By Kristina Gawrgy Campbell

On Friday, October 27, Our Common Future attendees will have a chance to participate in a session titled, “Creating a Culture Focused on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.” We asked one of the speakers, Kerrien Suarez, director of Equity in the Center, a program of ProInspire, to answer some questions about the initiative, the session, and why this is a topic that deserves more attention from sector leaders.

KGC: Tell us a little about ProInspire’s work in this space.

KS: ProInspire’s bold goal is that social sector organizations have high performing leaders at all levels in order to fulfill their missions. We believe that developing leaders, creating career pathways, and prioritizing talent, equity, and inclusion will catalyze social sector performance. Equity in the Center is a project of ProInspire, and a key initiative of our strategy to influence the sector to prioritize talent, equity, and inclusion.

An Equity in the Center dialogue session hosted by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington, DC this June.

KGC: Equity in the Center’s mission is all about putting race and equity in the center of the conversation as we chart our sector’s future. What’s the project doing to help fulfill that mission for the sector and how will this session help?

KS: Equity in the Center is embracing a truly collaborative approach in supporting social sector leaders in moving from talk to action in their work to achieve inclusion and equity within organizations. We have identified levers for culture change that can be pushed to generate progress. Through research interviews and working sessions with nearly 100 practitioners, thought leaders and executives, we have identified levers for culture change that meet organizations where they are in this work.

We will be publishing a framework on the Equity Cycle that outlines key steps for organizations to execute as they evolve toward a culture of equity–shifting culture:

From transactional (building a staff and board comprised of people from different racial backgrounds and perspectives)To transformational (creating a workplace culture where different backgrounds and perspectives are valued and used in advancing organizational missions)To accountable (holding themselves responsible for ensuring that policies and practices ensure racially equitable opportunities internally and externally).

We will publish The Equity Cycle this fall as a tool for those leading internal initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Just before Our Common Future this October, we will convene our advisors and funders to discuss how Equity in the Center will partner with stakeholders between 2018 and 2020 to align programs and initiatives that generate sector-level progress on equity.

The Our Common Future session will provide a foundation of knowledge for those who are somewhat new to the issue, as well as examples and resources for those who have been focused on and are knowledgeable about the topics of culture change and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

KGC: The sector seems to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion quite a bit, but recent research shows the change isn’t happening as quickly as we’d like. Why do you think that is?

KS: There are as many reasons for the slow pace of change as there are for the deeply entrenched, systemic race-based biases woven into the fabric of American culture. I’ll share some thoughts on those most often mentioned in our research interviews and working sessions:

Absence of data to build the business case senior leadership requires for investment of capacity/funding: Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead report brilliantly uses new data to illustrate this slow pace of change, as well as the deeply entrenched cultural challenges to equity that exist in social sector organizations. Equity in the Center stakeholders frequently indicate that such data will help them “make the case” for the importance of race equity, and the culture change required to make progress toward it, to CEOs and board members specifically.

Not knowing where to start: Stakeholders indicate they do not know where to look for help if they’ve been given the green light to take action. They also don’t know  the cost or timeline for this work, many feel anxiety over the expense of hiring consultant support. Most often, people say they just don’t know where to start: where to identify tools, resources and roadmaps to guide assessment of their organization’s current state, and how best to approach the work of culture change once the current state is understood.

Resources required to really create culture change: Our research has shown that organizations that are shifting their culture to focus on equity need to invest in their staff, leadership, and boards. It involves changing the way organizations work, which can be resource intensive. As a sector, we need to come together to talk about how important this work is and how to invest in nonprofits to make those changes. Many funding organizations are on their own paths to recognizing philanthropy’s institutional role in perpetuating inequities, and the significance of their internal cultures to this systemic challenge. To get to sector-level change, philanthropy needs to focus on equity and invest in nonprofits to focus on equity. Leaders of nonprofit organizations and program officers at foundations have both highlighted this tension.

KGC: Should people be prepared to get uncomfortable? Why is that a good thing?

KS: Absolutely. Discomfort is necessary to generating both individual and organizational progress toward race equity. This is transformational work that requires changes to people, practices, and processes within organizations. In our experience, individuals go through transformational learning experiences that push them along their personal journey, and position them to take action within their organizations. Equity in the Center seeks to create a brave space, not a safe one, for stakeholders. Participants should come to our workshop expecting to be pushed beyond their comfort zone. We take both a “head” and “heart” approach to doing so by presenting qualitative and quantitative data on the racial gap in social sector talent pipeline.

Safety in DEI work usually means endorsing the status quo. We feel strongly that transformational, sector-wide change is required to achieve racial equity and justice within nonprofit and philanthropic organizations if we are to achieve our collective mission to eliminate disparities in communities. Our team is committed to supporting colleagues in questioning assumptions and making decisions that will generate action toward inclusion and equity. We can’t do that when we are searching for safety. There is a great TED Talk on brave spaces by Verna Myers that illustrates the necessity of discomfort to progress.

KGC: Can you give us any preview of the session?

KS: It will be a highly interactive, collaborative discussion among participants, including a “Data Walk” to orient to best practices and reflect on where their organization is in the Equity Cycle. Through a series of breakout discussions, participants will address the following key questions:

How you can disrupt the status quo and advance race equity and inclusion in your organization?What practices do you use to move an organization from diversity to inclusion and equity?How to do you sustain this work over time, and hold yourself accountable for progress?How do you manage this work in the current political climate?

By the end of the session, participants will gain a deeper understanding of how they can exercise their leadership to advance measurable, meaningful shifts in inclusion and equity at their organizations; be familiar with best practices to disrupt systems and advance equity; and define specific action steps to do so. Participants will also develop an understanding of resources Equity in the Center has curated to help them successfully move from talk to action after the session. Participants in the working sessions we’ve facilitated to refine the Equity Cycle have remarked on how unique, energizing, affirming, and necessary the space we hold for individuals leading this work is. Many people feel alone in this work, don’t know where to “start” making the case or implementing tactics to drive equity, and spend a lot of time searching for practical strategies to align internal stakeholders whose support is critical to success. Our session will address these needs and the more than 200 stakeholders and workshop participants we have engaged to date have gained a lot from the experience.

KGC: What’s the one take-away you hope Our Common Future attendees get from this session and discussion?

KS: Making organizational progress toward race equity is hard work. It cannot be achieved through a one-day training or as an exclusively HR function. It is personally challenging, years-long work for leaders at all levels of an organization, but it can be done. Participants will leave our session with some practical tools to help move their organizations towards equity, as well as connect with a community of peers doing similar work.

Our team thinks these are three critical places to start:

Creating a shared understanding around systemic racism (its roots in history and policy, and how those roots connect to the present)Creating a shared language around how race equity will be addressed internally (for example, by creating a DEI statement that articulates specific values)Making this a priority for senior leaders and provide technical and financial support in fulfilling it (sustainable funding and coaching to support progress is critical)

Register today for Our Common Future taking place October 25-27 in Detroit.

Kristina Gawrgy Campbell is the director of strategic communications and public relations at Independent Sector. 


The WOKE AT WORK Series is brought to you by:


© 2018 by Equity in the Center. Concept and web design by Buoyant Partners.