Actually Following Through on DEI with Sameera Kapila | Crooked Media
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September 06, 2023
Work Appropriate
Actually Following Through on DEI with Sameera Kapila

In This Episode

So your company put out a statement about its commitment to DEI (or DEIB, or IDEA, or whatever your workplace calls it)– now what? Efforts to make workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive can often get bogged down by the processes and culture that made the efforts so necessary in the first place. Sameera Kapila, product designer and author of Inclusive Design Communities, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer listeners’ questions about how to keep doing the work, and make it effective.

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Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, and this is Work Appropriate. [music plays] There are so many acronyms for efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. There’s DEI, IDEA, which you can also pronounce idea. D&I, whatever you want to call it, or whatever it’s called in your workplace. You likely have two major buckets of thoughts. First, yes, of course. More. More equity, more inclusion, all of it. But also, the way we’re going about this work is pretty dysfunctional, which is frustrating and dispiriting. But also, if this work were easy, we wouldn’t still be doing it. [laughs] The status quo of the workplace, which is foundationally inequitable, not diverse, not inclusive, is really, really hard to dismantle. The work is hard because the work is worth doing. And today I have the perfect guest to think about how to keep doing that work. Even when you feel like you want to throw up your hands. [music plays]


Sameera Kapila: My name is Sameera Kapila or Sam is fine too. I am a product designer and an author of the book Inclusive Design Communities, and I live in Austin, Texas. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So tell me more about your book, Inclusive Design Communities. 


Sameera Kapila: My book, Inclusive Design Communities is a sort of a study to everything that’s kind of happened in my career. I started in advertising after school like after undergrad and then moved into going to grad school and thinking I was going to do the Mad Men’s style art director thing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Wow. 


Sameera Kapila: And instead so that I could get in-state tuition and be able to afford going to grad school said I was okay with teaching in the undergrad design program and ended up staying in education for a while. From there, moved from public to private education into consulting, into being in a product company now. And this book is basically a culmination of everything that I’ve seen during that time being these different design spaces and noticing where the gaps and opportunities are and trying to service them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think that a product designer and your work as a product designer and all your work leading up to that time is actually a really great experience to think about creating inclusive environments in the workplace more generally. Like it might not be the thing that people would be like, Oh, that person is going to be really smart about inclusive environments, but I feel like you get the tools in a lot of ways. Can you talk more about that? 


Sameera Kapila: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of overlap, specifically in the UX and research area and the gathering of a lot of anecdotes, quantitative data, qualitative data, stakeholder feedback to use all of those design terms. And I think that’s where a lot of this book came together was seeing these parts of the designer self and thinking, well, we could do a SWOT analysis. I’ve done that with a client before and figured out their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. What if we took that step back and did a meta analysis of our own set up and what we can improve? And it was a lot of that overlap of tools, opening Miro boards or FigJams and mapping things out of where there are opportunities, what something that’s going to be high impact and take time to like make work for a team or, you know, can we whiteboard our entire hiring process and then look for the gaps in between and whiteboard that in well, I guess in Miro and in the online world that we’re in today. So I saw a lot of overlaps that way. And I think the other part is that there’s a lot of designers that are into the systems space thinking and having to take that like zoomed out bird’s eye view approach or working on a design system where you have to think about everything from a button to a card to a I’m going to delete my membership flow. That sort of thinking just came naturally, I think, into a lot of the diversity and inclusion related work that I got into. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think this is so fascinating because something like a hiring process, I think often people don’t think of it as something that is designed in any way. It’s like, oh, here’s what we do, here are our steps. But they don’t necessarily think of it as a design, right? As something that has been created, maybe created like iteratively, but it has been created [laughs] and that people can change it, right? It can change in really dynamic and interesting ways. And you can start it over like you can blow up the process and start it again. But sometimes if you don’t think of it as something that has a creator that has been created, then it’s harder to get into that headspace. 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah, I think it’s harder to figure out kind of who owns that area. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm yeah yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Is it one hiring manager? Is it a recruiter? Is it like H.R. teams as a whole? And then how does that impact the rest of the company if two different teams are hiring in different ways. And that’s a big challenge. And I think I’ve had a lot of conversations, especially in the last few years where companies have paused hiring because of what’s happening in the tech industry currently or with the start of the pandemic and lockdown. Those are actually the perfect times to kind of blow it all up and start over. While none of those roles are open, instead of laying off teams and teams of H.R. And recruiting folks. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. That’s the hard that is like those are actually the opportunities to do that really hard work. But sometimes that’s like the moment when instead you are understaffed, you are ill equipped to do that sort of work. Not all companies, but some companies are still pretty new to even thinking about equity, inclusivity, all of these terms. By the way, is there a term that you like to use? Because I know some that, like I always heard it as DEI, but so many, like the questions that we get in you so many different acronyms. 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah, I saw that. I’ve seen IDEA, I’ve seen DEIB, which is DEI with belonging at the end. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh. 


Sameera Kapila: And I think IDEA was inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, which I think is a big part of the tech conversation. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: I don’t use one. I’m kind of interchangeable between all of them. I do like to talk through a little bit more about the differences between the words. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Sameera Kapila: So you can’t have inclusion without the start. Like the concept of diversity in itself is like this. Yeah. This magical end goal that kind of looks like a university course catalog brochure [laughter] where everybody’s got the different sweatshirts and they’re sitting under a tree and everybody. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Looks like they’re from different places and that’s fine and that’s a very okay starting point. But the inclusion work is the actions that you take to even get to that end result. And then equity really talks about not necessarily equality, where you would just give everybody the same toolkit to work with, but realizing where historically there are some setbacks that some people have faced and that we need to accommodate for those as well. 


Anne Helen Petersen: One thing I think about, and I don’t think that this is a substitute for diversity, but I do think that diversity in an institution also has to account for like, do we have people who are caregivers and not caregivers? Right. 


Sameera Kapila: Yes. Huge. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Because what if you’re the only person in either of those buckets or one of the few people in either of those buckets? You’re not really understanding what responsibilities other people have or the intersect with their ability to do the work that they want to do. All right. So I feel like we could actually talk about like even just the foundation of all of this for so long. But I think that our questions will lead us in a lot of these directions. So this first question is going to set the tone. It’s about doing the quote unquote “right things,” but the vibes at the organization are still off. This comes from Angela. 


Angela: What does an anti-racist workplace look like? I work at a very well resourced, historically white, small nonprofit that has recently used its position of influence to try to advance racial equity in its field, a field that has lately received a lot of negative press and drives for unionization in response to the decades upon decades of systemic oppression it has perpetuated. Internally we’ve had a lot of DEI training, and leadership has made efforts to address unconscious bias, such as removing biased language from job listings and adding gender pronouns to email signatures. We now have an equity statement and a land acknowledgment that staff were involved in crafting and are both currently posted to our website. But on the whole, the changes feel like virtue signaling with systemic inequity very much still baked into the sauce. We remained very hierarchical. And while our leaders are currently reviewing our benefits to assess them for equity, they’re doing so behind closed doors and have handpicked a small number of staff to weigh in. Before 2020, we had one staff member of color. We have started hiring more employees of color, but it’s mostly in low level roles with zero room for upward mobility, microaggressions are rampant and staff of color privately expressed feelings of tokenization. And to be clear, I am a white cis woman. Meanwhile, our leader, who is white and wealthy, talks a lot about how we’re an anti-racist organization. It’s exhausting. So in your opinion, what would it look like to transform into an anti-racist organization and workplace with, of course, the understanding that this kind of work never ends? And please be specific, what practices and what staff benefits are necessary for an organization to claim that it’s anti-racist?


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So we’re going to start pretty basic in asking who gets to declare if a workplace is anti-racist? [laughter]


Sameera Kapila: Yep. It’s one of those things. It’s like anti-racist and allyship. Both a words are words that get thrown around or labeled very liberally. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Sameera Kapila: And they’re not necessarily words to self-identify as. [laughter] We can want to be an ally. We can want to be anti-racist. But it’s really when the actions speak for themselves. And I think one of the ways that I think about those are like, what are the passive things? And I think we heard a few examples of of passive actions like, okay, a land acknowledgment. Okay, but what follows that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Sameera Kapila: I feel like anti-racism, which I’m sure we can get into the definition a little further, is a lot more active than that kind of first step. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Well and something that we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast. Is that like. Whether you call it anti-racist or if you’re just trying to dismantle white supremacy in some capacity, oftentimes it means it requires giving up some of the privilege that you have. And that is so much more active and does not seem to be what the leaders in this organization are necessarily interested in. They want other people to be part of their organization, but not to give up any of their power and privilege within the organization. 


Sameera Kapila: 100%. I think that’s. That’s too relatable. [laughter] And I get it. It’s uncomfortable because there’s a lot of folks that are hearing about this or dealing with this for the first time. And it is overwhelming to suddenly open this Pandora’s box that a lot of people knew about. But you didn’t, and it’s new to you. But I think that’s even more of a reason to not self proclaim or a self label and really work on active ways to go about that. One of them is yes, to hear people at the company to not just invite people behind closed doors, but have an open call and be really clear with what you’re looking for. I think of Beverly Daniel Tatum. She is a author and psychologist and her book, Why Are All the Black Kids sitting Together in the Cafeteria? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm yeah yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: She talks about that example of a walkway like at an airport where you kind of just get on. You’re holding your like wheely luggage and checking your phone and just kind of saving up on some of those 10,000 steps you’re going to take that day. And she talks about the moving forward and standing still very much sounds to me like this, like we’re good, we’re doing great. But the thing is, you’re still moving towards this, like, racist end goal. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Sameera Kapila: It’s the fighting back against this and walking in the other direction of said walkway. That is the anti-racist work. And that means constantly, regularly going in the opposite direction. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Sameera Kapila: And this this example just makes me think a lot of that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think it’s often hard in these smaller organizations where like part of the business model, they’re often understaffed in the first place. 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And rely historically or in the present on unpaid internships. So you’re already setting this bar. 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: For who is able to gain access to the ladder into this industry in some way. So that makes me think of like, you know, the question asker. I think their heart is in the right place in terms of please give me specific steps [laughs] that we can do to do this. And like she has a modicum of power in this situation, it seems like. But also there’s a part of me that says like, oh, well, the step is like to blow up your entire industry, so how can you essentially blow up the way that your industry functions while not freaking everyone out in the organization, especially like the leadership or like, how do you suggest that in a way that doesn’t seem like you’re saying everyone should quit? 


Sameera Kapila: I think one of the first steps, if I am understanding the situation correctly, is looking at all of the the ways that that company functions. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Sameera Kapila: And looking for opportunities like, okay, let’s say this company has quarterly goals. Can we set some measurements or metrics that we want to track to make some progress and then move things forward on a more regular basis? Can there be other maybe executives or people in leadership positions that could be allies that continually bring this sort of stuff up? There’s also the checking in with other companies and seeing what they’re doing. How much are they getting paid? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: How are things working at their companies? So reaching out to other nonprofits and looking for that cross nonprofit? Like, what can we share? What can we learn? There’s a lot of different ways. Of course, I always lean, be like, get an external audit. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Sameera Kapila: But I think I think teams have to be open to that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Especially if leadership is saying like, we’ve already done this checkbox. We’re like, done. I think it takes a lot of convincing that way. And sometimes that means having that initial conversation with those external consultants to audit and then have something to take back to leadership to then convince them on why. And sometimes that includes how much time is this going to take? Is there training? What is an audit look like and maybe getting some more of that external support? 


Anne Helen Petersen: One thing I’ve seen is that companies like this decide that if we like, if we try to fix hiring, then that fixes our problem. Without understanding what happens once someone is in the organization, can you speak a little bit more about how like, let’s say they they they decide, okay, we’re going to recruit from larger pools of applicants. We’re going to be like, really look for more diverse hiring practices and all this sort of thing. But then how do you change the actual culture? Angela says there are microaggressions all over the place. There’s no place for advancement for those people once they’re hired in. 


Sameera Kapila: And that’s one of those areas where I think blowing up the hiring process is a good idea. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: But it has to be followed with a retention strategy and they have to be worked on at the same time. I think it’s a myth when we say like, oh, hiring will like fix the issue, if we just hire this many percent more identifying as blank people will have solved the problem. And I think that’s a huge issue for multiple reasons. One, it assumes that the hiring someone is enough. It also puts an extra burden or pressure on those people who are brought in, who are still in the minority, to then be representative of an entire very large group of people that are actually very different. But we’re grouping together them into one bundle and saying like, Oh, you’re minoritized or you’re marginalized, so you represent everybody else who is right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Sameera Kapila: And that’s extra pressure that no one should have. In the example of hiring interns or right out of school. If you want to retain people or get turnover to reduce, pay interns, they’re doing work just like everybody else. And just because they may be coming out of college or they’re making a career change that still contributes to the work and sometimes bringing in folks that are coming in earlier in the career and can build up and grow and in that job tend to want to stick around because they are growing and want to contribute to the overall company. But that means that they need sponsorship, mentorship, paths for success. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So we have given, I think, really good advice. I think the question asker Angela is going to be like, this is really good advice, but also how do I wield this advice if my boss already thinks they’re anti-racist? And that is a great segue right into our second question. So hopefully we can address some of those issues as we address the second question. It comes from Shauna and our producer Melody is going to read it for us. 


Shauna: I work as a management consultant in the IDEA space, inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. Although I’m proud of the advice I give to other organizations on how to promote inclusion and belonging at work, my employer doesn’t take their own advice. Our leadership seems disconnected and disinterested in the impact that IDEA and knowledge work has on our team, which is staffed with many racialized persons and women with disabilities. We have been undermined, disrespected, poorly trained and overworked. It has led to high turnover rates, including six different managers over the course of a year. A recent H.R. complaint was brushed under the rug and denied mediation. The processes and procedures we analyze and provide recommendations for every day for our clients have failed us at our own workplace. I am the sole income earner for my family and don’t have the privilege of quitting outright without a new job lined up. So how do I get my leaders to listen up and make a change? Is it time to call it quits and take my chances? 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. Sam, what do you think here? Is there any hope? 


Sameera Kapila: Well, I think potentially. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


I think there’s a lot here to talk through and work with. I think to start again. This is one of those areas where I if I was looking at this externally as someone maybe in the same role, I would say hire someone external to do that internal audit. Set some things in place because I think it’s extremely common, especially in the consulting world. And maybe this is just true to tech, but it sounds like it’s true in this space as well is, you know, it’s easy in tech to be like, yeah, we’re consultants for your app, your website, we’ll do all that stuff for you. And then we tend to ignore our own like. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Marketing site that gets us clients. Or as a designer [laughs] like I’m happy to design for anybody else, but if you want me to update my website or like remember to write a blog post that’s going to be like last on my list because my dog wants to go for an extra long walk or I want to do something with my family or whatever else. And I think that that can be very true for a lot of consultancies. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: But this, this is kind of concerning, especially when there are things that H.R. is is not addressing. It does make me wonder what sort of internal are there, is there an internal debate council? Are they reporting to or are they reporting to somebody else who can then be said ally? I think the burnout part of being the people who notice that or experience it or had to go through something difficult because of these actions. I just want to acknowledge that that burnout is real and it’s not necessarily your responsibility to do more work than the leaders who are in power to move the company forward. But I also think it’s ingrained in a lot of us who do care about this work to want to impact that change because we do feel like we maybe have the toolset or observations or anything like that to move it forward and it’s a hard place to be. So I just want to acknowledge that as a part of this that be mindful of of that burnout for you. And I think that’s where the decision making to maybe step away would be. It’s also hard to do that in an industry right now that is sort of suddenly being ignored because so many, you know, so many have reached a fatigue stage, for lack of a better word, where it’s like they either think the work is done or they thought it would reap results sooner. The H.R. part is a little concerning the high turnover of the managers. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: So. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Sounds like burnout is ingrained. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. So that was that was a big flag for me because it to me it points to the fact that this is a shitty job for whatever reason, like it has turned into a crappy job. And I think as you also point out, some of this might be market based in that there is not as much money coming through the front door, right. Because there’s not as much demand as, say, 2020 for this sort of consultancy. And so they’re trying to do more with less. And that is that is a like formula for burnout. So it has turned apart from the work that they’re doing, it has turned into a burnout scenario. And then you have layered on top of it the like cognitive dissonance of trying to help other companies do this work when your company is just so bad at it. And that would be just like smacking your head against the wall every day. Right? And so I wonder if there’s some something to be gained in underlining that it undermines the work that they’re doing. It undermines their legitimacy as an organization. 


Sameera Kapila: Oh absolutely. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That they’re not walking the walk. So as an individual, how do you speak like how do you make that feeling, that sentiment pronounced, while also protecting yourself? Melody, our producer, came up with the idea of like potentially of like an employee survey or floating the idea of like, what if we do an employee survey? What are your thoughts on employment surveys? Just generally. 


Sameera Kapila: I think they’re great, but I think they should be run [laughs] by this like third party. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That consults needs a consultant. [laughter] 


Sameera Kapila: Yes. You know, I have this conversation with my therapist who says all therapists likely have a therapist that they go to about their own stuff. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Sameera Kapila: And I think that’s true for consultancies, that that’s something when I was at a consultancy, we hired a consultancy to help us with DEI stuff, and that meant that we had to prepare ourselves for hearing something we didn’t want to hear. Whether it confirms a inkling we may had a perspective we didn’t have before. But the reason that you want to do the external part is if it’s somebody just internally building that up that threatens job security, that person can glean who it is. DEI consults, and they probably know this, will tend to go with anonymous surveys, ways to anonymize any results that they gather. And so that just makes it a little bit safer. And if this consultancy is working in partnership with that external consultancy, they will outline goals to the company on why they think it’s important. And that means acknowledging some of the issues they have. If you want to improve the workplace day to day retention, if you want to avoid burnout, part of that is feeling heard. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: So I would really hope that this organization would be very open to the idea to partner with an external DEI group, perhaps even a competitor, so that there’s not the like, oh, it’s just too DEI companies where the leadership know each other or. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Sameera Kapila: Have worked together before and then they’re like sneaking them some whispers actually hiring someone who is fully removed from the situation, who can really create a safe space for anybody who needs to communicate it, but also for leadership to know that they’re going to get a very rational, honest, outside perspective. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So I think our advice to Shauna would be, if you hear this advice that Sam just gave about an employee survey, about hiring an outside consultant, and your reaction is, oh, I could see this maybe happening, then the job is salvageable. If you hear that advice and you think there’s no way in hell that we would ever do that. Like, if that’s the that immediate knee jerk reaction, it’s like this is not something that we are willing to look at about ourselves. Then it’s time to start looking for another job. And that doesn’t mean you have to quit your job. It means you can start looking for another job. 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah, I think that’s a very important point. And you know, to your earlier point too, that is really concerning. And it it’s a risky move for that company to not address internal stuff, especially because if that word gets out that that really messes with their legitimacy. So it would behoove them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Sameera Kapila: Just to follow that and ways that you can communicate that if you’re worried about sort of. Bringing it up yourself directly to, let’s say, a group of executives is finding those coconspirators, whether it’s like other folks at the company that are willing to like, bring it up as a group and host an open conversation. If you’re willing, find the managers or skip level managers that can also be folks that can bring that up in different ways. I think power in numbers, if you’re really wanting to find a way and stay there because it is impactful work. And I think that that’s really important and especially if you’re seeing the results with with clients that you work with, you want to foster that internally, find the people that you can work with and bring it up together. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is about all of these committees that were formed in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the larger conversations that started percolating at that time. This is from Sara and our colleague Reyna is going to read it for us. 


Sara: My question is about DEI committees. How do we make them compelling? How do we make them energizing? How do we remove barriers so the folks on those committees can make an impact and move initiatives forward? I was on one of those for about 18 months, and the forward movement was so, archaically slow that it was hard to get the folks on the committee to be excited about the work and to convince others to do the work. I know shit doesn’t change overnight, but there must be a better way, right? 


Anne Helen Petersen: So if people feel burnt out on this committee work, demoralized, like, well, yeah. What is your experience with this? 


Sameera Kapila: I have quite a bit of experience on this [laughter] and I feel like both both of these times were pre 2020. So I do want to add that caveat. One of them was at a private coding bootcamp. I was on the executive team able to work on the stuff. We were working with the Obama administration at the time and doing like national projects and things like that. But we needed to work on a lot of stuff internally and it was something that sort of landed in my lap because I was always the one talking about it. I didn’t know it could be a formal role. Up to that point, I had been managing the instructors and was occasionally still teaching design, and then I kind of moved into manage instructors and also DIY stuff. And my first thought was kind of breaking it down into what are the things we can do for students, What are the things we can do for staff, What are the things that we can do in onboarding and recruiting? And that was actually one of the few times I was able to say pause all hiring. I have 30 roles open on my team. We need to get this right and figure out the right process and got the support in that. But that part aside, we were able to get to that point because of how we looked at the structuring of what does membership in the council look like? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm. 


Sameera Kapila: When I set it up with my coworker who did everything on the operations side outside of academics, we basically said we too are going we’re going to be on the DEI Council as an executive team. We’re not always going to be the chairs, but we are always active members so that they know that they have executive support. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Got it. 


Sameera Kapila: Then we then said there needed to be because there were eight executives, two additional executives rotating in and out so that every executive has to be a member, but not a chair where it would be a maybe a slight awkwardness of, oh wait, the executive’s the chair of this, and they’re also the executive of the company. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Sameera Kapila: They had to be just regular members in the council, and then we rotated between regions. The type of classes we were teaching and built a council of 19 when the company had 100 people. So basically 20% of the company was in the DEI council at all times. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Wow. 


Sameera Kapila: So that was like step one in, just like setting it up. The other big piece was we weren’t housed under H.R.. H.R. was a partner. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Huge, huge. [laughs]


Sameera Kapila: Huge. But H.R. is representative of a company, not necessarily the people in it, which is really confusing when there’s titles like people resources. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: People, operations, all of that. Yes. They’re a part of your hiring benefits and all of that. But at the end of the day, they represent the company and they can still play an important part in a council. But the approval should not come unless it’s like a legal thing where it’s like we are proposing that this is a new benefit that the company provides. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: That’s when you partner together. But the approval doesn’t necessarily mean it has to come from them. Our DEI council was structured under the CEO for some time and then to the COO so that it became a part of operations. So when we set our, you know, monthly or quarterly KPIs and all of the metrics and goals and acronyms that we used for those, these were woven into every single one. So if we’re saying the goal is to have this many more students, okay, then what are the DEI parts of that? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Meanwhile, right now in tech, the least represented groups are Latinx, Black and indigenous developers. So what are the things we’re going to do to actively seek them out? And so that was sort of really structuring how it’s going to function from the start and anticipating all of the roadblocks along the way and working that in. The other part of this is we taught Monday through Thursday, so that allowed for a lot of admin time on Friday to say rather than you working 60 hours a week, a lot of your Friday if you’re on the council is now protected for this work. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Wow. 


Sameera Kapila: So while we couldn’t necessarily say like, oh, we can increase everybody’s salary for the time that you remember reducing the rest of their coursework. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Sameera Kapila: So that they could be a part of this. And that’s something that I carried over into the consultancy which I was in, which was not a DEI consultancy but a tech consultancy. And similar to that sort of Google’s old way of working it was Monday through Thursday was the regular stuff and the last 20% of the week on Friday is internal projects. And I know for Google that’s where like Google Maps and Gmail and some of their like well-known products today came from. And so we call those investment days and we talked about having talks with every manager to make sure that the consulting time sure that’s client work, that’s billable work. But then any other internal projects needed to not be on their plate while they’re on the DEI council. And if they did need to be a part of other projects, then there needs to be a reduction in the work that they provide to the client. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: And sometimes we have those conversations with the clients directly, and that would even come up on a sales call where I’d say, this sounds like a 3 to 4 day project for a designer or developer. However, people I think that are the best for this job are also in our DEI council and it’s really important for them to do that work and it’ll inform improving the work that they do for you so they’re only available three days a week. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: And getting that buy in from clients and executives was huge. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, but the way that you’re describing that, the way that you thought about it was that it was integral to the foundation of the work. Instead of a new shingle on the roof of the structure. 


Sameera Kapila: It’s not a side project. It’s something that is totally integrated into everything else. Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think when you the times when you get that frustration, when you get that burnout, that feeling like nothing is happening is when it does feel like it’s like, oh, your fun little project. As if it was superfluous, right? 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: As if it was like planning a birthday party instead of we want to change the makeup and the way that our organization functions. Because like, if you look at the diversity equity inclusion, like those are foundational elements of the way that an organization should work and you can’t shunt it off into a a meeting once a month with people who have so much on their plates already. 


Sameera Kapila: Exactly. And, you know, with this question and the last one, I think of that the importance of in a lot of these companies. Sure. You have a project list of things you’re trying to achieve in a quarter. Why wouldn’t this be a part of that list and respected just as much, even though it may be internal and doesn’t include an external client force or anything like that, that still has to do with your bottom line. That still has to do with your company culture, that still has to do with retention. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Sameera Kapila: And so it being pushed aside for anything else. And and with the second counsel, we did have that kind of at the start, it’s like, well, the client like messaged and so I need to drop DEI stuff. And as someone who was in leadership to build the practice of saying, Do you want me to talk to your client and tell them why you’re not available? Because I am happy to do that and taking that burden off of their plate because they want to do a good job for their client. They want to bring in that money to their team. And so it’s really important for managers to give them that permission, remind them that is important work. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Honestly, a lot of the client work doesn’t matter if we don’t do that internal stuff because then there’s not a company to do that work for them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So I think our advice for our question asker Sara would be. That instead of thinking about ways to, like, energize the existing committee to maybe take some time to look at how the committee is integrated into the rest of the company, but also the makeup of the committee, how people rotate in and out of the committee, how work is allocated for those people in the committee. So that sort of zoom outlook, instead of how do we fiddle with like, I don’t know, making sure people have like coffee at the beginning of the meeting. [laughter] Like it’s not a small fix. It’s a big fix. 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah. And I think like little nudges, like the example of do you want me as the manager to speak up for you? Or the training I did for managers whenever we did rotate people on and off was what questions can I answer about what that’s going to look like for your team member? Here are the things we expect of a manager. We allow you to be an advocate for them doing this work, we expect you to not add anything additional to their plate or to at least bring the conversation to the table with us so we can find a compromise. Are there ways that people can be compensated for a short period of time if the workload can’t be reduced, which I understand in this climate, that may be the case. Making sure that there’s a budget just generally. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] Yeah. Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: To making sure that when quarterly goals are set at the executive level, that there is representation from the councils so that they can bring things up from the team and be a voice there. I’ve never been a fan of just executive teams working on company goals. I think there should always be other folks at multiple levels that are involved reminding people that this is a part of their professional development too, and that that’s something they should put on LinkedIn on their resume and that it could open paths to management or principal roles. Like I see roles that are like in the leadership realm. There’s so many different ways to talk about this. 




Anne Helen Petersen:  Our last two questions are about who this kind of work belongs to them. The first question is from Michelle and our colleague Julia is going to read it. 


Michelle: I’m a marketing consultant who is frequently tasked with helping companies, often in white male dominated industries with a more diverse workforce. Once you get outside of management, develop employment content. My clients often have limited power in their orgs, but they do have unique opportunities to advocate for DEI. Does it unduly burden diverse employees to specifically seek them out to participate in marketing efforts or share their stories? How can we push for change without tokenizing or creating burnout in those who do participate? 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So, you know, we brought this up at the beginning about like the example of the college admissions like brochure and how they, like, found the most diverse sampling of people they could possibly have. That is not necessarily indicative of the company as a whole and have those people do the the work of representing the company. What are your general thoughts on this? 


Sameera Kapila: I have a lot of thoughts. [laughter] Cause like I have sometimes been in that position of will you be the voice because of and then the words are not said, but it’s sort of insinuated. I think to answer their question, yes, I do think it’s a burden and can be tokenizing. But I think there are ways to kind of, again, take a step back. I’m a big take a step back person. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Sameera Kapila: One part is, if it is yes, that tokenized group, then let’s say somebody who is working with them or wants to join that company and they suddenly realize that what was shared with them is not representative of the pool of the entire company. That can be really jarring. And that’s a marketing and brand issue on its own. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Sameera Kapila: But I think another part of that is because a lot of us are willing to be advocates for others, whether they’re in the same identities as we are or other ones that are maybe look to over that, will be like, Yeah, sure, I’ll do it. Like this will representation matters. And sometimes it’s used against people too, like representation matters, but then again, nothing else is being done beyond that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Right we’ve hired the person, but then we’re not going to support them in their career. So I think it’s important to take a step back. And I would always say, are there any things that as a marketing consultant they can do to that or require of the clients that they work with? Asking if there are expectations about representation, what are they currently doing to support those team members so that this better informs the stories that they tell, asking that they do have a maybe a requirement to do so and then refer them to some organizations to work with. So even just the step back before signing on with them, let’s say there’s already an ongoing client and they’re saying we want this, then I think it’s appropriate to push back and say we’re not just going to reach out. We want to have this be an open call and maybe work together on what the end goal is. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Or sometimes just saying no and not being willing to work with them. But I think I’ve had a few experiences where we’ve done the, hey to work with us moving forward, these are some things we have in mind, and part of that is to protect your employees so that we’re not exploiting them. Part of that is our companies goals and things that we want to achieve. And so we’re really looking for partners that are into the same type of work that we’re doing and being okay to say no, because sometimes that is a risk. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, the other thing that this makes me think of is the ways in which someone’s experience with the company or like the way that they want to talk about a company, like it’s filtered through so many different identities and so many different experiences. Just because someone is a person of color doesn’t mean that they do or they don’t want to talk about the company the same way that just because someone is white doesn’t mean that they want to be a representative of the company. And I think about this sort of work. If you’re putting yourself out there, if you’re the person who’s like, Yeah, I’ll talk to prospective new employee, like I love to glad hand. Like that’s also the person who wants to be a mentor. And it actually is in some ways setting up these pipelines of mentorship within the company. And so maybe there are people who feel like, yeah, that’s a skill that I have that I like doing. It makes the work meaningful to me. And then there are also people who are like, no effing way. Like this is my idea of a nightmare to do this sort of thing. And so I think you can also really be filtering for that willingness component as well, instead of just thinking about like, Oh, well, I only want to look at race when I’m thinking about the representation of people in the hiring process. 


Sameera Kapila: Right. It goes back to that definition we talked about earlier where there’s still this like oversimplified version of what diversity is and that it sits in the binary in the gender side or it sits in the race side. And so many of your guests have said there’s so many people in the DEI space have said this is like diversity goes way beyond that. There are so many physical, visible differences. There are also parts of ourselves that may not be clear, especially when we’re sitting in a box and you can’t necessarily tell on Zoom or Google Hangout what somebody’s story is. So it also does concern me. It’s like, how do you seek those people out? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Sameera Kapila: Are you serving them beforehand to identify, self-identify? Are we making assumptions? And again, that goes back to that process that you build in partnership with the clients that you work with to say, we’re going to take a step back. We’re not going to make assumptions. If it is about maybe nominating people who are usually quiet at the company to be the ones to talk, asking them first, asking managers first, who would you nominate, who you think would be a really great storyteller who has not had that opportunity yet. Just because there may be the more quiet person at work. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: There’s so many different ways to go about this. But I think just directly reaching out is it creates pressure again to to represent when you may or may not want to, when you’re tired, when something really horrible has happened. You read about it in the news and you don’t even want to have to show up for work the next day. But capitalism. And then you’re asked on top of that to do this extra thing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Sameera Kapila: Are they getting time away from their responsibilities to then provide this work? There’s so much more that comes into it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And provide this work to be clear for the company. Right? 


Sameera Kapila: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, that’s the thing is that you are working for the company in your capacity of like becoming a storyteller, becoming an advertiser for your company. And I think that, it’s important to return back to that idea when we’re thinking about your ability to say yes or no. So making an opt in instead of a opt out scenario. 


Sameera Kapila: Right. Exactly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. All right. So our last question is on the other side of this equation. And this is from Jennifer and our colleague Ashley is going to read it for us. 


Jennifer: I’m a woman of color, but white passing with a lot of privilege. And each organization I’ve worked for, I struggle to know how much of DEI advocacy is mine to do and how much is incumbent on the leadership of the organization to understand how do I balance advocating for my less privileged coworkers and also not putting myself at risk of alienating leadership? 


Anne Helen Petersen: This just gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it? What was your immediate reaction to this question? 


Sameera Kapila: My immediate reaction was that I related to it a little bit. Oh, no, I hope they’re not alienated. And then there’s this other part of me coming into being in this space for six plus years of like, why are we worried about alienating leadership? [laughter] Right. Right. There is part of it where it’s like, I do want to protect my job. I don’t want this to necessarily impact how I’m seen at the company or that it could impact me having a job or a performance review or salary review. If that’s the case, that is very understandable. If we’re worried about alienating leadership, I have a little bit less [laughter] of a worry about that, and I think there are ways to go about it to make it less alienating, to show them success stories from other companies, to show them examples of other leaders that are really doing a great job and that are vocal about it. To gather some some data from like [?] has a lot of studies of like people leaving tech or why people stay at jobs impacts of COVID 19. There’s a lot of good data out there that we can use now and saying, here’s some stuff we can learn from and actually do. So this is one of those times where I would maybe recommend pulling things out from your toolkit. So going back to a SWOT analysis or or a competitive market study, sort of a UX perspective, could this work be presented in that way and then shared internally? I think that makes it when it’s like the language that the company already knows. It makes it a little bit easier to enter that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Sameera Kapila: But also don’t be afraid of alienating. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Now, I love the point about trying to communicate in a language that is legible to these executives, and I think that that makes it so that like the it starts as a conversation, right? You’re like, here is like language that makes you feel comfortable or that like, feels very clear to you instead of operating in what I often feel that executives chafe at, which is the realm of feelings. 


Sameera Kapila: Or that it’s abstract in any way because it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Quote unquote “can’t be measured” or it’s measured differently than how you may track something like analytics on a website. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And I think the real like the easy pushback is, oh, that’s your experience instead of, oh, this is an experience that’s widespread at the company. So how do you show that you have to I think look at that bigger data picture in order to communicate. What do you think about that general question about whether people of color should be the ones doing DEI work or if it’s incumbent on white people just generally to be doing this work themselves? Like it’s that’s always a hard tension. 


Sameera Kapila: I think it is a hard tension. And I, I feel like I’m in the position as someone who identifies  as a South-Asian in tech that I am not marginalized in some parts of my identity and marginalized in others. But the the Asian South Asian in tech part is not where I feel marginalized. And so I find it really important to look back and bring others up rather than just this is the path in front of me and I’m going to get in through all the doors and shut the door behind me. But at the same time, that is not forever. I mean, I’m doing this professionally [laughs] so I’m going to be doing this for a while. And I’ve managed to find times where I am completely burned out or managed to look at times where I, like currently don’t want to be a manager, don’t want to be on a DEI council and just want to work on being a designer and like reset so I can continue to do this work in other ways. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: And I think it’s important to identify those moments. At the same time, I do find especially, you know, I understand history throughout the world is, is different. But if for a lot of U.S. based folks, I think it is time for white folks to just stand up and work in partnership for the goals or what the needs are of marginalized folks, or maybe not just white folks, just anybody in power. I think looking at the demographics of the company, looking at where the majorities are, where the marginalized communities are, maybe starting with that survey from an external company that can do the anonymous like identity based survey here to then give you data to work with and then figure out where to start. I think it’s important for anybody in the power position or majority to do the work. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Absolutely. And I loved your point about how you can feel really passionate about this work. Like, it is so important. That doesn’t mean you have to be doing it all the time. And that’s we’ve had conversations on the podcast with other hosts about like, how do I not burn out of my passion job? How do I keep doing work that I think is so important and so much of it often involves rest from that thing. And so that can, I think, include in this capacity like I won’t that’s not my a huge component of the work that I’m doing in this season of my life right now. And you can come back to it if you need that rest. 


Sameera Kapila: Yeah, I think it’s important. I think what’s a lot of this when we hear systemic. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: And systemic racism or systemic, whichever ism or we just hear institutionalized, it can be really overwhelming in some ways. Like those are important words for us to recognize that this has a lot of different components to it. And that’s what I want leadership to learn, is it’s not a checkbox and done like, okay, you’ve done this at your company, but when you get together with all the other CEOs at some CEO summit, are you having those tough conversations there too? Or are you just saying my company did great, we’re not going to share how we did it? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Do you feel like they’re looking at the work that you’ve done, the reception to your book, like where we are right now? Can you, as we’ve talked about in this episode, take a step back and think about like what gives you hope about actual systemic change happening? Like are things that you can see that are hope giving or is it all frustration? 


Sameera Kapila: [laughs] It depends on the day that you ask me this. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Sameera Kapila: Where I find hope and where. I also feel like we can start to break down these institutions is by looking at one what we are personally capable of. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: One, what tools we have in our tool belt that we can use and focus on that thing and do that thing as best you can. Because I think if we’re all trying to like break down the monolithic thing in front of us, it gets really overwhelming and it gets really discouraging. But if we’re in one space and we can make one change, I think that’s such a start. If we’re trying to get to the end goal right away, that feels a lot harder to achieve. So I have hope and encourage a lot of folks to try to focus on the thing that you can do that your strength is in and do as much as you can in that as openly as you can. 


Anne Helen Petersen: This has been really wonderful and I’m so grateful that you took the time to come and address these difficult questions. If people want to find more from you on the Internet, where can they find you? 


Sameera Kapila: The best place is But if you really want to get into some of the things you can do in these different spaces, a lot of that’s going to be in the book. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Sameera Kapila: Inclusive Design Communities. We put together a little coupon code for all the listeners, so that coupon code will run from September 6th to September 20th for 50% off the book. And the code is WORK15, the number 15, like 15. So it is 50% off, but the code has a 15 in it. It’s WORK15 and that’s at


Anne Helen Petersen: Amazing, amazing, amazing. Thank you so much. Everyone. Go check out this book and I hope we can have you back on the show again. 


Sameera Kapila: I would love to. Thank you so much for your time. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Fall is just around the corner. And you know what that means. Pumpkin spice, sweater weather, more incredibly important elections for abortion rights in Virginia. We’ve got to maintain a majority in at least one chamber of the legislature to block the extreme anti-choice agenda. Meanwhile, Ohioans will be voting on whether to codify reproductive freedom in the state constitution. Visit, to learn more and find out how you can get involved. Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you need advice about a sticky situation at work, we’re here for you. Submit your questions at or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at We love building episodes around your questions and you can stay as anonymous as you like. Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can also follow me on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen or you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study And if you like the show, leave us a review on your podcast app of choice it really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. [music plays]