Building Our Own Table: Robert Livingston
Meet the founder of Upcurrent
One of the great things about writing this newsletter is that it gives me the chance to meet other people who are changing the world with their writing. Robert Livingston is one of those people. Please meet Robert…
Robert, tell me briefly about your background prior to founding Upcurrent.
I have spent most of my career as a researcher and academic professor, as well as a consultant for scores of Fortune 500 companies, public-sector agencies, and non-profit organizations.
About 10 years ago my interests began to shift even more strongly from research to practice. I wanted to better understand what was happening in organizations and how I might apply social scientific theory and research to solving these real-world problems. Several top leaders described me as one of the rare individuals who was fluent in both languages: I understood the science inside out, but I also understood industry and could merge the two worlds effortlessly. They felt that I had a unique ability to translate the science in a way that was both accessible and relevant to leaders encountering everyday challenges related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I also work with public-sector leaders, given that I transitioned from business schools to public policy schools. I am currently on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where I teach leaders in the public and private sectors how to lead more inclusive organizations.
A number of leaders that I have encountered have encouraged me to distill my approach into a book that could assist other leaders, and ordinary individuals, who are interested in confronting the issue of racial bias in the workplace and society. Thus, in 2021, I published The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, a book that outlines my unique approach to combating racism in organizations and society.
Therefore, in addition to being an academic and practitioner, I am now an author as well. I really enjoy the writing process and my newsletter, UpCurrent, is a continuation of my efforts to distill and disseminate knowledge to people interested in redressing racism.
Give me the elevator pitch for Upcurrent.
In the wake of the social unrest of 2020 and growing calls for racial justice, many business leaders and ordinary citizens were asking a simple question: How can I be part of the solution?
This prompted me to write The Conversation based on my core belief: Speaking the truth about racism can radically transform individuals and organizations.
My newsletter, UpCurrent, seeks to further my efforts to seek and speak the truth about racism in order to inform and inspire others to do the same. Ultimately, I’m endeavoring to foster a science-based, non-partisan platform where the capital-C Conversation can occur in a civil forum.
And in more detail, what’s UpCurrent all about?
UpCurrent seeks to reach higher ground in the discussion on race, exploring the various facets of what racism is, how people of color experience racism, how and where it shows up in society, what needs to be done to eradicate it, and how we can all help get there.
To understand what systemic racism is, I like to use the metaphor of imagining individuals as fish and society as the stream they navigate. There are currents in the stream that push everything in a certain direction, and racism is a type of current.
Sometimes the current is like white water, very strong and obvious (like mass violence against a group). Other times the current is strong but obscured—an undercurrent you can’t see but nevertheless pulls you under (like implicit bias). Sometimes the current gets weaker or stronger, depending on the season (political climate) or the location of the stream (region of the country or world), but it’s always there, and it moves everything downstream toward the sea.
Racism is not just about the movements and actions of individual fish; it’s also about the current.
If you do nothing but float in the stream, the current will eventually carry you out to sea. If you actively swim with the current, you’ll wash out to sea, only much faster. Antiracism requires swimming against the current, like a salmon on a journey upstream. The journey can be exhausting, frustrating, and even dangerous, but the potential benefits for all are too great to stop swimming. Ultimately, the salmon swimming upstream enrich not only the stream but also the entire ecosystem surrounding the stream. My hope is to help those who want to become antiracist to keep swimming against the current. This inspired the name of my newsletter.
What inequity or gap are you trying to redress/address, and why is this important?
There are many gaps and inequities that demand our attention: gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, class, nationality, religion, and the intersection of all of these categories. But it’s difficult for one person to boil the ocean. I decided to focus my attention on the perennial problem of racism—particularly as it relates to anti-Black racism in the United States. When people think of systemic racism, they tend to see it as something quite abstract. However, I argue that you can break it down into five main issues:
Physical and mental health disparities,
Criminal justice disparities,
Educational disparities, and
Civic disparities, such as voting rights.
Of course, all five are not mutually exclusive—they are inextricably interrelated in many ways. These are the gaps I am trying to redress.
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One of the problems in doing this, of course, is that many people fail to see these disparities. Or, if they do, they blame them on the people facing the disparities rather than the system that created them. Therefore, the first order of business is to have a deep, honest conversation about what is happening. On a societal level, we have not talked honestly about race and racism. My goal is to change that—to bring people together to talk honestly about race, with the goal of creating profound and sustainable social change. With The Conversation, as well as UpCurrent, I aim to provide tools—maybe a compass and roadmap—for our shared journey toward a more racially just and equitable destination. It’s an ambitious endeavor, to say the least, but I am cautiously hopeful (though not blind).
Here’s a little-known truth: Racial equity is an achievable goal. That’s not just my opinion—logic, data, and scientific evidence all speak to the solvability of racism. In addition to being achievable, racial equity is desirable. The overwhelming majority of Americans from all walks of life agree that for the country to reach its full potential, all individuals, regardless of race, must have equal rights, the same economic opportunities, and the same access to quality education: 96% of Black people agree, 93% of Hispanic people agree, and 93% of white people agree. Moreover, at least 90% of respondents from each of the groups believe that establishing greater equity across people of all backgrounds is critical for moving the country forward.
Like other challenges facing individuals (for example, weight loss) and the world (for example, climate change), the problem of racism can be solved, in theory, with the right information, investment, strategy, and implementation. Whether it will be solved is a different question entirely. But my job is to put us on that path.
How’s it going? What has the response been?
The response has been incredibly positive, to both the book and the newsletter. The book has been recognized by a number of institutions and individuals. For example, Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb hailed it as an essential tool for anyone seeking to undermine racial inequity. It was chosen by the Financial Times as one of the best books of 2021, and it was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Literary Achievement” in 2022. So it’s been well-received critically, and sales have exceeded expectations.
We’ve published a number of newsletters as well, each with positive responses. So far this year, I’ve written about my PRESS model, a five-step plan for promoting racial equity; Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court; the difference between equity and equality; public perception of the achievements of Black individuals versus institutional progress; science-backed strategies for combatting bias; and the importance of supporting Black entrepreneurship. After each one, I’ve received numerous thoughtful comments and had great dialogue with readers, both those new to antiracism and established pros like yourself, who are energized about the work. Which is the goal!
Turning to DEI, who is left out of the conversation that should be included in the dialogue for inclusivity?
I don’t think there is enough attention paid to neurodiversity, which describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways. In essence, there is no one "right" way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits. Part of the reason is that this is an “invisible” dimension that people do not necessarily see.
I also believe that we do not spend enough time acknowledging or understanding how different cognitive conditions and styles can positively contribute to the workplace. On the contrary, there seems to be a trend toward producing cognitive conformity.
How will we know when organizations are fully inclusive?
The short answer is that we will know when everyone is equally free to make a mistake. The longer answer is, we’ll know we’re closer when we see the following:
Measures taken to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion are both on paper and in practice.
The employees, leadership, and boards of organizations are broadly diverse and representative of the general population.
Hiring practices fully promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, and organizations actively seek out diverse candidates with diverse backgrounds.
Institutional policies promoting and requiring DEI are implemented at every level of the organization—as are trainings, workshops, conversations, and language supporting the policies and educating all members of the organization about racism.
The wage gap between white males and every minority group of the population has been closed.
Shareholder resistance to DEI efforts is not a consideration in discussions on what policies to implement, or whether to implement them at all.
Organizations work with diverse partners, venders, clients, and donors.
Organizations commit to funding programs to provide opportunities for employees whose backgrounds have not afforded them the same wealth, education, or opportunities as more privileged colleagues.
Who’s getting it right in terms of DEI? What are they doing?
This is a loaded question because, truthfully, there is not a single company that is a paragon of excellence when it comes to DEI. There are some that do it better than others—it’s a continuum, not a binary—but a lot of companies right now are focusing almost exclusively on representation. Even if a company has diverse representation, though, they need to ensure that the work environment is sufficiently equitable and inclusive.
Here’s a story—another fish analogy, in fact! As a child, I had a small aquarium at home. At the pet store, I’d always be drawn to the colorful reef fish. But my parents would tell me that the colorful fish were saltwater fish, and because our tank was freshwater, those fish wouldn’t be happy or healthy in our tank. I think a lot of organizations are similar to me as a child: They want the colorful fish, but the water in their tanks doesn’t have the pH balance that would allow those fish to thrive.
Doing DEI well, and providing real opportunities for professionals of color, requires changing the water—the very ecosystem—of the organization. The first step for companies is to decide that diversity is an integral part of their organization’s DNA and how it’s structured. Once you’ve made the decision to truly integrate diversity into your ecosystem, then you have to start from scratch and ask: What kind of environment do we need to build in order to allow diversity to thrive here?
The companies that are doing the best job integrating DEI are those whose CEOs and board members are aligned in wanting to create real change—despite the perceived risks or the perceptions of shareholders. That’s the ideal. Without board members to back them up, a CEO deciding to take on DEI on their own inherently takes on a lot of risk because they have to answer to shareholders, who are typically risk-averse. Until more companies adopt a holistic and integral approach to DEI, they will simply be putting colorful fish in a freshwater tank.
In relation to racism, what is your vision for the future?
I think we have to play the long game. To understand what I mean, think about investing for retirement. Wouldn’t it be great if the market steadily increased 7% each year, without any downturns? It would follow an upward linear trend. Similarly, wouldn’t it be great if things constantly and invariably improved every year with regard to racial equity? Unfortunately, that’s not how racial progress, the stock market, or any human social enterprise works. There are ups and downs—two steps forward and three steps back, at times.
But despite the peaks and valleys, the stock market over time always goes up. Similarly, racial progress is something that inevitably increases even if it doesn’t feel that way, or if the change is not as linear or rapid as we would like. I don’t necessarily like these cycles, but it seems to be part of how the world operates.
So what keeps me going is a vision of the future that is far better than what we have now. I sometimes wonder what my enslaved ancestors from two centuries ago would think about the lives of their descendants today. Would their eyes fill with joy and pride at the freedoms and accomplishments of their great-great-great-great grandchildren—freedoms that they never could have imagined? What will we think of our descendants centuries from now?
To reiterate a previous statement, I don’t like the fact that it takes decades or centuries to produce changes that could, in theory, be realized in a much shorter time frame. I also don’t like having to wait 40 years for my money to grow to a quantity that will allow me to retire. But…?
Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to add?
Yes. I want to emphasize that the biggest obstacle to change is not “What can I do?” but rather “Am I willing to do it?”
For many white people, life is quite comfortable. The status quo works for them. Promoting racial equity is noble but not necessarily at the top of their list of priorities. Any viable further solutions must be focused on how to increase investment and concern among groups who believe that they have the most to sacrifice in order to obtain racial equity. While it’s true that anything worth having is not free, it’s also true that it won’t cost nearly as much as one assumes.
Folks, there’s a lot to absorb here, but I’d love to hear what resonates with you most.
You can connect with Robert on LinkedIn, his website, his newsletter, and check out his book.
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
I am an anti-racism writer, educator and activist, Head of Anti-Racism at Diverse Leaders Group, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
Ah, yep. Capitalism. :)
Mr. Livingston really does have the gift of distillation! Wow! I can tell you that the entire interview resonated with me because I had the opportunity to put science into practice at one of the most racist institutions in Philadelphia, PA: the Police Department. I saw how the changes (merit vs. punitive) impacted my employees as well as my supervisors (hint: the first group loved them...)
The fish and stock market analogies make things so relatable and non-threatening. Come on people, let's GO!!!
p.s. I got the book. :)