Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: February 7, 2022 Outside the Box

Successful leaders center 'belonging'

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
Check out Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, through the links at the bottom of this page.
More Information

There must be an intentional mindfulness of leaders who commit to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice work. 

Thinking about DEIJ, and therefore being supportive and responsive to peoples’ needs, with empathy and equitable and inclusive practice, cannot only happen in crisis, or when an organization is looking to recruit or retain diverse people, or when we are orchestrating the covers of our marketing material. 

It’s not about the fun cultural festival that happens once a year, and it’s not about the diverse speaker who comes in to showcase a diversity message. It’s also not about one great DEIJ-focused professional development session, or one responsibility tied to DEIJ put in a job description, and certainly not about one diverse hire. 

It’s about doing all those things, and none of them.

Leaders who are committed to DEIJ work hard to center “belonging” for all members of their organization all the time in everything that they do. Frankly, to do this, leaders have to de-center whiteness and re-center everyone; this being their priority goal in committing to the efforts, and in decision-making every day. 

The first time I decentered whiteness in my consciousness was when I was in the second grade. I remember my great English teacher, Mr. Mullen, and I remember him most vividly because he asked our class this question (and he had very strong coffee breath):

When you read books about characters in a story, do you assume that the characters are white until they are explicitly defined as a person of color? Why wouldn’t we assume that they are of color until explicitly defined as white? 

To decenter whiteness in America is to rebel against every structure in place, every implicit and explicit message we’ve been taught as a society about what is important and who is superior. Decentralizing whiteness does not mean to erase it nor to under-serve or invalidate white people, rather it is to elevate everyone to a place of equal power, privilege, and influence, where no single person or group within the construct is greater than the whole. 

Leaders who center organizational “belonging” have a healthy self-relationship of introspection; they are committed to personal self-growth. They are self-reflective so that they might grow. They don’t leave their assumptions unexamined, so that they can avoid their fears and remain the same-same in thought, belief, and action. 

To the contrary, leaders who commit to elevating “belonging,” specifically when it comes to racial oppression, are committed to decentering whiteness. If we are not willing to do something different, we are settling on stagnation and living through egotistical confidence, or perhaps confirmation bias that tells us we are doing enough. And this breeds insular thinking that excludes rather than including. 

For many, it’s easier to stay the same and keep things the same than it is to go through the “growing pains.” Am I actively seeking confirmation bias for my unexamined perspectives? 

Leaders who have achieved meaningful success in centering belonging don’t get sabotaged and derailed by their own incomplete and unexamined thoughts, beliefs, and actions in navigating the work and difficult decisions. Successful “belonging” champions are reflective and honest about their shortcomings as it relates to the realm of DEIJ, because even expert practitioners must continuously manage the evolving language, constant and developing needs and societal shifts. The challenges are compounded and always changing.

“Belonging” champions acknowledge their emotions tied to difficult conversations and topics focused on DEIJ and manage them. They are not constantly getting overwhelmed by emotions about DEIJ. Whether the emotion is painful, questioning, fearful, or otherwise, they are managed. This is the case because they are constantly being self-reflective and introspective and so these emotions are known to them and processed, rather than unknown or stuffed away, where they can consciously or subconsciously erode their ability to deal with them.

It’s important to think about what we are feeling, and specifically as it pertains to race and racism. Understanding and acknowledging our emotions in this realm – especially the not-so-pleasant emotions, for example, tied to privilege, race, socioeconomic status, microaggressions, cultural differences, and language – allows us to maintain a healthy perspective and clear thoughts around our perspectives. 

Reflect on: what has my lived experience been like? What is my lens to the world? Why does a specific DEIJ-related topic trigger me? 

Leaders who center “belonging” update their expectations and/or goals frequently. Expectations are powerful beliefs about the future or what you believe should happen. Expectations around supporting and elevating DEIJ issues should be examined and reexamined as the organizational landscape changes. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today and what we hoped to accomplish tomorrow might not come to fruition perhaps because of priority shifts, new members, old members exiting, or any other type of change. 

Fixed goals without any flexibility are even more unrealistic in DEIJ work, because of the constantly changing variables. You can and should revisit and re-examine and adjust and readjust and question your DEIJ goals over time and through changes.

Be sure that if you insist on having expectations, that you insist on having realistic ones.

  • Remember, belonging champions do the following things as a baseline: 
  • Have a mindfulness for DEIJ issues and work;
  • Think about their thinking in this realm and acknowledge their shortcomings;
  • Manage their own and others’ challenging emotions tied to DEIJ;
  • Examine and re-examine their expectations and goals, making sure that they are realistic.

Bonnie J. Walker is the director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 16 years. Contact her at

Sign up for Enews

WBJ Web Partners


Order a PDF