How to transform consulting through Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access

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“I am deeply moved by our ambition and desire to be seen and heard and valued in our full embodied excellence.” —Tema Okun, professor at Duke University, author, speaker, and writer

As a white accomplice leading a diverse consulting firm that provides diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) services, I am keenly aware of how the traditional consulting model can be antithetical to the principles of DEIA. Consulting is a byproduct of a white supremacy culture, which has produced and is wed to our traditional ways of operating – working within a hierarchy, pleasing donors because wealth=power, consultants as experts who come in and tell us what to do. In this article, I will describe ways to transform consulting through a DEIA approach.

The origins of consulting

Management consulting is the practice of helping organizations to improve their performance, and—by product of a capitalistic society—their social impact (donors want to know what they get for their investment). Organizations hire consultants because they seek external, objective advice on a particular challenge. Typically, the consultant is viewed as an expert who is imparting “best practices” to clients. Consulting evolved as a field from the late 1800 into the 21st century with an ever growing demand for experts on business and organizational strategy.

Characteristics of white supremacy culture

 The roots of consulting expose innate concepts that directly oppose the principles of DEIA. The traditional approach to consulting is often riddled with traits of a white supremacy culture, which are ripe for reexamination and disruption.

Okun defines white supremacy as “the ways in which the ruling class elite or the power elite in

the colonies of what was to become the United States used the pseudo-scientific concept of race

to create whiteness and a hierarchy of racialized value in order to:

  • disconnect and divide white people from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)
  • disconnect and divide Black, Indigenous, and People of Color from each other
  • disconnect and divide white people from other white people
  • disconnect and divide each and all of us from the earth, the sun, the wind, the water, the stars, the animals that roam(ed) the earth
  • disconnect and divide each of us from ourselves.

Further, white supremacy culture is the widespread ideology ingrained in the attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and norms of our groups that whiteness holds value and whiteness is value. Okun suggests white supremacy culture is identifiable by the below characteristics, among others, many of which I see inherent in consulting today:

  • Perfectionism
  • One right way
  • Paternalism
  • Objectivity
  • Either/or and the binary
  • Progress is bigger, more
  • Quantity over quality
  • Worship of the written word
  • Right to comfort
  • Power hoarding
  • Urgency

Learn more about these characteristics, including how they show up and antidotes to them, in Okun’s 2021 article, “White Supremacy—Still Here.”

Consulting that embraces Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access

At PENN Creative Strategy, we acknowledge the institutional oppression and trauma that marginalized communities face. As allies and change-makers, we actively seek to build the capacity of organizations that support communities of color, indigenous communities, communities with disabilities, LTBTQ+ communities, and those with intersectional identities. And we’re not afraid to unpack the elements of institutional racism and ableism that too often hold organizations back.

With this guiding mission, PENN Creative Strategy is intentional about how we consult with organizations. The following principles are markers of our consulting work:

Consultants are not seen as the “experts”

Clients are the experts in their people, processes, and culture. We approach our consulting engagements as co-learners, asking provocative questions to open new perspectives and collaboratively strengthen the system.

A focus on process

We believe true organizational transformation occurs through process work, rather than a focus on products. DEIA is about shifting processes to drive positive change and inspire loyalty and engagement from teams and the community at-large. Does that mean we don’t provide products?  No, but in trying to move away from “experts delivering recommendations” we embrace the tremendous value in co-creation of the best solutions.

Redistribution of power

We are passionate about helping organizations share power with all people. We recognize that positional power of the Executive Director and Board is not the only source of guidance. We believe there is great expertise to be found in the lived experience of constituents and we center their voices in the process. Internally, we create staff-led accountability groups that push power to the people.

Putting this work into practice

Based on Tema Okun’s work and with her permission, we developed an organizational assessment to help organizations determine the degree to which white supremacy characteristics are present in their organizations and to give them strategies to reverse those dynamics.

Whatever changes you need to create an organization that is more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible, PENN Creative Strategy is eager to work alongside you – just contact us.

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