Creating Safe Space for Difficult Conversations: Perspectives on Anti-Racist Leadership

January 3, 2021

The Anti-Racist Leadership Series: Building Belonging, Ally-ship, and Organizational Culture brought together 227 leaders hailing from 174 different organizations, businesses, and government agencies.

The series provided a safe space to have difficult conversations on the racial systems we live in. It helped participants develop new skills in anti-racist leadership and develop action plans to advance racial equity within their organizations or businesses. This series helped our community heal and our leaders deepen their collective impact. 

We asked two LGW leaders, whose organizations sponsored the series, to share their observations and discuss the impact on themselves and their work. Kathy Albarado (’20) is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Helios HR and Joe Budzynski (’06) is the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Volunteers of America. We are proud to share their insights on the series:

Kathy Albarado (’20), Chief Executive Officer, Helios HR

What inspired you to get involved in the series?

After the murder of George Floyd and the visibility of that, I had a young woman on my team, who is now part of the program, write a beautiful message to the team on our SharePoint site.  

She could have taken the tact of anger and she didn’t. Instead, she talked about the senseless abuse that continues to happen. She quoted Maya Angelou, “We are more alike, my friends than we are unalike.” She said that “if this is darkness Helios can be the light. We have a choice in how we respond.” That moved me so much. She really inspired me to ask how we can get engaged. So internally, we launched a Conscious Inclusion and Belonging Employee Resource Group. We had not previously had a group of people specifically focused on that.

The group was a volunteer effort. We talked about what we wanted to do, and the focus was on making an impact. We recognized that this was a movement, not a moment. So, when we came together, we looked at how to impact change in our organization and then to look at the position we hold as HR leaders in supporting hundreds of clients in this region so we could help other leaders and other organizations move forward.

That was our big goal. We started boiling the ocean and we narrowed it down. We had Howard Ross (’91) come out and do a town-hall. The conversations that he allowed and encouraged in our small groups were really helpful. So, when LGW came out with this program I wanted all of my people to go.

How has the series changed your approach to leading within your organization on this issue?

No one believes they are racist unless they are intentionally racist. What this program has done is shine a light on behaviors that are racist or can be interpreted as racist whether they are intentional or not.

The mission of our Conscious Inclusion and Belonging Employee Resource Group is to educate on diversity and implement actions that foster conscious inclusion and belonging within the Helios HR culture, and leverage our roles as advisors to influence meaningful change within our client relationships.

It started with education. The team decided they wanted to focus on educating people about what microaggressions are. And then ally-ship. How can we become good allies? The program that LGW offers completely supports that and gives us more tools. I got excited about it because this would foster that and encourage our mission. And we would get to have a dialogue with other leaders. I gave everyone the option to either break into groups through the LGW program or break into groups internally with colleagues or do both.

I had no idea how powerful the breakout sessions would be with other leaders in the program. And the study groups are powerful. That is an amazing gift to be able to take the time to breathe, to take the content that was shared, and the historical perspective, and be able to do a deep dive in a really safe space. That was really unique. Then, we took the time to do the same within our Helios HR groups. I don’t think we would have been able to do that without LGW providing the space and structure to have these conversations.

Everyone on our talent team has their Certified Diversity and Inclusion Recruiter (CDR) credential, so we are able to better support our clients. We have a program called Promoting a Respectful Workplace. A lot of people are offending their colleagues but not intentionally.

How has the HR profession evolved over time? How has the latest righteous unrest led to more companies creating safe spaces for difficult conversations?

The HR profession has evolved significantly. When I got in, and this is going to date me, it wasn’t even referred to as HR. It was not the called the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) it was the American Society of Personnel Administrators (ASPA). It was a tactical, “keep us out of the media,” kind of thing. It was strictly compliance-oriented in the very beginning when I started my career. Then it moved into Human Resources and Human Capital. Each step has become much more strategic as people began to realize they cannot have a successful business without qualified top-talent.

It became less about risk-avoidance. Those were just table stakes. It shifted over the years to attracting and retaining an excellent workforce. The profession has evolved significantly. People were not having difficult conversations. As another example, the matter of talking about religion in the workplace. People were afraid to talk about that because they didn’t want to offend someone. That’s just stupid. We have a concept at Helios called, “Bring Your Whole Self to Work”. Another way of putting that is to bring your authentic self to work. To do that, you have to know what is going on in people’s lives.

For leaders to be able to support you, we need to know what’s going on. Our values are: demonstrate caring for your colleagues, clients, and community, operate with intention, be engaged, and participate. When we do all of these things, we make big things happen through a growth mindset. Our staff used to meet on Friday once per month before the pandemic. I am a big hugger and people would say, “Kathy the hugging thing might not be appropriate in the HR profession.” But people soon realized that was ridiculous. This is another example of risk-aversion persisting in the profession.

We had to evolve to get to the place we could have difficult conversations. The profession of Human Resources has really changed significantly because a lot of the conversations are no longer looked at as too risky. Take for example Black Lives Matter, people were afraid to say that on their websites because it was looked at as too controversial. They would say they ‘we support diversity and inclusion.’ And Black Lives Matter shouldn’t have been controversial. It was about this lived history that Black and Brown people have experienced over the last 400 years. Their experience was unique. My pastor pointed out in our church service that “all lives don’t matter until Black Lives Matter.” So, you try to educate if people are open to understanding it.

Has the series changed the way you approach anti-racist leadership in your personal life?

Generationally, no one thinks they are discriminating. You know they say, ‘don’t talk about certain things at the Thanksgiving Table,’ because it is going to disrupt the cohesiveness of family. Having conversations about race based on the historical background is really important. When we go to educate others, it is really helpful to not make it political. It has been helpful to have clarity in how to have these conversations through the educational platform provided by the series. This helps us have the impact we are seeking. So, when we get specific about red-lining and income inequality it is helpful for explaining the concepts of Anti-Racism to others.

My family immigrated here from Greece and we did okay. But we have white skin, and some people don’t immediately understand the privilege of that. The series has given me factual-based perspectives that help me say things that feel thoughtful and intentional that do not inflame people. People can unintentionally make ignorant comments. When that happens, it is hard not to respond viscerally. It is important to see it as a growth opportunity. Today people are a lot more willing to have these conversations than they were before.

The anti-racist leadership series has given us a safe space to have difficult conversations and the framework to do that. When we have the opportunity to do that with people we haven’t met before, it allows us to have deep conversations, and take what we learn back internally.

Joe Budzynski (’06), Chief Financial Officer, Volunteers of America

What inspired you to get involved in the series? 

Leadership Greater Washington has had great quality programming. Especially under Doug’s leadership. When this program came up, I knew it would be of quality, and I was very interested to see what I could get out of it. Secondly, the topic was incredibly relevant and timely for us. For me, based on my experience with other Leadership Greater Washington programs, I knew this would be engaging. That was key for me to want to do more. And as a sponsor, it was a way for me to engage the Volunteers of America family, so we could all be a part of this important conversation.

How has the series changed your approach to leading within your organization on this issue?

For me, one of the first things I did as I started to experience this program, was to form a special senior leadership team “pod,” if you will. I knew that the program had pods (or small groups) themselves, but to make this more impactful within our organization we also needed to have a more serious discussion amongst ourselves. Having that safe space and having the ability to have open conversations we would not have had before has been very important for us in determining how we as leaders at Volunteers of America are making a true difference. We changed our approach internally and externally to how we approach anti-racism. We are taking the books LGW has suggested and using a series of chapters as we go through the program.  

It is going to be a lifelong journey. I am grateful that my senior leadership team gravitated to the call that I put out, to decide that we should move forward in this conversation together and to consider what needs to change at Volunteers of America.

What has been the impact of the series on your organization, work, and life? 

For the organization of Volunteers of America, six of our nine Executive Vice Presidents at the national office are participating in the series. We are super excited about that. Our President and CEO said that this series has helped him on a personal journey that he called one of the most important of his life. So, when you talk about tone at the top, I am thrilled that he has embraced this and that he wanted to engage all of us.

The series is also helping all levels of our leaders to be more open, curious, and empathetic. In addition, there is a commitment to continuing this learning. To consider what else we need to know. For us, that has translated into seeking funding for us to create executive-level education programs on racial equity. This has really been a springboard in helping us align and be able to articulate what needs to be said as we seek outside funding to be able to move this initiative forward within Volunteers of America.

It is also helping in building and understanding a common language with other national organizations. Because of our sponsorship, we have been able to include a lot of people within Volunteers of America. 17 of our 30 affiliates are participating at some level. In addition to the national office staff. This is expanding our conversation within Volunteers of America. We are taking some of the educational tools and framing those out so they can support our 30 affiliates as well. This is very much in line with our strategic plan around diversity, equity, and inclusion and it is moving the needle forward.

I am very appreciative of Leadership Greater Washington for stepping up into this space. Not only for myself as an LGW member, but for my organization, and everyone else in the greater Washington region.

Special thanks to our sponsors Helios HR and Volunteers of America for sponsoring our flagship Anti-Racist Leadership Series: Building Belonging, Ally-Ship, and Organizational Culture. The series is continuing with our 201: Further Explorations into Creating Anti-Racist Organizations for those who participated in the first series.

We are offering a second iteration of the first Anti-Racist Leadership series for new participants from January-June of 2021. Details and registration can be found here.


Creating Safe Space for Difficult Conversations: Perspectives on Anti-Racist Leadership