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  • elenagillis39

Wherever you go, power remains the same

People often ask what makes me good at “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” The lofty, academic terminology complicates what we’re really talking about. DEI – at its core – is about power, and how power inequalities within a workplace play out for different people.

My work has always been about power and equality. I started my career traveling overseas – across the “Global South” in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. I worked in humanitarian aid and focused on promoting women and girls’ rights globally, addressing issues of sexual harassment, and educating people about gender equality. My time doing this work brought clarity to the fact that you can change the location, languages, faces, and clothes – but issues of power remain the same.

Most foundational, though, was learning my position within these global power dynamics.*

I learned about my privilege and the unfair advantages that are baked into organizational policies and structures.**

I was only 24 when I started this work, freshly out of graduate school. I had a comfortable salary, great benefits, and travel was paid by the organization. Each place I visited, I met colleagues from the country that knew more about the context and its history, and who had been doing this work for years. Some could have done my job better than I did. But to be hired as an “Advisor” in HQ required a master’s degree from an “accredited” (i.e. American, Canadian, European) university, English fluency, and the resources to move to and live in New York City. Those are barriers many cannot get around. In comparison, if I applied for a job in their country, I wouldn’t need to speak the language and the organization would pay for my relocation and housing in the new country.

I also saw how this type of privilege – unaware or unchecked – could be harmful to others.

During my time in Ethiopia, I stayed in shared staff housing. Most staff in the compound were two-to-a-room, but I was given my own room. It was a cute corner room with nice windows, two beds and a big dresser. I learned later that a Somali woman working there lived in that room but was moved out when I visited because it is one of the “nicer” rooms in the compound. She was sleeping in a windowless room with her mattress on the floor, belongings and clothing stacked around her.

International work taught me a lot about identity and intersectionality – and how power can shift based on the place or the people around.

I had many privileges because of my American citizenship and white skin, but as a woman traveling alone, I spent a lot of time navigating sexual harassment. I adjusted my behaviors and appearance to avoid attention – which is hard to do when you stand out as a white visitor. Even worse was when people found out I was unmarried and saw me not only as an “unspoken for” woman, but also the pathway towards an American visa. I even started wearing a fake wedding band to avoid conversations with men at the airport… and in the office.

I learned how to get out of the way – and work in solidarity with people, rather than lead.

Sometimes I hit a wall in my work to promote gender equality. There were many reasons for that, but the one that surprised me most was when women pushed back on it. Often it was because the type of gender equality that I was promoting was not relatable, harmful to non-Western women by reinforcing stereotypes, or even felt like an attack against cultural values they hold. Other times women talked about how their priority was not their equality as women but instead their equality as women of a certain race, class, or ethnicity. I was putting them into a category based on my own assumptions, rather than giving them the space to define for themselves who they are and what matters.

Most importantly, I recognized my ability to use my power and privilege for this solidarity to advance the priorities of those without the same access or voice.

While visiting a health center in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, I was approached by a Syrian woman who worked there. She asked me to speak in private. During the meeting she conveyed that there was a doctor sexually harassing the woman working at the center, and she asked for my help to stop it. She perceived me – being introduced as a person from HQ – as someone with the power, position, and access to solve this problem.

Around the same time, a group of women in one of the offices approached me to help them with reporting a manager’s abuse of power and gender discrimination. They had brought the issue to leadership without results and asked for my support. Like the Syrian woman, they said they saw me as someone who could understand their experiences and who had a position and the power to represent their voices with leadership in the country – and in HQ. Thankfully I was able to use the power I did have, and after filing reports, pestering HR, and making sure the issue wasn’t forgotten – the abusive manager was let go. And in that process, I also formed deep friendships an ocean away.

All these experiences reflect the workplace issues that DEI is meant to address – and the power inequalities we seek to even out. At the core of DEI are the humans that make up a company. It’s about making a workplace more humane by navigating diverse perspectives, choosing equitable policies, and ensuring the environment is inclusive and safe for everyone. My international work brought an understanding of our common human experiences, and what we all need to feel best in our work environment – whether we are American, Kenyan, or Thai.

That’s what makes me a good DEI consultant.

* I could go into how it has helped me to understand how domestic inequalities mirror global issues and are rooted in the same concepts of who and what is given power. Or, how, if we trace modern American inequality and injustice like racial inequalities or gendered inequalities to their historical foundations, we will surely come upon European colonialism.

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