Equal Work to Be Done: A Conversation with Ruthie Johnson
"Everyone has a role to play. My vision is for people to feel empowered to take part."
Ruthie Johnson, racial justice consulting manager, leads Inc.ludeTM Diversity & Inclusion Consulting at YWCA Minneapolis, where she works with organizations who want to create more equitable workplaces and communities. On the blog, Ruthie discusses the value of diversity, how a heightened public consciousness about race has made for a steep learning curve and how there is no "instant fix" for organizations or individuals who are working toward change.
Tell us about yourself. What drove you to this type of work?
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in intercultural communication. From there, I held positions working with students in Higher Ed, doing community engagement for Brooklyn Park and working in affordable housing. The underlying theme throughout my career has been working with underprivileged communities, helping people access services.
"I think that’s been a theme of my life – figuring out how to live in predominantly white environments and develop the ability to cross cultures."
I think racial justice work speaks to my lived experience. I grew up in Miami, Florida. My parents moved to Minnesota when I was a junior in high school, so it was a culture shock and then I started realizing that not everybody had the same background, growing up in a diverse community as I did. And so I think that’s been a theme of my life – figuring out how to live in predominantly white environments and develop the ability to cross cultures. Outside of my job, I was always involved in racial justice work and community organizing. At one point, I asked myself, why don't I just get paid for what I’m already doing?
What do you do in your role at YWCA?
YWCA Minneapolis works to eliminate racism and empower women at interpersonal, organizational and systemic levels. Our Inc.lude consulting services follow that model and we help individuals, organizations and systems look at how to incorporate diversity through strategic planning, working with the board of directors, conducting workshops, doing assessments and developing action plans. We also offer the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) because that gives a snapshot of how each person understands cultural difference. Organizations hire us to come in and do that assessment within the organization and then we give them feedback on how their organization functions. The StrengthsFinder works in a similar way – everyone gets an individual assessment but then they'll give you a group composite and explain how your team works together.
What would you say are the biggest challenges for people and organizations that are just starting to work toward diversity and inclusivity?
Given the political climate, race has become a hot button issue and racial justice has become a forefront on people's mind. That means for people who are just getting familiar with these concepts, it's a pretty steep learning curve. The national consciousness of it had been raised, but it’s harder for people to say, let me ask a question because I don't know. And that ignorance can feel more apparent.
"Nobody was actually taught what it means to value diversity. They were just told it should be important."
Dr. Robin DiAngelo talks about the way that our society was shaped to view race, especially since the 1950s. After the civil rights era where it was very outwardly wrong to be racist. And I would argue that some of that shifted in the last two years, right? But generally speaking, in the 1950s is where we see this idea of morality enter the racial conversation. Like, I'm a bad person if I see race. What I see is that organizations want to be inclusive, but we're coming out of an era that was either “we should be colorblind or post-racial (i.e. Barack Obama was president, so we’re beyond racism).” Nobody was actually taught what it means to value diversity. They were just told it should be important.
"...that leads to a really reductive approach: 'if I get people in a room who look different than me, then that's enough.' And that’s a really shallow definition of diversity."
People have been told all along that they need to be good people and to be good people, they need to value diversity, but they don't understand what that means or how to put it into practice. And so that leads to a really reductive approach: if I get people in a room who look different than me, then that's enough. And that’s a really shallow definition of diversity.
So, if it’s not counting the number of people in the room, how do you know you are making progress?
Honestly, inclusion work is qualitative. It's not quantitative. Yes, you should see the trend of more diversity in age, race and gender, etc. But you have to look at how individuals show up in an organization. Do all the people in the room have the same chance of getting promoted? Getting raises? Giving input and being heard? Do people experience being in that organization in the same way? Things like that.
What is one story of a group that is working toward change?
We worked with one smaller city – they had a racially motivated incident occur and because of that, they called us to help them respond and to help foster some healthier conversation and learning within their community. The community members who showed up were all across the board demographically and it was really fun to see.
"Stereotypically, you might not have thought this community would engage in challenging conversations, really own it and show up, but they did."
Stereotypically, you might not have thought this community would engage in challenging conversations, really own it and show up, but they did. It was an investment to bring us in to do these workshops, but by doing that, they were saying that this is valuable for us and important. Those conversations were just a start, but they took a step and that was significant.
What's your vision for your work?
I feel like my cheesy answer is that each person understands how they can eliminate racism and empower women. I want people to understand how their own identity is connected to the work of anti-oppression and that they feel empowered to take part and do the work wherever they're at.
"A lot of what I hear are people who are white discredit themselves and work that they can do, but there's equal work to be done. Everybody has a role to play."
What I work to do is offer people tools, allow them the space to learn and help people see that there's value in what they can contribute, whether they're from a minority or majority community. A lot of what I hear are people who are white discredit themselves and work that they can do, but there's equal work to be done. Everybody has a role to play.