“Progress does not take place like a shot out of a pistol; it takes the labor and suffering of the negative. How to use the negative as a way to advance the positive is our challenge.” – Grace Lee Boggs, Civil Rights Leader/Author/Philosopher
Time is a funny thing. On one hand, we are perpetually moving into the future and all the projected progressiveness that comes with time’s passing. On the other, much of the progressive changes projected for the future remain in limbo until they swell into an unignorable blister on the skin of the Zeitgeist. This is not to place progressive social change in a negative light; in fact, it’s quite the opposite – by drawing attention en masse to outcries spawned from distinct socio-political and socio-economic gaps, we can begin not only identifying injustices, but taking widespread measures through social, economic and political changes to mitigate or eliminate injustices.
Whatever the outcry or injustice at hand is, however, change always and inevitably begins with the individual. One individual who has dedicated his entire professional career to identifying and eliminating injustice is Cornell Woodson.
EQUITY AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN EDUCATION
Woodson is the founder and president of Brave Trainings, LLC, a consulting firm that provides custom services for companies looking to spur diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI) initiatives and training in their employees and executives. Founded in early 2015 and headquartered in California’s Bay Area, Brave Trainings has secured clients including Sony Music Entertainment, Airbnb, Columbia University, Cornell University, and the New York City Public Schools system. Cornell has led diversity initiatives at Google and now at Headspace.
After graduating from Ithaca College, Woodson began a career in education as a high school English teacher in Atlanta, GA with Teach for America. “I went into this experience thinking I had what my kids needed,” says Woodson, “I just needed to give them my tools and then their life would be better.” Woodson continues by saying that initially, he focused on the bigger picture of DEI, which in turn undermined the individual concerns expressed by the children he sought to educate. “I hadn’t taken the time to understand their unique barriers, issues, and concerns. I didn’t work WITH them, I came in as a savior and that’s not what they needed. This is what we do to marginalized groups, we see them as things to be fixed or saved.”
As a diversity consultant, Woodson helps organizations understand ways in which they can advance belonging for their employees and their customers, beginning from the individual level. This means providing an entry point into the tough and sensitive conversations for anyone and everyone ready to understand the world around them, and to do their part to make it better for everyone, starting by taking the time to listen to – and understand – concerns from minority and disadvantaged social groups.
MAKING THE CHOICE TO DO THE RIGHT THING
Summer 2020 saw fresh waves of unrest throughout the United States, initially sparked by a video that went viral in late May showing Minneapolis police officers kneeling on – and eventually suffocating – George Floyd. The subsequent outcry was immediate. Overnight, the Black Lives Matter movement saw sweeping protests throughout the nation. Americans in virtually every metropolitan area were affected by – if not directly involved in – the protests that took place during spikes of COVID-19 cases in several states, and millions more were left wondering: “why do we still need to have the conversation around diversity and inclusion in 2020?”
The conversation wasn’t only limited to America’s streets or the BLM movement, though. Like Woodson, many business owners, entrepreneurs, and executives began asking themselves the difficult – albeit necessary – questions on DEI, such as “why is race still a difficult conversation topic in the United States”, and, “what do we need to know about the privilege-power ratio in the U.S.?”
In relation to these questions, Woodson says there are three barriers to success related to DEI work, starting with a lack of ‘real’ accountability and intersectionality, as well as confusion on DEI initiatives vs. DEI strategy. Woodson describes DEI initiatives as “one-off” actions that are rarely embedded into business, whereas DEI strategy touches every aspect (budgets, HR, priorities, goals, etc.) of the business itself in a way that does not further promote privilege.
“I don’t think…goals [can be reached if] we are still doing the work in a way that centers the privileged and not the marginalized,” says Woodson. “Organizations are more afraid of upsetting White, straight men than they are of upsetting Black, brown, queer, and trans people. Until we center the marginalized and stop fearing the consequences of what will happen when the privileged are upset, these issues will become problems the next 5 generations will be left to deal with.
INCLUSIVE THOUGHT LEADERSHIP AND ‘CANCEL CULTURE’
George Floyd’s death didn’t only spark fresh waves of unrest and protests around social injustice. Much like the “#MeToo” movement that ousted numerous abusers from their victims’ stories, many BLM supporters and social advocates began launching inquiries into the racist language and behaviors exhibited by members of their own communities. The result led to many Americans – both public figures and citizens – being ousted as racists via online “cancel culture”.
“Cancel culture isn’t just for ‘overly-sensitive’ millennials,” says Woodson, pointing out the fact that cancel culture itself is often mocked by those in positions of power or privilege for its effect on the accused. The kick about cancel culture, though, is this: it works.
In just 2020 alone, dozens of celebrities including Paula Deen, Roseanne Barr, and Megyn Kelly were fired after past comments made by them surfaced. This led to many business owners and executives wondering what they could do, not only to safeguard their assets, but ensure the same wouldn’t befall themselves or their brand.
“Organizations talk about holding leaders accountable for bad behavior or non-action in regards to advancing DEI initiatives. However,” says Woodson, “when it actually comes down to it, leaders are given free range to do as they please without repercussions.” To further this, Woodson highlights the importance of moving away from “one-size-fits-all” DEI initiatives. “For example, while focusing on the needs of Black employees is necessary, it doesn’t account for the unique needs of Black trans people, Black women, and other subgroups within the Black community.”
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Despite the rapid worldwide growth of social justice such as the BLM movement in 2020, we still have a long way to go. Racism, injustice, and prejudice is still rampant in much of the world, including the U.S. Though 2020 has been able to cast a light of hope at the end of the proverbial tunnel of social injustice, the first changes necessary to stamp out injustice must be made at the individual level, then to the collective level where we can have conversations around the social narrative.
“I’m motivated to eradicating systems of oppression and building spaces of belonging not simply because I identify as Black and gay,” says Woodson, “I’m motivated because there are marginalized groups I’m not a part of that I want to fight for. This fight is so much bigger than my own needs and experiences. That’s the same energy we all need to approach this work with.”
Cornell Woodson is the founder and president of Brave Trainings, LLC. His work and expertise revolve around increasing diversity, building cultures of belonging, and helping organizations change processes and systems to make them more equitable. To learn more about Cornell or Brave Trainings, please visit www.bravetrainings.com