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Closing the Racial Leadership Gap, Part 1

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For years, people in the nonprofit sector have been talking about the need to focus on and increase diversity among staff, leadership, and boards. While organizations have taken important strides forward, like implementing diversity training or including racial equity in the mission, the number of people of color in executive positions in the sector has remained below 20% for the past 15 years.

In response to the racial leadership gap, The Building Movement Project is hoping to spark a change on the heels of its recently released report, Race to Lead. In it, they surveyed more than 4,000 nonprofit employees of all backgrounds and all levels to determine underlying causes for the racial leadership gap.

Report findings

The key findings of the report point to an uneven playing field and systemic organizational hiring practices that often overlook people of color.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of Building Movement Project, says that the report calls into question a long-accepted assumption: that in order to increase diversity among nonprofit leaders, people of color need more training.

Instead, the report illustrates that people of color face structural barriers making it more difficult to elevate themselves into leadership roles. And in order to achieve that structural change, the culture of the nonprofit sector must become more inclusive.

Among their findings, Building Movements discovered the following:

  • People of color and whites have similar experience, education, and years working in the nonprofit industry.
  • Among survey respondents, people of color more often stated they wanted to become leaders.
  • The majority of nonprofit employees of all races believe that recruiters do not do enough to find a diverse pool of qualified candidates for top level positions.
  • The majority of nonprofit employees of all races are concerned that predominately white boards do not support the leadership potential of staff members of color.
  • Organizations often rule out people of color because of perceived "fit" with the organization, according to the majority of respondents of color and half of the white respondents.
  • More than one-third of respondents of color have experienced tokenizing and/or microaggressions from coworkers.
  • More than one-third of the people of color who responded report that they are called upon more often than whites to represent their entire community.
  • More people of color find it difficult to fundraise and access professional networks than whites.

The report concludes with specific calls to action for current nonprofit leaders, staff, and board members.

This post is the first part of a two-part series exploring these action items and providing tips for how you can help close the racial leadership gap. In this part, experts provide suggestions for creating a more inclusive office environment.

Rewrite the narrative

The first step to addressing the racial leadership gap, according to report recommendations, is to change the way we talk about it within the sector. For too long, organizations have placed the burden on people of color to increase diversity. Instead, leaders should take responsibility for having perpetuated a system that makes the playing field uneven.

In their report, Building Movements recommends that nonprofits adopt a new narrative that acknowledges that people of color are not to blame for their lack of representation in leadership, but instead recognizes that potential leaders of color are “weeded out at all levels of advancement based on deeply held and sometimes unconscious assumptions about race.”

Changing the culture

One way rewrite the narrative is to begin changing the culture within your organization, says Kerrien Suarez, Director of Equity in the Center, a project in the process of putting together a framework for discussing race, equity, and inclusion. She reminds us that diversity is a transactional term, and when leaders use this term they are usually just focused on increasing the number of people of color within their organization. Instead, she suggests using the words equity and inclusion, which are transformational and focus on creating a better environment for all employees.

“The gap is going to be closed by changing the culture within individual social sector organizations,” Suarez said. “Culture change is hard work and requires shifting the narrative from one that is white dominant to one that is inclusive to the people that the sector is set up to serve.”

Culture change takes a degree of race consciousness and self work, Suarez points out. Board members and executive leadership need to have regular conversations about how their organization views racial equity. Working together to draft and adopt a statement of inclusion is a good place to start. Making sure your mission reflects the organization’s commitment to racial equity is another important step toward equity and inclusion.

Speaking out

It is imperative that people in leadership roles speak out about the importance of racial equity and inclusion.

“Leadership matters, Suarez says. “The involvement of the CEO or Board of Directors is the level of awareness required that is going to prompt real organizational change.”

But as Suarez points out, change often comes from the bottom up. So, no matter where you fall in your organization’s hierarchy, it is important to talk about issues of race. If you think your nonprofit needs to be more inclusive, raise the issue with a supervisor and show them the report so you have data to back your statement. If you have experienced tokenizing or microaggressions yourself, tell your human resources director or boss.

“For too long people have kept quiet,” Breitfeld of Building Movement Projects says. “It takes courage on the part of white leaders to have the conversations, and courage for people of color to be honest about the negative experiences that they have gone through and navigated. People have to be able to name it when they see these inequalities.”

Breitfeld acknowledges that discussing issues of race with a supervisor can be especially challenging for people of color. He recommends forming a caucus of people of color within your organization or community so you can find support and affirmation from friends and colleagues. If you can find other people who share your experience, then maybe together you can come up with a plan for approaching your organization’s leadership.

Has your leadership taken impactful steps to create a more inclusive culture? Stay tuned for the second part of this series, where we will take a look into some strategies that decision makers can use to hire and retain more diverse employees.

About the Author | Samantha Fredrickson has worked in communications and nonprofit advocacy for more than a decade. She has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations. She has degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and New York Law School.

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