YW Boston President & CEO Beth Chandler On Women Empowerment, Racism And Freedom For All
Beth Chandler is the President & CEO of YW Boston where she is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. We’re proud to be working with them on InkHouse’s diversity, equity and inclusion program. For this Changemakers Q&A, I got to talk to Beth about the driving forces behind her work, what gateways to connection look like and what organizations should be doing right now, at a time of extreme racial unrest, to put in the work toward meaningful change. I left our conversation changed, and I hope you will too.
One thing I am deeply interested in is how change happens. At InkHouse, it’s what we do for a living — we’re trying to create narratives that change people’s minds. Let’s begin with some background on how you got involved with YW Boston and what motivates you to make change happen.
Beth Chandler: I was drawn to YW because I wanted to work for an organization that was trying to eliminate the root causes – racism and sexism – that lead to many of the disparities we see in Boston and beyond. I was tired of working for organizations that just addressed the manifestations of these issues. What motivates me are my children. We live in Boston and I want to do what I can to make Boston better so that they have a different experience as people of color.
At YW, our work focuses on four areas. The first is helping organizations create environments that are more inclusive so that women and people of color, particularly women of color, can thrive at all levels. The second area is advocacy. Change needs to happen not just within organizations but also outside of organizations. And so we look at the policies happening at the state, local and federal levels that could help move this work forward. Third is our girls program because the research shows that women who are in leadership positions were often in leadership positions when they were younger. And in the Boston area in particular, there’s a lack of opportunity for girls to do leadership programming. Lastly, we do a lot of thought leadership events because we want people to understand the intersection of race and gender. Often when we think about race it benefits men of color. When we think about gender it often benefits white women and women of color get lost. We want to get people thinking about what intersectionality means and how it shows up or doesn’t show up in the workplace via policies and practices.
What’s the driving force behind why you chose this type of work?
Beth Chandler: I have worked in a variety of sectors and in many of those organizations I felt that there was something wrong with me — I’d ask “What do I need to do to fit this organization/this culture” and it was more of a deficit model. For example, I was working at an investment bank and the manager called me in. I was excited because I thought he was going to give me real tips about how to approach the work to be successful. Instead, the conversation was about changing the way I dressed and becoming more of a “cultural fit.” When I looked around, the culture was almost all white men and women.
So at YW we started thinking about approaching our work differently. A lot of people — across gender and across race — were saying that we needed an organization in Boston that helped organizations think about what they can do to be more inclusive. It’s not about employees having to change or certain groups or types of employees having to change — the organizations needed to be able to create environments where everybody could be who they wanted to be. We all have to leave a little crazy at home. I always tell our staff, “You can’t bring ALL your craziness.” But, you should be able to bring some of it and not have to worry about how you’re fitting into the culture. You should be able to just focus on your work and doing it well. That is a big part of what drives me to do this work. I don’t want people to have to do what I did, which is spend a lot of time figuring out what I needed to change about myself.
You talked about helping organizations see the underlying infrastructures of the practices that create racial bias. Can you talk a little bit about what some of those infrastructures typically are in organizations and how you help executives open their eyes to that?
Beth Chandler: Great question. Part of it is about an organization’s culture. And culture just sort of happens in some respects — we’re not always intentional about the culture that we create within our organizations. And once there is an established culture, it can be very difficult to change. One example is when organizations look at their hiring pool and will only go to certain schools, but those schools may not be the most diverse. So they may be limiting their pool of candidates because they’ve already made the funnel a lot smaller. And sometimes, we have requirements in a job description that really don’t matter for someone to be successful in the role. Additionally, we have organizations that say they get a very diverse candidate pool, but then as people move up in the organization that changes. We’re big data nerds at YW so we look two years out — who is moving up and who is stagnant in their careers? What is happening at certain points like the evaluation process — are evaluations as equitable as possible?
One example I’ll share was an organization whose women of color were given mainly administrative tasks, despite having graduate degrees. The firm looked into this and realized that they did not have an approach to assigning people to different projects that was really systematized, it was more that managers just decided who was going to be on what team; people were picking people because they went to the same school or had the same hobbies, etc. It wasn’t that they didn’t think the women of color would be good, but they didn’t necessarily realize that they weren’t looking at skill sets. So, it ended up that women of color weren’t getting chosen for teams. And that created a narrative in the organization: “Well, they must not be capable because they’re not getting picked.” So the organization asked: “How do we want to assign people to projects so that we are being equitable and giving everyone an opportunity to work with different managers and get exposure to different projects so that people get to know people by the work that they do?”
We all have biases. For example, I have one in favor of athletes. I was an athlete. So anytime I would see a resume, if it mentioned athletics I wanted to move them forward to the next round. So now my team makes sure that I can’t see that kind of information, so it doesn’t factor into my decision.
So you identified that particular inclination and then you told your team to filter that out?
Beth Chandler: We filter out a lot of things now because of how we can tap into our own unconscious biases. We only have two people that see resumes now. You can have a bias toward the school that somebody went to, you know, whatever activities they may have done in college or high school. The part of the country they’re from. There are all sorts of reasons that we may put somebody in the “yes pile” or “no pile” that have nothing to do with the actual experiences and skills on their resume. So we don’t allow folks to see that until it’s at the end of the process after they’ve had a chance to meet with candidates and focus on the skills they are bringing.
When you think about making change happen: Do you need to change the cultural mindset first or do you need to change the systems first?
Beth Chandler: We believe it happens simultaneously. It’s hard to sometimes change policies and practices if you don’t even know what you’re looking for to make the change. And sometimes it’s hard to change people’s mindsets and attitudes if you don’t know what the outcomes are. This is a journey and people start in different places.
I’m always trying to identify the point in time in which someone opens up to something. What are some of the gateways for change and connection?
Beth Chandler: What’s happening now in the world and in this country is a gateway for people. In some ways, it’s not different from things that have happened before — we’ve had police brutality and self-appointed vigilantes before in this country. But with the murder of George Floyd, a big difference was the time that it took. It’s one thing if somebody gets shot and you kind of see it, but you don’t realize what happened until it’s over. But it’s an eight minute video. I can’t imagine that doesn’t impact you. Racism is not an issue for people of color, it’s an issue for all of us, because it impacts all of us in different ways, our humanity and how we’re able to see people as people. How we approach the work is really getting people, particularly within their own organization, to see the humanity in others.
We were working with one organization and there was an African American man who had been with the organization for a while who shared with his colleagues what a typical morning was before he even got to the office — walking to the subway and seeing people crossing the street, grabbing their bags and tensing up because he’s a black man. And when he sits down no one wants to sit next to him because he’s a black man. When people are able to understand what other people’s experiences are, that’s a very powerful thing. And if it’s a colleague of yours that you like and respect it makes you think about how it’s showing up in the workplace and want to make a change because you don’t want that person to have that experience at work.
We are living in a time in which racism is at the forefront but it’s also a virtual economy. We can read books and write down our biases to become aware of them, but what does it take to bring a personal interaction to these conversations? I think a lot of people are afraid to go to their co-workers of color. They don’t want them to feel singled out.
Beth Chandler: It’s important that people do their own work first. Do your research. Do your reading. Don’t rely on other people to just give you the answers. I think it is important for people to have conversations with people that look differently from them. If you’re genuinely interested in an issue and have done some work, go to your colleague and say, “I’ve learned XYZ — would you be willing to have a coffee with me via Zoom to discuss?” I think it’s important for people to do work in affinity groups — there are conversations that are important for people of color to have with each other and for white people to have with each other to do the work.
You said in an NPR interview about doing the pre-work: “If you haven’t had these conversations before, it’s awfully hard to have them now. The development of skills happens in the offseason.” What are some other tactics you recommend for getting the pre-work done?
Beth Chandler: Like I mentioned before, participating in white affinity groups to discuss questions and approaches such as, “This is what I’m grappling with — I’m thinking of approaching a friend of color — what do you think about that? Does that make sense right now? What am I missing here in my thinking?” We are getting lots of calls from people saying, “I want to do something now.” And this work is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. You don’t want to try something new at a critical moment in the game — you want to go to something that is tried and true. There are lots of organizations that are putting things on their website such as “Black Lives Matter” or funding an organization. But employees want to see action — they want to know what meaningful change is happening internally.
What is the biggest obstacle to change that you see right now?
Beth Chandler: Change is hard. The biggest obstacle is people’s reluctance to change. There is a lack of understanding of the historical context around race in this country. We are taught and even raised to believe that this is a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps country” and that’s what leads to success. And, unfortunately, that is not true. It certainly helps, but there are policies and practices that have been embedded into the fabric of this country for over 400 years that have prevented particularly indigenous people and African Americans from being successful. People need to understand that it’s more than just your own hard work. It’s not taking away from hard work that other people have done, but it’s also acknowledging that not everybody is starting from the same place.