Why Diversity is Not Enough

Adding Black and Brown faces to your team will not change your organization.

Vanessa Ramalho, Director of Storytelling & RelationshipsMar 29, 2024 6:27 PM

Making Organizations Safer for Black Staff and Leadership

Diversity has been a big buzzword in the nonprofit and cultural sectors for some time. Increasing diversity in representation has long been the goal of DEI work, from diversifying audiences to diversifying the workforce. The benefits of diversity are pretty well established and understood. But even as nonprofit and cultural organizations have sought to decrease unconscious bias in their recruiting and hiring efforts to support a more diverse workforce, retaining BIPOC staff and leaders remains an ongoing problem. 2019 saw a spike in Black/POC non-profit leadership; but less than five years later, we are witnessing a mass exodus of those leaders from their roles. Why? If we continue to adopt the mindset of the status quo, we could easily reason that perhaps not enough BIPOC people were cut out for the jobs. But if we dig a little deeper and ask harder questions, we might find that at the root of the problem still remains… White Supremacist Culture.

Even As Diversity Increases (Slightly), White Supremacy Remains

Even as diversity efforts have increased the numbers of BIPOC people in leadership roles in recent years, the needle has actually moved quite minimally, and the majority of nonprofit leadership is still overwhelmingly White. About 87% of nonprofit CEOs in the U.S. were white in 2019, down from 90% in 2016. Similarly, roughly 78% of nonprofit board members were white in 2019, down from 84% in 2016, according to Board Source, a nonprofit that tracks this information. Underrepresentation is more severe for some communities of color than others.

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While there was a small uptick in diverse representation in nonprofit workplaces, recent surveys have shown an interesting trend in BIPOC leaders leaving their positions (often within 5 years), as well as a decrease in leadership aspirations among BIPOC nonprofit workers. This is when next level institutional accountability needs to start happening. Because while the sector has put a lot of work into changing their practices to address unconscious bias in hiring, there has been not nearly enough work done in transforming organizational culture to reduce or eliminate bias and White Supremacy culture that continues to remain enmeshed within the workplace and throughout the organization. Not only are Black and POC leaders and staff still among the minority in their workplace (even if the communities they serve are predominantly BIPOC), they are also being plunged into spaces that unconsciously continue to uphold racist practices. When we bring BIPOC leaders and staff into a space rife with racist microaggressions, bias, unfair racist expectations, a lack of ongoing support, etc., we continue to reflect within our institutions the same oppressions that exist outside our walls.

So for all the organizations out there who have made a commitment to DEI work… here’s some tough love and maybe an unpopular opinion: Your diversity work is not enough.

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That’s right… diversity is not enough if you are not also doing the hard work grounded in anti-oppression to transform your organizational culture toward one of real equity and liberation — from the inside out. It is crucial to think about what kind of environment are we actually inviting BIPOC people into when they are recruited and hired. We have to admit that DEI work over the last decade seems to be a bit obsessed with the Diversity part of the acronym. There is a widespread belief that simply adding more Black and Brown faces to a space will inherently make that space more equitable and inclusive. But is that really true? If we continue to dig deeper, event harder questions begin to surface: What are the nuanced ways that White Supremacist Culture continues to persist that makes the a workplace not only unsafe and hostile for BIPOC people, but also makes it not conducive for them to thrive and succeed in their roles? Without a lens, practice, or pedagogy for unlearning and transforming institutionalized and internalized oppression, we set BIPOC folks up for failure… and then blame them when they do not succeed.

So let’s talk a little about what we can start to do about this.

Acknowledging Systemic Issues

The first step towards creating safer spaces for Black staff and leadership is acknowledging the existence of systemic issues and biases, and accepting that they exist EVERYWHERE — including within our organizations, and also within us as individuals. These issues often manifest in the forms of microaggressions, unequal pay, lack of representation, and limited opportunities for advancement or growth. Organizations need to commit to understanding and addressing these systemic issues, which involves conducting regular assessments, providing ongoing bias training, and implementing policies that address the realities of systemic oppression. This acknowledgement is the cornerstone of creating an environment that is not just diverse, but also inclusive, equitable, and anti-oppressive. In order to address systemic issues, we need to be real and vulnerable and also acknowledge that we all will continue to be part of the problem unless we are actively working against oppression all the time. This requires vision and leadership from the top down, as well as significant investments in time, money, and other institutional resources. As an organization, you MUST be willing to put your money where your mouth is.

Promote Equity Through an Anti-Oppression Lens

amy-elting-_9ETHblkvXQ-unsplashPromoting inclusivity goes beyond merely hiring a diverse workforce. It involves creating an environment that values and respects the perspectives, ideas, and experiences of all employees, especially those from historically marginalized identities. Therefore, organizations must actively engage Black staff and leadership in decision-making processes, encourage open and honest dialogue, and foster a culture of transparency and shared power. This might require an entire internal overhaul of an organization’s values and way of working. Inclusivity also means addressing microaggressions and ensuring that the workplace is free from both overt and subtle forms of racism. Doing this work from an anti-oppression lens is crucially important because we will continue to be surprised at the ways that oppressive practices show up in every corner of our institutions… from the ways we facilitate meetings, to the ways we manage conflict, and elsewhere. In looking at our practices, we have to be intentional about shifting from a default of oppressive practices to a radical imagining of liberatory practices and healing justice. This might require investments in ongoing training for staff, leadership, and board. Always consider seeking training or educational support from consultants or groups that are BIPOC-led and/or majority BIPOC staff, such as Harriet’s Apothecary, AORTA, and OF/BY/FOR ALL.

Providing Support and Growth Opportunities

Organizations must provide support and growth opportunities for Black staff and leadership. This can be achieved by mentoring programs, leadership training, and career development opportunities. It is also essential to ensure that Black employees have access to the same resources and opportunities as their peers. Moreover, organizations should recognize and reward the contributions of Black employees, which can help to build confidence, motivation, and a sense of belonging. It cannot be stressed enough that support - as well as trust - needs to be in place and regularly affirmed at all levels. This include the Board. Board support of their Black executive directors is crucial to their leadership success. Once again, providing such opportunities for support and growth requires investment. Make sure there are funds set aside for BIPOC staff and leaders, and do not limit their learning or mentorship opportunities to the kinds considered traditional or academic. There are amazing opportunities being offered by indigenous educators, small BIPOC-run collectives, and other spaces that often lie outside more “traditional” (ie White-endorsed) professional development resources. Be open to what trainings or leadership programs can look like, and trust your BIPOC staff and leaders to take their recommendations and support their goals.

Diversity is Great… But It’s Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Making organizations safer for Black staff and leadership is a multi-faceted process that requires continuous effort and commitment. It involves acknowledging systemic issues, promoting anti-oppressive practices, and providing support and growth opportunities. By implementing these strategies, organizations can create a more equitable and inclusive environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. Black and Brown leaders and staff don't just deserve a seat at the table; they deserve care, compassion, support, and the space to thrive and succeed. Don't sabotage both their success and your commitments to achieving a world of equity and liberation by not going far enough in your DEI work, and not making DEI a constant process of learning and unlearning. 

What other strategies are you trying to go even further in your DEI work?

If you're looking to take your DEI commitments further, and want to make real systemic and cultural change in your organization, check out the Change Network and talk with our team. We can discuss not only our 12 month program, but also booking us for talks, workshops, and customized trainings.


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