Farzana Nayani on creating equity, inclusion and community in the workplace

Farzana Nayani on creating equity, inclusion and community in the workplace

Farzana Nayani is a coach in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), working across schools, non-profits and Fortune 500 companies. Her new book is a practical guide to employee resource groups (ERGs), created to empower underrepresented employees and encourage community-building. Here she tells us about understanding privilege and the importance of finding common ground between people and ideologies.


NADJA: How did you get into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training? 

Farzana Nayani

Farzana Nayani: I’ve always been interested in cultures. Early on, I worked in education and did a Master’s in Intercultural Communication, but I was more interested in how people communicate rather than what was actually being communicated. 

I think that’s the key to every interaction about any type of issue – how we relate to one another. As someone who is Filipino and Pakistani, from a very young age I was immersed in different cultures. My orientation was always around how to connect with people to find commonality in the difference and to build community. Whenever I enter a space, whether it be an organisation or school, that’s the lens that I bring – how can we bring people together. 

NADJA: Have you found any common reactions from people during training?  

FN: Because privilege is a veil that paints the world in a way that’s not complete, people feel shocked when they’re made aware of it. When that’s done in a group setting it can cause a lot of emotional reactions. We actually set up the training so there’s a slow ramp up of awareness. As that is happening, we invite separate conversations and we have healing spaces about privilege, and we have healing spaces around being someone who is marginalised. 

After we do that we can come back together. Our orientation is around unity, rather than having to support someone who is going through a very personal emotional journey. Unfortunately the judgement that’s associated with that is ‘why didn’t you know’, or, ‘I feel so guilty’. Those emotions should exist and should be supported so they can be processed, but that can’t be done on the backs of people who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC). That’s the piece that’s missing in unconscious bias training – you can’t have a blanket approach to diversity and equity, it doesn’t work.

NADJA: How do you start a conversation with somebody who doesn’t understand or believe they are privileged compared to others? 

FN: There are two parts to that. One is a disconnection from someone’s personal humanity that has hardened them over time. That lack of ability to be vulnerable is what makes us vacant as people, when we don’t have empathy for other people or compassion for ourselves. 

The second issue is the cognitive belief that we all have equal opportunity and we can just start fresh, so why make this a big deal. Unfortunately, some unconscious bias training primes stereotypes, because as you’re talking about those stereotypes it reinforces them. That’s also why people push back against them, which I understand. 

For people who are not interested, sometimes organisational policies have to step in, where we have to say look, this is an objective for many reasons, for community connectedness, from a team standpoint, maybe even so we can connect with the people we’re serving. I believe that the way to be successful is to have a variety of objectives that inspire and motivate people because everyone’s different. 

NADJA: What is the biggest challenge you encounter? 

FN: I think people believe that polarisation is the answer to large world problems. In order to really make a difference we need people who are very steadfast in their way of thinking, and we also need people who reach across and find a way to bridge those major differences. 

What we’re missing in society is how we take a step out of our own shoes into others’, to really see what the source of something is – is it pain, is it trauma, is it the need for safety? Why is that person so pro something and another so opposed?  The values are actually the same, and when we really understand that, that’s when we can find the way forward.

NADJA: How has the rise in polarisation affected people in the workplace? 

FN: My new book is called The Power of Employee Resource Groups. These are groups based on identities that are most of the time underrepresented, by ethnicity, race, LGBTQ+ identity, or if you’re a person who has a disability, etc. We’re finding an upliftment of that. 

Farzana Nayani

At the same time, there are people who subscribe to the idea that we should treat everybody the same and there are equal opportunities. The issue we have is struggling with the idea of equity based on understanding systemic oppression. People don’t believe that [oppression] has had the impact it has had, they think we can just start fresh, and everyone has the same playing field. Why do we have to bring up the stuff that has happened in the past? 

However, you and I both know that it has created disparity in communities, intergenerational differences, and even now, perceptions and bias that affect people who have been oppressed and still are today. People think workplaces are safe, that everyone is protected because they have an equal chance at a job, and so there is backlash against distinguishing characteristics, or schools talking about this, because people think it’s dredging up a terrible past that no longer impacts us.

NADJA: Do you think this backlash is happening because there has been progress in these areas over the years, and it’s a response to that? 

FN: I think we’ve moved forward for some people. I’ve been in spaces where my identity has been left on the side, and it was great to talk about business or anything not related to it. At the same time, it’s not really the truth. We can never take that out of who we are, even if we want to, because there will always be a perception of a person’s identity due to our programming bias and what’s in the media and what we consume. 

There are model organisations, groups and neighbourhoods that have shown there can be that community building. But as humans we are flawed with bias and with what we’ve been conditioned to believe. None of us are free from that unfortunately,  so we always have to be paying attention to it. 

We’re in a difficult time with the pandemic and the racial reckoning globally, and the rise in anti-Asian racism and ongoing anti-Blackness. In the US right now, we’re seeing a lot of violence with mass shootings in public places. As a community, we need to offer each other grace around grieving, around what we’ve lost and what we’re going through, and try to find compassion for one another, for ourselves and for people who are on the journey of learning. That’s the only way we can move forward. 

NADJA: A recent report found that three quarters of women of colour in the UK have experienced racism at work, and the majority chose to hide their identity to avoid discrimination. Have you experienced anything like this yourself?

FN: There have been moments when I wished I had an easier name to pronounce. There are moments when I know that when I walk into a room, people might not think I’m in the leadership role I am, they may think that I am a lower level worker because of the colour of my skin. It’s not something that holds me back, it’s just something I’m aware of. 

I remember taking a plane years ago, before this was a common discussion, and I got bumped up to first class. I remember a white executive from a very well known tech company who said, “you speak English really well. If I close my eyes, I wouldn’t even think you look the way you do.” Even in the physical spaces we take we are reminded that we’re different. My personal goal is to take up space in places where there haven’t been people before, and to be proud of my identity and to talk about it. To talk about being from a mixed heritage family, to talk about being a woman of colour, about anti-Asian racism and about how BIPOC people are treated. 

NADJA: What has been the best advice you have had in your career? 

FN: The biggest thing we’re battling is the idea that we don’t belong. Not only do you belong, but the creativity, the innovation, and the impact of your leadership is long overdue. This is not something that’s owed to us and it’s not something that we didn’t earn. We need to not shy away from those opportunities when they arise because we feel like imposters, or we feel other people may think it’s a handout. There are so many forces at play that prevent us from succeeding. 

As women of colour, we have to stand in that power and that truth. Our ancestors didn’t survive and thrive for us to diminish our own spirit and our impact. The best thing we can each do is honour that journey and that difficult experience over generations, and live up to our greatest potential. 

The Power of Employee Resource Groups by Farzana Nayani is out now on Penguin Random House.

Leila Hawkins


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