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Field Notes

Does Your Org Need a Racial Equity Lens? We Said Yes. Here’s What Happened.

December 21, 2015

This blog post is the first of a series that will follow our journey, and provide insights into what’s working and what we are learning as we strive to incorporate an equity lens into Root Cause’s work. Our hope is that by sharing these updates, other mission-based organizations will glean insights that will enable them to also take a critical look at issues of power, privilege, and racial equity in their own work.

Two years ago this month, we began a conversation that launched an organization-wide initiative at Root Cause. At that time two of the authors, who are also young women of color, attended a talk in Boston organized by Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) on people of color in the social sector. The talk prompted us to urge Root Cause leadership to learn more about the real life experience of the people whom the majority of our clients are dedicated to serving.

From diversity to equity

With the support of our CEO Andrew Wolk, we formed the “Diversity Committee” working group, which focused on guiding sustained and structured conversations around diversity, inclusion, and cultural competency. To start, we instituted conversations into every monthly staff meeting to create a space for staff to discuss these issues on a regular basis. Over time, however, we realized that we were stopping important conversations too early when we only focused on diversity and inclusion. We realized we also needed to explicitly discuss structural issues of oppression that persist even if a more diverse group of people are in the room.

Furthermore, we wanted the entire Root Cause team to not only understand the ongoing impact of historical inequities, particularly those linked to race, but to be able to articulate how our mission is shaped by and addresses those inequities. Like its clients, Root Cause is mission-driven. As an organization, we are committed to using evidence and data to improve life outcomes for marginalized populations. We also see ourselves as an organization of continuous learning. Now we are committed to integrating a standardized and organization-wide understanding of the intersections of race, class, power, and privilege into our work.

The starting point

The foundation for this ongoing conversation had already been built through Root Cause’s work with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA), which supports organizations in the Black Male Achievement field. After all, structural inequities led to the need for the CBMA in the first place. But we realized these issues neither could nor should stay siloed within that area of work, or within that staff team. As its name implies, Root Cause helps organizations tackle their most complex, underlying challenges through business plans, performance measurement systems, and sustainability models. In the past we have considered the relationship between structural inequities and client success on a project-by-project basis. This has given us a starting point for forging deeper, to engage with these issues more consistently and holistically, and to bring the entire Root Cause team into the conversation.

Learning with—and from—our clients

This desire to redefine our focus aligned with the start of a project with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2014. During that project, as we helped to build measurement systems for Kellogg’s Family & Economic Security and Education & Learning program areas, we learned about how the foundation had integrated a racial equity lens across all programs and topic areas. Kellogg provided a model for how understanding institutional racism is a core part of anti-poverty and human development work.

The importance of a racial equity lens was reinforced to us by the series of high-profile police shootings in predominantly Black communities. Seeing race as the hub of larger, intersecting systems of oppression, we became more committed to increasing Root Cause’s understanding of racial equity, rather than diversity and inclusion alone. Equity is about fair access to opportunity, not just the same access. It has a central focus on social justice and thereby it provides a broader, more rigorous framework for addressing historic structural inequities. To reflect this refined focus, we renamed our working group the “Equity Committee.”

What we’ve learned

As one may guess, this work is not easy. As we have strived to establish a common understanding and integrate a racial equity lens into our work, we have encountered two primary sets of challenges.

The first is internal, likely shared by every organization trying to incorporate a racial equity lens: the conversations on this topic can be difficult and deeply personal, and a great deal of internal reflection is required. There is an ongoing learning curve related to “consciousness raising” and incorporating new language and ideas into our approach. Here at Root Cause, we’re exploring how to create shared understanding that both honors varied starting points—staff across the organization hold a range of perceptions about the effect of an equity lens on day-to-day work and projects—and recognizes that this discussion will never have an endpoint because the issues do not. The need for more visible “concreteness” has made setting a clear path forward an ongoing challenge.

The other set of challenges is external, relevant to any organization that partners or collaborates with other nonprofits, foundations, companies, or governments, each with their own culture. Not all our partners explicitly work on equity issues or, if they do, approach this work from the same perspective. For now, what we’ve decided at Root Cause is that we are committed to moving from abstract concepts to implementation and “lived values,” so we must determine how a racial equity lens is best integrated into Root Cause’s products and processes that serve a wide array of clients. We’ve always made every effort to listen carefully to our clients, so as to help them move along a continuum to greater success; we want to listen to, learn from, and engage with them more intentionally on issues of structural racism.

Big steps

To address these challenges, the Equity Committee has taken two steps. First, we have developed a purpose statement for the committee and an action plan that will guide us in incorporating a racial equity lens into our work. We developed the action plan in conjunction with a broader strategic business planning process that took place across Root Cause this past year. The Root Cause business plan prioritizes equity committee work as a strategic objective, which feeds confidence that the work will be sustained. Second, we laid a foundation for shared understanding by conducting an all-day training on race and equity with the entire Root Cause team. We hired the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to Conduct Part of their Undoing Racism Workshop.

Please join us

We see this as an ongoing and necessary dialogue in the social sector, and welcome your thoughts and feedback as well. So, stay tuned to learn about our action plan and how the all-day team training on racial equity turned out.

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