A trauma concept photo shows a Black man with his head in hand and skull breaking apart.

Why a Trauma-Informed Organizational Approach Is Critical to the Needs of BIPOC Women

It’s Black History Month, and all around us are examples of the accomplishments and achievements of Black women from the past and present. Yet, what strikes me is that inside of organizations, what is largely missing from the conversation around Black excellence is how to support these women and how to co-create a better, more sustainable future for them.

As a white-passing Hispanic woman, I cannot grasp the experience of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). As a researcher and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) professional, I can offer an overview of some of the many current challenges BIPOC women face, primarily through the lens of trauma and healing.

In my teaching practice, I often define trauma as “too much, too soon, too fast.” I’m also aware that this doesn’t necessarily map to evolving definitions of trauma today. To understand what BIPOC women are going through, we have to understand what trauma is from both a psychological and sociological perspective.

As Jeffrey Praeger points out in “Danger and Deformation: A Social Theory of Trauma Part I: Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Contemporary Social Theory, and Healthy Selves” for American Imago, the term “trauma” has evolved multiple times.

“A term first employed to describe a form of bodily or physical harm became a description of an overwhelming psychological experience suffered by an individual. Trauma now can also describe events of a nation’s past where prior experiences jeopardize current social solidarity and interfere with members’ ability to function freely in the collectivity,” he wrote.

Traumatic Experience

Many BIPOC women in the workplace may be experiencing all three levels of trauma at once while being asked to cover their identities and remain resilient and calm in the face of continued adversity.

For example, according to Project Include’s 2020 survey of remote workers, 45% of women experienced race-based hostility at work, and 39% of Asian women and nonbinary people experienced an increase in gender-based harassment, with Latiné women and nonbinary people close behind at 38%. Research from dscout and HmntyCntrd on the experience of UX workers and trauma mirrors this data.

With this context, it’s not surprising to me that terms such as “workplace trauma” and “workplace baggage” are coming up in my training sessions and healing circles. And yet, the corporate response has been focused on the individual through mental health awareness education focused only on what the employee should do, essentially preaching the gospel of personal responsibility.

Given that many workplaces are the cause, or at least the site of, workplace trauma, the strategy seems to compound harm and reinforce messages to employees that their organizations exist apart from their organizational experiences.

An Organizational Approach to Trauma

We bring our personal and professional experiences, including those tied to physical, psychological, social and historical harm, to work with us. How well we hide, manage our emotions or care for ourselves doesn’t erase them.

Yet, we navigate a confusing line in our “bring your full self to work” corporate culture. Organizations are increasingly rejecting previously held ideas around the importance of covering or straightening natural hair and altering speech and dialect tied to nondominant cultural identities in service of “authenticity,” but not treating other widespread forms of structural inequality and inequity meaningfully.

Going back to the dscout and HmntyCntrd study, what surprised me was how not surprised I was. In my work, I have interviewed hundreds of employees in one-on-one research interviews and focus groups. The same themes repeatedly emerge, especially for BIPOC employees identifying as women.

Specifically, top themes in qualitative research often break down into the experiences of:

  1. Being understaffed and overscheduled with no additional pay, while other employees are paid more and receive more resources
  2. Constantly having to prove they are valuable employees and advocate to keep their jobs
  3. Having to take on the grief, angst and trauma of others and lead the charge around reform and problem-solving around these issues.

The messages from their organizations focus on how employees can manage their stress, set “healthy boundaries,” volunteer to make changes through committees and community service, and network themselves into supportive communities.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with the value of these approaches, I do disagree with their one-sidedness. In talking to BIPOC women, the questions that most come up are:

  • What happens when I take PTO to manage stress or even just turn down work that would put me over my capacity, and my manager talks about it as a performance issue? What can I do if I’m perceived as unmotivated and challenging to work with when managing my stress?
  • How can I set healthy boundaries if there’s always a risk that I’m called out for not being a “team player”?
  • How does doing workplace volunteer work for no extra pay and with limited influence and authority promote my healing? How does it solve my larger problem of being on an understaffed team where I have few if any forms of support?
  • Why, when I raise negative and identity-related issues at work, am I asked to do the additional after-hours work of networking to process what I am going through? Why isn’t that an organizational issue?

In other words, employees experience their organizations as passing the buck on trauma, not to mention trying to have their cake and eat it, too.

It’s an approach that says be authentic, but not in a way that challenges what we do at the organization. Be vulnerable, but not about organizational experiences that negatively impact you. Be honest, but only about yourself, not about the problems you see here day-to-day.

Organizational Change

So, where do we go from here?

The problem is broad, widespread, and according to the data from Project Include, dscout and HmntyCntrd, and a recent World Health Organization study of trauma, increasing.

It’s time to think more inventively about our organizations, reframing them as communities accountable to their members and responsible for action aligned with trauma-informed and healing-centered approaches.

For organizations, this means:

  1. Auditing their practices around resource allocation, staffing, and pay, and making changes immediately so that BIPOC women get the relief they need
  2. Evaluating existing policies and procedures not only for their efficiency but also their potentially traumatizing impacts
  3. Shifting away from a culture solely focused on trauma as a personal issue and one that interrogates organizational systems and behaviors that cause trauma and re-traumatize employees
  4. Acknowledging and apologizing for harm caused while also proposing future strategies informed by employee voices
  5. Involving women-identifying BIPOC employees in its decisions around their support, shifting from a top-down model to one of co-creation
  6. When co-creating, truly sharing responsibilities with employees and bringing in additional paid and professional resources to do the work, rather than asking employees to do it themselves
  7. Creating spaces inside of the organization for BIPOC women to connect, share, and process their experiences together, if they so choose

While I often spend more time researching how trauma manifests in organizations, it’s only because I truly believe change is possible.

Instead of solely celebrating the achievements of changemakers like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, and bell hooks, why not honor their memories by educating others of their achievements and thinking about the kind of world they were all trying to shape. How can your organization live its philosophies every day?

Alida Miranda-Wolff is the CEO of Ethos, a full-service Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging transformation firm, and the author of the book, Cultures of Belonging: Building Inclusive Organizations That Last.

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