A wave of racial justice protests in the U.S. in 2020 — sparked by the tragic murder of George Floyd — triggered nationwide discourse on the role of power and race in society. “2020 was a hard year,” recalled Baratunde Thurston, a writer, producer, and TV host.
He remembered how his phone lit up with messages of outreach from people who wanted to express their lament — in a personal way — to Thurston, who is Black, for four centuries of racial injustice. “It was real. It was awkward. And it was beautiful all at once.”
The events of 2020 inspired Thurston to channel that energy into activating societal change for liberty, justice, and belonging. He said, “I’ve learned a lot since then and I feel that I claim to teach, which is the best form of teaching, to learn at the same time.”
Thurston recently took his message of empowerment and inclusion to people and culture leaders at SuccessConnect 2022 in Las Vegas. He appealed to them to embrace the challenges and opportunities of their leadership roles as they endeavor to change work for good through policies and programs. This message resonated with the audience, who were attending the keynote to learn how leaders and employees can co-create a future of work that cultivates productivity, well-being, and innovation by building a culture of belonging.
“Belonging is something that organizations still struggle with,” said Aaron Green, chief marketing and solutions officer of SAP SuccessFactors, which hosted SuccessConnect 2022. “When we talk about things like internal mobility, reskilling, and truly unleashing human potential at work, none of this is possible if people don’t actually feel like they belong. Creating a culture of belonging is the first step in creating a truly sustainable workforce.”
Citizen Is an Active Verb
In the podcast “How to Citizen,” Thurston explores how societal themes of equity and fairness influence government and how people can reclaim their collective power to bring about change. “To citizen” is an active verb that mandates participation, said Thurston, who emphasized that every person should have the feeling of liberation, justice, and belonging. “Inclusion means everybody.”
“To citizen,” he said, we must do four things: show up and participate; invest in relationships with ourselves, others, and the planet; understand power and the ways we have access to it; and value the collective self, not just the individual self.
Three Lessons for Liberty, Justice, and Belonging
As an activist with a message of hope for sociopolitical empowerment, Thurston said experience has already taught him some lessons about the dynamics of power. “One of the first things I learned in this is to adjust our expectations,” he said, noting that systems in place for hundreds or thousands of years cannot be changed in one election cycle. “We’ve got to set a different type of goal, maybe not instant completion, instant gratification; maybe gratitude to participate in a journey that began well before us and will continue after us.”
He has gained an understanding for how various groups cling to power. “As we engage in this epic quest to level up and extend liberty and justice to all, I’ve also learned to be sensitive to the real feelings of dispossession, of loss, of fear for those who are positioned as the insiders,” he said, identifying a false charitable mindset, grounded in assumptions of superiority, as just one of the pitfalls that can arise when people are not authentic in their commitment to inclusion.
Thurston asked audience members to do their part to distribute the power of technology for societal good, saying “We’re too long in the game to pretend that we can make all of this better by just adding technology.” He expressed his thoughts about how technology is used and for what purpose. “I think about crypto and blockchain and I get very excited – and very skeptical – because we use the same language: minting, mining, even chains. We want to financialize everything. But what if we could use those tools to actually help build stronger bonds?”
Enriching the Journey Through Human Connection
Joining Thurston on stage at SuccessConnect 2022 were executive leaders who are advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) initiatives at global organizations. Their goal is to create a more sustainable workforce by putting in place policies and initiatives that support the workforce. Shelley Zalis, CEO, The Female Quotient, said that more needs to be done, especially to protect employee retention. “We need to get smart about this and just ask our employees, what do you need to stay?” Speaking to the senselessness of exit interviews, as called out by Arianna Huffington of Thrive Global, Zalis said, “We pay more attention to the people that are leaving than the people that are here.”
A lack of belonging is among the frequently cited reasons for employees to leave an organization. Leaders can take steps to bolster employee retention by providing an environment of psychological safety that allows employees to bring their whole selves to work. Supriya Jha, chief diversity and inclusion officer, SAP, noted, “The beauty of psychological safety is that you don’t necessarily understand it unless you’ve gone through that feeling of being the only one, that feeling of not being able to speak up, that feeling of needing to blend into the background so you’re not seen. If you’ve gone through it, you start realizing the true value of psychological safety.”
“Just watch and observe,” advised Prerna Ajmera, general manager, HR Digital, Transformation Programs, Microsoft. “If you’re in a meeting and you find two people sitting quiet, why are they quiet? Is it because their superiors are in the meeting and culturally, they won’t speak? Or is it something else? Are they not feeling like they’re the in-crowd? Encourage them – be their ally.”
Jha shared with the people and culture leaders in the audience her perspective on the value of the difficult and enriching work required to create a workplace that fosters authentic connection and belonging. “When we talk about diversity and inclusion being a journey, and being a long journey, please also look at it in another way,” she said. “You are travelers on this journey. You are enriching yourselves with the entire experience.”
Watch a recording of the SuccessConnect 2022 keynote:
We Belong: Co-Creating an Inclusive Future of Work.