Meet elephant tamer and entrepreneur Erica Merritt, the creative genius behind Equius Consulting Group. Equius uses organizational assessments, planning, design, facilitation, coaching, and training to teach companies to do the difficult ‘head and heart work’ of reforming their organizational culture.
Erica jokingly calls herself an elephant tamer because she has a knack for getting people to dig into issues that would otherwise be ‘elephants in the room.’ For Equius’ corporate clients, those elephants are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and other forms of systemic oppression that intersect to create a work environment inhospitable to equity.
“In this kind of work, we need to be able to lay it all out on the table so that we can uncover the challenges and design solutions,” Merritt explained, citing the James Baldwin quote “Nothing can be changed until it is faced,” as the guiding ideology for her work. “If organizational leaders are unable to be candid about the challenges, there’s no chance of moving the needle.”
Equius is moving that needle using an evolving model created by Merritt called Equity Competent Leadership (ECL). ECL is a leadership lens rooted in an awareness of your own power and privilege (along with that of others), and culture and history, all of which is adaptable to the constantly evolving landscape of organizational culture and the historical and present systemic challenges inherent therein.
Ajah Hales for Bold Culture sat down with Erica to find out why so many companies miss the mark when it comes to Diversity & Inclusion work and how Equius is changing the landscape of corporate America, one company at a time.
1. America is becoming more multicultural–that means it’s becoming less racist, right?
“That depends on how you define racism,” Merritt noted. Equius uses Race Forward’s definition, which says that racism exists on internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels as an array of cultural norms and institutional policies and practices that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes. Merritt challenges companies avoid limiting their organizational understanding of racism to individual acts of meanness. “[Doing so] leaves us unable to diagnose, discuss or address racism when it shows up in other forms. So no, we have not become less racist.”
2. Diversity and inclusion work is a changing landscape. Are those even the right words to use anymore?
“I’m more likely to use terms like anti-racism, anti-oppression, social justice, and equity when I am driving the narrative,” offered Merritt. She believes D&I has evolved as an industry, but in many ways is still “back where it started.” According to Merritt, journalist Pamela Newkirk sums up the issue nicely in her novel Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business. Newkirk says that despite five decades of Diversity and Inclusion work, persons of the global majority are still not proportionally represented in elite fields like academia, medicine, and media.
Merritt points out that these deeply entrenched patterns will persist as long as “there remains a collective lack of will to do anything different.”
“Most organizations are comfortable with diversity–[in regards to race] let’s describe that as having people around who look different. Those same places are also comfortable with what is described as inclusion, making the people who look different mildly comfortable.”
Merritt argues that what’s present in most organizations “is not inclusion, it’s assimilation. You can look different and work here, but we aren’t going to change much.” Companies want to look different, without being different. “Many of them are not willing to shift their culture, policies or practices in order to make room for those people who look different, i.e. are of different racial backgrounds.” Lasting change requires organizations to “wrestle with the history, culture, ideology and power dynamics that hold [their] social hierarch[ies] in place,” says Merritt. “The exciting thing is that there are organizations willing and committed to doing so, some of whom are my clients.”
3. What makes Equius’ approach to D&I stand out?
“We use a combination of qualitative and quantitative data collection, deep internal work, diagnosis and intervention design to support clients in moving along a continuum toward being a more equitable and inclusive organization. We understand that in order to embark on a change process, it’s going to require some personal work on the part of leadership. This work will not be successful in the long run without the personal work,” Merritt says. Her Gestalt background shapes the way she approaches her work, helping companies to see themselves as architects of an organizational culture that is healthy and whole.
4. Why should brands with established customer bases care about diversity? Isn’t it safer for them to stick to what they already do well?
“I could give you a spiel about the greater good, but organizations may not be able to sell that to board members or shareholders. There’s been study after study about the business case for this work, the increased profitability, greater innovation etc. Angela Glover Blackwell and her team at Policy Link have done incredible work around the case for racial equity. I could also talk about shifting demographics, [like the fact that] 48% of Generation Z comes from communities of color. However, here’s the truth. Either organizations have the will to do this work or they don’t. This is head and heart work. It requires more than our intellect to move this work forward and create sustainable change. There was an excellent piece recently about how hiring a Chief Diversity Officer will not save your culture and that says it all,” Merritt explained.
Organizations are made up of people and people have to be willing to operate differently if they actually want to create more equitable institutions. They have to look at everything including hiring, promotions, salary, performance management, culture, suppliers, sponsorships, community, policy and practice and be willing to change what is not fair and just.
5. In your experience, what do most companies do well in terms of D&I? What do companies do poorly?
“Companies advertise well. They have great photos of the communities they serve and the people from marginalized communities that work for them. They are often not as good at serving those same communities in real life, engaging community voice or creating an inclusive (not assimilative) culture for their staff.”
Merritt went on to explain that “organizations also tend to be pyramids in that the number of people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ folks increases the further down you go. Whenever I hear high numbers of employees who identify with the aforementioned groups, I want to know where they sit in the organization.”
Are there any bright spots in what can often seem like a bleak landscape? Yes, according to Merritt. “I don’t want this to be all doom and gloom. There are organizations that are taking this on as more than window dressing. They are taking concrete steps to be different and better. I am from Cleveland and we have the good fortune and challenge of having many organizations that are more than 100 years old. Age alone tells you a little bit about who founded them and who was allowed in at the time of inception. While the old barriers may no longer be in place legally, they often remain in ways that mean those same places look different than they did 100 years ago, but most of the people leading them are still white and male in 2020. It’s telling that even in fields like education or nursing that are dominated by women, men move into leadership more quickly on what’s often described as the glass escalator.”
“The old paradigms are still at work and because those of us who hold marginalized identities are socialized in the same ways [as our oppressors], we often support the system unwittingly,” she explained.
Through the ECL lens, Equius helps companies to move beyond the redundant cycle of changing faces without changing culture and into a profitable new future of organizational equity. To schedule a consultation or find out more about how your company can become more equitable and profitable through ECL leadership, visit Equius online at www.equiusgroup.biz