When we first launched our equity footprint model of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in 2019, the world looked quite a bit different. After a global pandemic and a subsequent national racial reckoning, the demand for expertise on equity has skyrocketed. We are also increasingly working with clients who are further along on their equity journeys. Terms like “white supremacy” which seemed “radical” when we first named them in our work over a decade ago have now become commonplace in the social justice sector. Indeed, as we look toward the future, we are excited to dig deeper with clients who are ready to center equity and justice in everything they do, from strategic planning, to collaboration and convening, to learning and evaluation, and program design.
Yet, despite the success of this significant shift, our work with foundations, non-profit organizations, and socially conscious businesses continues to be challenging. As we have seen many of the initial barriers to change within organizations diminish, we are finding that more and more of the roadblocks that impede progress have to do with the mindset of senior leaders, board members, and key influencers within organizations. Many come in seeking a “passing grade” on their organization’s equity footprint. They treat the process like an “equity audit” (a term we avoid using), where “no news is good news.”
Frontline Solutions does not give a “stamp of approval” or a “clean audit” to our clients. Rather, we seek clients who are ready to accelerate their organization’s equity journey through self-examination, collective conversation, and concerted action. Here are three key attributes of our most successful client organizations and their leadership.
You WANT to know what you can do better. Transformational equity leaders come to entities like Frontline Solutions because they have a fundamental belief that their organization can have a stronger culture and impact around race and gender equity. These leaders have a “gut feeling” or substantial evidence that folks of color, women, gender non-conforming leaders, and perhaps other groups are having disproportionately negative experiences in their organizations. They understand that, just as patriarchy lives inside all of us, racism, transphobia, able-ism, and a host of other forms of oppression live within our organizations.Transformational equity leaders are not “shocked” when they are exposed to new information that confirms that underlying belief.
Contrarily, leaders that are not ready for an equity transformation deliberately suppress or challenge data that illustrates the organization’s equity challenges. They will go to great lengths to question the “sample size” of a survey that an overwhelming majority of staff responded to. They will attempt to micromanage things like learning goals or interview questions in the hopes that the learning process won’t “reveal too much.” When confronted with the ways their behaviors are undermining the organization’s equity goals, they will seek to deflect blame.
If you are a leader within your organization, expect that you will learn things about yourself and your impact that will surprise you. Prepare to confront some uncomfortable truths about how white supremacy, patriarchy or other forms of discrimination are living inside you and influencing your actions. Resist the urge to assume that your discomfort is an indication that things are not going well. Rather, they may be growing pains as you and your colleagues transform into a better version of yourselves.
Your organization has the culture and trust to navigate a change process. Some of our most challenging engagements have come, not as a result of the equity process itself, but as a result of larger breakdowns in organizational trust. Believe it or not, we have had clients deliberately withhold vital information from our teams while going on a journey with us. For instance, one organization had experienced a complete breakdown of its leadership team. They would speak to one another cordially on calls with us, but refused to say a word to one another outside of a scheduled meeting. Other clients have tried to engage a change process to “fix” a mass staff exodus or a high visibility scandal. While we understand the reflex to seek quick solutions to the impact of abusive, racist, and/or sexist work cultures, it is important to recognize the difference between triage and transformation. If your organization is in an active crisis around its culture, you may need to hold off on comprehensive assessments or radical changes until you reach a place of stability. If you feel that your organization is experiencing some of these underlying crises, tell our staff so that we can adapt the process or its timing to fit your needs.
Many leaders struggle to have honest, constructive conversations with their peers and staff. They withhold positive feedback so folks won’t get “a big head” and negative feedback out of fear of conflict. If that is the case for your team, seek support to help navigate these conversations. It stands to reason that if you can’t have a productive chat about switching email servers, you might struggle to work through the impact of 400 years of racialized oppression.
“Organizations [without trust] become accustomed to understanding our work “in opposition” or as hostile which doesn’t allow them to metabolize the information and shift. They get in their own way because they don’t trust each other and get stuck.” – Marion Johnson, Senior Consultant
You are ready to manage a change process. As a reminder, the equity footprint assessment is not a certification process where the goal is to have a “clean audit” or a “passing grade.” Our best clients, even if they are equity champions, will work with us to reflect on their own leadership, identify areas for improvement, and create plans for action. These plans must align with a realistic timeline for change within the organization. Because the stakes are high for folks of color, gender non-conforming folks, and other groups, any slowness can be perceived as unwillingness to change. But we also know that rushing a change process, particularly one as complex as equity transformation, dooms it to failure. As such, we encourage organizations to figure out how much change they can manage over time.
Often, organizations may have real, structural barriers to change. A staff or leadership suite with low turnover may slow the progress to a more diverse organization. An outdated strategic plan may need to be revisited to more closely align the work with a new equity imperative. A funding crisis or leadership scandal may need to be navigated before transformative change can be completed. We encourage our clients to think realistically about what is possible. Nearly always, some change doesn’t need to wait. Nearly always, some change does.
When organizations say they’re going through this process but aren’t prepared [at the leadership level] to support the action needed to implement a strategic plan, for example, that we produce together– they do themselves a disservice. When we face situations like this, we collectively, both ourselves and the client, find that we’ve put effort into strategies that will just collect dust. – Chenelle Rollins, Consultant
We’re proud of our work on the equity footprint tool, of how we’ve worked with leaders and organizations to apply it, and of how we’ve documented lessons along the way, including that our firm’s best work is done in partnership with folks who have done their homework.