Don't stop believing

Leaders: Stay the course on DEI through this storm

In Short

Research from the 19th century whaling industry demonstrates the value of long-term, significant diversity

Last August, I was listening to an episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast titled, “What Can Whales Teach Us About Clean Energy, Workplace Harmony, and Living the Good Life?” The episode featured University of Connecticut Department of Economics professor Michele Baggio discussing a working paper titled “Racial Diversity and Team Performance: Evidence from the American Offshore Whaling Industry.“ In the paper, Baggio shares data from the Whaling History Project website, which covers almost 15,000 voyages — nearly every major American whaling voyage between 1807 and 1912. 

For every voyage, Baggio could see the type and size of the ship, the hunting grounds they sailed to, how many barrels of whale oil were harvested and crew member demographic data totaling about 120,000 people. Baggio noticed something unexpected and worth our attention within the data. Like the Jewish people in the United States, whaling ships were incredibly diverse communities. In fact, according to Penn State Department of English professor Hester Blum, in the 19th Century, sailors on whale ships were, by some estimates, 25% to 40% Black American sailors.

Beyond the numbers, Baggio’s data help us, as leaders, get at questions that many modern firms, non-profit organizations, leadership pipelines, and college campuses are wrestling with right now. In the case of whaling, Baggio asked: “What are the economic effects of having a more diverse workforce?” Jewish leaders and organizations might adapt this to ask: “What is the value-add of a racially diverse Jewish community?”

The answer to the first question might inform how we think about the second. What happened as whaling ships became more racially diverse? Was it that friendships formed, the food improved? That ship fashion became inspired? On the contrary. Early in voyages, as the crew became more diverse and in particular when the ratio of sailors of color to white sailors was very low, journals document numerous conflicts–of values, beliefs, cultures and ways of being. Baggio attributes this conflict to what economists call “taste-based discrimination.” In whaling, the conflicts that came from taste-based discrimination resulted in desertions, deaths and the occasional man thrown overboard.

But when there were more than just a few non-white crew members, and sailors settled into the rhythms of the voyage, productivity started rising. And the data tell us that a whaling ship with a significantly diverse crew, one that was well-practiced working together as a diverse team, was fundamentally more productive than a ship with an all-white crew.

In addition to racial diversity, time also played an important role. Short term voyages resulted in negative effects, perhaps due to lack of time to thoughtfully include and integrate diversity. In the Jewish world today we might think of this as fits and spurts of diversity initiatives and one-time programs — those well-meaning efforts that last for less than one year (essentially forced diversity without care for equity and genuine inclusion). But on longer voyages — those over two years, or roughly the time it takes for organizations to implement a thoughtful strategic plan — the data show exclusively positive outcomes.

While as leaders we have raised our collective consciousness about diversity, and by extension can comfortably point to the few people of color added to our boards and public facing roles of institutional influence, we have inadequately committed to multi-year initiatives focusing on the personal, organizational and systemic rigors of Inclusion — those spaces where natural conflicts of values, beliefs, cultures and ways of being, emerge and must be navigated.

Standing on the edge of the summer, looking back at winter and fall, some of my hunches about the community’s commitment to diversity and inclusion have been confirmed. Our well-intended yet nascent efforts for both diversity and inclusion are being pushed back and pushed down not because they lack the promise of success — the data tell us that someday a diverse Jewish community will be more productive than the alternative. They are being shut down because this stage of diversity and inclusion work is filled with unavoidable conflicts — of values, beliefs, cultures and ways of being. These conflicts can be so challenging they can make people turn their backs, flee and want to throw others overboard. 

Baggio’s data and the bright spots of thriving multiracial communities reinforce the reality that the only way to build successful multiracial teams and communities is by holding very, very steady during even the stormiest of seas. In fact, collaboration and cooperation forged in the most tumultuous moments teaches interdependence and allows for the emergence of ingenuity, creativity and innovation. A shared sense of responsibility, a commitment to true integration and relationship building, an understanding that sustainable progress is made over time and understanding that success in fact means higher productivity and more resources for all are mindsets that create the greatest conditions for the success of multiracial teams. 

The approximately 7 million Jews in the U.S. share not only our Judaism and love for the Jewish people, but also the reality of being targets of hate because of our faith, our racial and ethnic diversity, our gender identity, and our multi-ethnic backgrounds. Our power comes from our diversity, our capacity for tenderness and care when faced with vulnerabilities and our collective commitment to difficult community work. When we reinforce our capacity for collaboration and deepen the most meaningful connections, we create the most favorable conditions for our collective success and safety–what we might term a triumphant voyage. 

Ilana Kaufman is CEO of the Jews of Color Initiative.