Belonging: Meet Tiff Richards

Q: Tell me a bit about yourself and how your career led you to do DEI

“So I am a Black, immigrant, and queer person from Jamaica who spent their formative years growing up in Florida. My experiences with these identities and living in multiple spaces throughout the world made me aware of the power of inclusion and the harm from exclusion early in life.

I have been a DEI practitioner for over 10 years. My initial interest in DEI stemmed from my interest in anthropology and the recognition of how culture impacts human connections. In college I also studied Russian which helped me realize that, as a Black person, I’m always going to be in a space where my race is going to make me stand out. It was during undergrad that I started my DEI journey after coming out as queer by creating safe spaces, participating in panels, conducting safe space training, and educating people about being LGTBQ. 

After undergrad, I worked for a labor union in Washington, D.C. doing DEI within Human Resources. It was here that I was able to be at the forefront of DEI issues in the workplace. We tackled classism and the impact of other systems of oppression through workshops for leaders and supervisors, highlighting the impacts of white supremacy culture and how they show up in practices and policies. I gained valuable mentorship, learned how to facilitate workshops well, and developed a pedagogical approach to social justice work. This time also showed me that I can make DEI my profession.

After working for the labor union in D.C., I moved to Europe to pursue an international Master’s degree in Russian Central and East European studies. I saw first-hand the distinct ways that racism and exclusion manifested in Europe and how American hegemony had also informed some of this, particularly anti-Black racism. Certain aspects within DEI theory and practice, like intersectionality and systemic oppression, may be American concepts but can be applied to a global framework, especially for gender and ethnic minorities within Europe. 

When I moved back to America, I returned to Florida. Doing DEI-adjacent work in Florida was its own unique experience. I love Florida because it’s where I spent my formative years but it was difficult coming back and doing LGTBQ+ inclusion work given the political climate. Not many people talked about diversity, equity, and inclusion outside certain spaces but it was impactful work.

My work is truly anchored in the fact that I love people, community, and culture. My work with Tangible allows me to act on that love because I get to equip the people I meet with the tools to be self-aware, develop a critical analysis, and unpack the ways that oppression divides us.”

Q: How do your identities inform your work in DEI?

“So, yes, my identities inform my DEI work. But I don’t want people reading this to walk away with the common misconception that DEI is just for marginalized folks. 

DEI is about tearing down barriers to inclusion that impact people’s access to opportunities. Because I am a Black, queer, immigrant born from teen parents, undocumented, and hold all these marginalized identities, my experiences have given me insight into the limitations of the American dream, and how identity can impact your access and shape your journey. I often misphrase it but I like a quote by James Baldwin where he says ‘I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.’ I believe that America can be what she believes she is but I recognize, as someone who has navigated the country as an immigrant, that we have to be honest about the gaps between who are and who we want to be. Some of my experiences can contribute to the cycle of ‘well I went through that so everyone else should’, but I believe that part of my American Dream is to preserve that for others, to work to tear down some of the barriers I faced so that others have opportunities that I did not. 

But I am also a privileged person. There were people who paved the way for me that have allowed me to hold certain privileges. I may have all these marginalized identities but I also came to America and received an excellent education, I am no longer impoverished, and I have received many other advantages in life. 

So I also understand the pressure that can come from having privileges. This understanding of how privilege works undergirds my approach to DEI. I recognize that people with many privileged identities are limited by the expectations of others and society at large. White cisgender heterosexual men are often limited in how they can successfully perform their identities, yet don’t connect this to the similar ways others are oppressed by social conditioning.  I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for people like this who can’t live their full authentic selves. And I think part of the backlash to DEI work, to any sort of inclusion or equity work comes from people who haven’t had their experiences affirmed or have harmed themselves living up to these standards, not knowing that another way was possible.”

Q: What are some common issues you see from clients? What do you do to help resolve them? 

“Clients often ask me why we can’t move beyond labels. I believe this stems from a widespread societal fear of talking about inequities. I see a lot of folks viewing any sort of dialogue or engagement around DEI as punitive. They feel like they’ve done something wrong if they’re doing DEI. These same folks also reactively do DEI work. There’s a fear when it comes to proactive DEI work and discomfort with talking about inequities, especially within the context of our history. Many people treat these conversations like a personal attack on them. There is an issue of the personalization of inequity within our society as if to acknowledge it, means they personally have to give everything up. This prevents the systems thinking that allows us to see how our present conditions are more connected than folks would like to admit.

This points to another issue I see from clients from the same misconception I mentioned earlier that DEI is just for marginalized identities and not for people without marginalized identities. But when we help these same people think about their own identities, they come to understand that the world isn’t just people with marginalized identities and those without. Everyone has identities therefore everyone experiences privilege and oppression. 

So when people tell me that they want to move beyond labels, I remind them that no one can move beyond their own identities and the experiences that come with that. I cannot move beyond being Black because some people will always and only see me as Black and being ignorant to that fact does not help me or anyone else. Differences will always be present and part of DEI is about celebrating those differences so that aspects of identity are descriptive, not prescriptive. 

The part of the work where I get people to reflect on their identities excites me because this is where the work can start. Having folks think about their own identities and consider a time when that meant you were treated better or worse allows them to think about how trivial experiences of discrimination or microaggression can impact us in meaningful ways. It allows us to think about how systems of oppression impact everyone. From there I get them to think about how systemic oppression shows up in work culture and internal policies and practices that center and normalize some identities over others. Ultimately, what I do with clients is give them the language to capture things they were already seeing or experiencing, contextualize them within DEI work, and recognize that DEI is for everyone.”

Q: What does success in DEI work look like for an organization? How can they achieve it?

“The Tangible Development’s DEI CAT©®™, our DEI assessment tool, looks at organizational culture and workplace climate while DEI Strategists, like myself, look at policies and practices. It gives us an understanding of where inequities exist within the organization. 

We then take a thorough look at your practices and policies to see where inequities could be perpetuated and if they align with your DEI goals. For example, if you claim to support all parents and caregivers, we’ll take a look at your policies around maternity leave versus parental leave. Once we’ve analyzed the organization’s policies, we give guidance around institutional changes, workshops, and much more.

My specialty is around the training we do to help people understand and recognize where barriers are for themselves and other people. This is where the conversations can get really difficult but necessary. For example, I have been approached by questions about the legitimacy of enslavement in America. I try to approach this conversation that gives people the hard truth but doesn’t shut down the conversation for people who are uncomfortable with the topic.

In these conversations, I help people build skills for dialogue so everyone can feel heard. Oftentimes, people with few oppressed identities struggle to talk about privilege because they feel like they’ve had hard lives. My job is to help them understand that it’s not that they didn’t live a hard life, it’s that their identities mean they don’t have certain barriers that others have – and that’s the problem. But going back to the point I keep returning to, it’s important to talk about the pressures to perform privileged identities correctly and explain that DEI is about allowing everyone the opportunity to be their most authentic selves in the workplace.

So success in my work looks different for everyone depending on where and how they need to improve. In Tangible Development, we call this the DEI Maturity Model. The model aims to show organizations where they sit in terms of DEI development, the more people-centric and equity pursuant their culture, practices, and policies are, the higher they exist on the maturity model. As individuals, we also sit in different places in the DEI Maturity Model which means everyone can grow and develop in their DEI knowledge and skills.”