Back in 2017 I wrote a Medium post called “Operationalizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Your Nonprofit”. Having worked on a number of corporate and non-profit D & I initiatives previously, fresh from a series of racial equity and community organizing trainings from spaces like Race Forward and Chicago Freedom School, and with a set of direct HR work experiences, I thought the insights I pulled were not just sufficient, they were expansive. I touched on recruitment, talent markets, dialogue and art, community dreams, compensation audits, leadership pipelines. Things that seemed legitimate, substantive at the time.
But looking back, I realize that I was putting way too much on the HR function to carry the weight of addressing systemic and institutional racism.
It wasn’t long before I wrote this article that I had just joined a previous employer, the social design firm called Greater Good Studio, as their first Director of Operations. Since then, I have worked in a total of three broad based operations leadership roles across three sectors, with responsibility over everything from finance, IT, HR, to facilities, strategy, and many things in between.
You know what I’ve learned?
DEI — and Racial Justice, if we want to be more expansive yet precise about this work so let’s call it DEIRJ from here on out — cannot be successful if it only resides in HR. It just can’t. There are too many cross-departmental touchpoints for DEIRJ to not influence organizational strategy, financial budgeting, training content, tech access planning, or communication approaches. I had been in countless meetings in my career where issues of power and community vs institutional misalignment of priorities came up, OUTSIDE of recruitment plans or Employee Resource Groups.
Simultaneously, ever since first dipping my toe in the pool of human-centered design /design thinking, I’ve been slowly traversing on a journey of absorbing and practicing methods in service design and social & equitable design. One of the most curious things to me was the prevalence of innovation card decks that designers / design teams would use to help stimulate creative pivots towards new ideas or directions in the design process. They were fascinating to me, but I never really explored using the tools myself in my work, as usually they seemed to be for product designers working on physical consumer packaged goods or automobiles or something. I don’t know —they just didn’t vibe with me, and kind of felt a bit hoighty toighty, high falutin’, or bougie.
That is, until I came across two decks. First, in 2018 I randomly stumbled upon the Liberatory Design Deck on either Stanford’s d.school website or the National Equity Project’s website. I can’t remember, and I know I was late to the party:). What I do remember is that I was enamored by the simplicity of the deck and yet the comprehensive number of prompts to encourage process, mindset, and action…under a lens of equity.
“WHAT?! This is amazing?!” I thought. The next week I was in a Fedex/Kinkos printing them out on fancy card stock, so that I could use them in a potential side community project I was hoping to help facilitate. Those cards continue to be useful for me in thinking about nuances of social & equitable / community design. Shout out to the creators of the deck: Tania Anaisse, Victor Cary, David Clifford, Tom Malarkey, and Susie Wise.
Now, let’s fast forward to early 2020. I don’t know honestly how I came to know Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. I’m pretty certain it was via social media — a mutual connection. I was drawn to her personal narrative in relation to the design practice and especially her work seeking to expand what “design thinking” is to be wildly more inclusive, and critical. Not too long after we met at person at a panel she and other black design vanguards were on at IIT in February 2020, I discovered that she also created a card deck the year prior, called “A Designer’s Critical Alphabet”. She noted that she “was trying to make critical race theory language accessible to designers, and remind designers to think about multiple perspectives as they worked.” The cards are, yes, beautifully designed, but also chock full of often noted justice concepts with accessible explanations and definitions for the I-didn’t-get-my-PhD-in-sociology set (which includes me! ).
Again, these cards are dope. They are amazing. And, they are very useful for mindset pivots when going through a equity design process or a workshop prep. I made it a required text/resource for my students in my two Social Design courses at Loyola University Chicago this past year, and I truly hope beyond the class they find utility in their future institutional and community work.
So yeah, I’ve now got these two great card decks on my shelf. I’m using them, referring to them in work context, etc etc. However, I never really intended to make my own card deck. For one I didn’t think I had anything relevant to say that hadn’t already been said, to be honest. And yet, over the 2020 year, ever since the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all of the other Black folks that we were made aware of, something really irked me in the pit of my stomach.
The black squares. Those black squares.
Every company and organization put up black squares in solidarity of #BlackLivesMatter, but having worked directly in the nexus of DEI work over the balance of my career, I had skepticism about whether the dialogue would translate into action or just be performative for ALL of these organizations. I did. Thankfully, the actions of a number of organizations proved me wrong, and yet the actions of another group of organizations proved me and many other skeptical black folks right. To be fair, this work is not simple, because racism is systemic — it thrives in ecoSYSTEMS, and so I do believe that often times organizational leaders just may not know HOW to effectively proceed beyond a D&I survey or a book discussion.
Nevertheless, this stasis, combined with the stark reality of the impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latinx communities versus White communities, led me to begin to think that maybe I could contribute a modest resource into the world focused on DEI and Racial Justice. I didn’t move on it, until 2021 — this year — during Martin Luther King Jr weekend. But on my first day off, I told myself, hey — maybe there is a space for a card deck, that combines the approach of design with the lenses of DEIRJ and also the holistic range of an operations shop in an organization.
And so I did a sort of self-imposed design sprint on conceptualizing these cards, designing them, and sending the prototype to a vendor to ship in three days. I obsessively worked on them whenever my two toddlers napped and then at night, and I gotta say, all parents know for a fact that kids make your workflow faster and better.
That’s basically the story of Racial DeckEquity.
You know, in making this deck, I wanted to create a usable tool, not just for designers, but for folks in general who work in organizations and folks across sectors . It is no longer sufficient to believe that an entire organization can move the needle on DEIRJ by only putting responsibility on HR. We have more than enough data on recruitment, attrition, social mobility rates, and income disparities to validate this. Just as “everyone needs to understand the bottom line” in businesses or “everyone needs to understand development” in nonprofits, DEIRJ must be understood by and infused in Finance, Operations, Facilities, Data, Communications, Development, IT, R&D/Innovation, and Organizational Culture.
I’m not looking for this to be a blockbuster selling item — I didn’t make it for that reason. I just hope that this one drop-in-the-bucket of a tool, in congruence with all of the other efforts people are developing to make our institutions more just at this moment in time, catalyzes folks to go a bit further, to do a bit more, to expand further what we perceive as realistic in this journey toward equity and justice.