The Clearleft Podcast

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Season Two

Diversity and Inclusion

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This is the Clearleft podcast.

Back in season one of this podcast, there was an episode about service design. If you recall, there was a particular metaphor that kept recurring.


In the service design world, they often use different metaphors to talk about the work that they’re doing.

So they use a restaurant metaphor and they are talking about front of house and back of house.


That was Kerry Bodine speaking at Clearleft’s Leading Design conference. And here’s another Leading Design speaker, Margaret Lee. She uses the same metaphor, but for something very different.


My parents worked in a Chinese laundry and sweatshops. I was born of an arranged marriage. I was keenly aware of the stereotype that we presented. I brought that weird smelly food to lunch every day. And let me tell you, it was totally normal and fragrant, but you get what I’m saying, you know. To the outside world we were stereotypes that definitely did not broadcast, hey, future leader in the making.

After the laundry closed, my dad went on to work in one suburban Chinese restaurant after another. And there were alot of them. Starting in the back of the house, doing the really grueling jobs of dishwasher and then cook. Eventually he moved to the better jobs in the front of the house. As a waiter and then a bartender.

Getting these front of the house jobs was essentially like moving up. For us it would be a career move, you know. But they came with a trade off.

In the back of the house he could be himself, you know, he could shoot the shit with his coworkers in their shared language. He was comfortable in his skin.

As soon as he passed through those kitchen doors to wait on customers in the front of the house though, he had to assume a whole different persona. And this took a lot of energy and effort to not just learn and speak a second language, but to understand the social norms of his customers who were mostly white, suburban, and middle class. It was like having to learn a whole other language.

So this was the metaphor as I went to school, graduated into the workforce and proceeded down this leadership path. I carried that same duality of back and front of the house personas.


I’d like to play you some music.

This is the sound of Hugh Masekela, the brilliant South African jazz musician.

When Farai Madzima spoke at Leading Design, he told a story of Hugh Masekela’s journey to the United States. And what happened when he got there.


Now, if you’re a jazz musician at that time, one of the main things you wanted to do was you wanted to be in a band or you wanted to form your own band, but before you formed one, you had to become part of one.

So he’s talking to all these artists, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and he’s like, "Listen, can I be in your group? Can I, you know, can I play? I’ve got some skills, I’ve got some things I can do." And they were um-ing and ah-ing. "Yes, no, maybe you can play a session. You can do one, one or two shows with us." But he wasn’t getting any traction.

That was until he met this gentleman, miles Davis, one of the coolest jazz cats to ever live.

And miles Davis hears about Hugh trying to join the bands and he’s like, “Yo, Hugh. So let me get this straight. So you’ve flown all the way from South Africa , you’ve come all this way and you are trying to join one of our bands and become like one of us. There are thousands of jazz cats here in New York, and from all over the United States, a dime a dozen. Why do you want to become like one of us? You come from South Africa. You know melodies and rhythms that we don’t. Don’t you recognize that what you know, and where you come from is a source of uniqueness. Don’t you recognize that you can bring what you have and put it together with what we’re doing here, and you could makesomething transcendent, something that could teach us something new we could never learn by ourselves. Somethingthat could make jazz music better as a whole for everybody. This is the richness that you were ignoring when youcome here and you try to become one of us.”

Or at least this is what Hugh heard. What Miles Davis actually just said was:

“Take your shit from home. Put that with the shit that you learned here, and that’s going to be a motherfucker.”

So Miles Davis is a man of very few, but well chosen words.

And literally this is what he does. He creates a new sound called Afro fusion jazz and he starts playing this in the clubs in New York, but he continues to travel between Africa and New York and all around the world, learning new rhythms and combining them with what he was learning to create this new sound that was uniquely Hugh Masekela.

This is one of the reasons why Hugh, to me, is somebody to look up to and a hero is he is somebody who learns something about himself. He became self-aware. And he understood that what he could have recorded as something to make him an outsider, an outcast in a group, was actually a strength. And that strength was not only his own strength, but a strength that he could use to make the entire group and the product of the group much better.


I’ve been taught to go with the flow. You know, don’t make waves, be humble. And to respect my elders at all costs. Leaders, on the other hand, especially in tech, are absolutely revered for thinking disruptively, being visible as the front man. And for paving their own way.

Early in my career, checking my life experiences at that door just felt easier than bringing my whole authentic self to work every day.

There were several other women who told me that that resonated with them. And they told me their feelings of mismatched backgrounds and expectations. And this really struck me. I’m not alone. How many of us are making trade-offs between our true selves and what we think we’re supposed to be at work? And how many of us are perpetuating those trade-offs for others on our teams.

When you’re the only one of your kind in a room you’re really well aware of your differences. We’re quite conscious of other people’s unconscious bias. We’re like this kid from The Sixth Sense, "I see unconscious bias". And it’s a real burden sometimes, let me tell you.


Turns out that being one of a kind in a group of 10 is really hard.

Why? Because if the group isn’t inclusive, the one of a kinds spend an inordinate amount of their time and effort trying to find ways to be included. And this takes away from the time and focus they should be dedicating to their jobs. And as a result, their performance suffers.

And in some cases they quit or they get let go.


We can forget culture fit. When we look for people who fit our culture, what are we really doing? Likely we’re just reinforcing the boundaries of our own comfort zone. You know, we’re hiring for familiarity. If we’re willing to move beyond culture fit, those boundaries can move as well. And we can invite in a greater range of life experiences and perspectives.


Now the reason why we want people who are not like us to join our teams is because we want different perspectives. We want to make sure that we are able to harness the views of people who are not like us. And this is fantastic. But the challenge is that in a typical Western Socratic way of thinking, we believe that we can just bring the person’s perspective without bringing anything else.

But the reality is that when you bring someone’s perspective over, you bring the whole person, and that person’s perspective is rooted in culture. And that culture has practices, ways people learn to behave socially. And there are products that come out of those cultures. And so we are bringing this whole person.

And yet all we think about is a perspective. And I think that there is a bit of short-sightedness there in our industry, and we can get better at thinking about what happens when we bring people who are not like us into our team.


I get that by definition we’re not aware of our unconscious bias. Well, actually, I’m aware of your unconscious bias ’cause I can see it. But you know, that doesn’t mean that we get a pass, right? We all, myself included, all have these deep seated cultural assumptions that don’t actually line up with reality. Are we willing to own up to that? Even if it makes us uncomfortable? Cause it’s gonna. It’s going to make us very uncomfortable, but no pain, no gain, right?

Facing our discomfort is actually a sign of progress. It’s a sign of growth. And it’s a solid step that we can all take towards realizing a future that may be more fair.


I’d like to introduce you to my friend Rifa.


My name’s Rifa Thorpe-Tracey. I am the founder of a company called Refigure Limited, which is a consultancy mainly supporting women of color and LGBTQ people in the tech, digital and creative sector.


If you live or work in Brighton, you probably already know Rifa. She’s a connector. You’ll almost certainly know of her event, She Says. It started a few years ago, back when Rifa was working at Clearleft.


I’d probably been in Brighton seven years or something and had gone to a few women’s events that kind of fizzled out and I wanted to start something and it was around the time that Brighton Digital Festival was starting. And I was working in the Lighthouse building at Clearleft. And so I just started asking other women in the digital sector whether they’d be interested in coming to a meetup or an event to connect with other women working in the sector.

When I would approach women at events at Brighton Digital Festival about it, women would literally grab my arm and say yes!

It was just amazing to me that first of all, at the first event that we did, 50 women turned up, then 150 women turned up and then we outgrew our venues really quickly and ended up doing events for 300 women. And now we have 2000 women on the mailing list.


I asked Rifa to tell me about the work she does now as a diversity champion.


What I’ve noticed is that we can talk about diversity and inclusion in a kind of abstract way, about policy and practical stuff that people need to do and people can learn that. But the personal sort of experiences links in with coaching self-confidence, self-esteem wellness, feeling depressed at work.

That’s the area that I can give more value to. I coach people. I do these three hour blast sessions, which people just like get so much out of, like as an individual.

I as a one woman band have only got a finite amount of energy. Where should I really be putting my focus? I trained to be a coach and started to look at more the diversity training that I needed to be credible in the work that I was doing. Because naturally I was doing this elevating other women, elevating women of color, putting forward for board positions rather than myself putting them forward for speaking positions rather than myself, and just kind of promoting them. That’s how it’s developed.

As a, what I call, a diversity champion is that my focus is primarily on supporting the people who I’m championing: women, LGBT, people of color. And so I have a group that I started a couple of years ago on Facebook for women of color just in Brighton. And that’s grown to 600 members now.

And so I get life from that, you know, I go to that and I, I have people around me helping me to support me. And then we might all rant on there about things that have happened in our lives or microaggressions or racism that’s happened in our community or to ourselves.


Just to be clear. If you’re looking for organizational change, that’s not really Rifa’s thing.


I don’t spend a lot of time going into organizations doing diversity work per se or unconscious bias training. I usually will pass people on to consultants. That’s their core thing that they do. I’m more about working individually with people or in small groups of women and LGBT within those organizations and elevating them and getting them stronger to be able to be their best selves at work.


Clearleft is currently a lily-white agency. It’s not good. We brought in a company called Project 23 to help us out.


My name’s Elaine dela Cruz. I am the co-founder of a company called Project 23. We’re a small organization that tries to make big impact by helping businesses and organizations build diverse and inclusive cultures for everyone, making sure everyone feels valued and seen. And that there’s a better mix of people in a business as well. So we help organizations with that cultural piece rather than diversity and inclusion being a thing on the side.

Often we go into organizations and people feel uncomfortable talking about ethnicity, race, racism. And actually there are a lot more similarities than there are differences when we speak to different organizations.

What we often find is that within organizations, our intent is to make it more diverse or more inclusive. Sometimes what we find is that organizations make the mistake of thinking that intent is enough. And we are operating on fumes of good intent.

And I think that’s because historically this has been a taboo subject, so it hasn’t yet matured into a strategic conversation. So what happens is we often come in and people say, we’re good people, we want change. But overwhelmingly there isn’t enough actual strategic rigor to how we’re going to get that change. Actions, measurable outcomes, reviews, et cetera, which you would do with any other strategy. And that’s what often is lacking. For some reason, many organizations think that, for something that’s so important to us and to them, we don’t need to have measurable targets for this particular strategy.

There’s societal reasons to make sure that we are tackling inequalities that exist and that we have more diversity and inclusion in our business. And people are very comfortable and we get a lot of nods when we talk about that.

Often, especially I think because we’re two people that come from a commercial background, we also talk about theb usiness imperative. Because there are so many reasons why this is a business imperative too.

Sometimes we get nods. Sometimes people really push against that though in our experience and talk about the fact that that feels uncomfortable, that we shouldn’t necessarily attach the two together. Obviously it’s nuanced in some respects. Sometimes there isn’t commercial success if we do the right thing. This one though feels like a win-win. It is a business imperative.

I’ve worked with some organizations before where they’re getting funding for this work from the very top. And when I’ve questioned why that happened, what is the view from the very top? It’s not necessarily about doing the righ tthing. It’s a fiercely competitive market and this is a talent issue. Who are we going to hire if we’re not being inclusive of lots of different people?

So I found that really interesting that right from the top, the budget’s coming because this is a performance issue.


I asked Elaine to describe the four step process she used with Clearleft: awareness, discovery, planning, and action.


The first stage of behavior change is to assess our awareness. How aware are we of the inequalities that are out there for different types of people? How aware are we of concepts such as power and privilege?

We then can move into a bit more discovery. So with discovery, what we mean is, okay, we’re aware of these issues, let’s really get underneath the skin of those and think about how they impact and apply to us here. Either on my personal level or within our department or within the entire organization. So we’re taking on our awareness of the issues, plus our nuances of our business and discovering what the impact of that is.

We can now start to think about what we want to do with it. What we can do is review and plan, explore, discover, and then start to act, then start to make interventions or create actions off the back of it.

And from there, we want to always make sure that we’re measuring the impact of what we’re doing. There’s no point in doing stuff if we are not assessing if it’s making the change that we want.


Talking with my coworkers after the Project 23 workshops, the one that everybody mentioned was the one about privilege.


There are more conversations happening about diversity and inclusion now more than ever. I really feel the responsibility, as do all other great diversity and inclusion practitioners out there, of creating learning moments, generating change. And funnily enough, we’re always trying to challenge ourselves to work out is it good enough? Are we offering the right provocations and the right level of support or calling out and achieving the balance? Activism versus compassion.

The one consistent thing I often find is that nearly all of us do exercises around privilege. It does often have profound effects. We give a definition of privilege. They’re the unearned benefits, advantages, concessions, freedoms, opportunities that are based on membership of a dominant social group. And it’s so important to be aware of our privilege, not be ashamed of it, be aware of it, and also think about privilege like money. I can spend that privilege money that I have on myself, but I can also spend it on others.


The work that Elaine is doing is important and I’m sure it can be rewarding. But it must also be very challenging at times.


I started to do this job because I was passionate about it. And it was definitely partly based on me wanting to right some wrongs I’ve lived through, you know. I’m a British born Filipino and I’ve definitely experienced racism in my time.

My work career, gender’s always got in the way for me. I’ve experienced so much sexism along the way. That definitely shaped it. So I had this passion, this fire in my belly. Definitely. And that’s what drives me.

Personally, I experience a really spiky emotional journey. There are huge highs. So when it’s good and when there’s change and when we worked with Clearleft, you can see it, you can see it happening in front of you and it’s the impact we’re after. Conversely, the dips and the lows...

I’ll share a quick example with you.

We were invited to work with a medium-size organization. There was a single owner who was named on the door and we’d done many different workshops for their employees and, you know, lots of education and insight from most of the employees, lots of challenges and issues being surfaced too: we have these problems, there’s discrimination here, but the workshops themselves were fruitful in the sense that we’re normalizing the conversation and there was honesty in the room. Brilliant. Great. It’s not the culture that we want, but we’re making impact.

We then had a workshop with the leadership team alone, including the owner. The owner was a white middle-class man. And personally, I think that it was just too much for him in terms of holding a mirror up of the organization that he didn’t realize he had created. It was successful. So as we went through some of these conversations about white privilege, about racism, about sexism that exists, about the barriers to those from a lower socioeconomic background, he started to get more and more defensive which, you know, those create learning moments.

And me being me I offered a firm stance on a lot of the issues trying to be compassionate to everyone’s lived experience as different. And he was getting more and more irate and he was litigating it with me I found, and it was hard. It was a really violent space, actually, he was denying a lot of the racism that I had experienced personally. I just don’t think you should do that.

And that stayed with me for a long time, because I started to really question my ability of being this agent of change and being a facilitator because I lost the client. And now I’ve started to realize that there are some people who are not ready to do this work.

If we are disruptive and challenging that status quo enough, we will come across people that we lose. And perhaps that can be a marker of our success a little bit as well.


If you’re hearing me today and you don’t believe that creating teams where people of any metric of diversity should be welcomed, should feel included, should feel empowered and should feel valued for who they are, if you don’t believe that that is true, then you’re not paying attention to what the industry needs from you and what your teammates need from you. And you’re not paying attention to what the world needs from our industry.

And in my mind, there are two choices for you. The first is that you can go and get educated, and catch up to the conversation that we’re having today. Or secondly, you can get out of the way. Because we’re busy and we’re trying to make a better world with better products that are better for society and better for our future.


As designers, we strive mightily to develop empathy. It’s practically our badge of honour. We often immerse ourselves in the problem space, you know, to get that first-hand understanding of the challenges that are faced by others. We’ll explore every possible avenue in order to develop that path forward. We’re so good.

But why, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, are we not diving in?

Ticking the demographic boxes does not create inclusion. What happens after someone’s onboarded? Are we going to value the differences or will we just expect conformity? We can’t outsource this one to HR. We need to dive in.

You don’t have to boil the ocean all at once. Every effort counts. And as leaders, we have the influence and the responsibility to make meaningful change however we can. In a one-on-one. In our team meetings. At a company level. We must make a commitment to make change however we can.


Let’s get curious about the cultures of people who are not like us and the struggles that they face. Let’s ask questions about how we can do better. And let’s try some things carefully until we see some new results. Let’s build teams where people from all backgrounds can contribute and flourish.

This is the goal.


You can find Rifa Thorpe-Tracey online at

Project 23 is at

Thanks for listening.