Find Your Conviction: The First Step in an Organization’s DEI Work

Written by Justin Lyons, Senior Director of People & Inclusion

W.E.B. Du Bois once said, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

This quote came to my scattered mind during a sleepless night in late May after the murder of George Floyd. As the Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Change.org, I felt the need to put the company (including myself) on notice. I sent an email to the entire staff later that day.

In my opinion, we weren’t doing close to enough to meet our social responsibility as a tech platform and social change organization to fight systemic racism and oppression.

I took stock of where we had failed and what we needed to do to reach the expectations that I — and many others — hold of Change.org. And I once again reminded everyone that we needed to do that work together as a team. It couldn’t rest squarely on my shoulders.

Change.org began to put the DEI building blocks in place in 2018 immediately after I transitioned into a Chief of Staff role. We started by creating a cultural embrace of the work throughout the organization. I applied the best practices learned in my former role as a campaigner: grow an army of supporters, take them on a journey, push when you have the momentum, and advocate for concrete changes from key decision-makers.

Fast forward three years, we have achieved so much:

  • A restructured recruiting process that prioritized an equitable and inclusive experience

Despite this progress, we — like many others — faced the sobering reality that it wasn’t enough this past June. In response, we committed all staff time and energy to what we called an “organizational reset.” We charted a vision and plan for integrating anti-racism, anti-oppression practices into our operations and assessed our leadership structure, decision-making practices, impact strategy, and business model through an equity lens. The process raised our collective consciousness about the ways in which our structures, process and systems led to inequitable outcomes. It engaged the entire organization in existential questions that we’re still wrestling with today.

From this process, I wanted to share major lessons that we’ve learned about how to effectively advance DEI and racial equity work:

Find your conviction

Check in with your organization’s soul and interrogate its pursuit of justice. Is the current direction of the work in alignment with your core values? Do you need to redefine your values? Assess where your systems, structures, and policies are inconsistent with those values. Clearly identify and articulate the boundaries that will inform your actions when facing hard tradeoffs.

Invest immediately

The status quo is clearly not working for everyone. Inequitable outcomes cannot and will not materially change without smart and substantial investment. Don’t do the bare minimum. Accept that real loss — in power, privilege, comfort or revenue — is necessary to see progress toward social justice. Act swiftly once acceptance is achieved.

Start smart

DEI was not initially established as core to our operations at Change.org — a common issue. Prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion happens when real accountability is in place. If you’re overwhelmed by the daunting task ahead of you, start with easy wins: set a clear vision, publicly communicate realistic goals and build from your current strengths.

The work never stops

Talking is not doing, especially from senior leaders. The results of your team’s actions (or inaction) represent your true commitments. Treat the work with the same gravity that you would a crisis — because many people (on your team and in marginalized communities) live in constant turmoil in part due to your continued inaction. Remain persistent and resilient.

Looking back over the last few years, we’ve made significant strides toward being a truly multicultural organization that contributes to a more equitable world. There continues to be real energy on staff for the personal growth required to be able to consistently impact this work. That’s important because those in my position can only take it so far. Everyone needs to be actively involved if we’re going to make any kind of necessary and material change.

Justin Lyons is the Senior Director of People and Inclusion at Change.org. He launched the organization’s first diversity, equity, and inclusion program in 2018 and leads these growing efforts today, along with the company’s staff connection initiatives globally and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Change.org is the world’s largest civic action platform, using technology to empower more than 450 million users to create the change they want to see.