’t know what to do; you’ve got to have deliberate practice. 

If you are a BIPOC individual, if you are a woman, if you are a man, if you are anyone who is listening, a person who is gender non-conforming, and you want to be a better ally and an upstander, you have to be able to practice being able to do that without getting upset, without getting angry to have the right words to use in the most difficult of circumstances. Here I am to tell you, I have felt it, folks. I have been microaggressed against, microinvalidated, microinsulted, microassaulted time and time again. As I sit before you and broadcast: Black, male, cisgender, upwardly mobile, all those things; it’s happened to me. It’s happened to you. And, it’s happened to me when I was in the C-suite, making a six-figure compensation salary with all of the hoo-hah that comes of it. We have to work on the ability to respond, and do that at a high level. 

When we talk about this idea of strategic diversity leadership, we talk about organizational capabilities. How are we building meaningful efforts in terms of access and equity of outcomes? How are we building meaningful efforts to focus on preparing students for a diverse and global world? Meaningful efforts in our research and scholarly agenda? Meaningful efforts as we work to build a multicultural and inclusive environment? In what ways are we developing a strategy and an infrastructure? Plans, committees, officers, accountability, communication, leadership; that’s how we activate the DEI effort over time. Supplier, community, alumni, donor, parent – we know it’s not just inside, but it is outside-in as well, and that we have to be engaging in that way strategically to advance our efforts. 

We always say that DEI efforts can’t breathe without “AIIR.” Don’t show me another plan that’s got all of these laundry lists of things, but we’re not talking about accountability; we’re not talking about how we’re going to build a meaningful infrastructure; we’re not talking about how the DEI is going to integrate into the policies of hiring, the policies of performance review, the policies of tenure and promotion, the policies of new curricular establishments, the policies of how we’re developing leadership programs that complement what we do, the policies of how we are onboarding new employees, the policies of how we are doing leadership development for high-potential leaders who are capable of moving to the next level. See, we’ve to integrate and have dedicated efforts that focus on DEI. 

Last and definitely not least, I will call upon the words of the legendary, now-departed Dr. Frank Hale Jr., who said and I quote – from the Ohio State University, he said, “Commitment without currency is counterfeit, and don’t you let anybody tell you different.” See, Dr. Hale understood that in the ‘70s, and he taught that to us. I continue to expand and to share that message. “Commitment without currency is counterfeit.” DEI efforts without “AIIR” are performative.

See, but now is a time for greatness. Now is a time for greatness, NCWIT. See, greatness is not what we do for ourselves. We know greatness is how we do good for others; how we continue to expand our commitment to improving the lives of those around us – not just our self, not just our families, not just our own people. But, how do we continue to expand the circle of consciousness, the circle of connection, the circle of – dare I say love, and support, and affirmation? From purely focused on ourselves, to the broader conversation of community; embracing of the notion of shared fate. 

We saw the faultlines in our nation because embracing the ideas of shared fate was so difficult for some. It was so insular for some. It was so off-putting for some to mask, to shelter, to wonder not only about you and yours, but wonder about mine and theirs. 

See, I believe that those of you, in particular, who are in the K-12 and the higher education spaces, you have incredible opportunities to shape the learning pipeline into the corporate sector. One of the things that Essie Calhoun, the former DEI officer at Kodak, said to me years ago, when I was doing a talk on DEI officers nearly 20 years ago, she said, and I quote, “I didn’t know these officers and these efforts existed in the academy, and by extension K-12.” She said, “but, I am glad they do.” She said, “Because your graduates are my students that come to my company.” How do we approach our work with this notion of a pipeline? 

We have lost giants who understood the importance of allyship and meaningful change efforts. We lost Lani Guineir. We lost the giant bell hooks, whose work is on lists that ban her contributions and scholarship across the country. Dare I say that we’ve lost the lioness of the Supreme Court? The last voice that stood at the gates, upholding the very fabric of our democracy in what I refer to as the notorious RBG; God, rest her soul, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. See, we need these champions of leadership. We need these champions of change. See, but it’s not just those who sit up on high. It’s what each and everyone of us do today in our personal commitment to allyship, and that journey; our personal commitment to meaningful change. 

See, there is a powerful DEI backlash that is happening in our nation right now. We see it playing out. Some have identified over 200+ anti-LGBT, anti-trans policies and legislations moving forward. Others have, at a higher level, identified 88, moving at a statewide level, focused not only on LGBT, but also race and ethnicity – quote “anti-woke” efforts, anti-critical race theory efforts.

This backlash that we see now focused on a censorship and a cancel culture; legislative actions that focus into the anti-critical race theory,  anti-gender identity; attack on women’s reproductive rights. Can you believe we are even having a conversation about overturning Roe v. Wade? Cancel culture? Book bans? Supporting and obfuscating insurrections? Rejecting presidential elections? Voter suppression? Gaslighting? Debate with no dialogue. 

See, people ask me all the time, “Are you trying to brainwash everyone into saying the same thing?” Absolutely not. What I am talking about is: How do we open up the skills to even have productive dialogue? You know? When everything is a soundbite on Twitter, when everything is a soundbite and a fight in sports media – which I consume way too much of, I am a notorious sports person – it’s assault on race-conscious admissions and scholarship. 

As the power of race-conscious admissions has continued to erode from Bakke to the University of Michigan decisions to the UT Austin decisions, and now, as we sit on the verge of the Supreme Court ruling with respect to decisions at Harvard, decisions at UNC Chapel Hill, could have dramatic effect on what the very composition of our top institutions look like, particularly in the areas of STEM. Whether that be race, ethnicity, or other dynamics of difference. 

You know these twin pandemics that have been top of mind for all of us over the last 24 months; the COVID 19 and the elevated, continuing, historic pandemic of structural inequality and racism. These twin pandemics, and we all have been feeling S.T.U.F.F. – stress, time constraints, uncertainty, fear, fatigue; S.T.U.F.F. It’s in these moments where we are experiencing S.T.U.F.F. that our blind spots become more powerful, that we tend to microaggress more often as we move into automatonic ways of interacting. Where, we’re not conscious and thinking, but we’re just doing, and we’re moving, and we’re going, and we’re aggressing against others.

There has been a cost, people. The mental health and the social isolation is through the roof. The Kaiser Family Foundation, where scholars estimated that in 2019, 11% of Americans suffered from anxiety and depressive disorder. In 2021, that number jumped to 40% of Americans. Parents impacted by COVID 19: 49% of mothers, 40% express symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. 

When we look at it in terms of the Black, Indigenous people of color community, 48% of non-Hispanic Blacks, 46% of Hispanics – their language, not mine. I prefer Latinx so it’s gender-neutral and gender-friendly. But, 48 and 46%. Young adults, those in the age group of 18 to 24, Gen Z, who are most sensitive and in tune with their mental health, 56%. Those in economically vulnerable circumstance of adults, 53%. Fifty-six and 53%, powering this notion that mental health is more and more becoming a part of a conversation of inclusion and belonging in the 21st century. 

I believe we need renewal, folk. Because see, if we’re not right in here, we cannot spread ripple effects of goodness, connection, inclusion, and belonging in the world. I believe that we’ve got to be renewing ourselves. 

Are you limiting social media consumption? Are you limiting television and other media consumption? Are you developing rituals to close and to start your day which regulate how much of the digital you use? The trauma that comes through our digital connecting devices each and every day… 

One of the most important things we were talking about when I was at Boys & Girls Clubs of America and we had a $30-million digital youth development project was digital literacy; helping the younger generation amongst us to understand how to have these rituals, to understand how to connect and unplug. But, it’s important for us too. Those of you who are leading in the information technology space, or preparing the next generation of information technologists, in what ways is this informing your pedagogy, your leadership, your scholarship, your approach?

Engaging in some movement and physical activity, having at least one person that could be a confidant, keeping a reflection journal to get things out, seeking out the important mental health support in therapy that we know is so precious, and so vital, to our ability to grow and to work through trauma in our lives. But, we know that the intersectionality of those who are economically vulnerable, the intersectionality with those who are racially and ethnically underrepresented and diverse, we tend to not engage. 

Spending time with friends. You know, I like to say that the value of being with a friend, and having a beer, or a coffee, or a wine, or a great conversation, or watching a sporting event, or watching your kids in the background – it’s gone up like the value of cryptocurrency. It’s so important. 

How are you unplugging, and disconnecting, and moving away from what you are doing on a day-to-day basis? Dealing with S.T.U.F.F., because even as we are transitioning out of pandemic into the next reality, we are working more, and more, and more, and more, and more. We have got to have ways to de-stress, and to cope, to renew. 

So, many folks are walking off the job. There’s a Great Resignation, as it’s been referred to by McKinsey and others across sectors. Nineteen million US workers and counting quit jobs since April 2021, when they reported out on this data. A record pace as folks are saying, “You know what? I’m out. I don’t even know where I’m going. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m out.” 

Three factors employees cite for reasons for quitting. One: They don’t feel valued by the organization. Two: They don’t feel valued by their managers. Three: They don’t feel a sense of belonging at work. 

These are all dynamics of inclusion. These are all dynamics that leaders at all levels should be made aware of, that we should be developing tactics against that connect to mental health, that connect to microaggression, that connect to a lack of ability and understanding of how to make people feel like they are a part of something. 

See, belonging is about feeling that you are an important member of a group, that you fit with that group. It’s having an integrated sense of membership and a positive sense of shared identity and community, and not feeling like I’ve got to check so much of myself at the door to survive, to be in this environment. See, it’s not fitting in in such a way that we eradicate and lose sense of who we are. It’s fitting in in such a way that who we are becomes embraced for its diversity, positive beneficial potentiality, inside of our organizations. 

The organizational complex science professor at University of Michigan, Scott Page, who wrote the book “Diversity’s Bonus” and “Diversity Difference,” he talks about this idea that when you bring diverse folks together, one plus one does not equal two; one plus one equals three. The three, the positive bonus factor, is the benefits of diversity that everybody talks about in the studies looking at outcomes, and this and that.

But we’re not talking about something that’s important here: the diversity coming together. If the environment is not psychologically safe, where people can learn, where they can share, where they can challenge… Psychological safety; let me say it again. Where they can learn, where they can share, where they can challenge without fear of impunity against them? See, that’s when you get the positive bonus factor in our classrooms. That’s when you get the positive bonus factors in our laboratories. That’s when you get the positive bonus factors in our organizational units.

See, people feel as if they are living, and in some ways that they’re dying, a slow death professionally, not physically, through a thousand paper cuts. You know, we talk about microaggressions as these daily, verbal, behavioral, environmental indignities that we are experiencing all the time. Everybody’s talking about microaggressions. Many feel as if they’re, in what we refer to in our work as, “twisted in the game.” 

You’re twisted in the game. When you are in these difficult circumstances where you feel like you are being like you’re being microaggressed against and you’re twisted in the game, there’s something that I always say you hold onto, One: You cleave to your faith, whatever that is. Two: You cleave to your relationships. Three: You cleave to your character and your values. 

When you find yourself feeling as if you are being hunted in the workplace, that you are being pushed out and not having information shared… That when you said you were going on maternity leave, everything shifting in terms of how you are addressed, and engaged, and treated, and looked at as a high-potential first person… When you find yourself being twisted in the game in various different ways, we always say that you need to quietly, perhaps, retain some legal counsel and have a conversation. 

We say, “You might suddenly begin to look for new opportunity.” We say that sometimes, you can dip into the tunnel, and you could ride it out. We also say, “You might need to lean in, and lean into the conversation, and get you a package and move on.” Sometimes, and this is an occurrence that we have found: You can fight it off. But sometimes, you can’t fight it off. 

I’m a huge believer that we live and we accept the toxicity of negative organizational climate and environments for too long. For too long! When people ask me, “Well, Dr. Williams, when do you think you should leave? When should I leave? When should I move on? When should I say, ‘You know what? I’ve done what I’ve came to do. My assignment of leadership, my assignment of giving, my assignment of dealing with whatever it is has passed.” When it’s time for me to leave, these are some of the things that you probably will sense: if you’re checking 80% of yourself to survive; if you dread going into the office, or returning back to the office. 

See, what’s interesting – and we were talking about this months ago, before this recent article that came out. We knew Black and Brown folks didn’t want to go back to that office. Many women didn’t want to go back to that office. Individuals that were experiencing toxicity who are transgender, who are in many ways outside the norms of that, they didn’t want to go back. They were dreading it. 

You see no path for advancement or growth. You’ve been in a role numerous years, and you feel like you’ve become ineffective. It’s time to move on. You just waited to be promoted, and it keeps not happening. You feel like time is running out to pursue your dreams. You know you can do more, but you are afraid to leave. The role is dramatic and negatively impacting your mental, your physical, and your spiritual health? It’s time to be out. 

See, people crave investments into the human dynamics of their work. They crave investment into the human dynamics of their work. They want us to understand them. They want to have an enhanced sense of purpose. They want to feel a shared sense of identity. They want you to have empathy for what they are going through. They want you to have interpersonal connections with them at the collegial level, at the manager level, at their leader level. They want pay, benefits, and perks. Yes, but more than anything, they want to feel valued as managers, as faculty, as leaders, and as students. Meaningful, though not necessarily in person; they don’t want transaction.

One of the easy things we always say on our team, as we coach leaders: If you can, first begin by attending to relationship in a conversation; then, the business. It don’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be long, but you first tend to relationships, and then, the business. It’s a simple technique. 

Are we starting our meeting up? Hey, let’s start with a check-in. Let’s go around and see, what’s going on with you? “Well, you know my tire blew out on the way in.” You know, there’s a COVID breakout with my daughter in her class; that’s what I’m dealing with now. So, I’m here with you all, but that’s what I’m dealing with. Grace; listening. Next person: “Well, you know I’m doing fantastic.” “You know, John, I appreciate you sharing that. If you need an extra day on the side of this project, let me know. We can adjust the CPS,” critical path schedule, “on that, and we can move forward.” Grace, then you get to the business. When you invest in that way, what you’re doing is: You’re lessening distance. You’re amplifying relationship. You’re creating connection. 

Connection is the foundation of belonging. Connection is the foundation of relationship. Connection is the foundation of inclusion. Connection is the foundation of difficult dialogue across difference. Connection is the foundation of moving forward. 

See, a lot of people got it twisted. They think this is about speaking truth to power. Yes, that’s a part of it sometimes. Most of the time, it’s about hope and guidance. 

It’s about hope and guidance. It’s about patience and humility. It’s about understanding what ills and ails us, and having empathy for what ills and ails others. Because again, committing to inclusive excellence is what? Say it with me now, people: Personal commitment to allyship, meaningful DEI change efforts. 

You know, I’m a huge believer that we’ve got to increase the empathy factor, each and every day. That we’ve got to not just talk about microaggressions, but we’ve got to weaponize micro-affirmations as a force of good. You see, microaggression, and we’ve worked with Professor Wing Sue, out of Columbia (University). He’s been a faculty in residence with my leadership institute that we teach every summer. Many times, I’ve learned from him. I’ve worked with him. Love his work, and the work prior to him through Chester Pierce, and others who have talked about similar concepts to microaggression. 

But, we are not talking enough about micro-affirmation. These daily things that we can do to open up opportunities for others: gestures of inclusion and caring, showing grace through listening, allowing people to be in space, and helping them to succeed. You know, affirmations that we use with our colleagues and our students – these micro affirmations, they are what we do to make people feel seen; to make them feel heard, valued, included, appreciated, supported, endorsed. You know it’s when we come together.

Now, I will give you a behavioral technique. It’s when we say things like, “I am glad you’re here.” “I believe in your potential.” “I would like to learn more; let’s find a time to connect.” “Here’s what I can do to support you.” “How can I support you?” “Have you considered this opportunity?” “You would be a great candidate for this.” “Meeting/talking with you is important to me.” “I hear your critique – can we work through it together?” “I am here for you; let me know if I can help.” “Let me know how I can help.” Words of micro-affirmation. 

Now, people say all the time, “Well, if you just use these things, you know that’s not leading to real, meaningful stuff.” True, but in the same instance, too, there has been a generation of DEI training, professional development, and learning. That’s given people all of this stuff, and said, “You have to spend a lifetime working on your privilege, and unpacking your privilege, and understanding your identity.” My response to that, as an inclusionist, as an ally, as a person who believes this to his toes, “Yes! You do!” 

But if you are in DEI training, learning, and professional development moments that are at the interpersonal, human-factor level of helping you to interact better, they also have to give you some behavioral tips. Because, the behavioral tips become the foundation of how you start to have the conversation, how you open up the conversation. Go back to when I talked to the work of Anders Erickson, the Florida State psychologist who studies high-performance. Deliberate practice. These are tools in your toolkit to be applied to micro-affirm in difficult moments to be an ally. 

It’s important folks, because we live in two Americas right now that we have seen clearly show themselves across the last several years. I’m not talking about just Republicans and Democrats. I’m not talking about just red and blue. I’m not talking about vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. I’m not talking about those who believe in this, but there’s faultlines that are crystallizing even further than they have, and elevating. 

We began with another heinous hate crime. A moment of silence for what happened in Buffalo, what is happening in other places across the country. What we know right now in our nation is that LGBTQ hate is on the rise. anti-Semitic hate is on the rise. Asian American and Pacific Islander hate is on the rise. And, when the pandemic hit, and when the noise had gone away, we could see. Some of us, for the first time. 

Mr. George Floyd.

Mr. Ahmaud Arbery.

Ms. Breonna Taylor. 

Mr. Eric Garner. 

Mr. Michael Brown. 

Mr. Laquan McDonald. 

Mr. Tamir Rice. 

Mr. Trayvon Martin.

 Mr. Walter Scott. 

Mr. Freddie (Gray). 

Ms. Sandra Bland.

Mr. Alton Sterling.

Ms. Korryn Gaines.

Ms. Deborah Danner.

Mr. Philando Castille.

Mr. Amadou Diallo. 

Dare I say? We could see Mr. Emmett Till. 

Because when there was no “go to get a drink,” when there was no “go to the football game,” when there was no “go out for dinner,” when there was no “go to the movies,” when there was nothing, and all the air had been sucked out of the system, all we could see was the nakedness of the inequities. The conversation elevated, with some research suggesting that 70% of all Americans had conversations; serious conversations about race, with family and friends – a level we had not seen before 2021. 

Black Lives Matter: the largest social demonstration movement in the history of the recorded world, with an estimated 15 to 23-plus million individuals globally participating in some type of social demonstration-based moment, approach, effort, aligned to the issues of Black Lives Matter. It elevated the conversation.Are we at the beginning of a new civil rights energy? All the organizations across the country moved forward with new commitments, or new plans; some who had never had plans. It was powerful to see. 

But, I always ask the question: Is it signal, or is it noise? Because, one of the things that Black Lives Matter has done, the social moment that we are in has done, is: elevated the J and the E into DEI. Those of you who have been in this kind of conversation for awhile now know that the corporate sector, that many sectors, that many in higher education, we had moved away from the E, and the J was no longer even relevant. 

We were talking about diversity, and we were talking about inclusion. Now, we’re talking about equity; achieving the possibilities of similar outcomes, irrespective of identity in terms of promotion, leadership, success, opportunity, compensation, and health. And, we’re talking about justice; the belief that everyone deserves equal human economic, political opportunities, and the importance of proactively working to dismantle barriers to this reality. 

We’re talking about JEDI: justice, equity, diversity, inclusion. See, this idea of equity connects to this idea of an old conversation in a new era. As we’re talking about racial equity, healing, repair, reconciliation, ending individual and systemic racism, stopping cultural appropriation, if we look at some of the newer plans – and we’ve been studying these newer plans which have an antiracist overlay, there is more intrusive focus on these ideas than in previous plans; a more unapologetic focus on elevating the needs of Black and Indigenous people of color. In some ways, a pushback, dial-back to say that, yes, it is important to have a broad agenda of diversity, but also too, we have an incomplete agenda of equity against those who have historically and systemically not been included. 

This notion that Dr. Ibram X. Kendi elevates around “not racist” versus what our team talks about as being an “anti-racist ally.” See, “not racist” is avoiding the hateful actions: hanging nooses, telling the bad jokes, swastikas putting up on the wall. But, it’s also not becoming action-oriented and working to dismantle systems, policies, and individual behaviors that lead to racial inequality. Versus the antiracist ally: It’s about proactively addressing individual and systemic ways that BIPOC individuals continue to experience racism in their daily lives. Pro-action, meaningful commitment to allyship and change. 

There are three DEI literacies that are necessary. Most people understand individual acts of deplorability and hate. That’s a lens that they have. But, the second one we need is: to understand the subtle, often invisible, acts of microaggression and othering. The third is: to understand the interlocking gears of structural inequality. Shout out to Professor Patricia Rose, who talks about these interlocking gears of structural racism and inequality. 

There are some personas that are necessary on the journey ahead, friends, to be these allies. I’ve been laying them out for you throughout this lecture from the beginning. One persona of allyship is: We have to have a deep commitment to learning, and being scholars about ourselves, our identity, our pain points, our triggers, and the realities of others. 

Two: We’ve got to be sponsoring individuals across difference. You show me a woman, you show me a BIPOC individual who achieved some levels of high success, I’m going to show you someone who probably has some sponsorship in their life. I’m going to show you someone who probably has some mentorship in their life. I’m going to show you someone who has coaching in their life.

One of the most powerful ways we can be allies in the workplace, allies in educational spaces, is to sponsor, mentor, coach, across difference. If I were to challenge all of you to take a piece of paper out and, along the left-hand column, write to all the people you have sponsored. “I wrote a letter for this one; I made a phone call for that one. I did this for that one.” Write down their names. In the next column, write down their race and ethnicity. In the next one, write down their gender. In the next one, write down their sexual orientation, if you know it. Compare that matrix to your identity. Oftentimes, we see homogeneity, not heterogeneity. Hence, it’s one of the major faultlines we can overcome if we have a more powerful commitment to allyship. 

Being champions. Not just sitting back and saying, “only Black folks, only Latinx folks, only Asian folks can speak out on racism,” but volunteering to be in the committee, and to chair the committee – particularly if you have capital; socio-idiosyncrasy capital that you can apply towards the change effort. 

Being a confidant, as I’ve said before. I live in Atlanta Georgia, and when the tragedy happened with the Asian American community with the hate crimes nearly 2 years ago, I reached out to all of my Asian friends and colleagues with text messages. “Thinking about you.” “You’re on my mind.” “A lot going on; don’t need to respond,” but being a confidant. 

And, being an upstander; having the courage to say and to be in the conversation. Have difficult conversations with others when you see the interview going left, and they’re asking questions that are inappropriate to be asking of an individual: about their family status, their plans for child rearing, their background in many different ways; upstanding. 

We need not one of these personas, we need all of these personas. So, when our team trains in depth around this notion of the ally’s journey, this model of personas are part of that journey.

As I move to close and open us up into some Q&A in my final minutes, I go to the words of another individual that we lost in recent times: Congressman John D. Lewis. He offers so much that inspires, as a role model, for us to be change agents, to be allies, to focus on meaningful efforts of overcoming the hurdles that we have; the faultlines in our democracy, the faultlines that we have in our organization. 

He says, and I quote, “Do not get lost in the sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of the lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet, of this nation, until true freedom comes; until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Our children and their children will ask, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’” 

Because often, “We have been quiet for too long. There comes a time,” and now is that time, “you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet.” 

Because, “freedom is not a state; it is an act. It’s not some enchanted garden perched on high, on a distant plateau where we can finally sit and rest. Freedom is the continuing action we all must take.” We saw it, just in Buffalo. “Each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

Because you, my friends of NCWIT, “You are the light. You are a light. Never,” ever, “let anyone – any person, any force – dampen, dim, or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and (more) abundant.”

Thank you so much, good folks. I’m Damon Williams. That is my formal talk. I think I have a little bit of time left for some Q&A, and some interaction. I am going to turn it to my dear colleague, Dr. Wilder, to take us into the next part of our session. 

DR. JEFFRIANNE WILDER: Wow! Wow, wow, wow! Thank you so much, Dr. Williams. As always, truly uplifting and enlightening work. We have a ton of questions here in our Q&A that we’re going to jump right to right now. 

So, I think, and you’ve already alluded to this already, we saw what happened in the state of Florida with the passage of the ant-CRT bills. It’s happening right here in the state of Ohio, where I am, with HB616. So, one of the most popular questions in the chat: “What are your thoughts and recommended actions for people in states where educators are not allowed to address social-emotional learning, antiracism, and other similar topics?” 

DR. DAMON A. WILLIAMS: Great question. So, the first thing I think is really important, particularly if you are in a roles leadership, is: We have got to educate our community about what this is. Right? In each and every community that has an HB 7, or like, moving through, I think it is really important to be educating the community about what it is, educating the community around what is potentially going to create challenges for us. And, I think it is important for organizations to get a sense of what is the potential cost if we do something that is viewed as illegal, and across the line?

For example, in the state of Florida, a new video just came out from the University of Florida, who I am working with. They talk very candidly about, “we could lose as much as $109 million of funding.” The implication of that on the institution is great – and that’s a billion-dollar institution; let alone organizations that do not have that same type of infrastructure, but maybe even have the greater percent of it. 

So, I  believe we have to, number one: Educate ourselves around what it is. Number two: I think we have to get a clear sense of what the risk associated is from a financial perspective. Then, the third thing – and this is the most important thing: We’ve got to figure out a way that we’re going to educate our young people anyway. 

I don’t have the answer to that at present. Obviously, this is happening in real time. I think it important that educators be coming together in education circles, and be really talking creatively about how we’re still going to move the developmental outcome forward. Perhaps, using some different types of approaches, techniques, and content than, maybe, what we used before.

I think another part of it, too, is: There will be spaces where there may be some organizations that say, “We’re forging forward regardless, and we’re willing to deal with the consequences courageously of what lives on the other side.” As an organizational strategist, I am always balancing the risk, reward, strategy, technique, resistance. How can we, maybe, get there? Not this way, but maybe we can get there this way?

One of the things I want to say, before I go back to you for more questions is: I talked about this a perfect storm DEI factors. The storm forces are sometimes going to be at your back. Call it George Floyd. Sometimes, they’re going to be blowing into you. Call it HB 7. Strategic DEI leaders, individuals who are truly committed to allyship, truly committed to meaningful change over time, they don’t allow the seasons of the time to deter your commitment. It may impact, though, how you are able to go about it. 

Great question. I wish I had a better, more explicit, direct answer of a solution. But, we are all working for it right now. 

DR JEFFRIANNE WILDER: Yeah, and you’re absolutely right. It’s happening in real time. So, it’s constantly evolving. 

So, we have another question here around “return back to work,” and what you mentioned earlier around folks of color in particular not wanting to do that. How do you create belonging and psychological safety in work environments that are all, or primarily, remote roles? We lose some of the body language and casual convo, obviously, that builds that trust in these environments, but it’s so important. So, how do we do that? 

DR DAMON A WILLIAMS: Sure. First, I want to say that you know technology is not necessarily a one-to-one exchange for traditional human factor interaction. I want to make sure that I champion that first. I want to say that, even as we move to more and more remote work as a permanent for some that were not. And, for those who already were, I think that we also have to be thinking very creatively about what does the technological interface look like? Meaning: how are we using polling? How are we setting up one-on-ones? How are we using techniques like I talked to you about before with check-ins? How are we using the digital environment more dynamically than simply using it as a medium for work? 

For example, my team: I turned 50 this year, and my team, which is literally all around the world… So, I have designers in Korea. I have got folks that do stuff that are over in Pakistan. We’ve got folks in Atlanta, where we live, or I live. We’ve got folks in Denver. We came together for a virtual birthday party for me. It was my 50th birthday, and I have very rarely felt more celebrated, and in community, and in a space of belonging than I felt in that virtual moment.

So, I think it’s, in part, about how we do what we do. You know, the virtual happy hours became popular; you know, the virtual reunions became popular. That’s all about what we refer to in our strategy guide as “digitizing inclusive excellence.” As we move, more and more, into a digital-connected terrain, we have got to find ways to continue with those traditions. 

Then too, I think we have got to invest in meaningful face-to-face interactions. Right now, everybody wants me to get on a plane and see them. And I can be, as you have seen, just as effective in this medium as I can in front of you. In some ways, even more effective than I can. And so, I think that we have got to be intelligent about the world opening up, intelligent about hybrid workplace dynamics, intelligent about how we are leveraging technology to foster community. 

JEFFRIANNE: Well, you know 50 is the new 30. You don’t look a day over 30. 

DAMON: Hey, I’m going to receive that!


DAMON: I will receive that.

JEFFRIANNE:: And happy belated birthday. 

DAMON: Yes, thank you. 

JEFFRIANNE: Yes! I love it.

DAMON: Well, as someone has known me for over a decade plus, I’m going to receive that. Thank you.

JEFFRIANNE You know you’re Benjamin Button, right? Or his baby cousin, right? 

DAMON: That’s right. I’ll take it. 

JEFFRIANNE: Allright. A few more questions here. 

Many times, top leadership can be out of touch with what goes on at the ground level. It challenges our voice, especially as it relates to DEI. How should we engage them, even within DEI organizations? 

This is a really important one. 

DAMON: You know, it’s interesting. One of the things we’ve been doing a lot in the last couple of years is: working with boards around DEI issues. One of the methodologies that we identify as an important methodology for boards, I think, is an appropriate methodology for senior leaders across the board who are disconnected from the issues on the ground, as you articulated. 

One is to go on what we refer to as guided-listening tours. Whereby, individuals are in conversations on the ground. So, at the board example I was just talking about, it was actually having a third party, our team, actually take them through a listening tour to have inter-group dialogue with various different constituencies. Now, that’s a different kind of conversation than a lot of board members are used to. They’re used to command and control; they want to come and just, you know, “you tell me what the issue is; I asked the questions.”

Inter-group dialogue; different methodology, right? Different praxis, which is focused on shared conversation and developing shared, elevated understanding. I believe that same principle could be, potentially, applied inside of other types of organizations and situations where they are engaging in a tour with a facilitator engaged in a deliberate dialogue around whatever the issues may be. That’s one technique. 

Another technique, and you know,I have led at a pretty high level, nationally, as a SVP, as an associate vice chancellor, vice provost, right? I had hundreds of people that worked for me. One of the things that my team would know: Sometimes, Dr. Williams is going to just show up, and I’m going to walk the hallway, and I will walk the hallway of the people that report to me. They may be four or five levels down. I’m going to stop people, I’m going to stop at their desks. I’m going to create a human factor connection, because I want them to know me, and I want to know them. 

Now, I can’t do that all the time. Because the further you go up, the broader what’s referred to as your span of control is. Right? Your span of attention. Those are organizational concepts of leadership. However, there is great benefit by doing that. One of the things I recommend is routine-izing that. 

So, one: The first strategy is one that you can develop and implement as an intervention. The second one is a technique of leadership, and it is routine-ized best when you are going on those walking tours, and you do it once a week. Every Friday, I take my tour. Or every Monday, I take my tour, and I connect. Maybe I use different routes, because I can’t navigate the whole thing. Maybe, I might pop up at a virtual meeting, if we are in this virtual space now. “Hey, I saw this was on your calendar; I just wanted to pop in and say hello.”

JEFFRIANNE: That’s really important. We have a few more questions. Hopefully, we can get through the rest of them. 

How do you respond when a request for accountability and other factors associated with DEI are met with accusations of divisiveness, and pitting races against each other?

DAMON: Yeah. It’s tough. You know, sometimes calls for accountability, they face gaslighting. “Well, what do you mean? We’ve got accountability! We do a report!” “What do you mean? We’ve got accountability; we’ve talked about this!” And so, and so…But, folks are saying, “I’m not meaningfully feeling like there is an accountability here.”

So, one: When it is approached in that way, and people kind of divert, and are fragile to the criticism, and pivot away from it, you know – if they are in positions of leadership, power, and authority – it is very difficult to move forward. Just to be candid, it’s very difficult to marshal that conversation. 

One of the things I like to say is: Sometimes, we don’t need to, and it’s not best, to travel singularly. It’s best to travel in a group. You know, you want to get there fast? Go alone. If you want to get there well, go with a group. Right? So, a part of it is: How do we organize ourselves to have the right conversations? Get a group of folks together that, maybe, are like-minded, and we put together something. 

I like to say that leadership on paper is important. We put together a one-pager of talking points, and it’s a group of us, and we have the conversation that way. That’s another avenue. 

Now, does that come with risk? Absolutely! Does that come with the potential of being rebuked, or having a tarnish put on your name? Absolutely. One of the things that I like to say is: who brings that message is important. So, if it’s all the people of color, that may not be the right group. It may need to be a group that is cross-sector, cross-identity. It might need to be championed by an individual who brings a lot of capital to the conversation. Then, how the conversation happens becomes important too. 

There was a part that was embedded in this. I’m not quite sure where it was, but I want to make sure I address it. This notion of inter-group conflict; you know, groups being “pitted against one another.” I want to lean into that just a little bit.

It’s interesting. You know people like to frame me, Damon, as “the Black speaker.” As you heard today, I was talking about LGBT issues. I’d talk about mental health. I’d talk about disability. You know, when I was in my role of DEI leadership at UW-Madison, they wanted me to be the racialized leader. You know I will never forget. I was giving some media, and I was talking about this idea of, “You know I’m not here to be the Vice Provost Associate Chancellor of Blackness.” 

Now, I’m going to elevate a racial equity agenda, but I’m also going to elevate the agenda of women, and their participation, and equity of outcome. I’m going to elevate the agenda related to not only Black folks, but I’m also going to elevate it as relates to the Indigenous folks. I’m going to elevate nationally. I’m going to elevate the issues. 

When you look at my record, not at one moment in or one speech, but you look across the span of my record, you’re going to see that sprinkled across my philosophy of leadership. That’s off-putting to folks, because oftentimes, we like to play the identity politics, and we like to pit this group against that group. I believe that leadership, in this time, this renewal of leadership, to quote Cornell West; Dr. West …

I had a lot of interactions with him as I was coming through my youth. He was a very formative advisor and mentor to me, even though I never took a class with him, never was at an institution with him. But you know at one point, Dr. West was everywhere. I had the chance to host him about six or seven times in about four years, and I learned so much in those interactions; intimately. 

One of the things he said to me is, “There’s times when Black folks need to talk to Black folks, white folks need to talk to white folks, women needs to talk to women, and there’s times in which we all have to come together with humility across difference and find the shared pathway of common faith.” He said leadership, real leadership, is understanding how to do that at a high level. 

I think that a part of my response to that is: We have to deliberately skill up and build up the ability to move that way, and create those identity affirming spaces, and those cross-identity spaces, too, that also affirm.

JEFFRIANNE: I love that. OK, so here’s the next question. 

To what extent do you think that the resurgence of ideas like replacement theory are an indication of the progress that we are making on the DEI front?

DAMON: Sure. So, you know we have, and there’s, a wonderful body of research that has been built up over the last decade or so that talks about these “evidence-based approaches” to mitigating “breaking the habit of bias.” One of them is stereotype, replacement theory. Another is cognitive priming. Others are contact theory, which is a long-standing theory about inter-group relations. I’m here for all of it, and I think that the more we take those various different evidence-based threads in the literature and translate them into learning opportunities, training opportunities, professional development opportunities, the better. 

What becomes important, though, the rate limiting factor of it is not “does it exist?” but “did you do the shit?” Excuse my French. Right? Did you do the things that are necessary to crack through to the other side? 

So, when we wrote our guidance on the pandemic, people were like, “Damon, how did you write a 40-page strategy guide, and publish it March 29th?” You know, when everything shut down, our team just put our heads down. We figured out things. I had done a lot of work that I knew was going to be relevant to this, not only in the DEI space, but digital. I had done a lot of stuff on digital capability building, and we wrote this.

One of the recommendations we gave was around psychological priming, and the importance of using psychological priming techniques before you go into moments where S.T.U.F.F. is going to be high – stress, time-constraint, uncertainty, fear, and fatigue – to break the bias loop that you’re in as you are in automatonic decision-making, to open you up, to be more present and aware of what could be going on. 

We were selling that everywhere we could. We were packaging it everywhere, because we knew it was an important technique that was necessary in this moment in time. I don’t know how many people used it or didn’t, but some very, very powerful, influential leaders had never heard that before, and they had been through unconscious bias trainings. So, a part of it is: We have got to translate how do you do these things, not just as an academic exercise, but how do you do them when it matters? That’s what counts. 

JEFFRIANNE: That’s really important, and it makes me think about this notion of sustainability. So, you know at the top of the hour, we talked and held space for the victims of the mass shooting in Buffalo. You mentioned the countless folks that we’ve lost since the death of Trayvon Martin. What are some strategies for sustaining our DEI efforts beyond these flashpoints? How do we keep that sustainability going and moving in between tragedy, so to speak?   

DAMON: Yes. You know one of the central theories in my book is strategic diversity leadership. One of the guiding metaphors is the cheetah and the wolf. We articulate that, oftentimes, our DEI efforts are like the cheetah, and not the wolf; meaning: a crisis happens – just like the cheetah sees their prey, and for 300 meters, what they do is impressive. Then, they either are successful or not. They go, sit back on the hill, and they wait for the next opportunity to run. Versus the wolf, it’s collective, it’s integrated, it’s ongoing; the alpha and the omega, everybody plays a role. 

That’s how I got this idea of meaningful allyship and meaningful change. See, because when we are making a meaningful commitment to allyship, we’re not waiting for trauma. When we’re doing the ongoing work of diversity, plans can’t breathe without “AIIR,” right? Accountability; that’s ongoing. Building into our infrastructure; that’s ongoing. Integrating it into policy; that’s ongoing.  Commitment of our currency, resource allocation; that’s ongoing. 

So, the way I got that notion was actually in direct response to your question. Because if we are doing those two things, we are not waiting for the next crisis. At the same time, and realistically so, the crisis puts exogenous forces into the ecosystem that we can then harness. 

One of the things I used to do: this lecture a long time ago, called “Diversity, Science Fiction, and Organizational Change,” where I used all these metaphors from science fiction to talk about organizational change. Those dynamics are almost like the force, to use the Star Wars metaphor. There is new energy in the system, and you’ve got to harness that energy. You’ve got to quicken your ability to move forward, because there’s going to become a time where that energy dissipates. You don’t stop, but it’s going to dissipate, and it’s going to lessen. 

We see it now. Organizations are waffling on the commitments that they made two years ago right now. They slow-walked them. They didn’t know what to do. They obfuscated a real change journey by hiring this person or that person, and giving them a big title with no salary, with no budget, with no infrastructure, with no plan. They hoodwinked our communities. I am not here for it. I have never been here for it, and NCWIT, we can’t be here for it. We’ve got to appear through that. 

JEFFRIANNE: Amen, brother. Amen, right? If I can just break my character and just say “amen,” I’ve just really, really learned, and felt so much resonate with me. 

We have one more question. Now, I know you just said you turned 50, and I think I may need to card you. You’ve been doing this work, like you said, a really long time; for decades, before it became en vogue. Right? 


JEFFRIANNE: As you look over the last 20-plus years of you doing this work – probably closer to 25, right? How do you remain hopeful through it all? 

DAMON: What a great question! One of my mentors who I have the good fortune to work with me on my team, Dr. Sallye McKee, is just a fountain of this hopefulness. If I’ve got 25 approaching 30 years, she’s got 50 approaching 55 years. 

You know, one of the things I never lose sight of is the joy of the possibile. You know the chance for me to give a talk that inspires or invigorates renews me to do the work. The chance for me to have somebody that connects back to me years later, who had been influenced by something I wrote, or something I said. To actually, meaningfully lean into something and see the outcome we endeavor to accomplish.

For example, when I was at the University of Connecticut, they had just got the LSAMP grant – the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, and they were the subcontractors, and they didn’t know what they were doing. We, I, came in. I redesigned it. We lifted it up. 

Well now, 15 years later, UConn is the lead institution for the Northeast Alliance. But more importantly, we have increased an output of underrepresented students in STEM by like 500% from where we were when we started a decade-plus before. To see those types of outcomes, to look at what we built at the University of Wisconsin, at Madison, in terms of infrastructure, and see those things five, seven, 10 years later? That’s what continues to drive me; it’s the wind. You know I didn’t come here to lose. 

I will never forget. I was a young man. I was working with the Children’s Defense Fund as an intern in the Black Community Crusade for Children. I did my first ever national leadership event. I was at a training down at the Alex Haley farm in Tennessee, and there were young leaders from all around the country; from Oakland, from Mobile, Ala., Detroit. We were from Ohio. I had never been around young people from other parts of the country. I had never been around change-oriented, community-oriented leaders from around the country. 

This young person who attended a community college in a very depressed area in Mississippi – one of the most brilliant people I had ever encountered in my life at that time, he spoke slow, and he spoke simple, and he spoke brilliantly. One of the things he said to me, which has stuck with me to this day, is he said, “We inherited this challenge from our parents, and our parents before them. I’m going to do everything I can in my generation to ensure that I make it better for those who come after me.” He said, “I continue to have love in my heart.” 

That, for me, that has powered me to this day. I am the proud father of an eight-year-old, and I get up every day not losing sight of her joy. It breaks my heart, the conversations I have to have with her as an eight-year-old who attends an elite, nearly all-white independent school. She is…

I’ve coined some new language. You know we talk about the COVID long-haulers? Upwardly-mobile people of color who have their children in educational environments that many of us didn’t see until we went to college or high school, they’re in them at three and four. They are long haulers of dealing with the trauma of these dynamics. The conversations I have to have with her break my heart as she is learning about our country – and to break her confidence of what this country has been about, But, to do that because I don’t want her to be broken as she comes through this experience. It’s so difficult, but it is what continues to inspire and drive me. I know that went on long, but you know that’s a really important question. 

JEFFRIANNE: You are absolutely right, and you know I have a 10-year-old and a baby. I am equally inspired by that. Both girls.

So, I just want to thank you so much for your inspiration today. All of the, and we can’t even call them nuggets – there were just so many big rocks of knowledge that you have imparted upon us over this past hour. I just want to take a moment to inspire our listeners and our audience to think about just kind of throwing back some of the things that you gave us. 

How can we push through the noise and the S.T.U.F.F. that you talked about to really renew our commitment to change? As someone who has been doing this work for almost as long as you have, I feel myself to be renewed in my commitment to really be a true ally, and to really think about how I can use my point of privilege to make meaning and to not be performative; to think about allyship as you described it in an engaging way. 

That takes action, and doing, and recognizing there’s no action too small and no moment like right now. So thank you so much for imparting some really important wisdom for us as we think about trying to solve today’s most pressing problems. Both of us, as sociologists, recognize how important that is – and are recognizing how important it is for us to start right here. 

DAMON: Yes, yes, yes!

JEFFRIANNE: So, thank you so much! 

As we continue on with our NCWIT Summit, don’t forget to order your summit swag box, featuring an issue of NCWIT’s re:think magazine, and some, really, other great stuff. 

Please join us tomorrow for a conversation with the folks behind “A Queer Endeavor.” The morning session is focused on queering leadership in higher education, and workforce environments. The afternoon session is focused on the K-12 space. 

Also, save the date for the next Conversation for Change on August 24, 2022, at 11 a.m. MT. Dr. Maya Israel will focus on her research on strategies for supporting academically diverse learners, meaningful engagement in CS education. 

Finally, please take a moment to complete our survey by following the link that will appear on your screen. We really do read each and every single response, and we truly appreciate your taking the time out to provide feedback. The survey will also be sent in a follow-up email. Thank you again, and we really appreciate your participation.

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