“When I think about Ahmmad and I, we had such different roles,” Jéssica says. “As an executive assistant, I lacked positional authority and power, but I was able to lead some of the [DEI-focused] programs internally,” she adds. Both BABs/LATBA and Bridgespan’s racial equity working group offered ways to connect over shared interests even though they had little opportunity to cross over into each others’ work lives.
Eventually, both would leave Bridgespan: Ahmmad to obtain a PhD in organizational behavior from Harvard Business School in 2017 and Jéssica in 2016, with plans to go to medical school. Yet, when she started doing interpretation work with the Cambridge Health Alliance, she began to explore her own personal theory of change. “I knew I wanted to be connected to the community and to women immigrants in particular. But, similar to teaching, I struggled to engage with the root causes of the issues I saw on the ground in ways that extended beyond the interpersonal level.” She then joined the Matahari Women Workers’ Center, a Boston-based labor movement organization that develops leaders and builds the political and economic power of domestic and restaurant workers. In both of their next acts, they continued to share a passion for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ).
A New Venture
In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and the rise to prominence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Ahmmad and Jéssica came together to cofound a consultancy called Equity Based Dialogue for Inclusion (EBDI, “ebb-dee”) to support a broad base of organizations in their DEIJ efforts. They had remained close personal friends since meeting at Bridgespan and had been roommates in Roxbury. According to Ahmmad, Jéssica and her partner, Neha, are a big reason he stayed in Boston after Bridgespan. “They were the first community I felt I had in Boston,” he says.
At EBDI, their deep mutual respect and friendship creates a powerful platform from which to have critical conversations with clients. “So much of our upfront work with clients is getting them clear on what they mean by each of those letters [DEIJ] and the underlying concepts,” says Ahmmad. “Then we drill down to ask what it means to operationalize DEIJ in their context and how we can put processes in place or amend structures to support equity, not just in terms of race, but all the intersections of gender, class, nationality, and sexual orientation.” Ahmmad’s sociological understanding of organizations animates this process. “Organizations are not race neutral, they're not gender neutral. Insert any sort of social identity grouping, or category, and organizations are not neutral along any of those lines. So, we start there, we name the issues, and then we define DEIJ.”
Jéssica makes it clear that EBDI isn’t interested in cosmetic fixes for systemic problems. At first, she says, companies mainly asked EBDI for help editing statements about George Floyd. Organizational leaders, she notes, sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that statements are good enough when deeper work is required. “Too often, diversity, equity, and inclusion work has been used to support performative, superficial shifts while still maintaining the status quo,” Jéssica says. “To transform organizations, we believe that you need to challenge entrenched power structures in order to change the conditions that have made oppression possible. And in my work, there needs to be a willingness to examine and remake cultures, to examine behaviors, and even to look at governance and challenge where it usually lives so that [organizations] can actually transform.”
Art + Science
Both Ahmmad and Jessica bring different talents to the table. In addition to co-founding EBDI, Ahmmad is an assistant professor of instruction at the Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy where he leads the Leading Equity and Inclusion in Organizations certificate program. This position, along with his other educational pursuits, give him deep academic insight into DEIJ. Then there are the traditional consulting skills he developed at Bridgespan. “Consulting is a profession with standards and expectations,” he says. “At Bridgespan, everyone communicates with slides, whether in client engagements or even with each other. Without that skillset, I wouldn’t have the chops to call myself a consultant.” Yet facilitation and dialogue, the heart of what they do according to Ahmmad, is where Jéssica shines.
“If we're trying to change dominant institutions,” Jéssica says, “we believe that we start through personal transformation. We start with the individual and with individual relationships to each other. We challenge the cultural notion that conflict is bad, the fear of open conflict, and who has the right to comfort.” Jéssica says she spends a lot of her time creating the right conditions for productive, honest dialogues. “A lot of my work also involves reflecting back what I’m hearing in a room,” she says. “That can include framing conversations at pivotal moments and connecting themes back to the values the group may have, the contradictions they are grappling with, or the points where they might need to revisit their processes.”
For many employees—especially those with less positional authority—just being asked what they think about the organization and having someone truly listen to them can be a novel experience. “This kind of dialogue requires nimble facilitation,” Ahmmad says. “It’s an art and a science: a blend of quasi-therapy, cathartic sharing, brainstorming, solution ideation, and design all rolled into one. It’s tending to people’s hearts and emotions while also keeping the mental, intellectual aspect of the process, and then translating and synthesizing what we learn to present suggestions to the people who can make change and drive meaningful impact at the leadership level.”
Organizations as a Lever for Change
The specific work EBDI does is part of a broader market need for culture change work, Ahmmad says. “There’s some sense that things aren’t working right now,” he adds. “And as someone who has been trained academically in the way I’ve been trained, I believe there’s empirical evidence that organizations are one of, if not the biggest, levers to address the distribution of material, and frankly, nonmaterial resources in modern societies.”
“And given the state of the world,” he continues, “I think the reason that we've had a modicum of success so far is that this approach that we're bringing to bear is sort of acknowledging that organizations, not just for internal purposes, but for broader societal purposes in some ways, need to get better at what we conceive as DEI.”
Advice to Current Bridgespanners:
- “Dare to expect more. Dare to challenge the status quo. Embrace the intersectional identities that give you powerful, unique insights.” – Jéssica Oliveira
- “Lean into the excellent training you’re going to get around how to work productively, quickly, and efficiently while creating high-quality work.” – Ahmmad Brown