Rhonda Broussard spent two decades performing with West African dance groups in her free time. She would wait around all year for gigs — until February when her calendar was jammed.
“In Black History Month you get all the calls,” she said.
Now Ms. Broussard runs a diversity, equity and inclusion organization, in New Orleans, called Beloved Community. Starting last year, she has insisted her staff take February as a paid month off. As Beloved has been inundated with work, Ms. Broussard has been focused on giving her own team the time to rest.
Like so many diversity, equity and inclusion organizations — whose activities might include teaching workshops, writing corporate communications and rethinking hiring strategies — Beloved received an outpouring of client requests in the summer of 2020, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed it nationwide.
“We were getting national calls from folks who were like, ‘Our equity work is on fire and we need to do something to help,’” Ms. Broussard said. “There were calls on Tuesday to do facilitations on Friday because people were feeling this pressure, this urgency. But we actually don’t do that. We never have and we never will. We don’t do crisis management. We don’t become the face of equity for your organization.”
Her team’s breaking point came when a grocery store group in New Orleans facing charges of racial discrimination called on Beloved for its services.
“That is what actually forced us to sit down and say, ‘Are we going to start responding to these performative cries for help?’” Ms. Broussard recalled. “Our answer was literally ‘keep Beloved’s name out of your mouth.’”
The last two years have seen a rapid expansion of the D.E.I. field, which U.S. businesses were spending $8 billion on in the early 2000s (when the last calculation was done). Hiring for most D.E.I.-related roles grew more in 2020 than it had in the previous five years combined, according to the labor analytics firm Emsi Burning Glass. Glassdoor, a career site, saw a 54 percent increase in D.E.I. job postings from levels before the pandemic.
Major consulting firms scrambled to react, with Bain starting a new D.E.I. practice in August 2020 and McKinsey creating the Institute for Black Economic Mobility four months later. Meanwhile a spreadsheet circulated online highlighting over 500 Black-owned D.E.I. firms.
Beloved, which was on that list, expanded rapidly, but on its own terms: The staff went from half a dozen people to over 20, and their client count rose to 223 last year from 65 in 2020. The budget is projected to climb this year to $5 million from just over $3.3 million.
Amid that growth, Ms. Broussard decided last year that her employees would get February off. That period in which D.E.I. firms are ordinarily flooded instead became a reminder, for clients, that their drive should persist throughout the year.
This month Ms. Broussard is taking midday Brazilian dance classes and cooking gumbo. Carla Melaco, the research coordinator, is flying to Cancun with her mom. Nicole Caridad Ralston, the head of education and programming, is waking each morning and asking herself: What does she need from the day? Sometimes the answer is to paint, or pay taxes. Other times she climbs into the bathtub to drink champagne.
Ms. Broussard knows that when she and her team step back to their laptops in March, the work will be waiting.
“Our country took 400 years to get here,” she said. “We’re not going to fix things in the next four weeks.”
Like so many in the diversity and inclusion sector, Ms. Broussard has dedicated her life to fighting for equity. Earlier in her career, that meant teaching. But after the fatal shooting of the 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. in 2014, just miles from the charter school Ms. Broussard had founded in St. Louis, she decided to broaden the focus of her work beyond education.
Three years later she founded Beloved, naming it for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community.”
Beloved’s consulting arm advises organizations on equity strategy — for example, how to recruit a more diverse work force and close pay gaps — and conducts “audits” that help clients understand how prepared they are to lead their own diversity trainings. Its education arm facilitates programming in schools and workplaces, covering topics like the psychology of bias and recognizing personal privilege. Its research arm publishes reports on its impact.
The organization used to generate all of its funds from clients, who heard about Beloved mostly through word of mouth, but since 2020 its budget has shifted to about two-thirds philanthropic contributions and one-third client revenue. That has allowed the group to remain strategic in choosing its clients, with a list that includes groups in hospitality, retail and entertainment.
The influx of more than 100 requests that Beloved got in the summer of 2020 necessitated the creation of a formal intake system, in which the organization’s vice president, Lesley Brown Rawlings, conducted 20-minute screening calls with potential clients. The surge of interest helped the staff to clarify the type of work that they would refuse to take on as they grew.
Beloved will not partner with an organization unless its senior leaders are engaged, because they know that without that commitment the efforts could easily get sidelined. Beloved’s employees also turn a sharp eye to the resources that potential clients are willing to invest.
“We talk about love and the politics of care, yada yada yada, but we also talk about money,” Faith Kares, senior director of research and impact, said.
Dr. Kares was skeptical as she watched dozens of corporations appoint new diversity and inclusion directors in 2020. “Giving $60,000 to these positions is nothing,” she said. “It’s a slap in the face. What’s going to happen in five years when it’s not on trend anymore?”
Many of Beloved’s staff members said that they had spent their careers in offices where they saw diversity, equity and inclusion undercut and undervalued.
Ileana Ortiz, Beloved’s associate director for equity at work, was frustrated with the approach to diversity at a previous employer, where Mx. Ortiz co-led the internal D.E.I. task force and even drafted a public statement on racial justice, though this effort wasn’t compensated. Mx. Ortiz was hesitant to leave the responsibility to human resources, feeling they didn’t have the training to lead diversity initiatives.
“When D.E.I. is left to H.R.,” Mx. Ortiz said, “that’s when D.E.I. goes to die.”
Mx. Ortiz felt an immediate sense of kinship with Beloved’s team after interviewing for a position at the organization last year. The first video interview was with Kevin Lewis, associate director for equity at work, who was wearing a sweatshirt that said “Black Women Aren’t Here To Save You.”
Then came the delight of hearing about the February sabbatical. Mx. Ortiz’s one plan for the month is to get a tattoo with a quote from John Lewis, the civil rights leader and former congressman: “Good trouble.”
Four weeks of February baths, daiquiris and afternoon dance parties is a jarring proposition for a team of people acutely aware of their work’s urgency. One of Beloved’s staff members, Dr. Kares, had even gone into last year’s sabbatical with a secret scheme to log back on a week earlier than the rest of her colleagues to get a head-start before spring.
Cognizant of the mental block Beloved’s employees might encounter as they tried to unplug, Ms. Broussard decided to hire a rest coach. The coach and staff convened in Memphis in late January this year to strategize, both for their year of work and month of rest ahead, spending the week in a sunlit hotel conference room overlooking the Mississippi River.
Beloved’s rest coach, Jackie Oselen, or Jackie O as everyone calls her, introduced herself to the group with a photo collage of her sources of joy: Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, seafood and sweets. She showed off pictures of her three sons, noting that when she visited them at college people mistook her for their sister. She wore an ankle-length tie-dye dress, maroon Converse and colorful thick rimmed glasses, and carried under her arm the book “Chakra Healing.”
Despite the warmth in her yoga teacher voice, she approached Beloved’s sabbatical preparation with the zeal of a football coach readying the team to make the state championships.
“You have permission to do what?” Jackie O called out to the room.
“Rest!” Beloved’s team shouted back.
“To do what?”
“To rest,” Jackie O repeated with an appreciative nod. “Not to strategize and plan.”
Some of Beloved’s staff members know firsthand, from their past experiences in equity groups, the consequences of forging ahead with work without listening to their body’s needs.
Mr. Lewis spent years facilitating workshops on racial injustice for young people in New Orleans, most of whom were white. He recalled having to lead classes where he suppressed his own rage and trauma while making space for the emotions of his students, mostly their white guilt. His sense of fatigue grew as he kept teaching in the months after the killing of Mr. Floyd. He realized that he would need to move to a different organization if he were to continue the work long term.
Beloved has given him a space to express his anger. It has also allowed him the joy that he realized is essential to his survival.
“In February we could have done the whole ‘How do we put on a bunch of programs?’ but sometimes celebration is labor,” Mr. Lewis reflected. “Sabbatical allows us to center ourselves in a world that tells us that our worth is our labor.”
Jackie O amplified that sentiment. “It feels appropriate,” she told the room, “to let the church say amen.”
Across the country, hundreds of organizations are emerging from the last few years of crisis by reimagining what diversity, equity and inclusion should look like.
Like Beloved, many have articulated the projects they won’t take on, even as their inboxes are flooded. Liz Nicolas, who founded the firm Black Amethyst, declines to contract with clients that use forced arbitration clauses in their employment contracts. Aja Taylor and Nicole Newman, who run Two Brown Girls, a consulting group, ensure their clients are comfortable using language like “white supremacy” and are clear on how they label their efforts, which they don’t consider to have the corporate leanings of D.E.I.
“This isn’t diversity, equity and inclusion,” Ms. Taylor said. “This is antiracism work.”
“No shade,” said Ms. Newman. “I have a lot of respect for people who do D.E.I. work. It’s not the work we feel called to do.”
To leaders in the field, there’s an understanding that the work they need to do has a much longer time frame than any corporations and H.R. teams fully comprehend.
Al Vivian runs Basic Diversity, a 48-year-old D.E.I. firm founded by his father, an activist who was arrested alongside Representative John Lewis. Mr. Vivian recalled the short-lived focus on racial equity initiatives in 1991 after the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police.
“I saw white America say ‘this is a big issue’ and they were all excited and engaged for three months, and then it went back to normal,” Mr. Vivian said. “I’ve seen this before.”
And once again today, D.E.I. groups like his and Beloved have visions that extend far beyond the tepid commitments from corporate executives. But first comes the rest.
“Beloved Community will be closed in February for our annual sabbatical where we rest and recharge,” read one staff member’s email auto-reply. “Any pending matters will be continued in March.”