“At the core of this work is being a truth teller – naming the things that need to be addressed and guiding people through them. Truth is now under attack in so many ways, which makes my commitment to this work even more essential, but I have to do it on my own terms so I can sleep at night.”
Shani Dellimore Barrax, the Principal and CEO of Aurora Change Agency LLC, began part-time consulting in Texas in 2017 and expanded her DEI consulting business to full-time at the start of 2023. However, she had been doing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in some iteration since the 90s, when she was co-chair of a YWCA Racial Justice Committee. Recently, she realized that doing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging work for other people on their terms, which required her to “contort herself to manage others' fragility”, was not good for her own mental health, let alone her integrity. This realization caused her to take the leap of faith to transition to doing this on her own. “This work is incredibly taxing on practitioners, and I've seen several become ill or even die as a parallel result of the intense racial battle fatigue that has become an occupational hazard for this work.”
Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Shani started out as a public relations practitioner when she graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in the mid-90s, with an early role as communications director at the YWCA where she co-chaired the Racial Justice Committee. After returning from a move to Atlanta, she became a program director for their Racial Justice Initiative, which included dialogue-based Study Circles on Race and Ethnic Relations and task forces for advancing equity and inclusion in criminal justice, education, and media. She then started DEI consulting while in graduate school, primarily doing trainings for educational institutions and non-profits. After some time being an adjunct professor and academic advisor, she accepted a role as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for a progressive, independent school where she positioned them as a resource to other schools in the country based upon the work they were doing, for which she contributed to a handbook for DEI practitioners in independent schools.
Her mother was an immigrant from the tiny island country of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and her father was from Alabama but came up to Pittsburgh during the Great Migration. They met as the only two Black people in their graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s. Her father went on to be the first Black professor at North Carolina State, and her mother devoted her entire professional career to the advancement of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Even so, her mother had the same negative perception of Black Americans as other non-Black Americans, reminding Shani that "the negative stereotypes about Black Americans are exported all over the world." She said that she thinks hearing and seeing how Black Americans are negatively perceived and often being the "lonely only" Black person in academic, social, and professional situations and experiencing that level of oppression and discrimination while trying not to "scare the white people" have informed her world view.
When she moved to Texas, she became the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Tarrant County College District, a community college that was the 13th largest educational institution in the country at the time. From there, she took a similar role as an assistant vice president for the University of North Texas, a tier-one research institution where she led and managed efforts such as the first campus inclusion climate survey, a comprehensive learning and development inventory, and re-imagined the Equity and Diversity Conference. She left that position to go to corporate, as she had always wanted to see "how the sausage was made", in a full-time role there rather than as a consultant. It was that experience that led her to strike out on her own. “There are so many people of color "trapped" in such spaces who stay because they need the money and benefits. As I have loosed myself from those shackles, I want to be a change agent for those who just want to work in a humane environment where the essence of their personhood is not diminished merely because it makes others uncomfortable.”
While starting this new venture, the primary obstacle for her has been going from having a regular paycheck and benefits to being entirely self-sufficient and not knowing when or where her next check is going to come from. “And of course, there's the elephant in the room - all of the efforts across the country to roll back the clock to civil rights-era oppression, just in a different iteration.” Most of her clients are out of state, and the post-pandemic shift to remote work was a “Godsend” for her business since she can be anywhere on a computer screen, but some of her work now is helping people to make a case for the critical nature of this work while facing the new challenges of the end of affirmative action and the rise of overt racism in the public square.
When asked about the most important thing she's learned from running her own business, Shani said she was reminded of her coffee table book titled with the words of President Obama, "Hope, never fear." She clarified that as a divorced single mother to a daughter heading to college, now with no safety net, she is absolutely terrified, but that she knows she’s doing this for the right reasons. “I keep having faith that God, the Universe, and the Ancestors wouldn't bring me to this point if I wasn't supposed to be here, just like it appears I was supposed to be in Texas to impact all of the institutions, organizations and lives that I have been privileged to make doing this work. I've consciously decided to replace fear with hustle - any time I get panicked, I turn that into action. Though most of my business is word of mouth, I'm creating ways to demonstrate how I can add value to organizations through my unique brand of change agency and DEI capacity building.”
When asked about what future goals she still has in mind, she expressed that she'd like to identify and work with organizations that want to go beyond the performative commitment to diversity and inclusion and are really ready to engage in the difficult personal and organizational conversations and self-reflection required to facilitate inclusive organizational change. She mentioned that while many people have a passion for this work, as evidenced by the many diversity, equity, and inclusion-related committees and task forces, they often do not have any training or background in strategic equity and inclusion. Part of her approach is to facilitate personal and organizational self-reflection, making the process invitational rather than punitive. Eventually, she'd also like to create a kind of "ask Shani" webcast where these topics can be discussed safely, and where people can ask the questions they've always wanted to without fear of shame, retaliation, or judgment.
Through Aurora Change Agency, Shani helps to create and sustain humane spaces “where everyone can thrive, engage, and develop with psychological safety.” She told us that there are two quotes that inform her work: “Without struggle, there is no progress…power concedes nothing without demand” (Frederick Douglass) and “Justice is what love looks like in public” (Cornell West), but her personal mantra is: "You pay me to tell the truth."
To learn more about Shani Dellimore Barrax and the work Aurora Change Agency is doing, visit their website