If there’s one lesson to be learned from the racial justice uprisings happening across our nation it’s that cultural and political change doesn’t just happen — we make it happen.

Here at Blue State, one of the ways we’re committed to making change is by modeling the kind of world we want to live in. 

First rolled out in 2019, our Working Agreements are a set of communication practices designed to help us navigate and begin to dismantle the harmful white supremacy culture that shows up in our organization and society at large. As we begin to build a more equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist workplace, these agreements work to serve that aim. 

The Working Agreements, detailed below, support the Blue State community — our colleagues, our partners, our clients — in showing up as their full selves. By rethinking our approach to how we meet, communicate, and collaborate we are welcoming in new possibilities for more inclusive conversations and more creative and powerful outcomes.

January 15th, 2020 — We all know diversity, equity, and inclusion is a priority in corporate offices, non-profit organizations, and everywhere in between. What’s less clear is how to move from a place of intention to action.

Here at Blue State’s Oakland office, there’s one way we’re taking action. We’ve come up with six practical ways to do The Work™️ of creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace culture. We call these our Working Agreements. 

The Origin Story 

We attended an unconscious bias training led by local Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) facilitator, Lisa Ahn. Before the training, Lisa introduced us to a set of Working Agreements of her own that would guide our time together. 

Much like it sounds, Working Agreements are a set of guidelines that define how groups ideally want to work together and what they want in a working environment. 

After a fulfilling training that led us to confront our own biases, recognize our varied privileges, and challenge pervasive white supremacy culture in the workplace, we knew this couldn’t be the end of the conversation. 

Enter: The Oakland office Working Agreements. Starting with a small working group, our team collaborated through surveys, discussions, and consensus-building to draft six agreements rooted in Blue State’s values and aimed at disrupting inequity and fostering inclusion among our colleagues. Below are the six agreements that were a product of our efforts. 

The Six Working Agreements 

  1. Create space for learning and failure: Mistakes are a natural part of the growth process. While they may disrupt a delicate timeline, mistakes can also serve as an opportunity to push our work forward. Use mistakes as a chance to reevaluate, pivot, or engage in open dialogue.
  2. Assume best intent but attend to impact: Conflict in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but conflict without mutual respect is. When conflict arises and you feel disrespected, remember that your colleagues are only human. Give them the benefit of the doubt, but explain how their actions made you feel.
  3. Make space, take space: We all enjoy varying levels of privilege; it’s up to us to decide how we flex it or share it. Are you holding others back from participating in the discussion? Are you holding back because you don’t want to step on any toes? We all carry the responsibility of including everyone in the conversation, including ourselves.
  4. Teach, don’t preach: When explaining your point of view or expertise, stay humble. There will be people who know exactly what you’re talking about and people who will be unfamiliar with the topic at hand. Use that moment to spread knowledge — not flaunt it.
  5. Feedback is an offering: We can’t grow if we don’t know. Feedback should not be seen as a form of punishment but as a demonstration of care for another person’s growth, success, and happiness. If we don’t give feedback, we deny one another the opportunity for personal and professional development.
  6. Practice active listening: Lead with respect and curiosity in conversation with your colleagues. This one’s pretty straightforward, but it applies to so many aspects of our work. It’s easy to get distracted or multitask in meetings, but “practice active listening” is really about helping us all stay engaged and focused when we’re working together.

So, how do you implement something like this? 

You may be thinking, “Okay, you wrote out some Working Agreements, but what does this actually do to invigorate your organization’s DE&I efforts?” Working Agreements are more than just a set of ground rules, they’re a manifestation of your organization’s dedication to building a culture of safety, inclusion, and equity. And, it’s the first step in making that a reality for all your employees. What does this look like in practice?

Here at Blue State, we keep these Working Agreements in mind by making sure we see them — literally. Posted in every conference room is a sign that lists out each Agreement as a reminder to implement these principles in the ideas you offer, the feedback you give, and how you show up for your colleagues. 

But doing The Work™️ is about more than just making your values visible. At Blue State, we’re working to incorporate the Working Agreements into every aspect of our organization, from applying these principles to how we evaluate employee performance to introducing the concept to potential hires. 

Working towards a culture of equity and inclusivity is an ongoing process, and we must admit — we’re still figuring it out. But the first step is making a commitment to do better. 

Here are a few additional rules and guidelines for creating your own Working Agreements: 

Make your agreements truly collaborative. 

Everyone should have a part in building your Working Agreements, from the most junior employee to the most senior in leadership. True inclusion requires that every voice be heard. We started with a working group that included folks at every level, then we expanded decision making about the Agreements to the entire office through surveys and discussions. 

Disrupt inequity with power shifting agreements. 

Building a more equitable culture requires that we shift power — who has it, and how it’s used. For example, agreements like “make space, take space” give groups guidance on how to shift power in situations where privileged perspectives are centered over those that are marginalized. We’re beginning to incorporate this Working Agreement into our peer review process during performance reviews. It makes it easier to have conversations with folks who tend to take up a lot of space so they are more self aware and see the value of stepping back to open up more space for folks with less power and privilege. The peer reviews are also a venue to  encourage folks who should take up space more often to do so!

Focus on mutual accountability. 

Hold each other accountable to your Working Agreements in real-time. Make your agreements visible throughout your organization, on your website, in conference rooms, etc. Practice compassionately calling in those who may need a reminder of your community agreements. Before we begin brainstorming sessions or meetings that require discussion, we read out the agreements together as a reminder for everyone in the room. We’ve also focused on building a culture where feedback and celebration is an everyday norm, instead of waiting for one-on-one meetings or high-stakes performance reviews. That way, Working Agreements fit in as a natural part of how we talk about our work together.

We’ve recognized that how we work together is just as important as the work we are doing. As an organization committed to driving diversity, equity, and inclusion, we know this work isn’t easy. 

It necessitates having challenging conversations, learning new information, and holding ourselves accountable at all levels – from executives to associates. But our aim is worthy: to model the change we wish to see in the world, our community, and culture by honoring our commitment to progress. 

Does your company or organization utilize Working Agreements or other guideposts when engaging in diversity, equity, and inclusion work? If so, reach out — we’d love to hear what’s worked for you or answer any questions you may have about our process.

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