6 mins

The cookout will still happen, even if we have to pay for it ourselves.

Grassroots movements use collective action to effect change in response to the needs of a specific community. This is often achieved through the mobilization of common skills at varying scales, whether that be local, regional, national, or international levels. Every major formalized movement of change has started as a grassroots initiative – a group of people coming together to speak up and make their working or living conditions better. 

The drastic increase in workforce reductions and hiring freezes in 2022 and 2023 has also seen various organizations scale back their financial support for diversity initiatives, including what is often the backbone of these efforts: employee resource groups (ERGs).

ERGs are safe spaces for people of different identities to commune, share wisdom, and network through a series of yearly events. 

Like many people across our industry, I am very concerned about the lack of funding that could be given to diversity, belonging, equity, and inclusion efforts in the current economic climate.

I am also aware that these finances fall short of creating belonging. These finances were one way for a larger organization to applaud and support community efforts. However, underrepresented people do not need applause to create, manifest, and enjoy the benefits of community spaces. 

Why community matters

I define community as a space for people with at least one common identity or shared life experience. It is within these communities that underrepresented people find the wisdom and expression to navigate professional environments. To put it simply: we no longer feel lonely when we are with our community. At the very least, we know that we have a community to lean on when we are alone. 

I have felt lonely in public settings since I was a young child. I grew up as one of the Black kids in an all-white school setting. I  built a defensive wall each day when I would walk to my mom’s classroom down the hall to do homework. Everyone knew who I was, not because of academic achievements or athletic praise. I was known because I looked different and I was the daughter of the teacher that also looked different. 

As I matured, I compartmentalized my education and my personal life. School became a set of hours throughout my week. But my evenings and weekends were dedicated to passions and the people that supported those passions. Those weekend and evening communities saved my life and gave me the stamina to academically succeed. 

My career started three weeks after my college graduation, and I was the only Black woman in my cohort. I was prepared to navigate the adult world the same way I navigated primary school. I would find community and receive the support that I needed to survive as a new college grad. 

Why ERGs matter

The first company I worked at did not have any formal ERGs that were funded by the company budget. But they did have a small and mighty group of Black people who met for lunch and planned evening events that we paid for. At one point, we even planned our own holiday party at a local restaurant and each of us brought our $50 in cash and placed it on the table as we walked to the dance floor for the evening. To this day, it is the best company event that I have participated in. 

I used this community to ask questions that I did not feel comfortable asking my manager or leaders. There were people in this community who walked me through my first performance review and gave me feedback to make it better. This community also supported me in a more personal capacity by giving me life advice. 

The company may have brought us together, but we actively decided to unify and help each other through our own unique professional journeys. Each of us leveraged and depended on this small and personally funded group to succeed in our careers. 

Since this time, I have worked at a myriad of companies with formalized ERGs for many different identities. Company funding was used by these groups for events and to provide nourishment in monthly meetings. 

ERG budgets are less about communities than they are symbolic. But, in truth, we do not need company budget approval to receive the benefits of the seeds that we grow each day. 

Why grassroots movements matter

In 2017, I was actively involved in the Black ERG at my company, but I still yearned for more connection between Black women outside of my day job. I always thought that building relationships with the Black people inside my company was important, but I also wanted to build these same deep relationships with other Black people at other companies. 

I started a simple Facebook group called Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech and encouraged my friends to invite their friends to a space where we could discuss career progression and ask for advice. That simple Facebook group has now grown into a 15,000+ community for Black women in tech to receive impactful tips to thrive in the corporate world. 

Throughout history, marginalized people have created communities in order to support each other in times of hardship. It is in the DNA of these marginalized groups to find other people with a shared background in spaces that are isolating because community is our way of survival. I encourage all of us to start silencing the noise and focus on building community from the grassroots. If the tools will not be provided for us to commune, we will bring our own to work. 

Ways to help strengthen communities

  1. Start monthly networking sessions with people of a similar background. During each session, encourage people to invite others.
  2. Organize a quarterly brunch with your community outside of work. Invite the people from your monthly networking sessions and bring your wallet. 
  3. Create a list of “Expertise and Passions” of your community members at work and be your own speakers! If you can’t afford to bring someone to speak, you find the subject matter experts in the group.
  4. Invite leaders of the shared background to join you on this journey. Their power, privileges, and corporate expertise will help drive this forward. 

Why being an underrepresented leader matters

I cannot express enough the importance of people in leadership positions supporting their own communities at this critical time. Be the leader that you needed when you were in the early and middle stages of your career.

  1. Make it clear that you are open to one-on-one coffee chats with people and provide an active listening ear. 
  2. Prioritize joining an informal networking session so people know that you support the cause. 
  3. Provide subject matter input. At my last job, we had a corporate leader who invited us to an hour-long talk about how he uses his finances to build real estate investments.

Underrepresented leaders need to show up for us all of the time, but especially during periods when budgets are decreasing and we are impacted by an unstable job market. 

Final thoughts 

As you begin to relearn collective community strategies without budget remember this: the cookout will happen even if we have to pay for it. Our moments of refuge, safety, and comfort are so much bigger than a company-sponsored happy hour.

Build relationships with your people at work and invite others to join you. Ask questions and schedule your own working sessions to support each other.

Underrepresented communities are built on the promise of collective survival, unification, and greatness. Let’s do all three.