While many stories from the Unity Summit in New Orleans affected me, the ones that most stuck with me were from Dr. Denese Shervington, a psychiatrist who works with kids in the New Orleans juvenile justice system. She talked about the trauma experienced by the kids, mostly black and brown, in the system, and the need for us as individuals and as a society to see the hurt and avoid labeling kids as bad. To bring this message to a broader audience, leaders in New Orleans have launched a movement, In That Number, to reframe how we view young people who have experienced trauma; the goal is to help society recognize that the kids ensnared by the juvenile justice system are “sad, not bad.”
Hearing stories like these led me to more deeply reflect on how we, as consultants, and I, as a white woman leading a consulting organization, can play a bolder role in the racial justice movement and become better advocates for an equitable society.
We’ve been on a race, equity and inclusion (REI) journey as an organization for several years. While we continue to learn and evolve as we go, we’ve been doing many of the things the textbook, if there were one, would instruct us to do: commit to the REI journey, conduct firmwide trainings to raise awareness and change behavior, encourage staff to engage in race-explicit conversations with each other and our clients, revisit our own hiring practices to reduce implicit bias, and revise our organizational values to explicitly name equity and inclusion. But, as we know, this isn’t a journey that follows any textbook. It’s about humanity. It’s about lives. It’s about connection, reflection and discovery. The summit helped me see that what we’ve been doing is necessary but I could do more.
Side-by-side with more than 700 attendees, I gained a greater understanding of the path to a bolder role. This is what I needed: to get proximate and spend more time with people who are on the front lines of fighting oppression and injustice. We may have made a commitment to be race equity–informed consultants at Community Wealth Partners but we can do more. The stories and insights from advocates deep in this work crystallized the many actions we need to take. Though not comprehensive, three in particular stood out. Our team is taking the actions below, yet my commitment is to make sure we do so consistently and intentionally every time the opportunity arises.
1. Speak up about race.
On two separate occasions at the summit, I sat next to people of color who shared that they are tired of having to always be the ones to raise conversations about race within their organizations and community collaborations in which they participate; I’ve heard this from other people of color in different contexts. As consultants who are often facilitating conversations with staff in an organization or among members of a collaborative, we have a unique platform to raise the issue and speak up and out against racism and racist practices.
2. Challenge any inkling of privilege or superiority in strategy.
Many of our clients represent large national foundations and nonprofits. During the summit, leaders of color on the front lines of social justice in local communities urged national foundations and nonprofits not to tell these leaders what to do or assume their own approach is best, but rather to fund these leaders and become advocates for their work. In partnering with organizations to develop their strategies, we have a platform to challenge the tendency to think “our approach is best,” help our clients listen to and support local communities, and assist them in figuring out their role in upending the racism and bias present not only in our country’s systems but in everyday social sector practices.
3. Bring an equity lens to organizational capacity-building efforts.
We partner with many foundations and nonprofit networks to design and implement capacity-building programs. During the summit, I heard leaders of small, grassroots social justice organizations say that they’ve been described by funders as “lacking infrastructure” or “low capacity.” In our daily work, I’ve heard funders say that they are struggling to figure out how to better support the capacity-building needs of grassroots organizations, which are critical to the racial justice fight. We need to help our clients understand the unique assets and needs of these types of organizations; for starters, we need to challenge them to authentically engage with these organizations when designing programs and practices and to change their normal modes of operation, if necessary to meet these needs. If we want equity in society, we also need to create equity when it comes to providing organizations on the front lines of racial justice access to what they need to succeed.
Again, I acknowledge that there are members of our team and other consulting organizations that already do these things. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I write this as a reminder and call to action to ourselves and other consultants to wholly commit to these actions—and others known to advance racial equity—in our daily work. It’s the only option if we want to help create a world where all people thrive.
The photo, from the CHANGE Philanthropy Facebook page, depicts a plenary discussion at the 2017 Unity Summit.