Building a Better Workplace: The Case for a Liberatory Approach to DEI

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The concept of liberation, often associated with political and social movements, is the pursuit of freedom from oppression and systems of power that restrict individuals from fully realizing or actualizing their potential. When it comes to the workplace, a liberation-focused approach means creating a work environment that allows all employees to thrive, in honor of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or other identity markers. While central to many diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners and advocates, this concept isn’t always consistently used or explicitly stated. 

So why do workplaces have a responsibility to address injustice and be part of a liberatory movement? In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of having liberation-focused workplaces and what it can look like in practice.

Workplaces aren’t separate from society at large

Despite the belief that workplaces should be apolitical and separate from social issues, they aren’t insulated from the larger society. The issues that affect society at large also affect the workplace, whether it’s systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or other forms of discrimination. Ignoring these issues within the workplace can perpetuate injustice and harm for employees who are already marginalized. Conversely, addressing these issues in the workplace can create a more equitable and inclusive work environment, which benefits everyone!

A liberatory approach to DEI work benefits everyone

In the context of DEI work, sometimes there’s a narrative that it’s a “zero-sum game” meaning that any gains made in DEI efforts come at the expense of someone else’s loss or disadvantage. However, a liberatory approach to DEI work isn’t just about creating equity for those with marginalized identities, it’s actually about benefiting everyone in the workplace. A liberatory approach recognizes that we all have multiple intersecting identities, and that creating a workplace that’s equitable and inclusive for all employees truly benefits everyone. For example, flexible work arrangements that accommodate employees with disabilities also benefit parents with caregiving responsibilities or employees who need to care for elderly relatives. It also means more women will be able to work, which means greater financial gains for everyone.

Liberation-focused workplaces promote employee well-being and mental health

A liberation-focused workplace prioritizes the well-being and mental health of its employees. Such a workplace recognizes the need for employees to have autonomy, meaningful work, and opportunities for growth and development. A liberation-focused workplace also recognizes the impact of harmful dominant culture, such as toxic masculinity and white supremacy, on employee well-being. By addressing these issues head-on, a liberation-focused workplace creates a healthier and more supportive work environment for all employees.

Liberation-focused workplaces foster open communication and psychological safety 

A liberation-focused workplace values diverse perspectives and provides an atmosphere where employees can bring their authentic selves to work (if they choose to). This approach fosters innovation and creativity by allowing employees to approach problems from a variety of angles. A liberation-focused workplace also recognizes the importance of creating space for employees to experiment, take risks, and learn from failure. By creating a culture of innovation and creativity, a liberation-focused workplace can stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive in a rapidly changing business landscape.

Liberation-focused workplaces contribute to a more just and equitable society

A liberation-focused workplace recognizes that the desire for liberation doesn’t stop at the office door or virtual office. We cannot claim to have a just and equitable society if our workplaces are rife with injustice and discrimination, no matter how subtle or unintentional. As the writer and activist Audre Lorde once said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Embracing a holistic approach to liberation can make a meaningful impact on society as a whole.

What does a liberation-focused workplace look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

  • A company that has a diverse and inclusive leadership team and actively recruits employees from underrepresented communities.
  • A workplace that offers flexible scheduling and remote work options to accommodate employees’ individual needs and life circumstances.
  • A company that provides anti-racism or inclusive culture trainings to all employees and has a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory behavior.
  • A workplace that creates an atmosphere for employees to show up authentically to work by celebrating and valuing diversity in all its forms.
  • A company that provides opportunities for professional development and growth, regardless of an employee’s background or identity markers.
  • A company that encourages vulnerability and honest feedback with each other without punishing or automatically becoming defensive thoughts or reactions.
  • A company that values both quality and quantity work without making each other feel like they should only value quantity or “clocking in and clocking out.”

Taking a liberatory approach to DEI work and other forms of cultural change in the workplace can help us build better, more sustainable workplaces. When we recognize the interconnectedness of liberation and its importance in our efforts to promote equity and inclusion, we’re better able to make progress in reducing inequities and creating more just environments for all. By committing to a liberatory approach, we become part of a larger movement that requires the involvement of everyone, regardless of your identity, and recognizes the potential for positive ripple effects in our communities and society as a whole.

Want to learn more about the impact of harmful dominant culture and how you can begin embodying liberation? Watch a recording of our webinar on Building Anti-Racist and Liberation Focused Workplaces.