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An Open Letter to Organization Leaders When Diversity Was Not Enough

If Belonging isn’t Part of the Picture, Your Efforts to Recruit and Retain Won’t Play Out

At Leading Elephants, we have been having thrilling conversations as our team grew in 2022. We are leaning into “walking our talk” on human-centered workplaces, and we keep coming back to the power of belonging. Lakita has helped us to find new language for this concept that we already knew was important.

We asked her to take the pen and share her thoughts on the subject. We were humbled to hear about her journey - and feel even more motivated to continue the ongoing practice that will KEEP the sense of team and belonging alive. We’re thrilled to have you hear straight from her.

Dear Leaders,

I know it can be disappointing when your well-intentioned diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are not translating into a more diverse workforce. I understand the search for answers when BIPOC team members are consistently leaving your organization at an alarming rate. I can imagine that some of the exit interview feedback when BIPOC team members leave can be devastating.

While I understand what that might mean for you, please take a moment to understand what is on the other side of it. Imagine how BIPOC team members feel when there is a constant struggle to find a sense of belonging in the workplace. Imagine what it must feel like to be a part of an organization where you feel disconnected or like an outsider. Imagine the inner turmoil that exists when you have to have to show up to a job that provides financial stability but the culture is toxic and psychologically unsafe.

This can be tough. But I want to share the quiet parts out loud to bridge the gap. I want to share my recent experience with you in the hopes that it will cause quiet introspection and urge you to carefully evaluate your organization’s culture and work environment. In case you were wondering, any initiatives to increase diversity in the workplace become ineffective if there is not intentional planning to create an inclusive environment that centers belonging. As I contemplated my next career move, the most important factor for me was finding an organization where I felt that I could be liberated enough to be authentically and unapologetically me. A place where being an educated Black woman was celebrated and not just tolerated.

I was very clear about the things I did not want in an organization. I felt empowered to create my list of non-negotiables because there were things that had to be true of an organization in order for me to thrive.

  • It had to have psychological safety. I was not going to be subjected to constant micro-aggressions

  • The organization had to have an anti-racist stance. I wanted to be at a place where people were actively working against racism - where I didn't have to advocate for it to matter.

  • Authentic and transparent leadership. I wanted to be at a place where people were more concerned about growing and stretching and less concerned about performative allyship as a means to feel good.

Although my list was not expansive, I knew that finding an organization that was truly anti-racist and fully committed to diversity, equity, inclusion AND belonging might feel like a search for a unicorn. But I was cautiously optimistic and very clear that I wanted to be a part of an organization where I belonged. Being connected and having a sense of belonging helps me to thrive. Exclusion and culturally oppressive environments have the tendency to hinder progress and stifle my growth and creativity.

I did not want to go to work and feel exhausted at the end of each day from the constant mental exercises necessary to navigate org cultures that were not designed with me in mind. I did not want to have to explain why my loc’d hair is actually professional. I did not want to be forced to determine which aspects of my identity needed to be suppressed in order to belong. I did not want to be the diversity hire or the check in the box. I did not want a seat at the table, I wanted an organization that was reimagining decision making and centering it in spaces of inclusion and belonging.

I knew that if I wanted something different, I had to do things differently, so I was intentional about engaging in a search process where my core values were my north star. I was more authentic in every encounter with a potential employer than I had ever been. I did not fear rejection because I knew the skill set, experience, and intellectual capacity that I would bring to an organization. My biggest fear was aligning with an organization who valued all of those things but did not see the wealth in the cultural assets that I would bring as well.

My journey led me to Leading Elephants, and I don’t take for granted being part of a team where I feel valued, seen, heard, and held. I found an organization where I belong. I feel liberated to show up fully every day and that is the kind of environment that I need to thrive. At Leading Elephants, our team has been intentional about co-creating a work environment that is human-centered and heart-centered. We engage in the conversations that help us to understand and really get to know one another. We are curious about each other’s stories and how our life’s journey impacts our ways of being and doing. We value every fiber of the rich tapestry that is our team.

It is not a utopia, but it is a beautiful grace-filled journey that I am happy to be on. Creating an inclusive environment that centers belonging is attainable. But it requires more than shared language, strategic plans, and org values that live only on websites and posters. It requires a reevaluation of current mindsets, beliefs, and practices. And if your current practices create more barriers than open doors,

do something about it.

We all have a need to belong whether we intentionally seek it or unconsciously desire the feeling. People from historically marginalized identities should not have to sacrifice all that we are to experience belonging. So when you are considering your DEI efforts, think about what it takes to BELONG.

With Love & Grace,

Dr. Lakita D. McKinney - and all the other people who felt that this needed to be said

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

-Alexander Den Heijer


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