How the pandemic has created challenges for PRX’s DEI director

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For many public media companies, 2020 brought a racial reckoning. At PRX, an employee’s allegations of racial discrimination sparked an investigation and an apology from its CEO. The company also acknowledged that hiring someone to focus on internal diversity, equity and inclusion issues, a priority for a few years, had become “more critical.” In April 2021, PRX hired Byron Green as senior director of DEI.

Green

Green previously worked as a DEI consultant, but his role at PRX marks his first time as a director. Before joining the company, he worked at universities including the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georgia Southern University and North Carolina State University.

As part of our series of interviews with new DEI officers in pubmedia, Green talked with Current about his transition from the world of higher education to public media, how PRX can help employees process their emotions as they transition back to physical workspaces, and his plans for future DEI work within the company. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Current: Before joining PRX, you worked at several universities. How did your previous experience in higher education prepare you for this?

Byron Green: I did spend a great deal of time in higher education spaces before both teaching in the classroom and creating physical spaces for students in the residence halls and across campus. Realistically, that experience allowed me the space to understand the practicality of the theoretical knowledge that I gained from research across the board. I think all of that wraps up how my prep coming into this work really situates me in that space, because creating spaces where people feel included and that sense of belonging is a transferable skill across any space. So, it’s not adults in a residence hall, it’s adults in the work space. And what are you prepared to engage in?

I think that’s really important for our employees that make a decision about what parts of themselves they want to show up at work with, because now they get to choose. It’s not a residence hall where you’re here all of the time. This is, you’re showing up to work. And it’s my job to make sure that whatever you do choose to show at work, it feels welcome in that space.

Current: Teaching in physical spaces gave you this experience. That’s obviously a challenge right now. So how does that preparation in physical spaces apply now?

Green: At PRX, we’re in our next phase of work entering into a hybrid model. We are still a geographically distributed company, and we only diversified that even more over the pandemic. So myself included coming on from St. Petersburg, Florida, it is a concerted effort to, how are we going to build spaces in a virtual world? We have relied heavily on our communication spaces, our G Suite and our Slacks, and what does that look like? And there’s a whole other world to explore in asynchronous conversation versus Zoom, and what are the equity questions that we broach when we are literally peering into other people’s homes. And that conversation looks a little different because now you’re not just showing up with your identities, but you’re also showing up with your home. And this is something that we’ve never shown our work colleagues before. But I think [we can lean] into it. like, “Hey, what are the things that you choose to show us?”

Current: What has this transition into this leadership position in public radio been like?

Green: Going into public media has been a whirlwind just by itself, like understanding call letters. But I will say I’ve been incredibly grateful for our leadership team, both Kerri Hoffman, our CEO, who’s also my direct supervisor, building an entrée into the system and teaching me about public media along the way. But really leaning into — I mentioned those transferable skills — how am I going to do my job in this space? Does it change?

As far as the leadership components are concerned, in my experiences to date, I’ve always had really amazing supervisors that have cleared the path for me to stand in those leadership spaces, specifically in the equity work in which we do. I’ve had some supervisors that are rock stars, and I can’t sing their praises enough. So stepping into a true leadership position by title was not a big adjustment for me, because I’ve been operating in those spaces as a leader prior to this experience.

Current: You mentioned things like the call letters. Is there anything else you’ve had to adjust to in the world of public radio that has been a challenge?

Green: There has not been anything overtly challenging. I joke about the call letters because that was this thing that was the strangest to me, but I would venture to guess that if I told people the course numbers of the classes that I’ve taught, that would also be strange to them.

I am a student and a continual learner, so I think that really situates me to absorb as much as possible … and also not viewing any person as the expert on a space that is contributed to by so many valuable people. Some of our staff … have been so gracious in sharing their knowledge with me, as well as external folks that I’ve been able to connect with on LinkedIn and other social media platforms that have shared contextual information with me specifically about public media at large, and taking all that information and synthesizing, “What does this mean for me?”

Current: What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in your work so far?

Green: … The pandemic. There is benefit in building empathy and physical interaction, and when you are in a space that you have chosen, who you choose to interact with are probably going to be people that are very similar to you and you share a lot of similarities with. So when you’re at home, how do you engage in difference? How do you engage across differences at large?

Those skills that we exercised before the pandemic on a daily basis, if it was walking to work, if it was talking to someone at the water cooler or grabbing lunch, there’s a difference that you’re able to engage in. And at home, you just don’t have that opportunity. But the reality of the pandemic really impacted us in a way that Black and brown folk were way more impacted by the pandemic across the board, if that was being an essential person in essential roles. So what does that look like as we continue down this road, and how do we create those instances for people when they’re in the comfort of their own home?

Current: Is it harder for employees of color to interact with everyone now? Is it actually more beneficial to be in a physical space?

Green: There are pros and cons across the spectrum with considering socioeconomic status, considering the world we live in, where side conversations abound. How do you continue to get face time when you don’t know what meetings you don’t know about? I think how we choose to engage today looks a little different. … During the pandemic, we watched a number of Black bodies be murdered by police. How are we processing those feelings and thoughts and emotions while also trying to remain engaged in professional conversation? We were missing connectedness … like at work, your work best friend. … Now I’m in a room by myself, and if I need to be on camera and I look like I’ve been crying or processing emotions, how does that play out? When normally I would have been able to go to the bathroom and just have a moment. But here we are trying to be on camera.

Current: I remember talking with people that used to work in TV news, and we would joke about “What was your favorite spot for crying in the newsroom?”

Green: That’s really funny, because we had a really real conversation in our discussion about returning to work. And the question that we considered was “Are we prepared for employees to process emotions at work?” Do we have the physical spaces for employees to process emotions at work? Are we willing to black out some of the phone booths that we have in our office? Like if somebody needs a moment to process emotions and not look like, oh, they’re running out of the room to have a moment. No, we want to welcome it. If you need to have a moment, have a moment. We just heard that the three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty on federal charges today. I had a moment and I recognized the privilege of being remote, that I had that moment without any cameras on. But if we were in the office, that would’ve been a thing for me.

Current: So do you have solutions?

Green: We do have those spaces. We also are considering “What does it look like for our new moms that also brought little humans into the world during the pandemic and still need space to pursue nursing and provide for their kids?” All of those are considerations that we’re still building out the final product of what that’s going to look like. But the conversations are way ahead of where I had seen other companies be as far as conversations and preparations for those things.

Current: How do you compare the DEI challenges public media is facing with where you worked before?

Green: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because there’s not a ton of difference. … Working on a college campus, there are continual challenges to DEI and accessibility as well. And that’s something that specifically at PRX, we lean into. Because there really cannot be equity if we are not inclusive of accessibility.

What does representation look like across the board in higher education, which is predominantly a white-dominated space? What are our students of color experiencing? My research explored very deeply the barriers to the use of strategies around diversity, equity [and] inclusion in white spaces and historically Black colleges and universities. So how are we creating these spaces? What are the challenges that are presenting themselves and coming over to public media? Instead of being on college campuses that had their own stereotypes with them, we are dealing with them in our newsrooms, in our offices, but also on camera or behind a mic. And so people are watching it happen in our spaces. So when we say that we want to diversify our newsroom, we want to diversify the people that we are engaging with, we want to bring those voices into the fold, there’s a lot more accountability compared to higher education classrooms or spaces at large, where the students are the ones that are driving the message out. Here in public media, we are already broadcasting outwardly all the time.

Current: What has surprised you in this role so far?

Green: One thing that has surprised me the most is PRX’s willingness to engage in a conversation. Whenever I have presented a new strategy, a new approach, a new way, a framework, a way of thinking of things, PRX has been very willing to engage in the conversation — how can we build this into the work that we do? I mentioned in my work in the consulting world, that is not something that happens very often. Often there is some pushback, there is some concern. … At PRX, I haven’t brushed up against that.

In the consulting world, they hire you because of your resume and they trust that you are the expert and you have the expertise and knowledge. But trust is something that is built. … Often as a consultant, my space of expertise as an individual was the equity space. When I work with tech companies or fitness companies or insert industry here, it was like, are you aware of the context that we live in? So a lot of the time that I worked with those organizations, I spent time learning the industry with my clients and co-creating spaces.

With PRX, I approached the work similarly. I need to know what it is like to be in public media? So it took some time to be a student of public media. If you asked me before [joining PRX] my level of knowledge around public media, I would be embarrassed. Today’s Byron would be embarrassed at what I thought public media was before I took this job, right?

Current: What did you think it was versus what you know now?

Green: I grew up listening to local radio … in Greensboro, North Carolina. Our public station there was 90.1 on the campus of North Carolina A&T [University]. … I thought that it was this station that just lived by itself, like they were all the smart ones, like they knew all the things about all of the world.

As I grew up and learned a little bit more going through college myself into adulthood, [and] being on college campuses that also have public radio stations or are tangentially connected to public stations. Then I got this job, and I … learned how much more interconnectedness there is in the public media sphere. And they’re not just in this little bubble. How do NPR, PRX and APM [American Public Media] all engage in the individual stations and vice versa?

Current: Before PRX hired you, they designed a rubric for filling your position that “anchored analysis on whether someone can identify and articulate a problem about DEI and offer solutions to fix it.” PRX has said they’d like to continue this rubric idea with future hires. Are you already working on applying that to candidates for other positions?

Green: Absolutely. This is not my area of expertise, but I consult on it. How can we set up our interview processes and rubrics before candidates hop on? I know that [Edwin Ochoa, director of human resources at PRX] has continued to do this work and engage in this practice and has netted us some really fantastic hires over the last few years since I’ve been here.

Current: Has human resources talked about any issues with applying the rubric?

Green: We’ve approached it very differently and with a lot of intentionality. … The net good has outweighed anything else. Our employees have also seen the benefit of it and what caliber of employee we’ve been able to hire with it — [that’s] been incredibly positive. So it’s different. Something new is going to feel a little clunky when you first start it. As you start to stretch those muscles and work, it gets a little bit easier, it gets a little bit more baked into your normal everyday approach. Then you see the benefits of it.

Current: Is this something that you’ve been applying to positions all across the board, or is it just more HR-related?

Green: Across the board. This is not just specific to one space, because equity doesn’t just live in one space. Because we’re a small organization, we want everybody to engage in what this equity means at our organization.

Current: In a Medium post last spring, PRX outlined its strategy for hiring for the DEI director position. In that post, PRX noted that it took several months to design and fill the DEI role and that it would like to streamline that process so it could be applied throughout the company. How do you make the process time-efficient enough so that you don’t lose candidates?

Green: Now that we’ve refined it, it’s a lot easier to dial into it. My process and my onboarding was over a few months or so, and we’ve been able to have that process [cut] down drastically. Leaning into our core values like, this is what a question around our core values might sound like or this is how we could operationalize this, here is how we do it in the onboarding as well, having thought and consideration around the employee life cycle before they’re even hired. What is their experience going to look like? What are the first 100 days going to look like, those conversations that we’ve already had? So we don’t need to have them for every single individual process because we’ve had it at large. Then we just drill it down to this position and move it forward.

We’ve developed questions that are in relation to our core values. We trained our managers on the hiring philosophy that we believe in as well. [That has] made it a little bit more streamlined.

This is something that’s super exciting to me, because we established a professional development and training module calendar for our managers. We’re doing a minimum of two educational sessions for them per month. So we meet with them every single week, all of our managers, and in those meetings … HR has components that they do training on. … Every week we’re talking. What does emotional intelligence look like in these spaces? How does that impact intercultural communication? It’s ongoing.

Current: A recent Medill survey on DEI received criticism from reporters since ​​86.9% of the respondents were white, which reflects the racial inequity in newsrooms today. What are you doing at PRX to make sure you’re hearing directly from employees of color when you’re putting together DEI initiatives?

Green: With any of our surveying, I lean into a decolonized methodology of assessment. A decolonized methodology allows us to lift up individuals that are not a part of the majority and hold that data at the same level as organizational data. What are the experiences of the Black women at our organization, and what are the experiences of queer individuals … under 25? Being able to … splice our datasets from an intersectional standpoint is the first thing that we do that I brought to PRX.

In addition to that, we do affinity spaces. We have an affinity space for our Black staff. We also have an affinity space for our LGBTQIA+ employees and spaces for them to share their experiences about life. I also have planned conversations with random employees. We do one every three weeks, reach out to a random employee and just check in, like, “Hey, how are you doing? What are the barriers that you see to success? How do you feel about the work that we’ve done so far here? How can we be better? Where are the places that you see some good? Where are the places that you see us still needing some work?” So I’m continually gathering data from multiple different viewpoints across the organization and specifically looking at identities that have been historically underrepresented.

So right now, I mentioned we’re reading Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall and inviting conversation about some of the things that come up in this idea of an intersectional approach to feminism and how we engage in there at large. So there are questions that come up in the book that are worldwide questions. And what does it look like for us to support the intersection of beauty standards and colorism? And how do we approach that in a media company? Obviously, the beauty industry is a little bit more difficult because we’re a podcast company.

Current: In August 2020, Palace Shaw, an outgoing Black female employee who worked as a community manager at PRX, sent a letter to her colleagues detailing why she left the organization. Shaw alleged that PRX engaged in a culture of “white supremacy” and that PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman touched her hair, which Hoffman later apologized for in her own letter to staff. Among her criticisms, Shaw said she earned less than colleagues in similar roles. Is PRX working to make salaries more transparent?

Green: PRX did engage with a third party to do a compensation analysis before I arrived, in partnership with HR. So quick answer, absolutely, positively.

[As part of PRX’s new compensation philosophy process, employees, their managers, and HR held conversations to understand individual salaries and the salary ranges for job categories,” PRX spokesperson Dave Cotrone said in an email to Current. “PRX is also planning to roll out a more transparent process for promotions and career paths with a goal to ensure conversations actively include discussion about compensation.” PRX is planning to publish salary ranges for each job posting, Cotrone added.]

We do have a new pay philosophy across the board that has been in place since June. [It] was suggested to us by [consultant] CliftonLarsonAllen and helped us build that philosophy to make sure that after our equity survey was done, it would keep us from getting to a place where equity could be questioned.

Current: A October 2020 investigation into the alleged “systematic mistreatment” that Shaw laid out in her letter did not uncover any evidence of unlawful discrimination or harassment. However, the investigation did uncover what it called unconscious biases and microaggressions that made work difficult for BIPOC employees at PRX. How have you been working to address issues of inherent biases and microaggressions?

Green: Straight on. Notably we’ve done emotional intelligence, identity development and unconscious bias training at large. … Emotional intelligence is learning and acknowledging, managing your own emotions to engage with others. How does that impact your relationship? How do you support others when they are experiencing those emotions? But the heart of difference is self-awareness, that if you are unable to identify your own emotions when … differences come up, you are not going to be able to successfully navigate differences if you can’t manage your own emotions.

Current: What is a microaggression?

Green: Microaggressions have been studied by researchers. What we talk about in popular culture is a combination of microaggressions and just plain aggression. Let’s say you walk away from this conversation [with me], you say, “Wow, he’s really well-spoken.” Well, what is that built on? Is it built on the fact that I was born and raised in the South and you are unable to detect any Southern drawl in my conversation? Or was that rooted in my Blackness? [A microaggression is] often said without intent of harm, or it could be said with an intent of harm. The really important part [is], how did it land for me?

I hear that often. As a queer Black man that holds a terminal degree. I am often complimented on my speech, especially if people hear I’m from the South. But you also hear straight-out aggression, like “I had really low expectations for your speech after learning who you were.” And in those moments, people get a little stuck because I’m willing to engage in a conversation about it.

Here at PRX, one of the trainings that we haven’t yet engaged in is bias at large. What does bias look like? How does socialization impact how we have gotten here?

Current: What are your DEI goals for PRX in the next year?

Green: When I got into this role, about three or four months in I built a PRX road map for what I wanted our strategies to look like, what were some of our strategic priorities. One of them was to pioneer a new, diverse culture that celebrates the intersections of identities that create our richly diverse organization. Our next one was to cultivate actively inclusive spaces internally and externally. The third one was courageous communication and an effort to build trust across the organization and the communities we reach. And the last one was to create organizational leaders with the knowledge, skill and awareness to support diverse populations.

When I set this plan in motion a year ago, it included a plethora of strategies as well as different types of engagement in those strategies, looking at an intermediate approach, a beginner approach and an advanced approach so that we could bring everybody along on this journey together. Now that we’re coming up on a year, my PRX road map for the year wraps up in June, and I am excited to see what the data unveils.

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