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Putting ‘Fruit and Root’ Analysis of Racism to Work

June 22, 2022

At a Glance

Building Equitable Pathways partner Say Yes Buffalo works with employers to explore personal bias and interpersonal racism to ensure that students in its apprenticeship program are placed in safe work environments.

Nyema Mitchell Vice President
Clair Minson Founder and Principal Consultant, Sandra Grace LLC
Practices & Centers

Knowing our own biases helps us to identify when racism is occurring and teaches us to address it head on.

In a previous blog in this series, we outlined our operating analysis and framework for creating an equitable education and workforce development system. Dubbed Fruit and Root, that framework stipulates that we must focus our efforts on both the “fruit” (the visible and magnified outcomes of racism) and the “root” (the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural and systemic causes of inequity).

The communities participating in the Building Equitable Pathways (BEP) project are charged with naming the “roots” they are addressing through their respective projects and initiatives. At this phase of the journey, we’re exploring these two roots of racism:

Individual, or personal, biases against other individuals or groups, and internalized biases against oneself based on a socially disadvantaged racial identity.

Interpersonal dynamics and ways individuals engage with other individuals and groups who have been historically excluded by law or custom from societal benefits and resources.

Using this explorative process, BEP communities are moving from a conceptual understanding of the Fruit and Root framework to an operational understanding of personal bias and interpersonal racism, and the practical application of tactics to address them.

To get an idea of how this approach works in practice, we recently interviewed representatives of one of our BEP intermediary partners, Say Yes Buffalo, to find out how they are operationalizing Fruit and Root analysis.

A Buffalo, New York State-based nonprofit that opened in 2012, Say Yes Buffalo started as a program that offered scholarships to graduates of the Buffalo public school system. It provided in-school supports to address students’ non-academic needs and worked to remove barriers that could prevent them from graduating. It has since scaled its operations into cradle-to-career model and now offers a wide range of programs and services to support students and families. One of its newest offerings is CareerWise Greater Buffalo, a modern youth apprenticeship program.

Say Yes Buffalo serves as an intermediary between employers, the public school district, higher education partners, and community partners. The organization is committed to equity, both internally and externally. More information about Say Yes Buffalo is available on the organization’s website.

Here’s what our colleagues at Say Yes to Buffalo told us about their efforts to explore the roots of racism internally and with employer partners.

How is your understanding of interpersonal racism shaping the way your case managers handle relationships?

We place high school students in workplaces as interns and apprentices all across the city. Ensuring that students are in safe work environments and are set up for success is one of our top priorities, so we have no other option but to address obvious instances of racism (the fruit) as well as deep systemic problems (the root) that may be less visible.

Our understanding of interpersonal racism starts with the deep work we do to reflect on our own biases first as individuals working in equity. Examining ourselves first gives us the credibility to shape and address inequities. This then shapes how we handle relationships with partners. Knowing our own biases helps us to identify when racism is occurring and teaches us to address it head on. This means that discussing racism, inequities, and bias forthrightly and as a matter of course is part of the relationship-building process with employers and educational partners. Thus, when uncomfortable and unacceptable situations arise, the focus and vocabulary of equity is not new to the relationship. While it always takes courage and care to address racism, the fact that we have already made addressing inequities a priority allows for a smoother process.

How does your understanding of interpersonal racism impact or change your recruitment and case management processes with partners? Are there things you think you will need to do differently?

We use our understanding of interpersonal racism to bring an equity lens to our interactions with students, our program designs, and how we prepare employers to work with our students.

It’s important to do that, because our community is extremely segregated geographically and economically—a reality reflected in our schools and workforce. That’s something we’re addressing as we launch our new youth apprenticeship program, CareerWise Greater Buffalo, which we’re piloting in the Buffalo public school system. Eighty percent of the students in the system are nonwhite, but we’re placing them in work environments that are majority white: According to a September 2019 report by the Partnership for Public Good, a local think tank, 91 percent of the Buffalo-Niagara region’s private-sector workforce is white.

As we’ve learned how racism plays out with conscious and unconscious biases in hiring practices and within the workplace, we have learned to address this head on. We require employers we work with to participate in anti-bias and racial impact analysis trainings. We also provide guidance on mentoring students of color and organize quarterly Racial Equity Think Tank programs to continue the education and keep the conversation going.

We frequently discuss equity concerns with employers and make it clear that our program is an equity-based initiative. We feel that being transparent, communicating directly, and “walking the walk” is essential to address the interpersonal racism inherent in workforce development.

What long-term outcomes do you expect to see two or three years from now as a result of this shift in your recruitment and case management processes?

As we focus more on practical efforts to address the roots of racism, we hope to see the following:

  • More inclusive hiring practices
  • Other organizations taking up our approach to addressing racism in the workplace
  • A shift in the demographics of the local workforce to reflect the population
  • Our students becoming leaders and hiring managers

Most important, we hope to see a shift in how students and young people of color see themselves reflected in the workforce, and an increase in the opportunities available to them. We also hope for more positive work experiences that lead to happy and sustainable careers that can have a real impact on families in our community.

A Commitment to Walking the Walk

As our BEP colleagues at Say Yes Buffalo state, addressing the fruit and the root of racism requires a commitment to developing new ways of working, having hard conversations, challenging traditional ways of working, and centering the voices and experiences of those most impacted by structural racism.

Organizations like Say Yes Buffalo have made a concrete commitment to addressing the Fruit and the Root. All staff members are fundamentally shifting the way they work with young people and employer partners. Their commitment to “walking the walk” is an example of how we can all model what it means to express our values of equity and justice and put them into action. In the coming months, we will begin to discuss the institutional and structural levels of racism and how they impact the work of the community of practice intermediaries.