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The Problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

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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.

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Vu Le, MSW, is the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps [link: rainiervalleycorps.org], which aims to bring more professionals of color into the nonprofit sector and develop the capacity of people-of-color-led nonprofits. He writes weekly at his nonprofit humor blog, nonprofitwithballs.com, and is the humor columnist for Blue Avocado [blueavocado.org].

          
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