Racial Equity as an Outcome – A Conversation with Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh

January 15, 2021

Racial Equity as an Outcome – A Conversation with Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh

Who is Karyn Trader-Leigh? She is a strategist, change-agent, researcher and leader who helps organizations reach their goals for advancing racial equity. Her work has spanned the globe and she now brings her renowned experience to the table as co-facilitator of our Anti-Racist Leadership Series.

We sat down with Karyn through Zoom to hear her thoughts on our first Anti-Racist Leadership Series, get to know what motivates her leadership, and gain insights on how leaders can effectively implement racial equity as an outcome.

Can you tell us about your backstory and how you got involved in this work? How did your experiences shape your trajectory?

The journey of being an African American and all of the messaging you get about that in your childhood and growing up makes you recognize how important it is to make space for yourself and the people that you are a part of.

My career was in Human Resources, so doing this work was a natural extension. Even before I went into HR, I was a personnel manager and had project management roles. Because I was usually the only Black person around, they always assumed that Affirmative Action was my job. I did not like that people just assumed it was my responsibility because I felt like it was a shared responsibility. I also always felt so strongly about racial equity that I could never let it go by the wayside.

My core orientation was around organizational development. That was always a powerful tool for me to use around diversity, equity and inclusion. It was always about shifting the culture, making a change within an organizational system, bringing awareness around people’s biases so they could see the consequences and impact organizationally. That gave me a set of tools.

When I left the corporate world, I went to work for a public policy think-tank, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and that was the tipping point that pushed me more heavily into diversity and equity work because I did national studies. We looked at the racial implications of Hurricane Katrina. There were things during Katrina that people were upset about. For example, people didn’t have water, but they could get water by going into white communities where they were providing water. I was looking at all of the unconscious things that happen as a consequence of where people live.

Another study I did looked at a number of major cities and the access that people of color and African Americans had to the arts, culture, symphonies, and theatre, the things that people paid for out of their tax-dollars and contributed to but were not made to feel welcome. Their participation was not solicited.

Spending the time looking at those instances I was getting a good national perspective on policy and practice and how that played out in people’s lives and where that could be opened up. When I went forward from that I wanted to continue to do consulting on diversity, equity and inclusion in any space that was seeking it. I do a lot of leadership development work and it is essential for leaders to develop cultural competencies. In their leadership journey, they are on the frontline of making things happen for someone. Leaders are the ones who can either block progress for people or open doors. For example, if a woman of color goes to a manager and says she is having a problem, making sure leaders will not tell her it is just her imagination. But to truly listen and hear.

If you have a more diverse work environment, you will be more successful, especially when people have a greater understanding of colleagueship. In my career, I had a lot of experiences of being an “only.” Being in organizations where once they had their “only” they felt like they didn’t have to go further than that.

Can you share some personal observations and reflections on how leaders can focus on racial equity as an outcome at work and create explicit objectives? 

For leaders, the ability to have awareness is important, not just in the interactions with the individuals you supervise, but in the climate within the organization. Is it a culture where people can contribute and learn from each other or are there blocks there?

For a leader, having that as a view can help you have a diverse workforce as an outcome. It helps leaders make sure people have the colleagueship, support and encouragement they need. You have to look at it as a collective outcome and examine the ways people are advancing in their careers and gaining promotions. As a member of the leadership team, you should have an outcome-orientation towards inclusion and developing people. The outcome is having more people of color in senior leadership roles and that people can come in, get promoted, and advance.

Often times when you are doing diversity and inclusion work, you also look at the customer. How does this work relate to how you treat your stakeholder? How do you look at inclusion and diversity in your supplier base? There are more layers to it than the employee relationship. You have to look at the community you do business in and how you show up as a leader and an advocate there.

Things happen in our society because our society is so racialized. Leaders need to be comfortable responding to things when they happen and provide space for that within the organization instead of people having to tiptoe around like nothing happened.

We are cultivating the leadership ability of being able to hold that space and hold that ground. Your ability to address things is important, as a person that is white, so when a person of color comes into that space, they can be open. People of color often go in with their radar on and are not even conscious of it because it happens so much. You feel it when a person has done work and does not have to work their way through all of their racial filters when they interact with you but can actually engage with you. I want my leaders to have that level of development because it impacts how people work together, how they may serve their customers, and interact with others.

How is this series different from your past work?

I think what we are doing really well is focusing on people’s own personal development and their comfort talking and looking at this through the inner-journey side. Seeing that as a starting space allows them to hear other people’s stories. Howard is particularly good at that.

We often put people in small groups and that is intentional because when you can connect with other people and they share certain kinds of experiences, it deepens your perspectives. It gives participants a chance to hear and reflect on their own listening and how they process what they are hearing. This helps them begin to open themselves up further. So, people can ask themselves, “how do I show up as a white person in white identity?” or “how do I show up in Black identity,” and “what are times when we supersede skin identity.” And you can’t always do that because sometimes other people impose it for you.

We spend a lot of time on the introspection side because that promotes learning. It is authentic. When you hear about the pain that people have experienced and a lot of things that are impacting them in this environment because of their identity it makes it real. For some people it may just be that they are not connected to poorer Black communities where they are getting higher rates of COVID or already are suffering from the unemployment conditions. I live in Manassas, my daughter lives in Anacostia, so we see those conditions and what happens and goes on. We see the barriers in our society firsthand.

For the people working in non-profit organizations in the series, my desire, hope, and wish is that what they are learning is information and insight that will enrich the kinds of outcomes they are trying to have in serving diverse communities. If they are serving communities who are lower income, and living in the DC-region, we are trying to create equitable outcomes in a very bifurcated society. It is not enough to say we want diversity and inclusion. Leaders should determine what equitable outcomes they want to achieve and qualify those and then work toward them.

It is having that broader perspective and a systemic perspective on equity. Equity is a principle in how you do the work. It is not an after-the-fact issue for me. It is not about responding if someone brings something to your attention and then seeing if you have equity problems. If we make equity a grounding principle in how we do work, then it is really baked into what we do.

We have to also make sure that the burden for conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion are not only on the people who are victims of racial inequity. Having people talk about these issues from other racial groups creates a wider reach. We want to make sure that people are not only understanding the notions and ideas but creating outcomes. 


Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh – CEO, KTA Global Partners

Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh’s extensive work in diversity has included helping organizations implement corporate diversity initiatives in major corporations, conducting global organization assessments on equity issues for international NGO’s, working with committed leaders, training managers, and employees, coaching consultants and training facilitators in diversity work. To learn more about Karyn you can read her full bio here.

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.

Racial Equity as an Outcome – A Conversation with Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh