Racial Equity Journey

February 28, 2017

It seems simultaneously apt and wholly inadequate to observe the end of Black History Month with a reflection on racial equity. Efforts to advance racial equity do not solely relate to the black community. Nevertheless they are inextricably bound to black futures, given that institutionalized racism in the US is founded on both white supremacy and anti-blackness, ideologies internalized and at times replicated even within communities of color.

This context is not lost as I consider CRE’s own internal journey to sharpen our organizational focus on and commitment to racial equity. About six months ago, as reports and videos of unarmed black men killed by police circulated week on week, our CEO invited us to consider how we might respond more effectively. As staff processed these events, by no means new, it became clearer that a meaningful response required a more comprehensive view and effort.

As a 37-year old organization with a mission to “reduce poverty, promote equity and increase opportunity,” CRE has long supported organizations focused on social justice, including racial justice. But like many nonprofits, our staff and leadership inadequately reflect the communities we serve.  Race is often an organizational blind spot, despite its disproportionate impact on issues the sector grapples with, from sustainable livelihoods, economic empowerment, health, and education, to immigration, policing, and mass incarceration.

We formed an internal racial equity workgroup and invited staff to meet on a voluntary, regular basis.  The workgroup has the dual goals of providing a space for dialogue on race and of crafting actionable steps to embed the goal of racial equity into our daily work.

Over the last six months, we have spoken with clients and partners with deeper experience to understand how CRE as a capacity builder can be most helpful, collaborated with self-organized communities of practice that bring together nonprofits, discussed where our own internal practices (from recruitment to organizational culture to communications) fall short in integrating a racial equity lens – and taken concrete steps to change this – and have invested in racial justice training for all staff. This last step is particularly important as it grounds the work of personal and organizational reflection in a common language and frame of reference, and begins to build racial literacy as a core competency for the organization.

While we have only just begun this work as an organization and see it as a constantly iterative process, we’ve been able to see several lessons that can be drawn from both our progress and challenges:

  • Start with a point of view. Diversity, inclusion, and equity mean different things. In our case, we framed our goals around equity. Diversity and inclusion are meaningful only if they advance equity, which in turn requires an analysis of, and challenge to, the historical, systemic, and persistent factors that create unequal conditions and opportunities for certain groups of people. What follows from this frame of reference is quite different from one focused, for example, on simply embracing diversity within teams.
  • Focus on race intentionally but not exclusively. There is a tendency when focusing on race to debate why it takes precedence over other organizational priorities or other identities like gender or class, but these debates get us nowhere. Race is often a blind spot, and without an intentional focus, it slips off the radar in ways that revenue and efficiency and other organizational outcomes do not. I have also come to believe that until social justice organizations see racial equity as a non-negotiable priority for impact, the work cannot be done because there will always be competing priorities.
  • Embrace discomfort (and imperfection). Race is deeply personal and complex, and predictably difficult to talk about, especially in multiracial environments. This discomfort may show up as defensiveness, fear or shame, especially (though not necessarily) among white staff when discussions inevitably broach topics of privilege, implicit bias, or racism.  There is no alternative to this discomfort; choosing comfort only maintains the status quo, while embracing discomfort is the only way to really learn and begin to take action. At the same time, beginning this work does not mean we will always get it right. Being able to have honest conversations about how our individual and organizational imperfections may be experienced, and being able to acknowledge there is no “perfect” end point makes all the difference when starting and moving through this work.
  • Acknowledge differentials in power and emotional investment. While the goal is to take a learning perspective in a conversation on race, not everyone enters this on equal footing. What may serve as privileged objective learning for one person is a daily painful lived experience for another. Acknowledging these differences and centering the experiences of those with the largest emotional investment are important ways to model anti-racist practice even in the process of facilitating dialogues on race.
  • Engage white allies. It is a cliché to observe that diversity initiatives within organizations are mostly led by people of color. This work can be exhausting, especially for those who already experience race in personal and painful ways, and upon whom the burden to organize and educate disproportionately falls. Many who lead such internal initiatives describe the work as being regarded as non-core or unrecognized, and to require expending their social and political capital with their leadership to push for change. For all of these reasons, the active participation of white allies and especially white decision makers who are willing to prioritize the work, leverage their own capital, and share their experiences with other white people who are in different places in their journeys is crucial.
  • Celebrate small wins. Not everyone from board to leadership to line staff needs to be “woke” before you can begin the work. For example, tweaking your recruitment process with a racial equity lens can have a ripple effect. So can making it standard procedure to run your communications platforms or messages by people of color. Pursuing and celebrating incremental changes helps stave off the helplessness that often descends when considering the magnitude of structural racism.

The final point I would make is to expect the work to be long and challenging. An internal racial equity initiative is fundamentally about spotlighting and dismantling deeply entrenched legacies of racism. It is worth reminding ourselves of what we’re attempting to undo – and that there are no quick fixes. Believing it’s worth it and staying the course is the only way forward.

By Director of Consulting for Talent Management and Innovation, Fiona Kanagasingam

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