This year’s global protests in support of racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement have pushed many companies to begin to hold themselves more accountable on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). DEI in the workplace is not a “one and done” task, but a continuous process. Consistent exercises are necessary to make people more aware, transform workplace culture, and foster positive change.
Recently, RPG engaged Jackie Ferguson from The Diversity Movement to hold a Privilege Walk, a workshop exercise that helps people understand the intricacies of privilege. I, along with three colleagues, volunteered to participate in the Privilege Walk’s panel discussion. This exercise revealed the hidden and varying levels of privilege that exist below our “work selves.” The lessons learned about ourselves and each other are a critical step to taking action in creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace.
Typically, the Privilege Walk is an in-person exercise that takes place in a large and open space. Everyone lines up in a straight line and takes one step forward or backward in response to 41 statements read aloud. These statements pertain to a variety of life factors, such as socio-economic status, race, and upbringing. We adapted to the pandemic’s limitations by holding our walk virtually. Instead of taking steps, everyone kept track of their own score, adding or subtracting points however the statement applied to them.
Before starting, Jackie shared an intriguing statement: “Privilege is our perception of others.” What she said resonated with me, shaping myown definition of privilege. Bias is an inherent and natural part of human psychology. We perceive others differently and allocate different levels of social importance to them. Therefore, we must take steps in all areas of life, work and home, to identify and deconstruct these imperfect perceptions about those around us.
As the Privilege Walk progressed, I witnessed how social biases and inequalities have both benefited and held back my life. At the conclusion of the walk, the panelists and I each shared our scores, how our life experiences affected it, and what we’ve learned.
As someone who is gay, this exercise allowed me to open up to my co-workers on who I am and how who I am takes away a degree of privilege. On the other side of the coin, I am white, male, cisgender, and I come from a financially secure family, all of which have contributed to my privilege. Through this exercise, I was able to bring my authentic self to my co-workers, and I learned about what my colleagues have experienced, too. This Privilege Walk reminded us of our shared experience in overcoming life’s struggles and leaving the world better off than when we entered it.
Work, especially public relations, is fast-paced and time-consuming and one can get lost in the mire of getting things done and out the door. Remote work adds to the complexity as we tackle disconnection and loneliness between ourselves and our-coworkers.
DEI exercises like the Privilege Walk have the power to humanize and invite our co-workers in to witness our authentic selves. Workers that are empowered to be authentic also feel permitted to express their professional talents. This connection requires vulnerability, which is both difficult and important. However, what is even more important are the rewards reaped from making the workplace more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
For DEI to succeed, it cannot be something that is simply crossed off a checklist once. DEI is a process. To encourage this process, consistent exercises and conversations are necessary to expand our ways of thinking and enlighten our decisions. We all must take actions that make us aware of our own and others’ biases and privileges. This one-hour Privilege Walk exercise allowed me to feel welcomed and experience an inclusive workplace. I look forward to the stepping stones that our next DEI exercise will reveal.
About the Author
Gordon Hahn is an intern based out of RPG’s San Francisco office. A San Francisco Bay Area native, he graduated in 2019 from UC Santa Barbara and recently moved back from Washington, D.C.