The new face of DEI work | Pride 2020 | Chicago Reader

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The new face of DEI work

Tiffany Hudson and her partners are bringing diversity, equity, and inclusion to Chicago businesses their way.

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Tiffany Hudson is in the DEI business—and right now, business is booming. For the past three and a half years her company Nova Collective has been helping companies improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion practices, work that's quickly gained momentum in recent weeks as a result of national attention being drawn even more to how systemic racism affects every industry. Hudson and her business partners work with all industries—they call themselves "industry agnostic"—and the companies range in size from two people to 40,000 employees. The reasoning behind that is simple: everyone can benefit from improving diversity, equity, and inclusion. I talked with Hudson about the Nova Collective's approach to their work, her personal experiences she brings to the job, and the work we all still need to do.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brianna Wellen: What made you first decide to form the Nova Collective?

Tiffany Hudson: The four founders decided we wanted to work exclusively on diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and we wanted to do it a little differently than we saw a lot of companies doing it. That's really why we started the business, we're very passionate about it. We think that in the United States, and even in the world, diversity, equity, and inclusion work—there have been some great people out there doing some great work for quite some time now, I think most people would be surprised to know how long this work has been done, and we thought, "Let's be another one of those companies that's making some change, and making impactful change, not just coming in and doing one workshop and leaving." Really it was about wanting to see a difference in the corporate space and disrupt some things corporately, that's what we've been trying to do.

What are some of those things you do differently at Nova Collective?

We have a very strong commitment in making sure all of our teams are staffed with a majority women and majority people of color. We're always prioritizing underrepresented groups, and honestly when we're talking about diversity, equity, inclusion work, we're always trying to make sure that the nondominant narrative is being pushed to the top because the dominant narrative has been talked about for so long, and so for us the nondominant narrative is something that we really focus on when we're having conversations with organizations. We ground our work in social identity. A lot of companies and organizations talk about unconscious bias, or talk about allyship, or talk about these different DEI topics, but what we say is, "Yes, we can certainly talk about those topics with you, but instead of diving into those topics, let's lay some foundational work here and talk about social identity, because really that's why all of those things are existing." And I'll tell you, some companies are totally on board with it, and some companies hate it, but it's something that we will not shy away from.

Why do you think there is that pushback from some people to approach it in that way?

What we've been told [is], "Well you're putting people into boxes" or "You're quote-unquote calling people out," and we're actually not doing that at all. A lot of these big corporations have what we call employee resource groups, and so businesses with employee resource groups are often defined or explained by social identity. Like, if we have a resource group for Black individuals at the organization or a resource group for folks who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. We're already talking about social identity, we're just not calling it that, so the groups are already there. So I think that this is more of an approach that gets people a little uncomfortable, and I think that's what folks have to start doing, is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable when talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

How has your experience growing up and working in the world informed how you approach this topic for other people?

My dad has worked in diversity, equity, and inclusion at a bank here in Chicago for quite some time, right up until his passing. I think I've always been around the work and I've subconsciously probably been taking in so much growing up, and I think growing up in a diverse suburb right out of Chicago, I saw a lot. I think being a Black gay woman, I've had some positive experiences and I've had some negative experiences, so I'm able to relate to a lot of different people. For me, my personal experiences have certainly put me in a position where I have seen a lot, I've experienced a lot, and I've learned when and how to react.

It seems like a very difficult job to separate from your personal life because it has to be personal.

Especially with everything right now with the movement, the Black Lives Matter movement has always been incredible to me, and I think now seeing where the Black Lives Matter movement has gone, there's certainly, certainly some personal feelings around all of it, and then there is a professional side. I think I'm still figuring it out. Our business is the busiest it's ever been since we started. I prioritize my care, I'm never ashamed to say I'm upset. And my business partners and employees, we also take care of each other. My business partners are real good at knowing if we're in a conversation and I'm checking out, to know we have to step back, especially at a time like this.

How are you approaching all the business you're getting right now and making sure people continue to do the work beyond this specific moment?

I'll be very honest with people. A lot of the people I've spoken to—and now mind you, we are in the process of hiring folks and we are dividing and covering it as a business—but the folks that I've spoken to, no one is really in it for the one and done, and I'm actually very, very happy to hear that. It's very interesting to me that some people are really just realizing that systemic racism is a thing, but also I'm glad that they're realizing it. It's better now than never. I think that a lot of companies and organizations are understanding that this is not something that changed overnight, because this has been hundreds and hundreds of years that it has been building. And so now how do we break it down. Right now we're offering companies something called processing sessions, and the one thing that we're telling them is, "Hey, here's the deal, if you have this, we want you to understand that this is going to unearth a lot of things that are happening at your organization, and what you have to understand is this is not the end, this is just the beginning."   v

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