The DEI journey: Is your organization ready?

“A journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do, what you will find, nor what you find will do to you.” — James Baldwin

In 2017, Meyer received numerous proposals from organizations seeking to increase equitable outcomes by including diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their missions, diversifying staff and leadership, providing DEI training, or creating an equity lens through which to filter policies and deliver programming.

We know that embarking on a DEI journey can be an incredible growth period for an organization, but the destructive history of oppression and ongoing persistent injustices are big and personal, which can make stepping onto this path really scary! The 2017 Race to Lead report published by the Building Movement Project reported results from a survey and interviews conducted with more than 4,000 nonprofit staff, capacity builders and funders around the United States. One finding indicated that 48 percent of people of color and 39 percent of whites agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement “nonprofits trying to address race and racial equity in their organizations often create tensions they are not equipped to resolve.”

This statistic made me curious. What does it take to be “equipped” for a journey toward diversity, equity and inclusion? Are there common pitfalls that we can anticipate? What are the “tensions” that show up and how can we address them effectively? To reflect on these questions, I turned to leaders I know who have done this work from different vantage points: Jeana Frazzini, former director of Basic Rights Oregon; Cliff Jones, a Portland-based DEI consultant of more than 30 years; and Dr. Gail Christopher, who has designed racial equity and healing work for decades and most recently led the development of Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation implementation and guidance at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

In a series of blog posts, I’ll share what I heard from each of these leaders about organizational readiness for DEI. We’ll hear about practical strategies, success and challenges, and the personal impact that the DEI journey has had on them. Through this process, I’ve learned so much from these colleagues through their candor, courage and their willingness to share - and about what might be the true costs of integrating DEI into an organization’s work. My hope is that, while each experience is different, you will also be able to use the wisdom from these leaders for your own organizational and personal journeys.

Read Jeana's bio, here.

Jeana Frazzini served in board and staff leadership roles at Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) from 2000 to 2016, including eight years as executive director. During that time, BRO was tackling big issues like marriage equality; a statewide nondiscrimination policy; inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) students in schools; and a shift in the lesbian, gay and bisexual community to be inclusive of people who are transgender.  

As a movement, the LGBTQ community has struggled with marginalization and exclusion of LGBTQ people of color, despite overwhelming evidence that LGBTQ people of color experience some of the most inequitable outcomes related to health, employment and poverty due to the compounded impacts of racism and heterosexism. Jeana, a white woman, recognized that Basic Rights Oregon was not meeting their mission of serving and including all LGBTQ Oregonians in their movement building and advocacy work. With the support and leadership of her board of directors and staff, BRO embarked on their DEI journey in 2005 and intensified it over the next five years. The work is ongoing. (BRO’s leadership benefited from significant technical assistance and support from Western States Center throughout this process.)

Jeana and I sat down over breakfast to talk about what she and BRO learned about DEI and organizational readiness (a meaty topic, with food to match!).

Basic Rights Oregon’s journey

For Jeana, engaging in DEI work meant not starting with something like diversifying the board and staff and getting some training.

“It was important to line people up on the what and why,” she said. “The what was the intention and it was explicit: to become an anti-racist organization. The why was more a process of discovery, achieved by getting some challenging feedback from people of color in the community who shared that Basic Rights Oregon was not meaningfully engaging — and often tokenizing — LGBTQ people of color and that BRO’s inability to address race issues meant that their opposition was able to advance discriminatory policies, including the 2004 constitutional amendment defining marriage as between ‘one man and one woman.’”

As hard as the feedback was, it was meaningful and honest, and it helped BRO leadership more deeply recognize that the organization had a problem it needed to address.

With buy-in on the what and why, the organization began to assess the scope and scale of the issue and identify areas of growth. It was at this point that they put a training plan in place to more directly address real-time training needs and aligne staff and board with basic terms, language and understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion. That created a shared foundation from which to move forward.

“Even with this ‘prework,’” Jeana said, “not everyone had the same vision of what the end result will look like or where the ‘end’ is. The process is like a series of waves.”

In Jeana’s example, the bottom of the wave could be the need to increase staff diversity. But, she said, people shouldn’t cut corners to get to the “crest” by simply recruiting and hiring diverse staff, where nothing has changed but the diversity quotient. The old ways have to change, and the next trough will be trying to figure out why diverse hires are not retained and what are the barriers that are keeping the old ways in place.

Lessons learned about equipping the journey

Basic Rights Oregon’s vision was to transform the organization.

But along the way, Jeana, the board and staff quickly discovered that this work is more than that.

“Leaders need to recognize that this is not only about organizational transformation but individual transformation,” she said, “and then support people to take a personal journey as well as an organizational one.”

Some things that helped BRO navigate and balance personal and organizational needs included establishing principles and practices that went beyond the usual ground rules for group process and organizational planning:

  • Create a “brave” space, not just a safe space. This ground rule allowed people to step further into risk-taking.
  • If the organization is large enough, have a cross-program, cross-positional “Transformation Committee,” charged with being a place where people can bring questions, ideas, feedback and concerns.
  • Don’t lose sight of the environment in which we are operating. Recognize that our organizations and we as individuals are part of a larger system of inequality that is continually reinforced in our society into everything we do.
  • Explicitly identify the expectation that things will get emotional, and that’s OK. In dismantling systems, it can be really painful for people to become conscious of their own biases. This is not business as usual. You can’t continue to do the same things and except the same results.
  • This is long-term work, but without a way to measure progress and accountability, staff may feel that it’s a waste of time or just another exercise to “check the DEI box but doesn’t result in meaningful change.” Once shared goals are established, spend time collectively identifying a set of benchmarks to measure progress to your goals. A map of the journey can also help people see that their own priorities have a place on the journey, even if it’s farther off.
  • Examples of benchmarks Basic Rights Oregon established included having all staff and board go through training within a certain amount of time, committing paid staff time to the work, setting benchmarks for meetings with leaders of color, and creating supports for those meetings such as work plans and conversation guides.
  • At the same time, hold the process loosely enough so it develops as it needs to develop, while maintaining accountability and understanding of what progress looks like.
  • Be mindful of the leadership in the room, about how much space leaders take up, and be a role model. As a leader you have a dual role: You are managing your own emotions and find your own counselors outside the room.
  • Include support for staff, such as coaching and space for people of color to be together and for your white staff to do the work they need to do separately.
  • If you are working with both staff and board, keep in mind that the staff are together every day, working out issues and may outpace the board’s ability to do the same.

I asked Jeana if there was anything she would do differently now that she’s had this experience at Basic Rights Oregon.

“BRO had a typical policy that employees should bring concerns to their supervisors in the course of regular check-ins,” Jeana said. ”But because conversations about race can be so difficult, it would be good to establish a shared approach and specific policies to address concerns. One option that comes to mind is to bring on a mediator who builds trust across the team and can be called upon as conflict comes up.

“Personally, I  would have liked to do more work early on to understand white supremacy and white privilege. Our process wasn’t inclusive enough about white people doing work to understand our history and ongoing role in upholding these systems. I recently listened to the ‘Scene on Radio’ podcast, which includes a series called ‘Seeing White.’ The series illuminated the work that white people need to do to understand the construct of whiteness.”

Commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion

I wondered what it meant for Basic Rights Oregon to be committed to this work. Jeana shared that the commitment evolved over time.

“Early on we had a general idea that we had a responsibility as an organization to meet the needs of all queer and trans people in Oregon — including people of color,” she said. “As we did the work, the commitment became operationalized through investing in the leadership of people of color in our organization and in our programming, which meant how we allocated resources and how staff were supported to do their work. Commitment goes back to getting clear about what your values are — the commitment and values will be tested in the context in which we work: white supremacist culture.”

One example, Jeana said, would be turning down funding when funder values don’t align.

“For every donor or volunteer who didn’t understand, 10 other donors or volunteers stepped up,” she added. “So fears about losing funding are totally unfounded, in my experience. We had hard conversations with donors and funders and practiced with role plays. Again this is where humility comes in — knowing ahead of time you don’t have all the answers.”

I asked Jeana about surprises along the way.

“We had this rich experience internally, then we had to figure out how to operationalize our plans and discover how to work this in — it’s so important to figure out how people can see and feel it becoming real,” she said. “We had a process to build work plans. On every person’s work plan there was a place to ask, ‘What are your racial justice goals?’

“There were a lot of surprises along the lines of unexpected benefits of the process. The way in which it deepened relationships across teams. We had a very pleasant surprise in the way the work expanded the organization and opened BRO up to funding, opportunities for partnerships, volunteer activism/engagement.” For Jeana personally? “Because the process required difficult conversations, I surprised myself in my capacity for courage,” she said

I wondered if there was one thing Jeana wishes all nonprofit leaders knew as they step onto the DEI path?

She thought for a moment.

“This is the work — this isn’t a distraction from the work, or really even optional, particularly in this moment,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter what issue area, geography or constituency that your organization prioritizes. We had a realization that our view of what was possible, necessary or needed was so limited by our lack of organizational diversity. Just the way we thought about what was needed in the community was based on such limited information and was reflected in our policies. Our work then became so much richer.”

I’m so grateful to Jeana and to Basic Rights Oregon’s current co-directors, Nancy Haque and Amy Herzfeld-Copple, for allowing us to share BRO’s DEI journey!

Next time, I’ll share a conversation with consultant Cliff Jones, who has helped organizations establish strong DEI principles and practices for more than 30 years.

— Carol