Brave Conversations for BIPOC Leaders: How to Set Boundaries around EDI Work

Why Do You Need Boundaries at Work?

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As more organizations understand the importance of EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion), we’re seeing a rise in diversity initiatives, employee resource groups (ERGs), EDI committees and more.

But—especially in small or medium sized organizations with fewer resources—BIPOC employees are often the ones asked to lead these initiatives — usually without additional support or compensation.

BIPOC staff may agree to take on additional duties outside of their role because:

  1. We have personally faced micro-inequities at work (or in our personal lives) and want to create a more equitable work environment for ourselves and others.
  2. We feel strongly about inclusivity and hold valuable experiential or educational knowledge that we believe qualifies us to help.
  3. We fear saying no will make us look bad and result in professional or personal backlash.

Sometimes BIPOC take on these roles and thrive. But other times, we end up wishing we’d said “no” as we begin to feel trapped under the weight of extra (unpaid and emotionally draining) work. And those situations require brave conversations.

What is a Brave Conversation?

A brave conversation is any conversation that helps us build our conflict muscles. Conflicts are bound to happen but it can be hard to stay brave and get vulnerable by asking for what we need in the heat of a conversation.

At work, brave conversations might look like:

  1. Giving or receiving performance feedback
  2. Naming a moment of discrimination
  3. Raising an issue with a supervisor

Sometimes it might feel easier to avoid brave conversations to keep the peace, but leaving problems unaddressed can build resentment or keep us in difficult situations — like juggling an EDI committee on top of your regular work load.

Tips for Brave Conversations

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Scenario 1

Your boss decides to take on the role of building the company’s EDI strategy and routinely comes to you for support and to ask questions about your experience as a racialized person. Initially, you’re happy to help but after a few months you notice the extra work becoming unmanageable.

When you suggest your boss hires an external EDI company they imply you’re not being a team player and question why you’re unwilling to help the company when you know they don’t have a lot of resources.

Scenario 2

After a round of EDI trainings, the CEO announces they’d like to begin an EDI committee within the organization. As one of the few BIPOC folks in leadership, you are “volun-told” to head the committee.

When you try to set a boundary by reminding them that you’re not an EDI expert, they don’t hear your “no” and instead offer you words of encouragement to just believe in yourself and keep going.

Scenario 3

After several discriminatory incidents at work, you decide to begin an ERG (employee resource group) for racialized people in the office. Your boss seems emotionally supportive but is unwilling or unable to allocate resources like time or money into the initiative.

While you still believe the ERG is important, it’s difficult to make an impact when you’re under resourced and you find yourself becoming stressed with all the additional work you’ve taken on.

Here’s What to Do:

Building our conflict muscles takes practice, and when we’re used to staying silent or self-abandoning in the face of conflict it can be hard to know where to start.

Remember that it’s okay to ask for what you need. Racialized people are often taught to take on the role of nurturers by making ourselves smaller to accommodate the needs of others. But you’re allowed to take up space, ask for what you need and say no when your needs aren’t being met.

If you find yourself in need of a brave conversation, here are some tips:

Identify and name the problem: “I’ve noticed that I’m being required to take on a lot of work that’s outside the scope of my role.”

Disrupt the problem with a question or a joke: “Haha, that’s funny. It sounds like you’re under the impression that I’m an equity expert. What makes you think that?”

Expose the problem: “There’s a common assumption that all PoC are qualified EDI leads and I feel that coming up here. I don’t have the answers you’re looking for and I’d prefer to stay within the scope of my role.”

Practice practice practice! Like any skill, developing the ability to have brave conversations takes practice. Try role-playing with family, friends or a trusted colleague, or practicing brave conversations in your non-work life. Know that this communication will get easier over time!

Brave on! Remember that these conversations can be tough. Once you broach the topic, do your best to stay brave and keep breathing through the discomfort even when things get hard.

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Now What?

As a racialized person in leadership, it can sometimes feel unsafe to step back and say “I don’t know” when everyone is looking to you for answers. But staying brave and setting professional boundaries can go a long way in protecting your emotional health at work, and helping to guide your organization to more impactful and long-lasting change.

If you want to build your brave conversations skills, our Brave Conversations course might be the right match for you (and for others in your organization). Or if you’re a BIPOC leader looking for a space to develop this and other skills necessary to be sustainable and impactful in your work, check out our next BIPOC Leader Lab starting in January 2024.

Anima Leadership

Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.

Since 2007, we have worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations teaching, consulting and coaching transformative change. Our award-winning training programs and innovative measurement tools will help us journey with you from diversity basics to advanced belonging.

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