Editors’ note: This article is part of our ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project in collaboration between NPQ and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.
“When Trayvon Martin was killed, I was heartbreakingly reminded of just how deep-seated racism and racial inequity are in American society. This not only can affect a young person’s opportunity prospects but also put his or her life in jeopardy. But I also thought that this should be our work, and we are really unprepared to take it on.”—Living Cities staffer
On February 26, 2012, a seventeen-year-old Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman. Martin’s death ignited a national debate about racism and justice. It was on the nightly news and in the editorial pages. We heard from legal and criminal justice experts, historians, artists, Martin’s parents, and President Obama. And, across the country, people were having their own conversations. They were having them at dinner tables and at real and metaphorical water coolers. They were having them on social media and in the streets as a protest movement took hold.
At Living Cities, we were having them too. The days following the Zimmerman verdict were particularly tense at our office, as staff members found themselves in informal but reflective and sometimes emotional conversations about Martin’s death, Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the pervasiveness of race in America. Several staff members felt that a robust interrogation of the impact of racial inequity on cities was noticeably absent from Living Cities’ work. These conversations eventually set us on a course to radically reconfigure the way the organization works around race.
Living Cities is a twenty-five-year-old collaborative of foundations and financial institutions working together to improve the economic well-being of low-income people in American cities. Living Cities’ staff facilitates, seeds, and executes the work of connecting the priorities and expertise of its diverse funders and partners. Our mission is focused on advancing change at the systems level. In service of this, we are testing several approaches. For example, through our nine-city Integration Initiative, we work with cross-sector leaders in each city to move the needle on such outcomes as, in New Orleans, connecting low-income people to jobs, and, in Newark, improving the health and wellness of children. We provide a mix of grants, loans, learning opportunities, and thought partnership to these efforts. Another initiative, called the City Accelerator—a partnership with the Citi Foundation—supports cohorts of public-sector leaders in eight city halls to implement innovative strategies to address the needs of low-income people. As part of a cohort of the City Accelerator focused on resident engagement, for instance, Baltimore aims to ease the transition from incarceration to community.
While Living Cities’ work addresses racial equity and inclusion at different levels and in different ways in cities around the country, we were not explicit about this focus. Meanwhile, the historical and prevailing context is that the majority of low-income people in U.S. cities are people of color. How was it possible, we were asking ourselves, to achieve our mission without addressing the intersections between poverty and race with intentionality? Further, there was a sense among staff members that conversations about race were not encouraged at Living Cities, both in terms of how we engaged with each other internally and in terms of the story that we were telling the world about our work.
This conversation spread rapidly, with primarily junior-level staffers taking the lead on moving it from the hallway to a conference room. As it became clear that so many people from across the organization felt very strongly about the need to move racial equity and inclusion from the periphery to the center of our work, a group of three staffers—a director, an assistant director, and one of the authors of this article (who was a senior associate at the time)—raised the issue with Living Cities’ CEO Ben Hecht.
One of Ben’s most frequent reminders to Living Cities’ staff is that no matter where you sit in the organization, you are being paid to think. He encourages all staff to participate in meetings, to speak our minds, and to bring our best ideas to the table. Still, acknowledging that conversations about race often get difficult and messy, we wanted to do the necessary work to ensure that we were prepared and productive.
As staff, we had gone through training in adaptive leadership, including around having “courageous conversations.” That training proved to be extremely valuable, as there was an emphasis placed on seeing things via multiple interpretations and considering the core values and perceived losses of key stakeholders in terms of what one was proposing.
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Ben has said that his initial reaction to hearing that his staff felt that Living Cities was not being as effective as it could be in terms of advancing racial equity and inclusion both internally and externally, was, “How could this be?” He expressed his commitment to these issues and said that he was surprised that others did not see it adequately reflected in our culture or work. However, after taking some time to process what he heard from staff, he concluded, as he put it later, “If so many people felt that way, how could I think that they were all wrong?”
So, it was with Ben’s support that a task force of Living Cities staffers drafted a memo outlining some steps for how we might go about initiating internal and external work to understand and address racial disparities in more intentional ways. One of the first things that we did was to engage Frontline Solutions, a national consulting firm with deep expertise in helping organizations to develop and apply a critical understanding of how race, place, class, and gender intersect and affect opportunity. Then, with Frontline Solutions’ help, we engaged the entire Living Cities staff in a conversation about racial equity and inclusion at our annual all-staff retreat. The goal was to create a safe and productive place for staff to grapple with these issues together and to begin to develop a shared language and a shared foundation of knowledge.
Ultimately, doing the work of racial equity requires aligned action—multiple groups and stakeholders within an organization working through difficult issues in concert. However, to get to that point, multiple steps must first occur. Frontline worked with Living Cities on five concrete steps concluding in aligned action as a critical final step with the intended result of fundamentally changing the way our institution works:1
- New information: when engaged by Living Cities, Frontline Solutions staff and their partner experts brought in historical facts, contemporary data, and common frameworks that described in straightforward terms the country’s current racial inequality and its root causes.
- Understanding: Frontline Solutions facilitated interactive learning sessions where staff could discuss, digest, and sit with this new common language.
- Implications: a task force comprised of Living Cities staff worked to examine all the ways racial equity might impact the organization’s work going forward.
- Commitment: Living Cities senior leadership and program staff committed to an ongoing process of thinking about ways in which to incorporate their learning into the work of their respective teams.
- Aligned action: while still a work in progress, Living Cities’ commitment to racial equity has resulted in concrete changes to multiple, seemingly disparate facets of the organization—from the way the impact-investing team evaluates prospective pay-for-success programs to the way it works with government leaders. Our seven-element framework for government innovation that we are partnering with city halls to implement emphasizes that high-performing governments must intentionally address racial disparities through policy and practice.2
At the retreat, Frontline Solutions introduced us to some tools and definitions to help us get started. In order to empower everyone to participate, we shared maps of places that we know well and told stories of how race has played a role in shaping these places and their opportunity landscapes. We created and shared case studies from our work and the work of others in our problem-solving network that illuminated how important it is to consider race when developing and implementing strategies. Lastly, we brainstormed and sketched out the beginnings of an institutional change process to support further inquiry.
Based on the work that we did together at the retreat, we came up with a three-pronged strategy to integrate racial equity and inclusion across the organization:
- Organizational Learning: Proactively learning as an organization about racial equity and inclusion strategies, models, and outcomes. We shaped our learning agenda around a series of brown bag meetings, inviting leaders in the space to come and share their experiences with us and engaging with tools and ideas as a full staff. We continued to engage Frontline Solutions, which led trainings and workshops at staff meetings and helped us to curate an internal REI (race, equity, and inclusion) tool kit with various types of resources—including books, reports, charts, discussion questions, and assessment tools. Staff members also attended key REI-focused conferences.
- Public Engagement: Strategically using our platforms (website, blog, social media, convenings, and events) to engage in public conversations about racial equity and inclusion, asking questions of others and sharing what we are learning for feedback. For example, we focused an entire track of our annual network summit on racial equity and inclusion, inviting our member institutions, grantees, and other partners to share strategies, successes, and failures in this area.
- REI Integration: Engaging in an institutional planning process for integrating REI outcomes and indicators throughout our programming and operations. We started with a series of pilot projects that included, for example, applying racial equity and inclusion criteria to new impact investments from our Catalyst Fund and working with our partners at Strive Together to make disaggregating education data by race a requirement for all participating sites.
While we had a lot of early successes during our racial equity and inclusion journey—largely due to buy-in and enthusiasm from the whole staff—this work has not been without challenges. Although we established a task force to help drive the learning agenda, we knew that the integration ultimately had to be owned by all staff. We have tried a few things to support this process, including asking staff members to start considering racial equity and inclusion as they design, implement, and evaluate strategies. We developed templates and criteria to help teams to do this. But we are still trying to figure out how to track what we are doing and to ensure that all staff can learn from these efforts toward continuous improvement. And, we have had to work hard to bring this new focus to existing programs in ways that are authentic and that honor the work of grantees and partners.
Ben has said, “Once you begin to apply a racial equity and inclusion lens to your work, it changes how you see the world, and there is no going back.” But, over the last year, it has become clear that we need much more intentionality around moving from good intentions to action. As new staff came on board and other priorities arose, there has been a sense among some staff that we have fumbled the ball. To keep moving forward, we are recommitting ourselves to test different ways of operationalizing and deepening this work.
- Diversity does not equal equity. While a diverse staff is an important component of an organization’s capacity, stopping at diversity ultimately falls far short of equity. Staff, even those of color, need to do the concrete work of understanding information on inequity and its causes, examining the implications, and taking action together to advance racial equity.
- Racial equity starts at home. An organization simply cannot effectively jump into an external-facing racial equity initiative without first doing the tough work of examining the ways systemic and internal issues are impacting the experience of staff and the ability of leaders to incorporate race analysis into their work.
- Work across the organization. While starting a new initiative or programmatic focus may be the right step for your institution, remember that there are few aspects of nonprofit work that are not deeply impacted by racial inequity. Perhaps the greatest impact can be had by deepening and improving your current work in concrete ways.
- Don’t forget to partner with those who have proven track records. New knowledge can be powerful in unlocking urgency and energy in doing this work—however, it can also easily cause organizations to remain unaware of peers and colleagues who have already been doing the work. If the organization has not been actively taking on racial equity, there will likely need to be significant collaborative and interpersonal bridge-building with folks who have already been advocating for this issue and who may well be disappointed with your organization’s lack of partnership on this front.
The authors thank Marcus Littles, founder of Frontline Solutions, for his contribution to this article.
- Frontline Solutions thanks José Acevedo of New World Consulting for introducing this framework.
- This framework holds that the following seven elements—being dynamically planned, broadly partnered, resident involved, smartly resourced, employee engaged, and data driven—are essential policy considerations for race-informed local governments.