Meet EBDI's Founders
An Interview with Ahmmad Brown & Jéssica Oliveira
EBDI co-founders Ahmmad Brown and Jéssica Oliveira spoke with EBDI communications director Alex Reisman in January 2021 about why and how they started EBDI and where they are looking to take the company. The interview has been edited for clarity.
AR: You were friends before you decided to start the company together. How did you meet?
Jéssica Oliveira: Ahmmad was new to Bridgespan, and I had been working there probably for a year or so. The first time we talked was at this BABs/LATBA [Blacks at Bridgespan and Bain/Latinx at Bridgespan and Bain] dinner that I had organized for the new hires to meet with the existing Black and Latinx employees and to socialize. I think we probably wouldn't have connected sooner because Ahmmad was on the consulting side of the organization and I was an executive assistant, so we didn't really have many reasons for us to cross paths before that.
Ahmmad Brown: It's highly abnormal that we became friends, just purely for the fact that there would have been no reason institutionally or structurally for us to interact. We might return to this point because it really informs a lot of the way we think about our work, particularly with inclusion.
Ahmmad, you had been incubating the idea for EBDI for a while. When did you decide to make it a reality and why?
AB: I decided to make it a reality [in June of 2020] because people started reaching out to me in the summer, in the proliferation of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of a series of events that will go down in history. Of course the big incident was the George Floyd murder. But before there was also Ahmaud Arbery, there was the New York City Central Park incident that wasn't physically violent. Also, in the midst of the pandemic, and there've been people who've written about this, it was sort of a perfect storm for people to begin to care about issues of racial equity and justice, because people were all sitting at home, tuning into social media and traditional media and there was a greater bandwidth to absorb this information.
So the visceral nature of the George Floyd murder prompted, as we know, a national outcry. And given my personal network [and background in racial equity work], I just started getting a lot of phone calls, emails, text messages, like, “Hey do you have time to talk? My organization is really trying to grapple with what to do.”
"I just started questioning these taken-for-granted things, and thinking, what are truly the pain points? How can we address them? If we're truly interested in having people bring their authentic selves to work, what would it mean to make that happen?"
It got to a point where it didn't make sense for me to give free advice anymore. To give a little bit more texture, I had just gone through this process where I had chaired [a DEI] committee in the Harvard Sociology Department. I was honored and privileged to have that opportunity. But I didn't get paid for it, and I put in a ton of work. [It’s widely known] that people with marginalized or traditionally marginalized social identities take on [uncompensated labor] in work settings and academic settings. I was reflecting on that and I'm like, I'm going to start an organization.
What were some of the ideas you had when you started to formulate the concept of a consulting practice around diversity, equity and inclusion?
AB: Two main areas. Number one, in both academic and more importantly in practitioner spaces, “Diversity Management” is a thing. And my academic advisors may not like me saying this, but I don't know what it means to “manage diversity.” I know what it means if we were to take those terms literally and if we think of diversity as heterogeneity in a group or organizational context along various dimensions. But in a practitioner space in particular, when we talk about Diversity Management, what people hear and what people understand is, “How do you manage the people of color? How do you manage the Black folk? How do you manage the gay people?” You know, how do
we manage these people who are different from this dominant, White, heterosexual, male, cis-gendered culture that we are embedded in, and that organizations replicate at the organizational and group and unit levels. I just get frustrated with [the concept of] Diversity Management. Like “Let's manage the others,” you know?
And all the DEI firms that I’d engaged with took it for granted. Yeah, they were about inclusion, they were about people bringing their full selves to work—these are all great things—but aside from a framework and rhetoric, they would interact like most consultants, who are serving the client, [and the clients are] the leaders of the organization. The consultants are not meaningfully engaging with the junior employees, operational staff or executive assistants. The engagement, the findings, the takeaways are all tailored to what the CEO or the president,
"You have to take, as an organizational leader, responsibility in the fact that you have the power to do or not do something about equity and inclusion."
the managing director, the top [management] team is looking for. I’d participate in these engagements, but there was always a cynicism, because I never actually believed that, as the efforts were being conceived and implemented, that there would be really any meaningful change.
So I [had been] frustrated at the lack of imagination that people had around diversity, equity and inclusion. You learn in sociology that you don't take anything for granted. [These structures and cultures] are man-made, they're institutions. Oftentimes they actually aren't very old to be honest. I've always been a big picture thinker, thinking about what could be, at levels that sometimes aren't useful for practical conversations. But that's the dreamer in me, and I just started asking myself questions and eventually externalizing these questions. Like, why don't we do this? Why do we hold meetings this way? Why is “answer first” the right way to communicate in all contexts? Just sort of questioning all these taken-for-granted things, and then applying that to issues of diversity and inclusion, and thinking, what are truly the pain points? How can we address them? If we're truly interested in having people bring their authentic selves, if not their full selves, to work, what would it mean to make that happen?
"I wanted to bring greater humility, vulnerability, and willingness to talk and engage in organizational settings."
You have to take, as an organizational leader, responsibility in the fact that you have the power to do or not do something [about equity and inclusion]. I don't think it's a huge mystery. I think the question is, are we willing? Are people willing to do this work? Are we willing to humble ourselves to actually listen and to engage and be able to learn how to be vulnerable, how to create space, how to take space, take space to create space? All of these things that allow people to be heard and engaged. I think for EBDI, our work is to figure out how we bring rigor to that process.
You decided to bring in Jéssica fairly early on in the process. Tell us about why you thought of Jéssica and then Jéssica, I'd love to hear your side of the story and what got you excited to work on EBDI, why you said yes.
AB: I thought of Jéssica because of the whole talking and listening, being heard and creating an environment where people can be heard and feel that they're engaged. I didn't know anyone better equipped to do that work. I had a general sense of what I wanted. I wanted to bring greater humility, vulnerability, and willingness to talk and engage in organizational settings, and I thought Jéssica was, to be scientific about it, the best instrument to make that happen.
JO: In terms of what got me to say yes, I do community organizing work now and this pandemic has made me think a lot about disability justice. In particular we're all at home, at least those of us who have the class privilege to be able to work from home. And I'm intrigued by the fact that previously this was something many organizations would say is not possible, “working remotely is not possible for this job,” which has always felt arbitrary and also has privileged people who are able-bodied or able-minded. And that's, in my mind, created an opportunity for how organizations can be different coming out of this moment.
I hear Ahmmad talk about lack of imagination, and I agree. I think the imagination or the will wasn't there to create opportunities for employees to be able to do their work in a way that suits their needs. And now we can't go back to a place before [the pandemic], right? Like we can't go back and not know what it was like to experience this. So I think it's putting society, but in particular organizations, in a position of being able to shift some things that have been unjust for a long time. So I was interested in supporting organizations to do this. I also think back to being an executive assistant and being someone who held a lot of space emotionally for others who were my seniors, whose titles and roles and compensations were above me in the hierarchy. And there was no process, there was no system for supporting me in doing that work. In fact, it was actually discouraged that I spend so much of my workday creating space for my colleagues who were clearly having a hard time.
As Ahmmad mentioned, we're in this moment where in this past decade we've been confronted, since Obama's election, really, with the rise of White Supremacist Culture. And I think that this increased visibility and in particular, since last summer's racial uprisings, we've seen a critical mass of White allies also come forward and be interested in the implications of racism beyond the individual level, into the organizational, into the societal level. I'm excited by that, and also afraid because there have been a lot of really great minds who have been doing this work for generations, and I think sometimes organizations or individuals expect that we'll be able to solve things really quickly. And I think it's disrespectful of the traditions that have been doing this work for a really long time and of ancestors who have given their time and their lives for this work. Now that we have greater visibility and greater allyship, I'm worried about [those in this movement becoming] overwhelmed and burning out and deciding that this problem is too big to tackle.
"We've seen a critical mass of White allies come forward and be interested in the implications of racism beyond the individual level, into the organizational, into the societal level. I'm excited by that, and also afraid because there have been a lot of great minds who have been doing this work for generations, and I think sometimes organizations or individuals expect that we'll be able to solve things really quickly."
Ahmmad knows this about me, I'm not a Pollyanna. In fact, I'm skeptical of people who push gratitude. Because I think that it erases real and tangible problems that we can solve as a society. So when Ahmmad approached me, I was a fan of the idea of turning towards the anger that a lot of people are feeling, the experiences that we've suppressed or pushed to the margins of society and, instead of trying to hide them away and be ashamed, approach them with curiosity and try to learn. So I was a fan of that, and I was a fan of using storytelling as a way to connect and to build bridges, and I had already been doing some of that as a writer. But I was excited to create some of these frameworks and processes that would support people from very different backgrounds and life experiences to come together and be able to tell their stories and also hear each other.
"I was a fan of using storytelling as a way to connect and to build bridges. I was excited to create frameworks and processes that would support people from very different backgrounds and life experiences to come together and be able to tell their stories and also hear each other."
Has your vision or model changed since you started working with clients?
AB: For me the vision hasn't. We're saying we operate at the organizational level because we believe, and we cite the academic literature on this, that organizations are a primary, if not the primary mechanism, by which inequality or inequity is perpetuated at the societal level. So logically our vision is to engage organizations and help them become more equitable, more inclusive with the idea that that will inform the distribution of resources, be they material things or non-material or symbolic—things like status, pride in your work, pride in your role. Things that we know are inequitably distributed and are often convertible to material resources. So that vision hasn't changed.
As a tangible example, there’s the use of heuristics [by organizations], like the type of educational institution you went to. We know that all people do not have equal access to high-status educational organizations. We know that workplaces disproportionately recruit based on status. They use status as a proxy or a heuristic for quality, and there are understandable reasons why that's done. But then in turn, if you're recruiting only from a handful of institutions, you're in turn likely to get the same set of people along salient dimensions and identity markers, and in turn are just more likely to reproduce the systemic inequity and inequality that we’re theoretically trying to unroot. We're trying to, at minimum, make organizations aware of this fact, and then, in an ideal world, move them even just a little bit toward, “Okay, how can we be more equitable?
How can we be more inclusive? What are the assumptions we're making in evaluation processes, what are the assumptions we're making in terms of how we can work with one another?”
And going back to the beginning of this conversation, there's no reason structurally for Jéssica and I to have met or engaged in any meaningful sense. She was an executive assistant, which in that particular professional context was low-status, I’m just going to name that. Unless I made manager, there would've been no reason for me to engage with her. Jéssica was going above and beyond to bring her talents and her abilities to bear for the benefit of the organization, even though she was not recognized or compensated. In fact she was discouraged from engaging in those ways. Just think about the loss at the organizational level if we compound that by all of the Jéssicas at different organizations across the world, just the amount of loss that we're allowing to happen.
And I'm not I'm not saying “there shouldn't be roles, there shouldn't be functions.” I'm not saying that at all, but let's start to engage with each other on a more human level, [without] treating status as a scarce resource that is to be distributed along, frankly, arbitrary lines. And let's actually start to engage one another and try to make the most of what we all can bring to bear for the benefit of organizations at large and by extension society.
JO: I think if anything, the vision is becoming clearer. A few more reflections from my time as an executive assistant—I remember that I worked in a team of nearly 10 executive assistants, every
"If you're recruiting only from a handful of institutions, you're likely to get the same set of people along salient dimensions and identity markers, and in turn are just more likely to reproduce the systemic inequity and inequality that we’re theoretically trying to unroot."
manager or partner at the organization had access to an executive assistant, so there were 10 or 12 of us in a team, all of us women, all in our early twenties. And I remember something that was said to me by someone in recruiting, that the reason why we had an all-women team is because men would never accept the salary for this position. And just the weight of that statement, to be said to someone who's in that position without shame, without care, like it was just a fact, you know?
So I think that was something that really impacted me and my view on the way that organizations can be naïve about the power that they have and the way that they recreate systems of oppression on a day-to-day basis. I remember participating in many conversations that were focused on recruiting. I think the place that many
organizations go when they decide that they care about D&I [diversity and inclusion] is D, right. Like how do we bring more people of color, more women, and more LGBTQ, disabled people into the organization? How do we bring them in? And the reason I say naïve is because they continue to recruit at the same places. I think that organizations need to face these patterns and, like Ahmmad said, either know that that's what's happening and decide not to do something about it. But then know that you're deciding not to do something about it, or change.
I recall being an executive assistant, obviously by choice at the time, but I shared the background of some of [the organization’s] associate consultants. I had been a teacher, I was in many ways, an end user of our [organization’s] services. As someone who was an immigrant, who was low
You started EBDI in a pandemic. In some ways the pandemic allowed you to start the company, created conditions for it, but what particular difficulties or experiences have you had conducting this work entirely via Zoom?
income, who had grown up in the city. I won't say our experiences are a monolith, but I knew in many ways what it's like to come from these communities, and also what it's like to have an external force tell you what you should do so that your conditions could be different, even though you are not the creator of those conditions. So it feels naïve to me to not ask the people who have actually experienced oppression to have a say in the programs or initiatives or campaigns that are launched on their behalf.
"Organizations can be naïve about the power that they have and the way that they recreate systems of oppression on a day-to-day basis."
AB: I think the positive side of this is that people are looking for ways to connect, which speaks to our model. Whether you're introverted or extroverted, something that seems to be pretty common across our engagements is that people just miss community. If you want to bring a business lens to this, it can be uncomfortable to reach out for support or for help or collaboration if you're in an environment where time is highly valued, and there's a culture of making sure you're maximizing someone else's time when you ask for it. You don't want to bother someone if you're not sure they have a moment or, as we've heard in some of our focus groups, if you don't know that person so well. So there's a lot of value, I believe, in creating environments where people are more naturally connected to one another. In the pre-pandemic status quo, there were plenty
of people who may have felt saturated with company culture activities. I think right now people and employees of all types, irrespective of personal characteristics and personalities, are really seeking and desiring engagement and connection with their communities. So that's worked out very well for us.
"I would argue just by virtue of the systems in which we live, we all have, at some point, perpetrated harm, whether intentionally or unintentionally."
Is there anything you'd want to add about elements of your own background or experience that you've found helpful in working with individuals and organizations?
AB: We're in the process of developing an overarching theory of change, [with] two levels of theory of change. One of which is the societal level, which at a high level I've already talked
about—organizations are a mechanism for inequality and inequity and in turn, if they’re a mechanism for that, they can be a mechanism for equality and equity and inclusion. So that's why we work at the organizational level, if the end goal is to help create a society that's more equitable and inclusive. So then the question becomes, okay, well, if that's the societal level theory of change, how do you get organizations to be more equitable and inclusive?
And a lot of that theory of change, which we've codified to a degree, but we still need to make more precise, is around storytelling, narrative development, vulnerability. So, getting people to talk, getting people to be vulnerable and engaged with one another as humans. The mechanism by which we do that is through storytelling and narrative. A key tenet of ours in that process is that we draw heavily on the principles of Transformative Justice. We also draw on Restorative Justice, but particularly on Transformative Justice. I'll let Jéssica speak more about this, but the basic idea is that we're trying to transform harm that has been experienced or perpetuated by people, individuals, or organizations. And I mention this not in contrast, but just by quick comparison to the tenets of Restorative Justice. When we think about Restorative Justice, you're restoring a relationship at the group level or the individual level. And the idea is that if there's a perpetrator and someone who has experienced harm, at some point you need to get those people to engage, right? Transformative Justice doesn't necessitate that. And at least for me, I'm drawn to the Transformative Justice model because I think so many of the harms that are experienced in organizational settings, or at least high status organizations, they’re what I call “little H harm” or “little V violence” or “little T trauma,” as opposed to big letter versions of those things. If you think about microaggressions, for example, it's not the single microaggression that breaks an employee or a member of an organization. It's the fact that they've experienced them multiple times over their lifetime at that particular organization or a particular profession, whatever the case may be. And at some point it just breaks people. It's also to not conflate and create false equivalency with people who have survived or are victims of big V violence, like assault, physical harm. I certainly do not want to create a false equivalency.
That said, so much of the harm, violence and trauma that can be experienced in the types of organizations that we work with are often, not always, but often are the “little letter” versions of these things. There might be value in getting the person who is a perpetrator of a microaggression and a person who experienced a microaggression in the room together to talk it out, but I don't think that's the most valuable thing for organizations at this point. Speaking for myself and given my marginalized identity as a Black person, I know that I don't always care to speak with people who have offended me or have harmed me. I just want my situation and the institutional environments I'm in to be better.
"I don't believe in 'cancel culture,' if for no other reason than I know that I've transformed my life. I've grown."
We think the way to do that is through the Transformative Justice model where—and this is key—we're not disposing of people who have been the perpetrators of little-H harm, little-V violence, little-T trauma. We're not trying to censure them. We're not trying to make sure that they know they've screwed up and they should be ashamed, right. That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to bring them into engagement and conversation so that they can transform. So that they can recognize the ways that they've harmed or caused violence, or caused trauma and be better for it. And that actually is very personal to me, in that as a Black person, a Black male in particular, I've been the object of harm, violence, trauma, and also given other privileged identities I have as a male, or as a Black male, as an intersecting identity...In some contexts, being a Black male I'm advantaged because of my maleness, other contexts, it's a big disadvantage because of my maleness.
But if we just isolate my male gender identity, I know I've been the perpetrator of harm. There are things that I've done in my life, things I've said in my life, ways I've engaged with people that I'm not very proud of. I fundamentally believe in non-disposability, or the common phrase now is “cancel culture.” I don't believe in “cancel culture,” if for no other reason than I know that I've transformed my life. I've grown. It wasn't until my mid- to late-twenties that I began to even have a vocabulary and an awareness to recognize, “Oh, wow, when you did that, that was really screwed up. You used your male privilege in that way, or when you made a woman feel this way because of your male privilege,” or whatever the case may be. It was relatively—not late in my life, I'm still young—but in terms of how long I lived at this point, [it's only been] relatively recently that I’ve become more aware and self-aware and conscious of all these systems of oppression and how they intersect, or don't intersect, in certain situations. So I have this very optimistic belief that if I can transform, so can the next person.
And I would argue just by virtue of the systems in which we live, we all have, at some point, perpetrated harm, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It doesn't really matter. At a fundamental level, I’m deeply optimistic about individuals' capacities, and in turn organization's, capacities to change.
JO: I'll add that I think between Restorative and Transformative Justice, the reason why I similarly lean towards Transformative Justice is that Restorative [Justice] is, as the name suggests, trying to restore the conditions before an act of violence or harm has happened, right? I think Transformative Justice recognizes that violence doesn't happen in a vacuum, and that there are societal conditions that make it so that violence is created and perpetuated. And so the goal with
"I think sometimes we can get so hung up on using particular jargon, particular phrases or frameworks to describe what we're experiencing, but I think that can really easily become a form of elitism in and of itself, a form of hierarchy, of power over instead of power with."
Transformative Justice is to eradicate systems that lead to harm, and to break cycles of violence. I think that that can look many ways.
I think Transformative Justice, similar to Restorative Justice, can include some type of accountability process. It can include communication between those who have experienced and those who have perpetrated violence. I think they can actually look very similar to each other, but there's something about the intention behind Transformative Justice that really resonates with me as a framework. And really it is an abolitionist framework. I recommend reading Mia Mingus, if this is something that appeals to you because it is grounded in the idea that systems such as
prisons, or ICE, or the police—they carry out enormous amounts of violence, and were created inherently to maintain social control. And I think that I'm interested in the application of that same framework to organizations and how we can, without corrupting that framework, bring it into organizational behavior and into how individuals with and without power engage each other.
How do you each see your co-founder, what they’re bringing to the work? Essentially, what are they covering that you're not covering? And what does it do for you as you work together?
JO: Ahmmad and I were talking about this yesterday and we came up with this analogy of Ahmmad as the architect. I feel very supported by his vision and the access to academic knowledge. I think one thing that we talked about even before we really started working with partners is that we operate in these different spaces, right? Like Ahmmad is in this academic world and I'm in more of a social justice space. And we were bonding on how both of these spaces can feel really exclusive. There's a certain language you have to use, there's a certain way you have to carry yourself. And we were reflecting on how some of the challenges that I experienced in for-profit spaces are replicated in social justice spaces. I think the dream was, if we could get these two different worlds to collide then maybe there's something that we can learn from each other. Or at least start using the same language, because language is so important. It's how we understand each other. It's how we make sense of the world. I think sometimes we can get so hung up on using particular jargon, particular phrases or frameworks to describe what we're experiencing, but I think that can really easily become a form of elitism in and of itself, a form of hierarchy, of power over instead of power with. So I appreciate Ahmmad’s vision and his architectural power, with me and with our partners, and how he holds me clear to that vision.
AB: The other analogy that we played with yesterday is if I'm the show runner, Jéssica is the talent. So kind of in line with the architect analogy, in all aspects of my life, professionally and personally, I tend to think long-term, very strategically, what needs to happen at this step for the next step to happen, what needs to happen a year from now, so that what I want to happen two years from
now happens. I enjoy mapping out, “Okay, if this, then that.” It's not just one scenario all mapped out, but multiple versions that ultimately get to a goal.
So I think I bring that to this work. I sought Jéssica’s partnership in this because she’s the talent. I think we complement each other in
"The dream and vision for EBDI is to be a resource and an organization that brings people who wouldn't otherwise connect with one another together."
various ways. And I think there are ways in which we overlap. Jéssica would be selling herself short if she said that she doesn't do some of the vision work, and I'd be selling myself short if I said that I don't facilitate or I don't create space.
I learned so much from Jéssica in terms of how to execute this vision that I came up with. I can create the sketch of what I want this to look like in a shell form. I need help, though, filling it out. And Jéssica is excellent at filling it out. Particularly in real time. As I said earlier, we have a plan, don’t get me wrong, we've thought a lot about all of this, but at the same time part of our theory is that we just need to start working with organizations. And I really relied on Jéssica with our partner organizations to bring our core model Dialogues to fruition.
One last question: can you share your thoughts for EBDI in the future, or where you see EBDI going in the future?
AB: The dream and vision for EBDI is to be a resource and an organization that brings people who wouldn't otherwise connect with one another together. That's very abstract, so I'll give slightly more detail. This is speaking to one of the points that Jéssica just made a few moments ago around [social justice, academic, non-profit, and for-profit organizations each having their own space]. And they’re each the experts at what they do. At the same time, [each of these different spaces have different knowledge when it comes to] issues of equity and inclusion.
Having straddled these spaces, having been in a high-status, nonprofit organization, currently being in the academy, having done business school, having exposure to the highest status for-profit institutions, I'm kind of a chameleon in that I can speak the language on a basic level in all of these different spaces. I'm not an expert in any single space, I wouldn't dare say that. But what I would say is that these spaces should be talking to one another, they should be engaging one another. And when I say talking, I don't mean literally talking, more in a proverbial sense. And the vision for EBDI is to be a convener—to bring the social justice person who has great ideas about equity and inclusion in contact with the person who works in the for-profit entity that is trying to crack this nut of, “Our pulse surveys show that people feel that they're not included every quarter, and we we spend all this money on diversity training, but we can't figure out why.” And all the different ways that people from categorically different spaces can engage and learn from one another and work toward our goal of having a more equitable and inclusive society.
Again, because we believe organizations—not just formal organizations, but associations of people—are the mechanism by which inequality and inequity is produced and reproduced. So the vision is to create spaces, be they physical, be they digital in various media, be it academic writing, non-academic writing fiction, non-fiction—all of these forms of communication and engagement. [The vision is to create] a space where ideas can be shared at the organizational level and then potentially more broadly, publicly as well. We're trying to bring Dialogues, which we're doing at the organizational level, to higher levels of engagement: the organizational, at the public level, potentially even at the societal level. So if we dare to dream, that's where we want to go. We want to scale Dialogues and, not necessarily in terms of working with more organizations, but reaching more people via other platforms beyond one-off engagements with partners.
JO: I don't know that I have much more to add to that. I think that you've nailed it, Ahmmad. I guess if I do want to add anything, it's that I'm interested in collecting this wisdom that comes from different people's experiences for public or mass consumption. I think so many of us are operating in silos, and particularly during pandemic conditions, we are disconnected from each other. And that feeling of isolation, I think it weighs on us. It weighs on our mental health. It weighs on how we're able to feel integrated into different spaces, including the organizations that we're a part of. So I'm just interested in bringing people together, bringing ideas together stories and building off of those.