Running into the Burning Building of Racism at Work

For my Black clients and colleagues, I am a first responder

A few years ago, my experience at work changed. I served at an organization where the mission is to help leaders in public education with coaching, mentoring and support for diversity, equity and inclusion to make positive change for students. I partnered with a diverse team and a phenomenal Black woman manager. She championed my authenticity, required my excellence, and was quick to let me know if a decision I made might negatively impact students. I loved her and I loved my team.

Then one day, she told me she was leaving — and she told me why. Her experience at our organization had changed when she was managed by a new White man whose experience couldn’t have been farther from ours. I begged her to stay, but she kept saying, “I can’t do this anymore. This isn’t what I signed up for and I am not about to put anything in front of service for our kids. I am just not the best fit anymore.” I was crushed. There was something in her voice that felt shaken, but I had no choice but to accept it and prepare myself to move on.

After she left, our team was restructured and I found myself suddenly working with an all-White team for the first time in my career. Even when I encountered struggles occasionally working with large groups of White people in my field, I always thought almost anything was possible with a great, smart team. When my manager left, I figured things would likely be different, but little did I know just how different. I felt uncomfortable but I didn’t quite know why the feeling was so strong. It started with small signs. Meetings were strictly about “business” and I started to find it hard to communicate my passion and ideas in ways that my teammates could understand.

Despite this, I still saw my role as being an equity-centered leader. Regardless of the new change, I saw the work as the same — keep up efforts to disrupt any structures, practices, or narratives that inhibited the success of my teammates and the young people we serve with fervor, focus, and a sense of pride.

Managing this all new team, I worked hard to make sure no one could misinterpret what I meant — taking extra time to make documents clearer and explaining feedback thoroughly. The work became increasingly laborious, but I dismissed any assumptions that we weren’t all working toward the same goal. However, something about the amount of work didn’t feel right. I was starting to get anxious before meetings and spending more time worried about how I was perceived. About halfway through the year, those worries became more clear. I began to receive some complaints from a few clients about the behavior of some of the people on my team. Some of the Black leaders we were supporting came to me and shared that they felt unheard, unseen, and that their value and worth as leaders was being questioned. In my spirit, I felt like this connected to what I began to feel, but I ignored that thought and kept trying to help my team, many of whom had strong professional reputations that seemed to outshine any frustrations I’d heard through the grapevine. But the complaints didn’t stop. There were so many that I had to find out what was happening.

One day, I decided to join my colleague (a White man) receiving the most complaints and observe him with one of the Black women clients who had come forward. She reviewed her notes and gathered herself to speak. She was ready to be vulnerable and open up about her experience, “It just feels a little bit like what you are expecting isn’t aligned to the needs of my community. I try to tell you what’s going on daily and you tell me I’m not focused on the right things.” At the end I asked what my colleague heard. The response was baffling: “I heard nothing but excuses and I don’t hear any clear solutions for moving ahead.” I watched this Black woman leader get shut down, questioned and blamed for her own experience. She was a principal at a school she had known for years and yet this white man was certain he knew best and what was right for her students. I witnessed it firsthand: white supremacist culture had shown itself and I could name what I was experiencing the entire time.

I decided to call my new manager to tell her what happened was in direct violation to our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. I was so upset that I couldn’t hold back my emotions. We came up with a plan to “document” and my manager said she’d go to Human Resources (HR) and figure out what to do next. HR suggested we put together the most objective, specific, and neutral feedback, and I felt a strained and acute dissonance. We were just going to document? I felt we needed to do more, we needed to be direct, and in that moment I missed my old manager — a Black woman who understands our experiences and would’ve acted with intention to such an egregious incident. But rather than lean in on making real and honest progress, we chose a very cumbersome, long process instead.

I pushed forward with the plan anyways. I made the incident report as detailed as I could, but I knew the harm my white colleague caused to our client was monumental. I was adamant about having Black clients, and now I had failed them. I put this Black woman and her students in harm’s way. I replayed the oppressive message she received over and over in my head. I had to work through what that messaging meant to me, to her, and determine what I needed to do to make sure his professional development helped him grow. As all of this was happening, I started to ponder on the amount of effort I was asked to put in for a white colleague and whether this same amount of effort had been given to the disproportionate amount of Black people who left the organization. I began to recall all of the Black people in my life who had been let go from their jobs for being “aggressive,” not a great “fit,” or unable to “adjust to work culture.” I wondered what the conversation about them was behind the scenes.

As I continued to work through the client situation, I did everything a good manager would do and we agreed to have a group conversation to give feedback. My white colleague owned that he had the tendency to shut people down when they didn’t articulate things the way he wanted, and asked for strategies to be more culturally competent. I appreciated that conversation. We left with things everyone could do better. Though I was able to make some structural changes to support that Black woman client, the pain and invalidation she experienced was never addressed by him. Instead, the apology and the responsibility fell on my shoulders. White people have been able to get away with not dealing with and confronting racism for over 400 years — this incident was no different.

I worked harder to try to do what’s right by the Black students we served. I helped induct the most diverse leaders to our program. I got bolder in conversations and worked toward centering equity even more. A year passed, and I was pretty drained. The synergy and inspiration I experienced in those first few years with my previous team was gone. I was back to basics, but a large part of the work I was doing was about validating my own human existence. There was no more innovation aimed at a new world of possibility for Black and brown students, instead the world of possibility was about minimizing the ways white people caused harm and teaching them about racism. I was doing the work but at what cost?

The fact is there is no room for neutrality on issues of racism, diversity and inclusion. And all of the work simply cannot fall on our shoulders as Black people — and particularly as Black women — to help White people understand their transgressions, microaggressions and aggressions toward us. Part of the issue with education reform is that a lot of time is spent explaining what equity means so white folks can check a box and feel good about themselves. Yet, not a lot of time is spent on actually liberating Black students. Cleaning up white savior messes is unfair. We face repeated trauma and harm trying to convince white people of our humanity. Looking back on my experience, I spent countless hours trying to justify why Black students matter.

As a Black woman having been impacted by the same systems as the students and leaders I serve, I am without question a first responder. I am an essential worker. There’s dual labor and tax involved in the job and it’s grueling. I am not just an employee making contributions to a team who wants a strong product. I am carrying the weight of bringing people along by virtue of my experiences and my role as an impacted leader trying to make a difference. And what do we get in return? At least first responders get paid for running into the fire and some of the benefits they deserve. According to Brookings, a single Black woman makes $101 in wealth compared to single white men under the age of 35 who by comparison make 224.2 times that! And if our pay is egregiously less than the folks we’re supposed to save, what else do I get as a Black woman? In more ways than money, we’re just not compensated for the hard and painful work we do to liberate ourselves. I need white people to understand that addressing racism isn’t on us — it’s on them.

My white colleagues don’t have to think about racism or how white supremacy functions every day. But if we are seeking to improve systems for Black folks and people of color, they need to. Any organization whose workforce is reflective of the community it serves must take this into account and figure out how to compensate us. How many times must we run into burning buildings to save white folks from themselves? If I am going to be the fighter, the climber, the responder…who will protect me?

In the past, much of my energy was devoted to trying to educate White people about racism and shielding Black people from them. My soul has been broken. But now I’m picking up the pieces to try to build systems and strategies that protect and elevate us. Many Black leaders are now tasked with that work, too. In all honesty, I am not sure systems will be designed with me in mind any time soon. So for now, I am now moving on — aspiring for the next chapter in my life to actually be about the liberation of Black people. In the future, if I’m going to take risks for Black progress, I’d rather save us from the burning building and let the ashes fall in hope for a better tomorrow.

Jamila Dugan is an author, leadership coach and researcher. Jamila is the co-author of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, focusing on culturally-rich education environments and anti-racist approaches to reimagine learning. She began her career as a teacher in Washington, D.C. Jamila holds a doctorate in Education Leadership for Equity from the University of California, Berkeley; a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from George Mason University; and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Fresno State University. She lives in Philadelphia, PA with her partner and two children.

Jamila Dugan is an author, leadership coach and researcher.