Is racial equity just another shiny object?

Soon my baby girl will be two years old. I’m almost over being upset with her about the disorder of her playroom. You see, whenever she comes across a new thing she’s interested in she drops the toy, picture book or household item that has been her play thing for the last few moments right there. After about an hour of this – with a toddler’s attention span – there are toys all over the playroom.

Unfortunately, toddlers aren’t the only ones with short attention spans. Grantmakers are notorious for attention-deficit disorder (ADD). This goes for independent foundations, like Deaconess which I lead, and socially- minded corporate community affairs folks as well. As a result, there’s a long trail of the last idea we were really excited about.

Social impact bonds. Collective impact. Public education reform. College access. Individual development accounts. College savings accounts.

All are efforts with merit and some innovations with significant potential for community transformation. But, one of the consequences of our disorder and “Funders ADD” is that creative leaders of not-for-profit organizations are forced to react to the whims of the last book, report or article we read. They end up trying to sustain institutions on shifting funding bases when they no longer fit into our priorities. This makes a mess of our civic infrastructure, leaving distressed neighborhoods and gross disparities in public health.

I’m concerned, now, that the last few years have offered (and many have accepted) the rhetoric, but not the rigor, of pursuing racial equity. This will make it simply the next shiny, distracting object which will soon join the litany listed above. How can we keep this from happening?

First, we must enter the equity discussion with a growth mindset. I recently sat in a convening of funders from across the nation to discuss ways we are pursuing racial equity in our work in local communities and how we might work together nationally. The facilitator asked us to discuss how we could “maintain our commitment to quality while applying a racial equity lens.”

Unfortunately, most people, like the facilitator, see addressing racism and its effects as a drain on effectiveness. To be faithful to this work, we must hear the words of St. Louis native Angela Glover Blackwell, chief executive of PolicyLink. She and her colleagues argue that in the context of growing racial and cultural diversity, “racial equity is the superior growth model.”

With a growth mindset, we begin to appreciate and evaluate the relational capacity of organizations. Relational capacity is best measured by how much the staff, the board and the volunteers of an organization reflect, listen to and are trusted by the communities they say they serve.

If you serve people of color, your organization is better-positioned to work with and move people if it is comprised of people of color. Thinking this way, diversity is an organizational asset, inclusion is a mark of institutional effectiveness and a full commitment to racial equity is a critical to achieving our social missions.

Finally, a crucial step to making a sustaining commitment to racial equity is prioritizing and promoting people of color (particularly black people) into leadership of health and human-service organizations. In “Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” The Building Movement Project noted that less than 20 percent of not-for-profits in the United States are led by people of color. The study concludes that to increase the number of people-of-color leaders (and fully commit to racial equity), the social sector needs to address the biases of the boards of directors.

Before long we will know whether racial equity is just another shiny object. If it is, we’ll look up in a couple of years to another mess.