The Problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

The people of color that I’ve been talking to are getting kind of sick of the equity, diversity, and inclusion terms use by nonprofits. We love them, but the dissonance between their usage and actual practice is like getting poked in the eye on a daily basis. Case in point, at a panel I was on recently, a colleague of color told me that someone contacted her, saying, “Can you help us spread the word about this new job position? We want to diversify our pool of candidates.”

My friend said, “I wanted to ask, Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?” We both sighed; thankfully, the wine was plentiful that evening.

equityThis has been happening a lot recently, the usage of these feel-good and trendy terms without serious consideration for the challenging and time-consuming changes that we need to undergo to actualize them. Equity requires the embrace of risk and failure. True equity, and diversity and inclusion, cannot exist without them.

Unfortunately, our field is often frustratingly and ineffectively risk-adverse, paralyzed by thoughts of failure. So yeah, we’ll “diversify the pool of candidates” and then, most likely, select the “most qualified” person anyway, who is often White. I know many organizations who tout equity and inclusiveness whose staff and board are mostly White. They are highly qualified and awesome, but it is jarring when most of their clients are people of color.

Or we’ll “work with communities of color” and then, most likely, select mainstream organizations because these ethnic-led organizations “don’t have the capacity” or “didn’t put in a strong enough proposal.”

The voices of communities of color have been struggling to be heard on almost every single issue. And to everyone’s credit, I don’t feel like people are actually being exclusive. This recent trend of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a testament to the fact that we all recognize both the importance and the lack of engagement of these communities. However, recognition of the problem and talking about it are necessary but not sufficient elements to solving the problems of inequity. We have to be willing to try different stuff, fund differently, and accept a few failures.

Unboxing equity

By now, most of us have seen this graphic above, which displays very clearly the difference between equality and equity. But after we think, “Aw, that’s so cute; all these kids can now watch the game; equity is so magical,” how does it actually translate within our field? Let’s unpack this.

First, I’m not always a big fan of this image, because to the less wise, the short kid is obviously deficient and needs some serious help. The short kid represents entire marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, communities of color, poor communities, etc. But this kid can also symbolize individuals such as professionals of color, as well as nonprofits such as ethnic-led organizations. These communities and individuals have plenty of strength and assets and is not always just the baby in the group.

But anyway, let’s continue with the metaphor. Since my experience is with communities, people, and nonprofits of color, I’m going to hone in on that for this post today.

Regardless of who this little kid represents, the point is that we are always struggling to see over the fence. We’ll be lucky to get a two-by-four to stand on, much less a whole box, much less TWO boxes. In the case of ethnic-led nonprofits, the argument against giving a whole box to them has always been, “You’re cute, but you guys just don’t have the capacity. If we give you a whole box to stand on, you’ll probably just fall off of it. We can’t give you a large grant. Here’s a small one. Sure, all these problems we’re tackling disproportionately affect your communities, and you have the best connection to them. But come back when you are more organized.”

At a recent conference I attended, funders were congratulating themselves on capacity building around collective impact work. As much as I like collective impact in theory, the reality is that it has more often than not been screwing over communities of color, who cannot access funds to be significantly involved and thus are unintentionally tokenized. (See “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile,” where I compare ineffective CI efforts to the Borg from Star Trek).

“Collective impact has been leaving behind many communities of color,” I said from the audience, “how are you addressing building capacity for organizations that are led by these communities so that they can be involved?”

A funder took the microphone to respond. “I wish my organization was one of those with the flexibility to give $5K or 10K grants,” he said, “but we don’t do that. We give larger grants.” And of course, these ethnic-led nonprofits would never be able to compete for one of these larger grants. They are stuck in the capacity quagmire like college grads who can’t get hired because they have no experience.

The importance of risk and failure

Look, I’m not advocating for people hire staff willy-nilly, or for funders to be throwing money around at random. But the status quo is not working, and holding hands chanting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” without actually doing stuff differently is dangerous because it makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re not.

Here’s the reality: If we hire less experienced people from communities of color, yes, they will likely require more support, and they may fail more often. If we fund small ethnic-led nonprofits, yes, they will likely require more support and may fail more often. That kid has not had much experience standing on two boxes. His balance is being tested. He may fall down a couple of times.

But here’s another side to that reality: Those staff from communities of color are critical when working with communities of color, and our field does a lot of work with communities of color, to put it mildly. You can hire a less experienced staff of color and train them on technical skills. But you cannot teach someone to be a person of color. Believe me, I tried it; it was uncomfortable for everyone. So if your org works with clients of color, take some risks in your hiring. Don’t just “diversify the pool.”

Ethnic-led nonprofits organizations are the most effective in connecting to their communities, and they do it on shoe-string budgets. Since they have the strongest relationships, they are constantly asked to help with outreach, to sit on advisory teams, and to do other stuff for free. Then when they try to get more significant support, the response has historically been, “You don’t have the capacity” followed by “but why don’t you join the Cultural Competency workgroup of our awesome collective impact effort!”

Let me know your thoughts, and also check out my previous article on building capacity for communities of color.

Capacity Building for Communities of Color: The Paradigm Shift and Why I Left My Job

When I first got out of grad school with my Master in Social Work, I was a bright-eyed kid full of hopes and dreams of doing my part to make the world better. Completely broke and desperate to find work before the student loans people released their hounds, I applied to countless jobs and found that no one would hire me because I had no experience, a vicious “Experience Paradox” that many young grads go through each year.

Frustrated and dejected, I secluded myself in my room (in my parents’ house), sending out my resume all day, coming out at night to raise my clenched fist to the dark skies and screaming “I may be inexperienced, but I am still a human being! A human being!!!” Then I would eat some ramen and watch Spanish soap operas on Univision.

building-capacityWhat is the point of that story? The point is that communities of color, and the organizations led by these communities, often feel like these recent grads. We are stuck in this debilitating and demoralizing “Capacity Paradox” where funders do not invest sufficient funds in our organizations to build capacity because we don’t have enough capacity. Yet, we are constantly asked to do stuff, to sit at various tables, to help with outreach, to rally our community members to attend various summits and support various policies.

Everyone seems to be in agreement that major efforts to effect systemic change are missing the voices of communities of color and would benefit from having those voices. Everyone also seems to be in agreement that communities of color that have strong organizations behind them are much more involved and effective at all levels of service and policies. Building the capacity of these organizations, then, is critical to all systems-change efforts: Housing, homelessness, climate change, education, neighborhood safety, etc.

What many of us fail to recognize is that the current efforts to increase the capacity of nonprofits led by immigrant, refugee, or other communities of color, which I call “nonprofits of color,” are not sufficient. Funders who provide significant, multi-year, general operating funds—the holy grail of funding and the thing that will help any organization develop its capacity the fastest—operate under systems that leave most nonprofits of color behind. These significant capacity building grants are almost impossible for nonprofits of color to attain. We usually don’t have the same relationships. Or grantwriting skills. Or board members who can strongly articulate the vision. Because we don’t have capacity, we can’t get support to develop capacity.

With significant, catalytic funding out of the question, funders provide small grants to nonprofits of color so they can do things like hire a consultant to facilitate a strategic planning retreat, or to send them to workshops on board development, fundraising, personnel policies, or myriad other capacity building topics. These grants can be very helpful to keep an organization going. But in the long run it doesn’t work because there is a critical missing element. Staffing.

You can send an organization to a thousand workshops and do a thousand strategic planning processes, but if they do not have staff to implement their learnings, they are not going to build significant capacity. We have many, many nonprofits that are doing good and much-needed work, that are constantly asked to do more work for free, without receiving any of the trust and support to hire qualified staff to sustain and grow their operations.

The paradigm has to shift. I don’t say this lightly, because there are few things I hate more than jargons like “shifting the paradigm.” But the reality is that what we are doing is not working, and we have to change our mindset completely and do things differently. If we value the voice of our diverse communities, we must build the capacity of organizations led by those communities. But we must do it differently than how we’ve been doing it. We must invest strategically and sufficiently. We must take some risks. It to society’s benefit to help these nonprofits break out of the Capacity Paradox.

For the past couple of years I have been working with a group of brilliant and passionate people on a project called the Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), a model designed to increase the capacity of immigrant/refugee-led nonprofits by providing this critical missing element of staffing. The project recruits emerging leaders of color from within immigrant/refugee communities, trains them in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management, and sends them to work full-time at nonprofits of color to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness.

Now, we can send these nonprofits to workshops and do strategic plans, because now there is staffing to implement stuff. These emerging leaders get a stipend, healthcare, and a bonus to support paying back student loans or furthering their education. They will get mentorship and support and encouragement to stay in the nonprofit field and rise up to become leaders within their communities.

RVC addresses several needs, among them the vital staffing that is required for capacity building to be successful. But it also addresses a scary challenge that many of us are not even talking about: The gap in leadership among the immigrant/refugee communities will widen further because kids are not entering the nonprofit field. Most immigrant/refugee kids are pressured by their families to go into jobs with higher pay and prestige.

Many nonprofits of color are currently led by elders, who will in 10 or 15 years retire, and if we don’t start to develop the pipeline for new generations of leaders of color soon, we may not have many in the future. This will jeopardize all sorts of systemic-change efforts.

So, Rainier Valley Corps will increase capacity of nonprofits of color, improve services to immigrant/refugee communities, build up new generations of leaders of color in the nonprofit field, and foster collaboration between diverse ethnic groups to address inequities. If we do a good job, lessons can be learned that can be applied to diverse communities all over the US.

The project itself is ambitious with nearly $700,000 per year for seven years to support cohorts of 10 to 18 emerging leaders/organizations each year, but if we genuinely want to build the capacity of nonprofits of color, then we must be willing to invest sufficient funds to make it work.

This year, RVC received some start-up funding, enough to hire a full-time Project Director who will focus on raising the $700K/year, develop the infrastructure and curriculum, and strengthen relationships among the various nonprofits, funders, and capacity-building organizations. I firmly believe this model holds promise to greatly increase our immigrant/refugee communities’ effectiveness and voice which is why I left my job as executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) to become RVC’s project director.

It was bittersweet leaving an organization that I love and one that has given me so much in terms of skills and connections as well as relieved some existential angst about the meaning of life. But, VFA is doing great, with an incredible board, amazing staff, and dedicated supporters. I have nothing but gratitude and pride for VFA and all we achieved over the last nine years. I still remember when we had an operating budget less than $20,000, no staff, and one program. I remember staying at the office until midnight to get work done, and then come to my car to find it had been broken into. VFA have grown a lot. We strengthened our capacity. We now have several staff, many great programs serving thousands each year, and we’re being more and more involved in cool stuff like working with other ethnic groups to push for education equity.

VFA is why I so strongly believe that Rainier Valley Corps holds the key to capacity building for immigrant/refugee communities. Ten years ago, when I could not find a job because I had all this passion and no experience, I was accepted into a unique program. It recruited us emerging leaders, trained us in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management.

Then, it sent us to work full-time in small Vietnamese-led nonprofits across the US to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness, and I was sent to VFA. I know this RVC model and how effective it can be because I personally went through it and have seen the results. The program drew us inexperienced-but-passionate grads into the field, and many of us stayed and continue to contribute. Several of us became leaders of our organizations and within our communities, which is great.

Without this program that kept me in the nonprofit field and inspired Rainier Valley Corps, I probably would have ended up on another career path: Writing for Spanish soap operas.

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