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Practical approaches to dismantle structural racism in organisations

Reos Partners
January, 2024


Dismantling structural racism in organisational systems is daunting yet necessary. We share four practical approaches we’ve learned in doing and supporting this work.

Written by Andrew Akpan, Rebecca Freeth and Mahmood Sonday 

Part of our systems change work includes supporting our partners in addressing and dismantling structural racism in their organisational systems. Through this work, as well as our own internal organisational change work at Reos Partners, we are learning about the complexity of these efforts.

In this article, we hope to contribute to a better understanding of structural racism in organisations, share our learnings, and propose some practical approaches to address and dismantle structural racism.

Much of our learning has been from trial and error. There is no fixed recipe; each context requires different approaches. These approaches aim to create the conditions and spark the deep awareness needed to collectively wrestle with and pull apart the foundations of structural racism.

This is messy work. There will be failures. These call for humility and a commitment to ongoing learning. Sometimes, failure is exactly what is needed to crack things open, including ourselves.

Before we explore the approaches, let’s start with some definitions.

Defining structural racism in organisational systems

Structural racism is embedded in the fabric of society, and organisations – as part of the social fabric – are significant sites of structural racism.

We refer to structural racism as ways of thinking, feeling, being, and doing that are ingrained in an organisation and that advantage white people and disadvantage Black and Indigenous Peoples and people of colour.

Structural racism can be expressed through policies (e.g., HR policies), practices (e.g., promotion practices or exposure to opportunities), or procedures (e.g., how budgeting or business decisions are made). It might be embedded in the mission and vision of the organisation as well as its strategic plans and resource allocations.

It can also be informal and maintained, for example, in how people interact socially. In each of these examples, structural racism might be explicit or implicit. We recently published a journal article that includes a detailed description of structural racism (see page 179). In testing this description with organisational groups, we have heard that it resonates and is useful. It helps with recognising the “what” of structural racism.

With the “what” established, we will share the practical approaches we have employed in dismantling structural racism.

Approaches for dismantling structural racism

There are four elements we see as necessary for addressing and dismantling structural racism in organisations:

  1. Convening and enrolling
  2. Engaging in courageous conversation as a prerequisite to courageous action
  3. Instituting structural change
  4. Navigating cultural change

In an ideal world, the four elements should proceed in the laid-out sequence. However, in reality, all four aspects are interconnected and woven into the overall experience in a non-linear fashion that welcomes emergence and adaptation. 

1. Convening and enrolling

Convening involves setting an ambition for change and bringing people together around that ambition. In our efforts to dismantle structural racism in organisations, we find it valuable to establish an internal convening group before enrolling the rest of the organisation. If the convenors are seen as a diverse and credible group of people from across different parts of the organisation who believe in the process – as well as some who may be sceptical – this will increase the legitimacy of the overall endeavour to address structural racism.

Usually, an organisation has already been through one or more cycles of trying to address issues of racism before approaching us, and a lack of tangible change has exacerbated scepticism that anything can change. The work starts here, building trust and confidence within the convening group as well as with us as facilitators of the process. This group also informs the design of the process, advises us about considerations such as pacing and sequencing of the approach, and helps to mitigate risks that we might not have foreseen. 

Convening is not a once-off effort. Every step in the process requires the convenors to create a compelling invitation and to communicate the outcomes of the previous step/s. This enables people to follow the logic of the process and be encouraged by the shifts already happening. It is easy to underestimate the effort involved in enrolling people at the outset and keeping them engaged and motivated to participate actively.

Convenors must be able to speak candidly, name difficult issues, challenge each other, be willing to listen and institute and maintain accountability mechanisms. This helps to set the terms for the ensuing process into which others are enrolled.

2. Engaging in courageous conversation as a prerequisite to courageous action

It is essential to create safe enough conditions for uncomfortable conversations, bearing in mind that safety is not the same as comfort. Similarly, discomfort does not equate to danger. We’ve learned the importance of creating the conditions and providing some language and tools to understand these differences.

A vital part of creating safe enough conditions for engagement is to set some “boundary agreements” in the group. There are existing resources for creating such agreements for courageous conversations on race and racism, such as Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. It is worth capping the agreements at a manageable number that is potent and alive for the organisation and to which they can collectively agree before continuing.

Engagement involves inner work, identity group work and gathering in larger, more diverse groups. The exact sequencing depends on the organisational context and degree of readiness. A single workshop could include all three, or it may take a considerable investment in inner work and identity group work before convening larger conversations in the organisation.

Inner work includes personal reflection, journaling, mindfulness, and body work. Identity group work (sometimes referred to as affinity groups) creates a place for people who share a particular racial identity to do collective inner work. Larger organisational gatherings bring together people of different racial identities. These gatherings prioritise space for dialogue and storytelling to build awareness and deepen understanding as a basis for navigating structural and cultural change.

All three ways of engaging are relational, involve bridging divides, and help to grow self-awareness and systems awareness. In organisations, the courageous conversation should go beyond self-awareness and systems awareness to tangible radical actions that include structural and cultural shifts. 

3. Institutionalising structural change

Structural change means making material changes to organisational practices, policies, and procedures, alongside changing who occupies positions of power. This work of transforming organisations cannot be left to Black people; white people have an even greater responsibility to lead the change efforts. This is echoed in a tweet by Dwayne Reed about white supremacy. 

At Reos, we learned to commit resources and set up structures. From a process point of view, we put in place a coordinator, affinity groups, a “Dignity, Justice and Belonging” structure and a “Sounding Board”, which enabled identifying, tracking and being accountable for what needs to change. We know this is just the start of navigating structural change.  

Through a rigorous process to dismantle structural racism, an organisation we supported has committed to five areas of structural change, called “game changers”, as follows:

  1. Developing an Anti-Racism policy and reviewing all existing policies to ensure that they are anti-racist
  2. Defusing white fragility so that white people in the organisation are more likely to engage constructively and robustly in the work of dismantling structural racism
  3. Ensuring mandatory participation so that all staff engage with the work of dismantling structural racism at key points (e.g., during onboarding)
  4. Establishing a leadership accelerator programme for staff members who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour to prepare them for senior leadership roles 
  5. Demanding accountability for progress from senior leaders, which means that leaders report regularly to the organisation on the ongoing process of dismantling structural racism.

Read more: Dismantling structural racism in MSF Southern Africa



4. Navigating cultural change

Structural and cultural change are both necessary and can complement each other. 

Our approach to cultural change is about staying in conversation, focusing on awareness, relationships and trust in ways that address experiences of exclusion or inequity while the structural work continues. 

We are learning that taking responsibility for mistakes, demonstrating the capacity to accept feedback and staying in difficult conversations enables shift. It helps others feel that they too can make mistakes (which is an antidote to the white supremacy principle of “perfectionism”) when they are part of enabling and bringing about structural and cultural transformation. 

Culture change is hard to measure, and different people in an organisation will likely have different assessments of the change process. It can be useful to ask questions in organisational gatherings such as: Is what we are doing satisfactory? Are you experiencing change? Invite stories and suggestions. Unless the process can hold these different experiences and assessments coherently, where meaning can be made together, there is a risk of fragmented narratives about what is being achieved.

Transforming organisational culture cannot be done in a rush; it takes time, resources, and maximum commitment from everyone, not just senior leaders. Within an organisational context, with a hierarchy and executive decision-making authority, there are skills to learn about doing this work with integrity and holding clean lines.

On the one hand, people must feel heard. On the other hand, they must recognise that their truths would not always be “the truth”. Holding this tension and working with power asymmetries inherent in organisational structures requires a high level of awareness by process designers, facilitators, and leaders. 

While structural changes aim to enable equity and justice, cultural change seeks to enable a sense of belonging, dignity, and ease in the organisation. Cultural changes ensure that people express themselves in ways that matter to them in the values, norms, expectations, and practices that shape dignified experiences. 

In conclusion

The radical call is to imagine new practices, institutional forms, and ways of living that are wholesome and just for everyone and the planet we live on. While we cannot do much to change the systemic roots of structural racism, we can change the culture and the purpose that drives and guides our organisational systems (see pages 183 - 186). 

This is possible. In the process, there is much potential to kindle meaning, joy, and connection, re-membering those parts of ourselves (individually and collectively) that have been made to feel unwelcome. We warmly encourage your work towards greater wholeness and justice in your organisations.

Given the pervasive nature of structural racism, dismantling it will not be a linear and straightforward process. At the heart of the matter, we need to refine what success is in this effort and have a healthy relationship with what we might consider failure.

Beyond the practical approaches of convening and enrolling, engaging in courageous conversation as a prerequisite to courageous action, instituting structural change, and navigating cultural change, it is essential that we do all of these with care for ourselves and others.     

Embarking on a systems change journey? We welcome a conversation with you!

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