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Myth of Hard Work

The moment I learned that crediting only hard work and dedication promotes racism

Do you credit your achievements in life to your hard work and dedication? Have your accomplishments enabled your further success? What if, no matter how hard you worked, those achievements were behind an impassable wall?

Unfortunately, that’s what many people of color experience when it comes to access to housing. From GI Bill exclusion to Redlining, these impassable barriers denied the possibility of building wealth for millions of people of color.

In our work today, many employees experience impassable barriers. Respect for People also means going to gemba and helping to remove those structural barriers that prevent people from doing their best work. The results if we do this well? High engagement, more ideas, better productivity, and most importantly, we don’t contribute to oppression.


A culture of working hard

My parents immigrated to the US in the late 60’s. They didn’t bring much with them; a little bit of cash, and two suitcases. As some of the first of their family to immigrate to the United States, they also brought with them a strong sense of responsibility and duty. For their three children, this meant instilling the value of discipline and an ethic of hard work. I never really appreciated that until I became an adult. My parents always worked super hard; my mother ran a real estate brokerage, which meant she was usually working on the weekends and weeknights, and my dad had two full time jobs. My parents have told me that I mistook my cousin for my dad, because dad was always working.

As much as I tried to resist those values growing up (just ask my family), eventually I subscribed to it. By the age of 12, I was helping them balance their checkbooks and reconcile their bank statements. I learned that every time my parents moved; they retained their old mortgages to build a portfolio of small rental properties. This was my first glimpse into why my parents worked so hard – to build wealth through homeownership so that they could support our family.

Twenty years later, after years of hard work, two master’s degrees, and more years of hard work – my wife and I had a pretty good life going. We were renting our home and pursuing meaningful careers. We loved where we were renting and were lucky enough to be able to consider making an offer to buy the home from our landlord.

Their response? “No thanks. By the way, we need you to move out next month. Sorry about the short notice, our family wants to move back in.”

Ouch. Not the response we were expecting. A good reminder of why housing stability is important.

But it was okay, we knew we’d be alright. Our hard work had put us in the position where we could actually enter the housing market. Literally hundreds of house showings later, in a cutthroat market of all cash offers, we made an offer on a house that felt reasonable. As a part of that process, we were looking at the relevant documents, and then we stumbled upon this:

“No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay, or any Asiatic race, and the grantee, his heirs, personal representatives or assigns, shall never place any such person in the possession or occupancy of said property”.

Redlining. There it was. Right in front of us. The artifacts of oppression, staring us in the face. I already knew about red lining, but there it was, staring at me – and staring at my parents’ years of hard work.

They did everything right. They worked their butts off! If they had immigrated just a few years prior, they would have been denied the ability to purchase their home. What they created for me, for my siblings… for my daughter… would not have been possible regardless of how hard they worked.

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Redlining is in the roots of our country. Owning land and property has always been a part of the culture of the United States (regardless of how it was obtained). Homeownership remains one of the key contributors to total wealth across the United States. Owning a home not only provides access to tax benefits and the building of equity wealth, it provides a level of stability that opens numerous other opportunities.

The explicit denial of ownership due to racially restrictive covenants on deeds is only one of the systematic strategies to prevent people of color from owning a home. After World War II, the GI Bill was signed to provide support to returning veterans. Specifically, it made home ownership an option for 9 million veteran families. Yet the money was not made available to the 1.2 million black veterans who applied. The post war housing boom, which still makes up a large portion of the wealth in America, was explicitly put out of reach of people of color.

It was structural policies like these that specifically denied the prospect of the American dream could become a reality. According to researchers from the Harvard Equality of Opportunity Project - “The defining feature of the American Dream is upward mobility – the aspiration that all children have a chance at economic success, no matter their background. However, our research shows that children’s chances of earning more than their parents have been declining. 90% of children born in 1940 grew up to earn more than their parents. Today, only half of all children earn more than their parents did.” Unfortunately, this reality is disproportionately reflected in the Black community.

Respect for People - #ZeroRacism

Have you ever encountered employees that try to deny that waste exists in their work? Or maybe even they provided excuses and justifications for the waste? Their feelings about it don’t change the fact that waste exists. Now, replace the word “waste” with “racism” and ask the same questions.

If we operate in a system designed to create waste (racism), we will have lots of waste (racism).

Racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, ableism, and other -isms are all distinct forms of an abuse of power, aka oppression. These wastes are frequently preventing people from being able to do their best work. No matter how hard they work, if the system is designed poorly, they will never succeed. This often results in overburden - and the celebration of the heroic efforts required to produce any results. But we know within lean cultures, celebrating heroic efforts is a perpetuation of waste. According to Ibram X. Kendi, “The heartbeat of racism is denial. The heartbeat of antiracism is confession.”

As leaders, it is our responsibility to go to Gemba, and support the targeted removal of structural barriers present. Whether it’s developing employees’ capacity to identify and remove waste through small iterative change, or through redesign of workflow.

I’m reminded of a conversation with inspiring leader Jeff Kaas, where he essentially equated waste with sin. To allow waste to continue is to commit harm to others. And most organizational waste stems from the choices of their leadership. As a professional in the healthcare space, this reflection gives new meaning for the motto of “Do no harm.” When we allow waste and oppression to exist in our organizations, societies, and personal lives, we are actively allowing harm.

What to do about it

While the scale of systemic oppression across our world is vast - we can take steps right now to create more antiracist organizations. We can engage in antiracist activities that drive more value to our customers.

One of the more useful learnings I’ve had around teaching waste is that it is more powerful if you can encourage leaders to identify the waste that they create, allow, or perpetuate. It is easy for most to point fingers at other places and see wasteful behaviors. But leaders must be willing to change their own behaviors.

With that in mind, I ask you to ponder:

● How do you create, allow, or perpetuate racism and oppression?

○ Not sure? That’s okay. It’s a muscle that can be practiced!

● Not sure what racism and oppression look like?

○ What’s a small step you could take to learn more?

● Not sure how to ally?

Always center those impacted.

Listen and Learn from those who live in oppression.

Leverage your privilege.

Yield the floor.

● Got a voting plan?

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Aric Ho is driven by a spirit of inquiry and passion to make an impact. This insatiable curiosity has created opportunities for Aric in a myriad of industries, including: Healthcare, Government, Retail, Real Estate & Technology. He currently serves as the Senior Consultant & Training Manager for UW: Medicine - Valley Medical Center, serving one of the busiest emergency departments on the west coast. He also serves as the Board President of Homestead Community Land Trust, one of the largest affordable homeownership organizations in the pacific NW.

His work spans the spectrum, from helping a team of care providers connect authentically with each other, to supporting the roll out a $1.3B retail strategy. Regardless of the role or hat he has worn, he helps people and organizations perform their best by connecting their heads and hands with their hearts. He fosters a culture of equity and inclusion by simultaneously creating psychological safety whilst challenging everyone to do better.

He believes in leading with Love and considers himself an impatient optimist.

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