Transforming the HIV Workforce

Jaime M. Grant
Jaime M. Grant
Beck Starr

After 25 years of social justice hiring and management work, the first question I ask any HIV organization looking to transform its workforce and work culture is: Why?

Often, there are quirky reasons: The CEO has just had a light bulb moment about racism or queerphobias, or a human resources director has been challenged by a person they respect about their role in hiring people of color at the top of the management structure. So, I often arrive to half-formed ideas and, when we get down to it, few resources and very limited commitment to addressing racism, sexism and queer and trans biases in hiring.

Without resources and commitment, any "diversity and inclusion" effort is destined to fail. After years of failure as a consultant, I shifted to a strategy of requiring key commitments upfront and streamlining my coaching, with an eye toward a critical insight from Frederick Douglass: Power concedes nothing without a demand. In many ways, the most important aspect of this work is generating that demand from within: finding the "why."

Here's Why

The strongest case ever made for a social justice hiring effort stems from mission. In nine out of ten cases, one can find a commitment to justice and equity embedded in or explicitly stated in an organization's mission statement. Any "diversity" retreat or planning effort must start here.

A queer youth organization that I worked with realized that it was largely resourcing suburban white youth groups constituted by children of middle-class parents. When they looked closely at their mission -- to support the most vulnerable LGBTQ youth -- they realized that they were working in the wrong places. If they were really going to live up to their mission, they would need to shift their focus from Unitarian Universalist church basements to Baptist church basements, city-based community centers and youth detention centers. When they made this shift, they came upon the reality that their current front-line staff -- white, gay and largely cis gender -- could not perform in these environments with the effectiveness of queers who had grown up in these spaces and systems. Voila: Deeper mission work quickly shifted organizational focus and eventually diversified the staff.

My much more effective life as a "diversity" consultant has been to function largely as a "mission impact" consultant. Given how deep racism, sexism and transphobias are embedded in our consciousness, I work on dislodging these ideas and practices by bringing attention to core values and mission, and pressing hard on a central, shared commitment to amplifying organizational impact. This may seem like a sidestep or a less "brave" way to address the stubborn "isms" that so hamper our HIV organizations. But I have two answers for that: a) I am much more interested in successfully transforming the workforce and work cultures than in endless discussions about "race" or "gender" that in the end preserve the status quo; and b) In my experience, people much more often act their way to new ways of thinking versus think their way to new ways of acting. By displacing white, cis-, straight-dominated leadership and culture through hiring, work cultures and service delivery transform: New hires in key administrative seats change priorities and culture from the top down; new staffers in the rank and file seats change culture and service delivery from the bottom up.

Why are we making these changes? Because, as an organization, we will perform better. We will better serve people living with HIV. Our prevention programs will succeed. We will have a bigger impact on HIV policy. Period. In my mind, the answer to the "why" is -- because justice works. It's meaningful. It transforms more than our work; it transforms our community, the people we serve and the places we live. If I'm in an organization that cares about this, yes, I put this expansive vision into the room. But if it doesn't -- I stick with mission.

Here's How

The primary focus of social justice coaching in hiring processes is to uncover the racist and queer/transphobic impacts of allegedly "neutral" hiring practices. There are literally dozens of "best practices" in human resources hiring that work to maintain white, cis male supermajorities in the leadership of our HIV organizations. Here are a few:

  1. Signaling white organizational culture and priorities in the job announcement.
    This is done by emphasizing timeliness, appearance, efficiency, promptness, meetings, procedure -- all white markers of culture and performance over relationships, care, connection and community -- all "best practices" employed by people surviving on social capital in settings where their lives are not valued and their communities have few resources.
  2. Prioritizing top educational institutions and advanced degree programs.
    One of the key failures employers make in any social justice hiring effort is to fail to account for the impacts of structural "isms" on their potential employees. White staffers will very often if not always have better educational credentials because of racial segregation, queerphobias and anti-trans biases in primary schools that impact access to the best secondary schools and higher education. If human resources personnel cull the resume stack based on "best" educations, they have likely cut out half of your possible candidates that are not white, cis, middle-to-upper class and heterosexual. Most hiring committees won't even get a look at some of the most relevant possible candidates.
  3. Prioritizing long work histories at a few organizations.
    Look at any of the community-based research studies of the past decade pertaining to harassment and biases in the workplace against people with HIV, transfolks, LGB people and people of color. They all detail horrific abuses and little recourse. Yet, a key metric for a "good candidate" for employment is staying at a workplace for three years or longer. This is another "race-/queer-neutral" priority that has racist and queerphobic impacts on whom we hire.
  4. Seeing unfinished degrees or stretches of unemployment as a negative.
    Refer to #2. Lots of candidates living in impoverished communities will have spent time out of the workforce in caregiving. Social networking and family care keep poor families alive. Having a history of caregiving or providing critical glue through various labors outside the workforce can be a significant plus in relating to clients navigating the challenges of living with HIV.
  5. Failing to evaluate life experience, especially in the community, or experience with a specific life or health challenge as relevant to performing at a position.
    This shift in assessment is as important for filling top management positions as it is for hiring rank and file employees. People who have been living with HIV, caring for people with HIV; those who have been living in the communities that a great many of one's clients are living in; those who have fought unpaid for neighborhood and policy changes in the community; those who have been clients of the systems that most of the organization's clients are navigating: All these experiences make a candidate especially prepared to craft high-level policy or make quick day-to-day adjustments in frontline care. Yet, most often, this kind of experience is viewed as a "plus" rather than a critical "credential" in the hiring process.
  6. Failing to consider survival strategies, resilience and community connectivity as a plus.
    Navigating life on the street, engaging in street economies to survive, weathering multiple health crises or challenges related to HIV -- in short, experiencing many of the challenges that the organization's most vulnerable clients are managing -- where are these staffers? So many of these clients are surviving what critical trans theorist Dean Spade has called "administrative violence" -- that is, every day they are navigating "helping" systems that denigrate and abuse them. Having formerly homeless people, sex workers and other resilient survivors on your staff creates the potential for an extravagant welcome from your organization -- a place where these clients do not have to "explain" themselves to staffers whose life experience has little to no connection with theirs, where staffers and clients can dig into the daily challenges of adhering to medication, eating well, sleeping consistently or creating safety nets in the community.

Again, shifting an organization's rubric or definition of the "well educated" or "most experienced" worker is a critical process to engage the entire existing workforce in, from top to bottom. Hiring committees must be charged with evaluating how this hire will impact the workforce as a whole, and service delivery specifically, within these new evaluative criteria.

I once consulted for a college whose student demographics had shifted from 92% white to 33% students of color in just five years. The hiring of the school's first African-American president had this unanticipated impact on the annual applicant pool, to the delight of the admissions office, which had previously been "striving" for "diversity" to no avail. When I arrived, the faculty was 94% white and the staff was 96% white, despite the college's location adjacent to the city's black community. Due to the impending retirement of dozens of long-term employees, the college had a real opportunity to transform its faculty and staff demographics. Unfortunately, after spending a great deal of time educating hiring committees, the key gatekeeper -- the provost -- failed in his job of refusing finalist applicant pools that did not reflect the demographics of the current student body. Once again, power did not concede. The "demand" or consequence from the top (disapproval of the provost's performance from the president, demotion or firing) was not spoken or carried out. Prevailing workforce demographics (faculty especially) remained firmly in place.

Educating a human resources director and getting top executives committed to these new hiring rubrics is of paramount importance. An organization can do all the education in the world with various hiring committees and rank and file personnel. But if its key decision-maker is not prepared to reject a pool of candidates that is constituted the same as every other pool they've seen for the past 10 hires, nothing will change.

Many "diversity" programs emphasize "frank dialogues" that often burden staff of color with white social justice education and identify unconscious bias as the culprit in maintaining a white-, cis-dominated status quo. My approach is quite the opposite. Transforming our workforces and work cultures require a process of coming to own the very conscious biases and "best practices" that have driven our deliberative procedures to date, practices we have seen as race and class neutral but consistently produce racist and classist results.

I hope this article transmits the message that while transforming our HIV workforces takes persistence, it's not complicated. We can do this!

Jaime M. Grant is a lesbian feminist writer/activist who writes about racism, sex and the body.