All stories

A conversation with Denise Branch, Forbes-featured anti-racism educator

Denise Branch is an anti-racism educator, consultant, coach, speaker, and activist, named by Forbes as one of “7 Anti-Racism Educators Your Company Needs Now.” Denise offered to share her thought leadership and insights on anti-racism work with Textio Word Nerd readers. Our email conversation is below. Thank you, Denise!

Denise, how are you? How are you doing right now?

As a Black woman in America, I’m not Ok! This is a painful time for me right now after the George Floyd video and Breonna Taylor verdict. I am not Ok! The compounding racial wounds. Black people are not Ok! Although, strength is a characteristic of Black womanhood, Black women are not Ok!. I am a Black woman and activist before I am an anti-racism educator and consultant. Anti-Black racism kills, and as someone who educates on anti-racism and studies anti-Black racism, I’m instantaneously furious to see that anti-Black racism is still freely killing my community, but instantaneously strengthened to see all of the companies, communities and citizens across the world saying “Black Lives Matter” and fighting alongside us for racial justice. Black Lives Matter isn’t going anywhere until Black Lives Matter everywhere, Okay?

Tell us a bit about your background and your work

I help develop anti-racist employers and employees. I was nicknamed the “MLK of DEI” by some corporate DEI professionals. Although, working in corporate DEI, I didn’t enter into DEI and Anti-racism work through certifications or tokenism from individuals and institutions that have a history of unaddressed anti-Black racism. I began after a legal fight with a huge corporation who instead of treating me with inclusion, equity and belonging, treated me with anti-Black racism. After winning the fight a fire was lit inside of me to keep the gloves on. I went on to consult, advise, coach, train, and speak to some Fortune 1000 employers and their employees, including the tech giant Microsoft and one of the few trillion-dollar companies.

For many companies, this is the first time they're really engaging with anti-racism work. What would you recommend for companies that are just getting started, particularly those that are wary of looking performative in their efforts?

I highly recommend companies newly hire and create staff or council of Black and Brown anti-racism educators and consultants at inception, to consult on their anti-racism startup journey with a focus on racial equity. The race(s) who experience the injustices and inequities are best equipped to develop and design solutions. BIPOC consultants and educators should always be taking the lead in anti-racism work. Otherwise, these social media gestures of support and becoming anti-racist organizations will be seen as performative at best and seeking social commerce at worst.

Black and Brown people are used to corporate gestures that appear to be for them but are nothing more than performances with empty promises to garner free publicity and racial capitalism. The truth is very few companies can start real anti-racism work without external assistance. Anti-racism work must also start with leadership. Everything that leadership does informs how companies function, so leaders must commit to anti-racism work as part of their own personal mission as well as the company’s mission. Anti-racism is not the end of racism; it is the beginning of ending racism. Just as some employees have learned to become racists, employees have to learn to become anti-racists. Every employer and every employee has a role to play in replacing racism with anti-racism.

Every employer and every employee has a role to play in replacing racism with anti-racism.

The reality is most employees do not fully know how to start becoming anti-racist. And making matters even worse, most employers do not know how to fully start building an anti-racist company either, or the effective ways to work toward anti-racism, racial equity, and justice. Many companies have a history of anti-Black racism, racial discrimination and exploiting Black and Brown communities. If companies authentically want to effect change, they are going to have to start doing more than hijacking the Black Lives Matter hashtag for Black Lives Marketing. There is already way too much performative “Black Lives Mattering" going on. Employers should know that many of their employees, customers, contractors, and members in the communities in which they live, work and profit are hurting, exhausted, angry and disheartened right now. So, it will take more than Black Lives Matter statements on employer social media pages—it will take reflection, awareness, action, accountability, accomplices, altruism and anti-racism work today.

What are the biggest mistakes you see companies make when it comes to anti-racism work?

Not naming it and not training on it. Why weren’t the companies and leaders working on diversity, inclusion and equity before George Floyd’s murder went viral and the recent protests naming it, and training on anti-racism instead of unconscious bias? So clearly the recent interest in anti-racism work is a result of current events of racism; however, I see companies using anti-racism under a DEI title which is problematic given that DEI work and anti-racism work is not the same. Most DEI work hasn’t done things like challenge racism or teach anti-racism inside companies. DEI work has only been a temporary fix to silence deep-rooted, systemic discussions of racism.

Diversity work has been around since the late 1960s/early 1970s. While some DEI efforts are well intended and others are about quotas, checking boxes and the "illusion of inclusion" etc., they have not meaningfully challenged dominant groups to end racism within the workplace and world-place. DEI work has been about saying we have more work to do and has excused racism. Anti-racism work includes actively identifying, challenging, and changing the values, structures and behaviors that perpetuate systemic racism within an organization and it doesn’t excuse racism. It’s performative to say you’re now an anti-racist organization doing anti-racist work without ever having spoken about racism or discussing the root causes with leaders for the lack of racial diversity within, and without having done any anti-racism training and still using the word bias and still offering unconscious bias training while the world is discussing racism and anti-racism training. The racial disparities, injustices, and inequities we’re seeing in America today, these aren't matters of unconscious bias or unconscious racism. These are conscious biases and conscious racism – people know what they're doing, and they’re used to the racism being excused, and explained away. 

Name it, title it, hire for it and train on it, because every DEI professional is not an anti-racism professional, has done anti-racism work or is anti-racist.

Many of the companies who have answered the call to become anti-racist haven’t moved the needle on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. DEI has not been successful and would not be a model used for anti-racism work. Name it, title it, hire for it and train on it, because every DEI professional is not an anti-racism professional, has done anti-racism work or is anti-racist. But anti-racism professionals can work together with companies’ DEI professionals to help them strategize for an anti-racist future and dismantle any systemic racism within their organizations. Anti-racism mustn’t take a back seat to DEI. Organizations have been driving diversity for over 50 years with no scale on equity and inclusion, its time anti-racism takes the wheel. You don’t become an anti-racist employer while being anti-talking about race and racism with your employees. You have to name it and train on it. There has to be anti-racist education for employees, without exception! Employers can only be as anti-racist as their employees.

How can organizations navigate their support in ways that help or don't re-harm the Black community?

From supporting Black Lives Matter to supporting Black-anything, let Black people take the lead. Hire, hire, hire Black consultants, advisors, educators, and PR firms with the lived experience and expertise to help navigate their support for the Black community. Black consultants and trainers should always be taking the lead on matters specifically affecting the Black community—nothing about the Black community without voices from the Black community. It’s that simple, but because Black voices and Black expertise have never mattered, too many companies are behind closed doors using white PR firms and white consultants to help them navigate the Black Lives Matter-era.

These white firms and consultants are using the words and work of Black excellence and being paid huge consulting fees on matters that affect the Black community without understanding the experiences of Black people, or without having the racial competency, literacy and intelligence to understand how race and racism affects our daily lived experiences. They pretend not to see racism, they do not experience racism, so they do not have the vision and knowledge of how other white people participate knowingly and unknowingly in anti-Black racism and harming the Black community. Imagine the hypocrisy in saying Black Lives Matter, but using white lives to consult, advise and educate your organization on the Black community. That’s a form of anti-Black racism that re-harms the Black community, full stop!

The present contempt for Black voices and expertise is as old as slavery and is deep seated, deep funded and deeply rooted in anti-Black racism. Anti-Black racists have always believed Black people who live Black lives should not be the translators of their own lived experiences. Additionally, don’t check for Black consultants without having checks for Black consultants. The opportunity gap and the low-balling of Black businesses in this moment of Black Lives Matter statements of support is outright deceptive and disrespectful. If Black lives matter, then Black livelihoods will matter too. Organizations must pay Black consultants for their time and expertise as they would pay any other consultant in their area of expertise for consulting other areas of their business.

The exploitation of Black labor and stolen intellectual property dates back to slavery and contributes to the economic inequities that re-harm Black communities today. More importantly, organizations must go beyond the solidarity statements and atone for their racist roots and complicity in tolerance of harms done to its Black workers and the Black community at large. They can start by sharing the number of Black leaders on their executive teams and boards, their percentage of Black employees, number of Black companies they’ve fairly done business with, sponsored or invested in, and the amount of charitable support given to Black communities per year.

What does a successful anti-racist program or company look like?

The roadmap to this question is included in my paid anti-racism strategy consultation for companies. I will say this: All companies should have an active anti-racism action plan that actively work towards a racism-free culture. A powerful anti-racism strategy and action plan challenges and changes the systemic issues within an organization. There has to be anti-racist educational programming and discussions on root causes with root cause leaders on the complex and specific ways that racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy operates on a personal, ideological, institutional and organizational level to develop effective anti-racist actions to help dismantle them, because what goes un-discussed goes unchanged.

Companies must also be intentional in reviewing practices and policies to ensure no racist methodologies are being used or continued to make sure they are not unintentionally racist. I don’t know of any successful anti-racist companies since companies have always been anti-talking about race, and the racial diversity in most companies is still trying to catch up to their inclusion, equity and belonging goals. Companies are now answering the call to become anti-racist organizations after the murder of George Floyd, but you don’t become an anti-racist employer with anti-racist employees overnight. You have to do the work to become anti-racist, you don’t become anti-racist without doing the work.

To me, workplace racism is inseparable from world-place racism, because every racist person caught on camera in the world-place was a racist employee in the workplace. You don’t become an anti-racist company without discussing race. Conscious or unconscious racism isn’t going away in any organization until racism is discussed in every organization. Furthermore, any organization with intent on building successful anti-racist programming must focus on developing anti-racist people, partnerships, purchasing, philanthropy, policy and practices—all those things matter in looking like a successful anti-racism program.

Companies and their employees can often have different views and values. What steps can companies take to ensure employers and employees are aligned on anti-racist values?

Good question, which raises another question of why would employees be misaligned from employer commitments to anti-racism and statements on BLM? It is the responsibility of the employee to align with their company’s commitments on ending racism, not the responsibility of employers to align with employee racist values, beliefs, behaviors, and views. BIPOC employees can’t choose the everyday racism they face because of their race, but employees who don’t face racism can choose another employer if they don’t want to align with their employer’s anti-racist values.

To nip future misalignments in the bud, commitments to employer anti-racism must be written into employee job descriptions if employers want to become anti-racist organizations with racism-free cultures. Anti-racism must become part of employee training and onboarding. Employers must revise their employee handbooks to incorporate commitments into policy and rules that are strongly enforced if violated as with any other employee rules that are enforced if violated. If an employee doesn’t have racist values, why would that employee be bothered by hearing Black Lives Matter? All lives can’t matter if Black lives don’t matter. If an employee is not racist, why would that employee be bothered by anti-racism? Simply put, if employers do not consciously have an anti-racism plan, employees will consciously have a racism plan.

Racism is bad for business, and it works against employer commitments to diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging. A study by Citi Bank found that racism has already cost the US economy $16 trillion over the last two decades, so racism will cost your company more than anti-racism consulting and training will. Organizations don’t have to be racist to hire an anti-racism professional, but organizations do have to hire an anti-racism professional to learn how to become anti-racist employers with anti-racist employees.

What advice do you have for employees or departments in advocating and championing anti-racism work, both in terms of attracting executive attention and investment?

My advice would be for employers and their executive leadership teams and not to employees. In the current social environment of protest and racial unrest, all executive leaders should already be at attention and have already realized they have a role to play in addressing racial injustice and inequity. Thus, there should be no business case needed for employees to make for Black lives and livelihoods to matter, and for inclusion, equity, belonging and justice for all, especially with white supremacy continuing to make headlines.

Executive leadership acknowledging racism in their industries and the communities they live, work, play and profit matter. Companies and their executive leadership should be ready and willing to be in service to Black and Brown communities instead of giving more lip service to Black and Brown communities. Companies have made enough Black and Brown dollars from these communities to invest back into ending injustices and inequities against them.

Executive leadership can’t exempt themselves from the organization’s commitments on anti-racism.

The executive suite is going to have to change if organizations are going to ever become truly anti-racist. Every executive will need anti-racism coaching because companies will need anti-racist leadership. Executive leadership can’t exempt themselves from the organization’s commitments on anti-racism. A commitment to anti-racism work should be written into each executive leader’s job description before they themselves are hired. Employers must put anti-racism learning and development on their agendas for all.

Can you give an example of a company’s social media Black Lives Matter Statement—done right?

Fashion Nova comes to mind. Fashion Nova is a quick-to-market apparel and lifestyle brand with a social media following of over 25 million. I appreciated their quote to the Black community, “we stand with you and we support you as you have supported us,” because you rarely hear companies speak the truth about the support they get from Black consumers. What they got right was they spoke one week and acted the next week by getting to work with leaders from the Black community to develop an action plan to support the #blacklivesmatter movement and the Black community’s fight against racial injustice. Fashion Nova pledged $1 million dollars in donations from Fashion Nova Cares, their program created to implement positive social impact to support community resources and activism, awareness campaigns and other initiatives to help in the fight for racial equality and opportunity.

They started with donating to organizations like Black Lives Matter, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Know Your Rights Camp which was founded by Colin Kaepernick to raise awareness on higher education, self-empowerment and instructions on how to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. With that being done externally, I am still interested in learning more about how the employers who did their Black Lives Matter social media statements right are challenging and changing internal systems, structures, policies, practices, attitudes, behaviors and educating their employees and social media followers on anti-racism and the systemic racism that led to the posting of these statements.


If your company would like to learn more about Denise’s anti-racism strategy consultation and trainings, or if you are a writer, editor, podcaster, producer, speaker manager, or event planner and would like to book Denise for a story, interview, podcast, blog, video, or virtual event please email with your requests.

Another thank you to Denise!

All stories
Get stories like these delivered right to your inbox.