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Putting Race, Equity, and Inclusion at the Center of Solving Social Problems: by Idalia Fernandez and Isabelle Moses

One of the things we love most about our work is hearing an audible gasp or “Huh, I never thought of it that way before.” These moments are the sound of disruption, when we know we’ve achieved a breakthrough.

In 2011, we experienced one of these moments at Community Wealth Partners when we asked our team to discuss, “What does it take to solve social problems?” This question led to a deep study of social transformation, which guides our methods with clients and our ongoing research agenda today. Our initial research on why some initiatives achieve transformational change and others incremental change, confirmed that engaging diverse perspectives and community members affected by the problem is required to solve social problems. Moreover, initiatives that engage unlikely partners are more likely to achieve dramatic results.

Solving social problems is a massive learning exercise that requires constant self-reflection, testing and learning. Along the way, we stop and reflect on whether we are asking the right set of questions in work with our clients, for example, “What is the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve? What does success look like? How will we know if our approach is working? Do you have the necessary stakeholders at the table?” Upon reflection this year, we realized that there was one question we were not asking our clients, “How are your strategies helping to close racial gaps in the issue areas you are focused on?”

Last April, the Race Matters Institute’s Joanna Scott and Paula Dressel worked with our team to put this question into action.  We asked Race Matters Institute to help us be more intentional and put race, equity and inclusion (REI) at the forefront of our organizational culture and our client work. Made possible by our long-time partner, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the training introduced a new set of tools and new language that helped us bring an equity lens to our work.  Following the training, we recognized that there was more we needed to learn. This realization spurred an ongoing internal conversation about how we can better incorporate REI into Community Wealth Partners’ internal practices, systems and culture.  Still, the training had provided us a solid starting point to help our clients make informed decisions about how their strategies can reduce racial disparities. As to how we would start using these tools, we had more questions:

  • What conditions are necessary to have an authentic conversation about racial equity with our current clients?
  • What questions might our clients ask us about race-informed work?
  • How ready are we to support our clients with racial equity work in a meaningful way?

Our team immediately began discussing these questions with clients while doing additional internal learning. Only days after our REI training, one of our teams facilitated a client discussion about introducing REI competencies into a survey tool we developed to assess the readiness of their network. Initially, the client resisted due to concerns that they did not have the expertise to meet any needs that emerged because racial equity is not a core focus of their work. After further discussion, we adjusted the survey language to articulate an REI competency directly connected to their intended organizational outcomes. As a result of including those questions in the survey, the results showed that some network members are doing well with race, equity, and inclusion and others have more work to do. Some network members have even requested and received support to strengthen REI competencies. In the last six months, we’ve intentionally brought an REI lens and set of questions into five other client engagements as a starting point to determine additional needs.

From this experience, we would like to share three early lessons that can help other change agents, consultants, and technical advisers:

  1. Embrace the discomfort – There are no ideal conditions for discussing racial disparities. It is a difficult topic for everyone; however, don’t let that get in the way of being a good partner or leader. Ask the right questions and find the opportunities for deeper discussion and solution development. Starting the conversation is half the battle. Jump in and embrace the discomfort.
  2. Expect resistance – Resistance can be a symptom of discomfort and/or a lack of understanding of how an organization can play a role in reducing racial disparities. Here is how we managed resistance:
    • Share the broader context – frame an authentic discussion around the recognition that the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are learning how to better address racial inequity; like any competency, this work requires practice.
    • Connect racial equity to intended outcomes – find the language to link equity and the client’s stated outcomes.
    • Lean into the disagreement and be flexible – listen to everyone’s concerns and explore ways to meet them halfway.
    • Create a common language for talking about race within your team – make it easier for everyone to think, discuss, and create solutions around race issues. A common language will minimize the concern about being misunderstood when talking about race and racism.
  3. Commit to figuring it out together – Opening up the discussion as an ongoing dialogue created the space with our clients to find the right language and approach that work for their unique organization. Customized tools also helped create momentum and focus for the work, enabling people to engage and get started. As a result, the work felt doable and much less daunting. Lastly, it is so important to have partnerships with subject matter experts in the field who can provide additional support.

We just started on our journey to define and implement our REI plan. Our team has attended additional trainings, such as Race Forward’s Racial Justice Leadership Institute and Training for Trainers. We have also created a Recruiting Advisory Board at Community Wealth Partners to embed racial equity and inclusion into our talent and network development and retention practices. In a short time, we have seen promising results! We have made REI an organizational and board priority in the execution of our five-year plan. While these first steps show progress in our thinking, we also recognize that we have much more to learn and understand about racial and equity issues.

We hope you will share your journey and also follow us on ours, as we evolve our internal practices and work with clients to close racial gaps and achieve social transformation.

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About Idalia Fernandez

In her role as a director, Idalia Fernandez engages in strategic partnerships with leadership teams, provides client engagement oversight and supports the overall growth and development of the firm.  Idalia brings decades of experience in education and workforce development programs. Her expertise is in leadership development, organizational management, strategy design, and program to mission alignment. Email: ifernandez@communitywealth.com

About Isabelle Moses

As a director, Isabelle Moses partners with senior leadership teams, provides coaching and strategic direction, and supports the overall growth and development of the firm. She has 15 years of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, Fortune 500 companies and federal agencies. Her expertise includes developing leaders and managers, designing organizational strategies, guiding culture transformation and supporting leaders to manage change. Email: imoses@communitywealth.com

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