In the summer of 2020, there was national momentum towards the goal of creating an anti-racist society in the United States. Anti-Racism books flew off the shelves, long overdue conversations were had at work, at home, and in our governing bodies, and policies were critically examined. Now in the winter of 2021, that national conversation continues, but what have we done, and what can we continue to do, as individuals and organizations to make meaningful progress?

Danika Manso-Brown (HGSE ’18), Founder of Manso Brown Group and co-founder of Spoken Verb, a collaborative arts performance group dedicated to social justice, has dedicated her career to this work. She recently joined us at HBS to share her expertise, insights, and recommendations for action steps that will create anti-racist organizations.

MEET DANIKA MANSO-BROWN

For Danika Manso-Brown, the life of an activist was one she was born into and one she has made her own.

“My parents met organizing a labor union, so the work of creating justice and thinking about humanity was a central part of my upbringing and home education,” said Manso-Brown. “I was taught that living in this world means you have a social responsibility for thinking about how you create more joy for people in this world.”

To do exactly that, Manso-Brown found her calling as an activist artist, much like her parents, and used dance as her platform. As a professional dancer in New York City, Manso-Brown creates art that encourages people to have conversations around social justice. She couples her artistic talent with deep knowledge of how to educate and connect with people, skills she built as a dance and sociology major at Duke University and in her EdM in Policy and Management at the Harvard Graduation School of Education.

In her roles as a leader, speaker, educator, and teaching artist, Manso-Brown educates individuals and groups on social injustice and creating equality through workshops and through her art.

STRATEGIES TO BE ACTIVELY ANTI-RACIST

Manso-Brown’s workshops on anti-racism focus on three key themes that create a roadmap for how individuals can be actively anti-racist and bring about change.

Learn the History

“My work is grounded in history,” she explained, “We need to be able to trace the roots of racism back through time. It is harder to undo how we think about identities without first knowing how they were established.”

Therefore, Manso-Brown encourages others to seek out historical context as a critical foundation of anti-racism work. “We’re not talking about things that happened that long ago either,” she added. “MLK would be the same age as Barbara Walters if he was still alive; my grandfather could not vote until his 30s. The history I’m asking folks to seek out is a history that unfolded on top of people who are still alive.”

Be Intentional with Language

Another key focus of Manso-Brown’s work is being intentional about language. “Language creates worlds and we need to be as intentional and accurate as possible. That includes how we refer to people.”

For example, Manso-Brown noted the importance of rejecting the word Caucasian, which was language that came out of the eugenics movement claiming descendants of the Caucasus Mountains were the superior race. “Caucasian may seem more proper or polite, but it’s the opposite,” said Manso-Brown.

It’s also critical to think about the language we use when bringing others into the work of anti-racism. In her work, Manso-Brown suggests several sentence starters that can empower people to interrupt language that reinforces racism in their families, friend groups, and workplaces.

"'What did you mean by that?’ ‘What you just said feeds into a really old stereotype, can we talk about that?’ ‘That thing you said reinforces the system of racism. I want to talk about why,’" Manso-Brown offered as suggested language. “Use words that focuses on what someone said or did, not who they are.”

Consider Your Identities

Manso-Brown also encourages her participants to think about their various identities and which of those identities holds privilege and which of those identities are marginalized.

“Every ‘ism’ (racism, ableism, sexism, Anti-Semitism, etc.) promotes one group having privilege and other folks being pushed away,” she said. To tackle these issues, we need to consider how to use our privilege, and be prepared to give up our privilege, in order to truly create equality.

PROMOTING ANTI-RACISM WITHIN YOUR ORGANIZATION

Bringing this work of anti-racism to the workplace is critical because racism is not simply people being unkind to one another.

As Manso-Brown explains “Racism is around us all the time without us doing anything. It is a system created for economic, political, and social reasons that privileges white folks and marginalizes people of color.”

Understanding that racism is a system, individuals and organizations need to tackle the issue systematically and intentionally. In the workplace, she recommends the following actionable steps forward.

Have Consistent Conversations About Anti-Racism

Conversations around anti-racism need to be happening at our workplaces, on a regular basis and together as a group.

“Start meeting and keep meeting about anti-racism practices in your organizations,” Manso-Brown recommended. “Setting aside time, every other week or once a month, to engage as a group with the same materials, learn, and discuss is a central part of this work.”

Audit Your Policies

“Do an audit of your policies and assess if policies are reinforcing the marginalization of any group,” Manso-Brown recommended. This may include dress codes, lack of pay equity, or hiring practices that favor one group over another.

Policies can also be related to how decisions are made and how team members communicate with one another. Evaluate how your meetings allow different opinions or feelings to be voiced, or not, and then take action to create safe and welcoming spaces.

Encouraging diversity cannot stop at hiring because, as Manso- Brown stated, “organizations need to create environments where people can show up with the full humanity recognized every single day.” Without this important aspect of organizational policy and culture, adjusting hiring practices will not make meaningful change.

Create Metrics and Hold Your Organization Accountable

Every organization has business goals and metrics they shoot for. Diversity, equity, and inclusion should be included in those key goals and as such should be attached to metrics that define success.

“It’s not enough to say ‘we are committed to anti-racism,’” Manso-Brown said, “you have to be about it. That means clear numbers, clear benchmarks, and clear metrics.”

Set the Tone as Leaders

Anti-racism work needs to happen at all levels of an organization, but the tone should be set from the top. Leaders need to take an active role in both acknowledging where they have fallen short and visibly doing the work to improve.

Manso-Brown noted “We get held up by defensiveness. Instead, we should humble ourselves and recognize what we have to learn and understand that we will continue to make mistakes.” Holding ourselves and others accountable and giving people grace needs to happen at the same time in order to make progress forward.

An Important Distinction

Anti-racism work in our personal lives and work lives is about something Manso-Brown was taught from a young age – “Being dedicated to humanity.”

That is the real root of this work. It’s about people.

“Diversity has been proven to improve organizational effectiveness, but it’s more than that,” she aptly noted. “I want people to come at this work from an ethical and moral calling.”

When we make the commitment to be anti-racist, we create organizations that value our collective and individual humanity. These are organizations that empower and support individuals, and organization we can be proud to lead.