Organizational DEI: The Learning Curve Continues

teamwork With our arms and hands.

Whether as an individual, business or Community Benefit Organization, it is important to periodically take an unvarnished, honest look in the mirror. Such self-reflection can reveal uncomfortable truths about yourself or your organization. We do not do that often enough. It can be quite painful when, after such honest self-examination, you find you might not be living up to the standards and ideals you profess to believe in and act upon.

After the George Floyd murder, Music For Everyone, began a 360-degree review of our policies, procedures, and bylaws seeking to identify criteria and goals for strategically diversifying the organization. There is no question that these measures have made us a much better organization. But the fact is, we should have made this effort long ago. While we have had POC on our board, we were not directional and strategic regarding our diversity efforts and how that diversity could be leveraged to advance our mission more effectively.

It’s been an interesting, challenging, and ongoing journey. Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned through this process relates to the “ongoing” aspect. We’ve come to understand that once you make a commitment to lean into organizational diversity, it is an ongoing commitment and challenge rather than a journey with a definitive ending. 

The easiest step was the first one; making a commitment to make diversity a part of the organization’s ethos and values.

But simply making the commitment is a lot easier than the next step of following through with directed and strategic action. To that end, we actively identified and began recruiting POC to join our organization, from board members to committee members, to the vendors we use, to the artists and musicians we hire. After adding several POC in these various roles, we felt pretty good about our efforts and the results they produced.

Despite this progress, we realized that this commitment and journey does not end there. Those two steps were simply the first of several more that we had to take to make our commitment authentic. For purposes of this essay, I will concentrate specifically on the continuing challenges we faced as it applies to our Board of Directors.

One of our newest members, a young Hispanic woman, requested that we meet over a cup of coffee. She explained that she did not feel she was contributing much to the organization. As the youngest board member, she felt intimidated by fellow board members, most of whom had a lot more work and career experience and accomplishments, not to mention more experience serving on non-profit boards. As a result, she was very hesitant to speak up at meetings.

 Clearly, we had more work to do to make our DEI commitment authentic. This required making it clear that we weren’t recruiting POC as mere window dressing. We needed to assure her that our commitment to diversity was real and deep and as such, it was imperative that she “speak her truth”. We had to be clear that we recruited her because she offered experiences and perspectives that had real value that were every bit as important as any of our other band members.

Authentic DEI commitments are not about window dressing, but rather require the creation of a welcoming environment that provides a safe space for everyone to contribute regardless of background or level of experience. In our case, it is critical that POC speak their truths because the majority of the kids and families we serve are kids and families of color. How can we claim to be fully leveraging all our efforts and resources to serve that population if organizational decision making does not include perspectives from members of that population?

In other words, it was important to be clear that we needed her honest perspectives because that would make us a more effective organization and thus better able to serve our constituents. Otherwise, why go to the effort to recruit her? 

While reassuring her of her value, it begged the question. If she was feeling that way, how about the other POC we recruited? Did they feel intimidated and unsure of their value and roles? That prompted us to lean even harder into our DEI efforts. To that end, we invested in some board professional development workshops and initiatives. Doing so was important on two fronts. First, not only because heretofore such board service opportunities had not been available to a wide segment of POC, but also because most of the POC we recruited were relatively young. We realized that in addition to recruiting and encouraging them to speak their truths, we had an obligation to invest in them not only so they are more effective in contributing to our board in the present, but also in their potential as future community leaders. In other words, this was another level of commitment to and investment in our DEI efforts.

Again, while we feel good about our progress, we fully expect that our learning curve will continue because embracing DEI is about a lot more than simply writing a social justice statement and slapping a Black Lives Matter in your front window. It is an ongoing commitment. But it is a journey that is well worth the inevitable challenges and bumps in the road because at the end of the day, committing to achieving greater organizational diversity is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

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