Portland-area native Hanif Fazal grew up multiracial in predominantly White spaces. His first hand exposure to systemic inequities spurred him in 2015 to co-found the Center for Equity and Inclusion, where he works with organizations to clarify DEI strategy and contend with difficulties BIPOC employees encounter. CEI boasts the apt tagline "Humanity is messy. We're built for it."
During the pandemic Fazal, who is of Indian and Mexican descent, wrote a memoir in part exploring his own learning curve working in DEI. In An Other World: The Fight for Freedom, Joy, and Belonging, he intersperses letters of hope to his daughter Amina as he creates a book that favors reader engagement over a prescriptive approach to the complicated business of dismantling White-dominant systems.
The Skanner sat down with Fazal to discuss decentering Whiteness from DEI work, and how he came to shift the focus from survival to joy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Skanner: What are some of the common mistakes organizations make when they launch DEI initiatives?
Fazal: I think oftentimes, well-meaning organizations who get into this work aren’t always clear about the time, the resources, that it takes to really integrate equity and inclusion into the DNA of an organization. People might have an idea, hey, this is going to help us see things differently, or this will be something that we do for a couple months, but they’re really not clear when they get into this work that this is going to be an uncomfortable process. This is going to require people to lead differently, to hire differently, to manage differently, to hold each other accountable. This is going to bring up real value tensions around equity, versus very disparate relationships to equity that may exist in their customer base.
I’m not sure that leaders or organizations are really clear about the tension points that exist, or really aren’t clear that this is going to require wholesale changes in how they operate. And that this kind of change is incremental – it may take two, three, four, five years before people start to see substantive shifts and changes.
I think there’s a real misunderstanding around what it’s going to really take to do it differently.
The Skanner: We don’t need to look outside of Portland to see failed DEI initiatives. In the public and nonprofit sphere, there are many examples of Black women in particular stepping into positions of power, only to be undermined and dismissed with no explanation. What is your understanding of why White-led organizations often fail their leaders of color?
Fazal: I don’t think people really understand the degree to which White people and White leadership expect a level of comfort to be afforded them constantly. My experience has been the moment White folks are uncomfortable they get defensive, they get dismissive, they try to shut down whatever makes them uncomfortable. Also, this work really requires organizations, and White folks in particular, to really listen in a way they haven’t listened before. So to listen in a really undefended manner, when folks of color are speaking to their disparate experience of the organization, or feeling marginalized in relationship to a White leadership team, or not feeling completely comfortable or safe enough to speak to their perspective.
When challenged to do something different, that’s where you start to see the resistance show up, and White folks saying ‘This is how it’s always been done.’
Disproportionately, what I’ve seen is that women of color have been more apt in organizations to be speaking to these issues and speaking up around these issues, challenging it, and so are experiencing the repercussions of that for sure.
The Skanner: Why were you drawn to DEI work?
Fazal: On the personal side, being a brown person who grew up in Tigard in the 80's, it was a constant experience of feeling a disconnect with the people around me. Time after time I realized who I was when it comes to identity – whether it was my brown skin or my name or cultural mannerisms or norms that existed in my home that all of a sudden didn’t work in other spaces – it was pretty clear I just didn’t belong. That was overtly and subtly made clear to me.
One part of my life has been trying to navigate and feeling the ups and downs of being the only one in a predominately White space. That had a deep impact on the kind of constant push to assimilate, to constant experiences of inclusion. And just as impactful, growing up, for a variety of different reasons, my family system broke down when I was about 16. I ended up being what our school district in Beaverton would have described as homeless. I had a girlfriend who was 18, she could get on a lease and she was also getting kicked out of her house. My dad was out of the picture, my mom had left the state, and we were both making about $3.30 an hour and I was trying to go to school. We found our way to a housing complex called The Civic in downtown Portland – it was just a really low-income housing complex that took up the square block of Morrison and Burnside, right across from where the Timbers and the Thorns play.
Being in that space had a massive impact on me in that everywhere I looked, people were just trying to survive. There was no sense of agency or that we could shape the space; it always felt like the space was being done to us…it felt like I just didn’t matter at all, like I had no worth, and I couldn’t figure out, like if I really mattered, if I had any level of worth, I wouldn’t be living in these conditions, we wouldn’t allow it.
Professionally speaking, in both of those places – my school system, the broader White community, or The Civic – I had these really acute experiences of just trying to survive. And without any kind of possibility of what it actually meant to thrive. Professionally, that (led me) to an almost hyper preoccupation with this idea of space. I wanted to figure out what it means to create spaces where people, in particular people of color, weren’t just surviving – we were thriving. And why was it so predictable that you could give me a skin color and a zip code and I could tell you with a high degree of predictability what was going to happen to that kid?
For 20-plus years, what that meant was I was working in Black and Brown communities, primarily with children and families, helping them navigate school systems and building programs to help support them as they tried to survive these kinds of systems. Over time I started realizing more and more the kids and families weren’t the problem, that there was something more systemic at play. That really led to the equity work and the professional development work. I wanted to see if there was a way to transform the systems, (where) the people who worked within those systems are shaping those systems.’
Ultimately the book is about Black and Brown relationships, the idea that if we are going to thrive as a community, we first have to understand that that thriving is only going to manifest in solidarity, and solidarity is only going to be as good as our relationships with one another.
So I’m really questioning in the book, what is the state of Black and Brown relationships?
And what would it mean for us to build real relationships with each other? And when we can hold each other in particular ways, really amazing things happen.
There’s a scene in the book where a woman of color at the end of the day gets really marginalized and hurt because of the DEI process we’re part of. The learning that came out of that was, if we wait on these White people or White systems to shift, then we are going to be waiting for a very long time. I still think transformation’s possible, but we as people of color can’t really wait or depend on White people, White systems, for our sense of joy, our sense of belonging – whatever kind of unique freedom that might be available to us in this kind of system that we’re in.
The Skanner: Can you talk about your focus on joy in your work?
Fazal: I think one of the failings of diversity, equity and inclusion was that the central idea in DEI had been, hey, if we shift the hearts and minds of White people, then automatically people of colors’ experiences are going to shift, because White people are holding the keys to these systems.
What that does is it unintentionally centers White people in DEI, it revolves around changing White people’s minds and hearts. Oftentimes people were charged in their DEI roles to do that work. I often joke that the most unhappy people in organizations are typically the people leading DEI initiatives. You start seeing people of color burning out, and it also meant that people of color had no work to do. It put us in the margins; our job was to teach White people. There’s a number of times I’ve heard people of color say, “DEI is just for White people. It has nothing to do with us.”
I thought, are we missing the central question? What would it mean to center people of color?
Then the central question became, what will it take for people of color to thrive?
As soon as we started asking that question, these other issues showed up around joy and freedom and belonging. For most of my life, I’d felt that joy wasn’t really necessary, fighting was necessary. Survival was necessary. But things like joy felt like something that was reserved for White people, or I would even feel guilty if I felt any prolonged experience of joy – either it’s going to fall away or be taken away, or I shouldn't be because so much of my community is struggling right now. I hear this again and again from folks of color.
When you think about the term “race equity,” that in and of itself is an outcome. And if you look at where all these disparities show up, name a wellness indicator – infant mortality, diabetes rates, asthma rates – and there will be a racial disparity connected there. To me, when I think about the idea of joy, a person of color experiencing joy is an example of race equity. It means we’re actually well. It feels like when we give up our joy or die for the cause or just survive, that we’re unintentionally perpetuating some of those disparities. So me being miserable doesn’t actually close disparities, it widens them.
I think we’ve grown up with this narrative that our job is just to struggle and to fight, and what I wanted to do was to challenge us as a community to think about it differently. Yes, we need to challenge status quos and dismantle systems, and at the same time it can’t come at the expense of ourselves. There has got to be a way for us to both experience joy – find a way to thrive – and challenge those systems.
For more information about Fazal, his book and the Center for Equity and Inclusion, visit haniffazal.com/book.