Last Friday, I was invited to be a panelist at a LinkedIn Audio event hosted by Raven Solomon entitled “White Male ERGS – Should They Exist?”
Since our session wasn’t recorded (LinkedIn Audio does not yet offer that feature), I’ve created this post with my written responses to several of Raven’s important questions. I’ll start – as Raven invited us to do – with a personal introduction.
Tell us about yourself (your background, your work in DEI)?
My name is Dan Mahle and I’m the Founder of Wholehearted Masculine, a coaching and consulting organization that supports White men to engage meaningfully in Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) work.
I have a background in HR and I’ve been leading men’s work for almost a decade, through men’s circles, men’s trainings, men’s coaching, etc.
While I’ve found men’s work to be incredibly healing and powerful, it usually focuses on the personal and relational levels of change while rarely addressing systemic issues.
The men’s work I have been a part of has addressed the symptoms of dehumanization and oppression without proactively working to disrupt or divest from the systems – like White Supremacy and Patriarchy – that so often cause those symptoms.
Today, I work with White men not only on the personal and relational levels, but also supporting them to become action-oriented, accountable partners in disrupting systems of oppression and building more equitable teams and workplace cultures.
I do this work primarily through experiential group facilitation, including Accountable White Men’s Caucus Groups as well as 1:1 coaching partnerships. And I don’t do this work alone. I always seek to collaborate with other skilled practitioners in my engagements. I work to cultivate accountable partnerships with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ JEDI leaders, to bolster the effectiveness of existing and emerging JEDI initiatives by specifically engaging White men.
Should White male Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) exist inside of organizations? Why or why not?
This is a big question in the DEI space right now. Here’s what I think, based on my own experiences: When the right conditions are in place, I believe that White men’s groups should exist inside some organizations. However, I don’t call them Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).
As I understand it, ERGs were originally created to support those who experience marginalization in the workplace that is linked to systemic oppression in society. For example, when Black employees created the National Black Employees Caucus at Xerox in 1970 in response to the violent race riots in Rochester, New York in 1964.
Today, many companies have expanded their ERG programs to include “interest groups” that gather around particular affiliations, causes, and activities – such as reading groups or gardening groups. While gathering in interest groups can be a wonderful and useful way to deepen relationships and build community, it is not the original intention of ERGs.
ERGs were originally designed to bring focus, attention, and resources toward addressing the systemic concerns of people experiencing marginalization in their workplace. When we lump interest groups in with ERGs, I think we risk creating a false equivalency – where all groups are seen as equally important and deserving of resources and support. This just isn’t true.
BIPOC and LGBTQ+ ERGs should be centered in organizations. White men’s groups, like interest groups, should be de-centered. I call the groups I lead “Accountable White Men’s Caucus Groups” – and not “ERGs” – as a way of acknowledging that our work is different from other groups and that it shouldn’t take up space that ERGs currently occupy.
White men are not systemically marginalized in business environments – at least not for Whiteness or maleness. Yet, as I learned from Leticia Nieto, even though White men do not experience oppression for these aspects of their identities, we are all dehumanized by living within domination-based systems. In my view, dismantling systems of oppression requires that employees of all backgrounds and identities have dedicated spaces to do our work to learn, heal, and grow in community.
I think it’s vitally important for White men to come together in well-facilitated spaces to explore the impacts of White Supremacy and Patriarchy culture on ourselves and others. These groups need to be explicitly anti-oppressive spaces, where White men can cultivate deeper relationships, build critical skills, and move toward accountable action – together.
There are (at least) three conditions that are critical to the success of any White men’s group.
Accountable White Men’s Caucus Groups:
- Are skillfully facilitated by an outside expert, focusing on cultivating awareness, ownership, and action
- Have clear structures of accountability with BIPOC / LGBTQ+ folx within the organization
- Do not increase the time or labor burden on existing ERGs
When any of these conditions aren’t in place, White men’s groups can be counterproductive by inadvertently exacerbating the marginalization of underrepresented folx in the organization. Putting these conditions in place provides the groundwork for effective engagement and positive outcomes.
What should the objective(s) of White male ERGs be?
#1: To reduce harm in relation to women and/or BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx within the organization through action-oriented, accountable behavior change.
#2: To re-humanize ourselves, as White men, so that we have the capacity and support we need to divest from domination culture and invest in our collective humanity.
#3: To practice engaging in generative conflict, taking risks, and building trust with other White men in order to build the emotional resiliency needed to stay in the work for the long haul.
How do you deal with objections about the existence of ERGs for White Men?
I start by listening.
I think those who object to the existence of White male ERGs have very important perspectives, which are often grounded in one or more of the following concerns:
- Don’t White men already have enough opportunities to center their experiences in the workplace? Why do they need a dedicated group to talk about their feelings?
- White men’s groups will encourage White men to continue to center their Whiteness and maleness in ways that perpetuate or even amplify harm that is already being experienced by marginalized folx in the organization.
- White men’s groups will divert much-needed energy and resources away from existing ERGs (which are already often undervalued and under-resourced in organizations).
- White men’s groups won’t really build accountable relationships or commit to making the progress needed to help drive systemic change in the organization.
These are all very important concerns, which need to be addressed thoughtfully by any organization that is considering creating a White men’s group. And I believe it is critical that we navigate these concerns, wherever possible, so that White men can access dedicated spaces to engage with this work.
In the groups I lead, we work to cultivate self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, and accountable action in community. With White men, creating this kind of humanizing space often requires a focus on the costs of systems of oppression on us first, before broadening out to understand the costs on others.
A lot of White men I have worked with want to support DEI/JEDI initiatives but they don’t have the training, so they end up making painful mistakes and then shying away from the work rather than leaning in to become the accomplices that they could be. This is a huge missed opportunity for organizations and often blocks meaningful progress.
From my perspective, if White men don’t have dedicated spaces to heal and build skillfulness in this work, we will be (at worst) actively resistant and aggressive or (at best) silent, unaware, and passively resistant.
White male silence and disengagement can perpetuate oppression by exacerbating existing harm toward marginalized folx and undermining efforts to build more equitable workplace cultures.
It is important to invest in Accountable White Men’s Caucus Groups so participants can learn to be meaningful partners in JEDI work, show up authentically, take responsibility for our impacts, and participate in creating culture change. Further, it is vital to run these groups in a way that doesn’t put the burden of labor (teaching, organizing, emotional heavy-lifting, etc.) onto BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ folx, which is so often still the case.
When we, as White men, recognize that this work is our work too, and that we all stand to gain from building a more equitable culture, then we are more willing to take the risk of divesting from Patriarchy / White Supremacy culture and taking a stand for a more equitable world.
Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight; engaging meaningfully in this work requires a consistent commitment over the long term. When the work feels challenging, we need to lean in to that discomfort rather than pulling back or running away.
This work can be deeply confronting, as it invites us to step into uncharted territory by disrupting and re-imagining long-held views about our identities and impact in the world.
How should White male ERGs interact with other intersectional ERGs?
Interacting with intersectional ERGs is a key part of how Accountable White Men’s Caucus Groups seek to build relationships, awareness, and accountability.
Members of the White men’s groups I lead are encouraged to seek out opportunities to sit in as guests in the organization’s ERGs, when invited, so they can learn more about other people’s experiences and explore how to partner together to drive systemic change.
While the groups I lead are mostly ‘closed’ spaces – to allow for the often messy work we do together to happen without the risk of creating additional harm – we do open our space in limited ways to ensure accountability and alignment with women and/or BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx.
Within the Accountable White Men’s Caucus Groups that I lead, we explicitly center our Whiteness and maleness in order to understand and deconstruct our White male lens. However, we actively seek to decenter Whiteness and maleness outside of our group space. In mixed spaces, our focus is to listen, share authentically, intervene and disrupt harm when appropriate, and support BIPOC and other traditionally marginalized folx in the organization.
What is your approach to organizing and implementing White male ERGs inside of organizations?
I start by partnering with the internal DEI leader (or external DEI consultant) to understand their goals in terms of engaging White men in their DEI/JEDI initiatives.
We then work together to identify a few White men in the organization who they feel are open to engaging and aligned with the work (these men are ideally in management and/or leadership positions within the organization). In some cases, these men will have already self-identified and/or expressed their desire to be part of a White men’s group.
I meet with each man, individually, to initiate a relationship and learn more about their goals, experiences, and any perceived barriers to engagement. I also ask if they know of other White men in the organization who they feel may be a good fit for what we’re creating.
We then work to form an initial group of 2-8 White men, often meeting twice per month for about 90 minutes. It’s important for the initial group to stay small in order to create the intimacy needed to build trust together. Over time, multiple groups can co-exist in order to make space for all who are interested.
I facilitate the groups in ways that build trust, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness – while keeping our focus on the three goals I mentioned earlier (harm reduction, re-humanization, and shared practice). I often also initiate one-to-one coaching with the men involved, to support their healing, transformation, integration, and growth – in parallel with the group’s learning journey.
My facilitation approach focuses on cultivating a foundation of awareness and skillfulness while creating opportunities for emergent group learning. I often share my own personal stories in the groups I lead – including mistakes and learnings – in order to model the kind of vulnerability that I’m inviting others to bring.
I position myself as a co-learner, not an “expert”. I am very much on my own learning journey around this work, and I don’t pretend otherwise. I see the need for White men to support other White men on our equity learning journeys in order to reduce the burden of emotional labor on BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx. By doing this work together, White men can take a stand for a more equitable workplace and world for all.
Want to connect and/or learn more?
If something in this article has sparked your curiosity and you’d like to learn more, please feel welcome to reach out to me directly.
With fierce loving compassion,
P.S. The event host, Raven Solomon, recently posted an article reflecting on her experience engaging in this conversation. I encourage you to read it! That article can be found here.
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