Nonprofits Need to Talk About Race, Not Just Diversity

At this year’s annual conference of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), a plenary session on race led to several impassioned exchanges, according to a May 5 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (“Discussions About Race Heat Up at Grant-Maker Conference”) that caught my attention and that of many of my colleagues. Something similar happened at a recent meeting on arts education convened by the National Endowment for the Arts.

These exchanges demonstrate the risks involved in trying to do the right thing by talking publicly and honestly about race. The conversations that ensue can quickly deteriorate into angry back-and-forth exchanges of grievance and incomprehension.

So what do we do? One thing we shouldn’t do is shy away from the topic, as has been our tendency. One participant at the GEO conference noted that when race comes up, there is an inclination to change the subject to deflect hard feelings.

The deflection du jour seems to be diversity in the workplace. I’m often surprised by the number of people who suggest that addressing diversity and inclusion is a means of confronting racism. In today’s world, few are likely to argue against the value of different perspectives from people with different life experiences who look different from each other. I’m with you there. But will a diverse work force fully mitigate implicit bias, correcting the perceptions that people hold based on a plethora of media images that cause us — all of us, of whatever race — to instantly think certain people are good and others are bad? Will it correct the intergenerational impact of housing segregation?

I am not minimizing the importance of diversity. I’m simply suggesting that if we don’t also dig deeper into the issues of race and racism and their impact on our day-to-day lives, we will have only touched the surface of the social and racial inequities that continue to plague this country. We will have added shellac to a wood floor that hasn’t been sanded smooth. The floor may shine from a distance, but close up we’ll see the roughness, and we will keep getting splinters when we walk across it.

We can’t do that anymore. Deflection isn’t working. Our communities are splintered by misunderstandings and actions that are grounded in race and racism — often unconscious, often hidden by institutional behavior that has had decades to become embedded.

We have to learn how to have constructive conversations about race, conversations that seriously explore the experience of pervasive, entrenched racism that is lived by people of color. These conversations don’t come easily or naturally. But they are essential.

At the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, we’re trying to cultivate those conversations in the philanthropic community in the Washington, D.C., area, and so far it’s working. These three ingredients seem to be key:

Start with a community that has established relationships. We are convening member CEOs and trustees to learn and talk openly about race and racism. It’s important to note that these gatherings are among leaders in only one field — philanthropy. Participants have a shared language and perspective. Our philanthropic community is relatively small, and we’ve been actively convening the leadership as a group for the last three years. Relationships have developed. We trust each other.

Explore the topic with depth and breadth, building the conversation over time. We planned a series of six monthly, topically discrete, three-hour sessions and asked that attendees try to attend most of them. We didn’t want them to hear about structural racism without understanding how white privilege undergirds it or to learn about implicit bias without seeing how these three phenomena interconnect in a specific case study (in our case, of mass incarceration). So far 72 percent of attendees are repeat participants. They have committed to this learning journey.

Choose speakers your audience will truly hear. Intentionally, we chose speakers who were grounded in data. Grant makers are committed to outcomes. Hard data resonates with our audience. We didn’t shy away from difficult topics, but we also chose speakers with an engaging style. Some messages may have been a bit uncomfortable, but they were never delivered in an abrasive or confrontational manner. As our first presenter, University of California Professor john a. powell (the lowercase spelling is his preference) noted, “Discussions about race are a bit like exercise. We want you to feel the burn, but we don’t want you to get hurt.”

So, to GEO and the National Endowment for the Arts, I say thank you. While your recent attempts may not have gone fully as you would have hoped, you were bold. You put racism on the table. Don’t stop. We all have a role to play in understanding and addressing race and racism in America. I’m glad that you’re working to be a part of the solution. I hope other organizations join us.

Ms. Copeland wrote about race, philanthropy, and her association’s speaker series in a January 21 opinion column for The Chronicle.

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