The (White) Elephant in the (Board) Room: How White Board Members Can Step Up By Stepping Aside

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Hi, Everyone! My last blog on racial equity and boards received a lot of support, so thank you for reading and sharing it! Surprisingly, it also received a number of requests from white board members asking me to push them even harder. That is amazing! Yes! Let’s do it! As a response to those requests, my latest board-focused blog below asks some hard, introspective questions about power. If you are a white board member on a majority white board and you want more of an RE push, this blog is for you! That said, consider the last blog like algebra class and this one is like calculus: If you felt really challenged by the last one, spend time to digest it more thoroughly before jumping to this one. Because this one is gonna poke at some sensitive spots, so you’ll need the resilience that comes from regularly grappling with racial equity and whiteness. Okay. You’ve been warned. Let’s go!

Acronyms used: HWL – Historically White Led organization; RE – Racial Equity; BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; BLM – Black Lives Matter; NPO – nonprofit organization.  

Welcome back, white board members, to the next step in your RE board development work! (note: be sure to read my last blog on racial equity and boards before launching into this one) So much of our effort to change our boards focuses on diversifying the board composition and bringing in more BIPOC members. But today, I want to take a closer look at the other demographic already in the room: the white board members. And, as part of my commitment to offer practical strategies in these blogs, I included a step-by-step activity for you to engage in.

An illustration of an elephant eating dinner in what looks like a fine-dining restaurant. Source: Unknown

Let’s start by setting a scene: imagine for a moment…

It’s a Friday night and you want to take your family out for a good meal, so you call the restaurant ahead of time and make a reservation. You show up on time, the kids are hungry, and you’re ready to enjoy tasty food after a hard week. You see that the restaurant is super crowded (this is a pre-covid scenario), and the host apologizes and says they don’t have capacity right now and asks you to wait to the side. You and the family do so patiently. 

As you wait, you notice a few things: 

  • Only about 1/3 of the diners are actively eating, and the rest seem to be finished with their meals and are simply chatting with each other at their tables; 
  • A few new parties enter the restaurant and get seated right away even though they don’t have reservations and haven’t been waiting (but you notice their “sleight of hand” tips to the host); 
  • Some of the other folks who are waiting get frustrated and leave vowing never to return to this restaurant; 
  • Some of the other folks who are waiting notice another restaurant across the street that has space and they leave quietly to go there. 

Finally, at around 8:30pm, a party gets up and leaves their table, and the host rushes over to you with apologies and asks if you’d like to follow him to the table. How does all this make you feel?

Now, let’s replace this hypothetical restaurant with your board room. The two are actually very similar:

  • Board rooms also have limited capacity;
  • It takes time for board members to “leave the table” (term limits); 
  • Not everyone in the board room is actively engaged and are simply taking up space (as nonprofit reformer, Vu Le, says: “I have a Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: 1/3 of them are helpful [and] 2/3 of nonprofit boards are useless or harmful.”);
  • There are many ways to get onto boards that aren’t always consistent or advertised to the public (i.e. applications, recommendations from current members, recruitment by staff, a large donation, etc.) and this causes confusion as to who gets a seat, when, and why; 
  • Boards have lost potential members who:
    • Leave to go to other boards; or, 
    • Leave frustrated and offended by the long wait and the lack of communication, and then let their communities know not to trust this organization. And the board members in the room may never realize the damage they have caused with their passivity. 

Sound familiar??? This frustratingly common scenario is way overdue for analysis. So, that is exactly what we are going to do today! We need to stop being passive “diners” taking up space in limited capacity rooms. We need to actively examine our board rooms, not only for who we want to bring into the room but who is already in the room and if they should still be there.  This is going to be hard because dominant culture does not encourage people in power (especially white people) to question whether they should have that power, how they got that power in the first place, and if those methods were racially biased. So, the activity below may be uncomfortable. But that’s good! If we’re not at least a bit uncomfortable doing this work, then we’re not doing it right! 

A cartoon featuring two people standing on either side of an elephant, who is sitting on a living room sofa. The caption reads “What elephant?” Source: Pinterest

Step 1: Establish context:  

  • Remember that NPO board members are volunteers. Yes, they are volunteers with a lot of responsibility and many even bring in large donations or powerful connections, but board members do not get paid by the organization for their work. So, any discussion about who should or should not have a board seat will not result in losing a job. Egos are at stake here, not paychecks.
  • Let’s acknowledge the fear: you may be concerned that having hard conversations about whiteness and power with board members will result in them feeling hurt or offended, which may lead them to pull their donation or access to their networks. That is a possibility. We need to prepare properly for hard conversations, but we also need to give members the benefit of the doubt that they want to live their beliefs and will continue to support the good work of the organization without being “paid with power” to do so. 

Step 2: Examine your beliefs:

With that context in mind, let’s establish some shared beliefs. I crafted this list from the many npo racial equity and/or “we stand in solidarity with BLM” statements out there. So, keep in mind that I am not inventing these beliefs but rather restating them here as context for the self-reflection questions later. 

“I believe…”Circle one:
I believe systemic racism is real and directly connected to the work of my nonprofit.YES     NO
I believe racism can manifest in any/all structures, including in the structures of the board I serve on.  YES     NO
I believe npo boards have power, which impacts the communities their npos serve.  YES     NO
I believe BIPOC understand racism in ways white people can’t (i.e. reading “The New Jim Crow” as a white person is not the same as living as a Black person in America), and this understanding should be centered in racial equity work.  YES     NO
I believe BIPOC have or can cultivate the necessary governing/leadership skills to serve as board members.*YES     NO
I believe those who are most impacted by racial equity decisions should have the power to make them.
(note: If you amended this in your head to read, “have input on decisions” rather than “have the power to make them,” ask yourself if you really believe the previous two statements.)
YES     NO
I believe white allies on boards play a critical role in racial equity, and their actions should center the needs and voices of those most impacted by racial injustice.YES     NO
I believe racial equity work is urgent and needs to happen now.YES     NO
A cartoon featuring an elephant lying on a couch while a therapist listens and writes notes. The caption says “I’m right there in the room, and no one even acknowledges me.” Source: Pinterest

Step 3: Ask yourself some hard questions:

If you answered YES to any of the belief statements above, and especially if you did so for all of them, then continue to the questions below. These questions are designed to help you examine the power you have as a board member and why you have it. 

  1. Why do you serve on your board? 
    • This seems like a simple question but let’s really analyze this. Most board members serve because they want to support an organization working on a cause they really believe in. Members are often asked to join a board because they have skills, networks, or experiences they can contribute to the benefit of the organization. But think about that logic for a second: being on a board is a power-position; does this mean we think board members are only willing to donate their skills, networks, or experiences in exchange for decision-making power? Is that true for you? Are you only willing to donate your services in exchange for a board seat? Or, would you be willing to donate your skills, networks, and/or experiences but without the final decision-making power of a board seat? If not, why not? 
  2. Are you a member of the community/ies most impacted by the injustice your nonprofit is trying to address? 
    • Whatever sector your nonprofit serves – education, environment, housing instability, food scarcity, etc. – I can guarantee you that middle to upper class white people are NOT the most impacted by its injustices. So, if you are a middle to upper class white person and therefore least impacted by the work of your nonprofit, should you have the power to make decisions that affect those who are most impacted? Really grapple with this question. Clearly articulate your rationale and hold it up against the beliefs above. 
  3. Are you taking action to be a white ally on your board?
    • As stated in the beliefs, we need white allies in this work to collaborate with BIPOC and leverage their privileges to identify and uproot racial bias in systems and build real, antiracist solutions. In other words, all “diners” need to be engaged and active in RE work when sitting in this limited capacity “restaurant.” As a white person, are you doing that RE work on your board? If so, what is that work? Attending meetings or working on a gala once a year is not RE work. If you attend meetings and hold the room accountable to evaluate their decisions with an antiracist lens, that is RE work. If you work on the gala and use your influence to equitably fill the room and contract a keynote on racial justice in your sector, that is RE work. If you are not doing this work, why not? What are the expectations of allyship for your white board members? Is there an unspoken assumption that the “new” board members (i.e. BIPOC) will be the ones to take on the RE work, and it’s optional for the “veteran” members?
  4. Does your board turnover match the urgent rate of injustice? 
    • When working with majority white boards, I often hear, “we need to make room at the table for BIPOC to join.” But with limited seating, the only way to make room now is for the folks already there to leave. Are members only rolling off at the rate of your board term limits? Does this rate match the rate of the injustice your organization is trying to address? I have yet to hear a nonprofit director or board member say that their work isn’t urgent and doesn’t need to be addressed right now. If you believe your nonprofit work is urgent and that work is directly connected to systemic racism (see beliefs above), then developing the proper composition of your board to do that work most effectively needs to be just as urgent. Would you be willing to give up your seat before your term limit in order to make space for someone who is more impacted by the decisions being made at the board table? (note: this does not mean you would have to leave the work or the organization. There are other ways to contribute…see below.)
  5. Have you considered flipping your role? 
    • Many majority white boards establish “advisory boards” comprised of the individuals most impacted by the injustices their npo is working to uproot: ex. an environmental org may have an advisory board of Indigenous Tribal Members. These folks are asked to “advise” the white majority board on decisions but they do not have the power to make these decisions on their own. Why not flip that model? As a least impacted person, would you be willing to serve as an advisor to a board comprised of folks who are most impacted? You could share your expertise as a policy-maker, lawyer, program-specialist, etc. If giving up this power makes you uncomfortable, dig into that. Go back to the list of beliefs above. Which of those beliefs are connected to this option of stepping up by stepping aside, and do you believe those?

Step 4: Make a plan…then, do it!

Congratulations for making this far into this activity! Now, you may be asking, “what can I do about all this?” Here’s my recommendation: 

  • Do this work intentionally, not reactively. You don’t want to cause harm or jeopardize the legal status of your organization by making rash decisions. Make a plan, but make sure it has an urgent timeline that matches the rate of the injustice your organization is working to address.
  • Redefine what it means to be “qualified” to serve on your board. Base your rationale on the beliefs you stated in your RE and/or BLM Solidarity statements. Ask yourself, “what do we really believe in, and what are we willing to do to live our beliefs?”
  • Develop a pipeline of potential members who meet your new definition of “qualified.” If you need support creating a pipeline of BIPOC board members, consider partnering with an organization whose goal it is to get BIPOC professionals on boards, like the Black Board of Directors Project. Or, really put-your-money-where-your-solidarity-statement-is and hire a recruiting firm (BIPOC owned and operated, please, like BIPOC Executive Search).  
  • Have the hard conversations with your board chair and/or executive committee about who needs to have decision-making power and who can advise those with power in order to best meet the needs of the work (i.e. step up by stepping aside).
  • Examine your board matrix to prioritize who is in the board room and why. Related, hash out the role of white ally board membersand how they will be held accountable to those standards.
  • And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is challenging and very nuanced work. And it needs to happen now. If you want support in this, please reach out to me. I am here to help. You got this; I got you; together, we can make change. 

It’s time we call out the (white) elephants in the (board) room!

Notes:

*I specifically phrased this belief to read “have or can cultivate” the necessary skills to govern as opposed to just “have” the skills because there is bias in recruiting only for established expertise and not the ability to develop them. To start with, many of the skills NPO boards seek are from sectors that are historically white, like fundraising, law, and finance, so that means without specific recruiting criteria that prioritizes racial diversity, you are more likely to have multiple white fundraising professionals, white lawyers, and white CPAs on your board. Because of this dynamic, many white majority boards subconsciously believe there aren’t any BIPOC professionals out there and they need to “lower the qualifications bar” in order to bring on BIPOC board members. Stop that thinking in its tracks. It is flat out wrong and reeks of implicit bias.There are highly qualified BIPOC professionals out there. Just because you only have experience with white professionals speaks more to the history of the professions you are recruiting from. It also speaks to who is attracted to your organization…and who isn’t. Really examine your needs and intentionally recruit BIPOC who have the skills you need. For example, if you need HR experience, then recruit Black HR professionals. Or, consider what skills new board members can learn rather than only recruiting those who have accreditations (i.e. do you really need a CPA on a board in order to run a financial report?). Finally, consider what you are trading if you unwittingly prioritize skills like fundraising as equal to or in higher value than the experience of BIPOC in a racially biased society. Which understanding is teachable and which only comes with lived experience?

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Actually, We’re Just Getting Started: Considerations for Crafting Solidarity Statements

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: HWL – Historically White Led organization; BLM – Black Lives Matter

Image courtesy of The New Yorker.

It seems like every day there’s another statement from a historically white led organization (HWL) stating that they “stand with Black Lives matter.” Overall, I am really happy that there is a swell of consciousness and recognition among HWLs of the systemic racism against Black people. There are many white leaders out there who are really paying attention with heightened urgency and truly want to make change. In the grand scheme of things, this has the potential to be such an impactful shift in the nonprofit sector to really identify and uproot racism in our systems. But, as I was reading these beautifully crafted statements, I found myself getting frustrated, even angry, about this onslaught of verbal support, and I know I am not alone in this feeling (ex. #ShowtheReceipts is trending on many platforms). Why? Because many of these organizations are the very ones who one year ago, one month ago, even one week ago either overtly or covertly refused to stand with BLM. It used to be too risky to be seen with BLM; now it is too risky NOT to be seen with them. The historic refusal of HWLs to stand with BLM and take real anti-racist action in their organizations has actually contributed to the need for movements like BLM to begin with. In all of those statements out there, there has been little to no acknowledgment of these ironies. Is it any wonder why I and so many others are questioning the authenticity of these statements?


“It used to be too risky to be seen with BLM; now it is too risky NOT to be seen with them.”


This all got me thinking: what do I want to see in a statement to let me know that the organization isn’t just hopping on the solidarity bandwagon? Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Acknowledgement of the organization’s past silence and complicity. Chances are at some point in an organization’s recent history, some staffer/client/volunteer/etc. asked the question, “why don’t we openly support BLM?” Or, maybe it was more subtle, like “why do we support diversity and inclusion but not racial justice or anti-racism?” If this was the case for your organization, as it was for so many HWLs out there, please own it. Otherwise, your statements now about standing in solidarity can feel inauthentic. Silence is a form of action. Own the past complicity of this choice. Because in reality, it is this silence on the part of those with power that contributed to the need for Black communities to shout, “Black Lives Matter!”
  2. Self-reflection to understand the rationale of this history and its impacts. Why didn’t more HWLs stand up for BLM before? Maybe they felt it was “too political” (suggestion: dig into the coding on this…what does “political” really mean???), maybe they were worried about offending/losing donors, maybe they didn’t want to be seen as radical. Whatever the reason, please own it and explain that you will no longer use it as an excuse. Because if you don’t take time to uproot the implicit bias in your past rationale, it will keep coming up over and over again in the future to stop your progress as you try to take action for BLM.
  3. Acknowledgment of the violence. For every Black person who is killed by racist violence, like George Floyd, there are thousands more whose lives are also impacted every day by the same systemic oppression: jobs not offered, schools not funded, compensation not fairly provided, avenues cut off, microagressions endured. Daily. But it took violence and the subsequent outrage of an entire community to wake your organization up to the point of making a public statement. Why? Please really grapple with this question and own it. And please promise to never again wait for this level of violence before taking action. 
  4. Commit to real action informed by Black stakeholders. “Standing” is an action, so I want to know what actions your organization will take and how you will choose those goals. This is a golden opportunity to center and amplify Black voices! Even committing to meeting with Black stakeholders specifically to set these goals for your org is an action, a first step. And if you do this, please compensate these stakeholders for their time to work with you on this plan. Remember: they are helping YOU bring to life your commitment to BLM, not the other way around. 
  5. Publicly state a timeline. This is a major complaint I hear from BIPOC staffers and stakeholders: HWLs so often promise to make change but do not provide timelines to follow up. Just like with any strategy, give yourself a “report back” deadline and share this with your community members. Otherwise, without this accountability, it is likely that these actions will simply be pushed off when some other stressor enters the organizational system (as history has so often taught us).
  6. Authentically report back on progress. I know that organizations will not succeed in everything they try. But, it is okay to try, fail, learn from failure, and try again. This is how we grow, and this growth is not easy. We need to be comfortable with imperfection because we will likely not hit every target the first time we try, but we need to recognize why we didn’t, be able to explain how we will adjust to do it better, and have the developed resilience to stick with it. (one major caveat here – trying and failing at the expense of Black people is NOT okay. Take the time in your initial planning to identify and implement ways to mitigate fallout if failure to achieve a goal should occur. This takes deliberate intentionality and will be more easily addressed if planning is done with Black stakeholders from the start.)

If an organization makes a statement that takes all this into account, I would feel excited and engaged.* I would want to follow them, to learn more about them and support them by holding them accountable, and maybe even get involved as a volunteer or a donor if I see evidence of their work. In short, an organization that made a statement like this would take a critical step towards building a relationship with me, not just making a statement at me. But, crafting a statement like this may be hard, so as part of my commitment to offer practical strategies in these blogs, I drafted a template for organizations to use as a straw horse: 

“We didn’t stand up for BLM before. We were scared and didn’t want to risk losing our largest contracts/donors/non-Black stakeholders. We now see that our silence and lack of action was complicit in the systemic oppression of Black people. And we are so sorry that it took so much violence against Black people to make us see this. So, we commit to taking risk, speaking out, and working hard from today on. We will deliberately analyze our organizational systems and structures to expose and uproot anti-Black bias. We will set these goals with our Black community members in ways that amplify their voices and needs. We will report back transparently on these goals every ____ through our website, email, etc. We will share what went well, what didn’t, what we learned, and how we will apply that learning to move forward. This is how we will earn the honor of saying that we stand with BLM.”

This is not a plug-n-play statement and it’s definitely not one-size-fits-all, but it should provide a foundation to start from and good fodder for discussions. And I hope it helps because I truly want this current wave of consciousness to succeed. Because we can’t and shouldn’t push off radical change any longer. Now’s the time, and we’re just getting started.

If you’d like to discuss how I may be of further support to your organization, please reach out. You got this; I got you; together we can make change.

*Please note that I am speaking for myself as an Asian-American cis-hetero woman who works professionally as a racial justice consultant. My recommendations are informed by my lived and learned experiences and the input of my BIPOC colleagues and friends, but I do not speak for anyone else.

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


“If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a RE-ng On It!” Moving Nonprofit Boards Towards Real Racial Equity (RE) Commitments

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: RE – Racial Equity; BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color; HWL – Historically White Led organization; ED – Executive Director; NPO – Nonprofit; DEI – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

Author’s note: I wrote this blog 3 weeks ago, but I couldn’t post it and pretend as if the past 7 days haven’t happened. In the nonprofit sector, we MUST ground all of our work in the context of the greater context of legalized racism, and that starts with identifying and uprooting racist structures in our own organizations. Vu Le wrote an excellent blog on this recently, and my blog below focuses on one of the many pieces he calls out: the nonprofit board. The smaller organizational systems we engage with daily reinforce and are reinforced by the greater systems, and in nonprofits, the board systems are often the least examined even though these structures can make or break the racial equity work of the organization. So, board members, this one’s for you.

I work with a lot of nonprofit Executive Directors who ask me, “how do I bring my board along on our organization’s racial equity journey???” I get it. I am a former ED myself, and I’ve worked with and served on boards of all kinds. Often, these boards and their members are well-intended but rarely expected, encouraged, resourced, and/or held accountable to do their own work beyond “embracing diversity and inclusion” in the organization. And that lack of commitment and subsequent lack of action is a serious problem because of the leadership role boards play in npos*. But there are ways to address these challenges and make real change on your boards! And, there is a LOT of desire by board members themselves to do so! So, as part of my effort to post more practical equity tools, I’m sharing some of my favorite board resources, a sample RE document you can use, and some hard-learned advice to help shift nonprofit boards towards real RE commitments. 

Let’s start by painting a picture of what a board commitment to equity could look like…

Imagine this scene: The Board and Racial Equity (RE) are strolling through a park, enjoying the fine weather. Action!

Board: Did you know that today is our anniversary? Two whole years together.

RE: Really? That long, huh?

Board: Yup. Two years ago today we crafted that equity statement and posted it on our website.

RE: Wow. Time really flies.

Board: Since then, we’ve been spending time together learning about justice, taking implicit bias tests. We even brought in that trainer to talk about white supremacy culture, remember that?

RE: I remember. Good times.

Board: Well, I’ve been thinking lately, I want more than just casually learning about you, RE. I’m ready for a real commitment. I want to move beyond just having good intentions. I want to make this real, RE!

RE: Are you sure? We’ve been here before, Board, and we always dance right up to the line of action and then stop. What makes this time different?

Board: I know, RE, I know. I’ve said it so many times before, and each time I always backed down. Like that time that large donor met you and got really uncomfortable, and I caved. Or that time our Executive Director retired, and I said I didn’t have time to do a full hiring process and make a real commitment to you.

But you always held me accountable to a bar that I have never been held to before, RE, and to be honest, that scared me. I’ve never been pushed as much as I have been with you. You have shown me how much more I can be, how much more I need to be if I really want to lead. And, I took your advice! I talked with the community members most impacted by the injustices we are trying to address…they want us to be together, too! They said that if I really want to serve them, I need to make a real commitment to you. 


And that made me see that I am ready to take real action with you, RE. I will stop saying that my role is to just “support the staff” as they work towards you. I will stop hiding behind the excuse of only having 6 meetings per year. I want to examine my recruitment matrix and bring on new members from the communities most impacted by injustice. I want to overtly talk about overrepresentation, not just underrepresentation. I want to retool Robert’s Rules of Order to amplify nondominant voices, and I want to dig out my dusty bylaws and examine them for the racism deeply embedded there. I want you, RE, to be my lens. Heck, I want to get Lasik so you’re not even a lens that needs to be put on! I want to be the Board you believe I can be!

RE: Wow, Board! This is a lot to take in. If we do this, it’s going to be hard, you know that, right?

Board: I know.

RE: You have members who don’t acknowledge our commitment, some of whom are incredibly uncomfortable when I’m even brought up in conversation.

Board: I know. I will change that. I will hold all my members to the same standards and actions and no longer expect just our new BIPOC members to tow this line. RE, I’m ready. Let’s do this. Let’s make this real.

RE: Oh, Board! Since the first 501c3 was established in 1954, I’ve been waiting to hear those words! Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Cut, print, that’s a wrap! 

Don’t you just love a happy ending? Well, it’s actually a beginning because if you dig into that story, you can see all the work that board is now committed to taking on, the real actions that will make their commitment to RE stronger. So, how can you move your board to “put a ring” on Racial Equity? Here are a few resources:

  1. If you’re interested in better understanding why board action towards RE is important, here are a couple resources I love: Activating Race Equity Problem Solving on NPO Boards; and Diversifying Boards Means Ceding Control: Are White NPO Leaders Ready? These are only a couple of the MANY out there**, but they’ll get you started and they have lots of good embedded references to follow, as well. 
  2. If you’re interested in a step-by-step process, this is a resource I’ve mentioned on my blog before, but it is so good it deserves another shout out: ProInspire’s Equity in the Center Awake to Woke to Work. It offers clear and tangible ways (with rubrics!) to help you “pull the board lever” in your organization. 
  3. If you’re interested in board info in general, I always find BoardSource.org really helpful. Not everything they offer is RE focused, but they do have helpful resources on DEI and great templates, such as matrices and bylaws. 
  4. Lastly, for a template to challenge the conundrum of changing board demographics, check out the my Board Recruitment Commitment to RE. This commitment is bold and open and doesn’t hide behind pretty or coded words. It can be an internal document (not everything needs to be published externally), acting as a guide for the board to change membership changes over time. If this commitment were adopted, you can see how many other board policies would be examined as a result of this one: the recruitment matrix, onboarding documents, bylaws, member assessments, etc. A commitment of this level would be the result of a LOT of hard work, but it is not an end-product; instead, it is a beginning that ripples out, providing members more and more opportunities to actively demonstrate their commitment to RE. A board that makes this commitment would really put a REng on it!  
Sample Board Recruitment Commitment

 Finally, here is some hard-learned advice that will hopefully help you on this journey:

  1. Being the leader on this does not mean you have to have all the answers, but it does mean you need to be in it for the long haul. Making a real RE commitment is not something the board can dabble in, picking up RE and putting it down as stress enters and exits the system. That’s the touch-and-go mentality you’re trying to get away from. If you’re serious, and if you’ve gotten this far in this blog you must be, just know this will be hard and the successes may be small and take time to achieve. But progress can be made! My advice to sustain your sanity: document those successes because you can look back on them to spur your stamina over time. Trust me: this documentation actually helps, and I wish more boards did this as part of an annual board progress assessment, not in a “pat ourselves on the back for doing nothing” way but rather a “what did we set out to do, where did we succeed, where did we fall short, why, and how will we move forward” kind of way. It may feel slogging at times, but nevertheless, she persisted, am I right?
  2. Leading this effort will take an extra toll if you are a BIPOC board member at the helm. It is exhausting to uproot the bias you experience on a daily basis, and that goes double if you’re volunteering your time to do it. In addition to the assessment advice above, I recommend exploring ways up front to sustain your energy that address racism in the professional sphere. Talk to your board chair or ED about allocating board resources to support your health to lead this challenging work. For example, does the board have funds set aside for members to attend professional networking sessions (like Future for Us) and BIPOC affinity groups (like, EPOC or the BIPOC Project)? Can you use board meeting time and space to host a BIPOC affinity group if you are fortunate enough to have multiple BIPOC board members? Your insight and membership are critical to achieving the RE vision, so build in ways to support YOU from the start because you’ll need it. (And, if you’re a white board member reading this, PLEASE SUPPORT YOUR BIPOC PEERS!!! If you want a resource on how to do this, check out these guidelines for white allies from Racial Equity Tools.)
  3. Create a coalition for change! Are there others on the board who are also committed to this work?Can you convene them to shore up energy before taking it to the whole board? This is especially helpful with large boards who don’t meet often or those that have had high turnover. Bring these allies in. You will need their support in this journey, and you can work together to become a united force speaking with a clear and consistent voice. This may be the start of your board RE committee!
  4. If your organization has an equity statement, center it in your rationale for the board work in RE: What are the responsibilities and tasks of the board and how can these support or hinder this vision? Does our board reflect the communities most impacted by the injustice our organization strives to address? If the board has already expressed a desire to address equity (as so many have), why do we want to undertake this work? What are we willing to risk to do so, and what do we risk if we don’t? etc.***


Okay! That is it for this blog and I hope it was helpful. I know that this is hard work, but you don’t have to do it alone: I can help! If you want more support than the resources and tips above, contact me to discuss how I can help you address racial equity at the board level. This is absolutely critical work and you should not have to do it without support. You got this; I got you; together, we can make this happen. 

Notes:

* As a refresher or if you’re new to working with boards, npo boards are designed to guide visioning and planning and oversee the macro-level organizational functions; they hire, assess, and (if needed) fire the ED; they fundraise; they network; they donate their skills and expertise. NPO boards are often made up of highly passionate, highly skilled volunteers who believe deeply in the mission of the organization. But they are also highly removed from the npo’s daily functions and they spend maybe 30 hours a year together as a group. Then, there’s the diversity issue!!! Most npo boards are majority white, even in sectors most impacted by injustice that is perpetuated/justified/upheld by whiteness (the mind reels with contradictions!). There are oh so many reasons why this dynamic exists and I’m not going to get into all that here (if you want to, though, check out this Board Source report or see the many links below). But all this  – the demographic makeup of the board, its general detachment from the organization, each other, and communities served, and the lack of real accountability to move beyond verbal commitments – has made addressing racial equity on HWL boards a serious challenge.

**More resources on board development: 

***If your organization does not have an equity statement yet, consider making this the first step in the board’s work towards RE by dedicating board time to work with the staff to create one (use the activity in my blog last month to push this process). Because the board serves the organization, it is very important to envision the organization’s RE journey first; then the board can determine their role in getting the organization there. Also, if you are a board member considering RE, it is highly likely your ED is already thinking about this, like the countless number I’ve talked to lately who are trying to figure out how to bring their boards along. I would bet your ED would LOVE to have a board member approach them to discuss how the board can embrace RE to better support the organization!

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Dear White People (Who Want to Support BIPOC Colleagues at Work)

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color

There is so much pain and suffering in our country right now, especially in BIPOC communities. It pervades all aspects of our daily lives, including work. For those of us fortunate to still be employed, we spend most of our waking hours doing our jobs. And, there is an unspoken and unrealistic expectation that we draw a curtain between the work that we are doing and the lives we are living. The pervasiveness of racism can make this separation harder to maintain for BIPOC than white folks. Many BIPOC colleagues of mine report feeling feeling tired, overwhelmed, exhausted, scared, frustrated…and this can impact focus and productivity at work. I hear from many concerned white professionals that they see this struggle and want to support their BIPOC colleagues in the workplace, but they are unsure how. So, this blog is for you, white colleagues. Here are some actions you can take to share the unfair burden your BIPOC colleagues are forced to carry. 

***Important point of clarification: The suggestions below are NOT about white people “coming to the rescue of poor BIPOC folks.” That is white saviorism, an insidious tool of white supremacy. This blog is meant to give white people ideas on how they can and should take on some of the heavy load forced onto BIPOC by white dominant systems. White ally support should never unintentionally become white saviorism! Do NOT get the two confused. Keep checking back with yourself to make sure you don’t slip into this mentality.*** 

Caveats to my suggestions below: 

  • I do not speak for all BIPOC folks. Everyone has different feelings and needs. Some BIPOC want your support; others don’t. Start with a conversation so you don’t assume. 
  • The suggestions below are not magic solutions that will work in every setting. Many of these suggestions rely on a certain level of pre-existing trust in the group to succeed. 
  • The suggestions below also rely on authenticity (i.e. don’t offer help if you don’t want to be taken up on it).
  • Offers of support should not publicly “call out” the person you are offering them to. Again, conversations should always precede any offer and should be built on trusting relationships. 
  • If you have questions, check with your HR department. I’m not an HR professional and the advice below is from my personal experience. 
  • Finally, as with any suggestion or piece of advice offered anywhere, use your best judgment to determine what will work with your colleagues on your team in your workplace.

Okay, that all said, the first recommendation I have for white colleagues is to take time to understand exactly how exhausting this is on many BIPOC folks and how much more energy this can require from us to remain our most productive selves. Personally, I’m seriously fatigued, distracted, scared, and emotionally drained right now, and I hear this from so many of my BIPOC friends. I will still work hard to get my tasks done on time, but it takes a LOT more of my energy to do so right now and my capacity is low. And, as a cis-hetero Asian American woman, my many privileges buffer me from the full impact of pain out there, so I know that if I’m tired, then my Black friends and colleagues are likely exhausted. In fact, critical race theory has a term for the impacts of accumulated racism in Black American communities: racial battle fatigue. Understanding and acknowledging that this exhaustion/fatigue/etc. is real and very different from what you are facing as a white person is the first step. 

In a small effort to normalize bringing the real world into the workplace, consider replacing the usual prompt at the start of a meeting (“so, how’s everybody doing today?”) with something more honest and vulnerable, like: “The world is really hard right now in so many ways (racism, violence, systemic injustice, COVID, isolation, etc.), and it is definitely harder for those of us who feel those impacts directly and daily. What is one word that describes how you are feeling right now? What is each of us doing to take care of ourselves? How can we take better care of each other on this team?” Again, choose your prompts wisely based on the level of trust and open communication already cultivated on your team. And expect that this will take more time than you may be used to. But, spending some time with your team discussing their realities can be an invitation to bring one’s whole-self into the workplace, which is actually beneficial to all staff, BIPOC and white alike. Note: take mental notes if people share concerns that you may want to follow up on later for more support, and be sure to set aside time to do so with them in private. This work is all about relationship- and trust-building. 

If there is trust already between you and your BIPOC colleague, and if your colleague has verbally expressed concerns around capacity, then consider offering to take appropriate tasks off their plate and/or offering flexibility with deadlines when possible. You may not be taken up on these offers, but they demonstrate tangible options that you put thought into, which is a significant step beyond the kind but generally useless offer of “let me know if I can help.” Note: pay special attention to those two “ifs.” Without those, you may offend rather than support (flip the roles: how would you feel if you didn’t express any bandwidth challenges and a colleague you didn’t have a trusting relationship with offered to take work off your plate??? That’d be weird at best, right?).

Does your sick leave policy cover mental health days? Does racial battle fatigue count as such? If so, share this information with your BIPOC staff so they know they can take a break without jeopardizing their jobs. And, go back to those offers of task-sharing and deadline flexibility so your colleagues not only know they can take leave with pay but they feel assured they won’t be seen as dropping the ball or “slacking” if they do. So many BIPOC have been trained by white dominant society to never let up, to always be on, be ready, be perfect. Sometimes we need to hear that it’s not only okay to take a break but it is supported to do so and it won’t be held against us later. If your sick leave does not cover racial battle fatigue or if you’d like to increase the days for equitable support of your BIPOC staff, talk with your HR department for options. That would be an opportunity for structural change.

Community is critical in times like these, so resourcing BIPOC staff to attend BIPOC-only affinity spaces on work time is incredibly helpful. This is a very tangible way that a white supervisor can value BIPOC staff health in the face of the disparate impacts that affect them. As a BIPOC in the environmental sector, I regularly attend Seattle EPOC gatherings and find them so helpful and rejuvenating. If you are not in the Seattle-area, there are EPOC chapters across the country, and if you’re not in the environmental sector there are many other online/virtual spaces, like the BIPOC Project. Often, resource allocation for experiences like these must be directly tied to work outcomes, so I encourage white supervisors to consider how these types of experiences are professional development and community engagement efforts that benefit the organization.

Finally (and most importantly), please hold other white staffers accountable for racism in the workplace. We don’t need to deal with more of that right now. If you see microagressions, address them when they happen. Don’t wait for a BIPOC staffer to do it, or send a note to the BIPOC staffer later exclaiming how appalled you were at that action. Do it yourself when it happens. Similarly, if a white staffer on your team has a record of microagressions (you know who these people are) and if you are in an authority position, please hand out real repercussions. Don’t make excuses for them or only focus on arranging healing conversations between them and the BIPOC staffer who received their aggression. Healing conversations are great, but they need to be paired with actual repercussions, not substituted for them. Again, talk to your HR to make a plan, but this is the exact opportunity where you can leverage your privilege as a white person and power as a manager to take action.  

There are many other ways white colleagues can demonstrate their support of their BIPOC colleagues, so please share them here and we can all learn. I’d also like to ask that those of us BIPOC who benefit more from white dominant systems and aren’t impacted as greatly by the greater world context, that we consider our roles in supporting our BIPOC colleagues who are taking bigger hits than we are right now. None of this is easy, none of it is one-size-fits-all, but all of it is critical in the fight to uproot racism. 

Side note: for my BIPOC readers, if you are feeling symptoms of racial battle fatigue, please check out this list of networks designed to support your mental health: https://www.self.com/story/bipoc-mental-health-coronavirus. Also check in with your HR department as you may have access to Employee Assistance Plans through your employer.

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Overstretched: Finding the Right Fit for Your Racial Equity Rubber Band

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

*acronyms used: HWL – Historically White-Led organization; BIPOC – Black/Indigenous/People of Color

The other day, I was trying to wrap a rubber band around a box that was just too big for the band. I stretched it and stretched it and sure enough, it snapped. But, for some reason, I started crying. It wasn’t because the sound scared me or I hurt myself; rather, I was sad because like that overstretched rubber band, I have been feeling so overstretched lately, too. Before this new COVID world order, I was a lot like a rubber band: I like giving support by holding things together, helping to provide order in disordered places. But since we’ve been in a global pandemic, I’ve felt like I don’t have enough stretch to cover all the things that need support. Everything feels so big, so out of my control, so beyond my ability to help. When that rubber band snapped, I felt like I snapped, too. What could I possibly do that would help with all the chaos in the world? What could I do to change any of the injustices felt at such a large-scale? What use was I, just a little rubber band who had been stretched too far?

And then I realized: it’s not that I have to stretch around all the world’s injustices; instead, I need to choose the right size of issue to wrap myself around to make a difference that will ripple out to the greater world! This may seem like elementary wisdom to drop in a blog, but after many conversations with colleagues and friends, I know I am not alone. A lot of us, especially those who are supposed to provide support and solutions to systemic injustices, need this reminder. I was allowing myself to be swallowed up by the whole, mad, chaotic pandemic, as if my only choice was between solving all of the world’s problems at once or break trying. That feeling is overwhelming and can lead to stifled inaction. And inactivity is exactly what the world does NOT need now! We need more antiracist action! So, instead of trying to wrap myself around all of the systemic injustices surfaced by COVID, I am refocusing myself on the same form of injustices that manifest themselves in the smaller systems I engage with every day. All of these smaller systems support and are supported by the greater system. If we apply ourselves to uprooting injustice in the systems that are within our stretch/control, we can contribute to a larger, more just picture overall. Without breaking ourselves in the process. 


It’s not that I have to stretch around all the world’s injustices; instead, I need to choose the right size of issue to wrap myself around to make a difference that will ripple out to the greater world!


For personal life, I encourage folks to keep learning about how to identify and uproot racism in our daily lives. Here’s an excellent piece titled, “I’m White and I’m Outraged by Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder. Now What?” This is intended for white folks, but as a cis-hetero Asian American woman with much unearned privilege in this world, I found it useful, as well. Donating to organizations doing the frontline work I am not able to is also a way to stay within my stretch while making a difference. Donations can take the form of time, talent, testimony, and/or treasure, so if you are able to provide any of these t’s, reach out to nonprofits that are focusing on providing relief for those most impacted by COVID. Here is a great article in Forbes with a list of national options, and if you’re in the PNW, here is a link to one of my favorites, Front and Centered’s COVID relief fund for frontline workers (note: I do not work for or sit on the boards of any of these nonprofits). Also, if you have children and need ways to support their understanding of COVID and racism, here is a link to one of my favorite teaching websites, Teaching Tolerance’s Supporting Students Through Coronavirus. You can Google more but these are antiracist options to (hopefully) wrap yourself around now without overstretching. 

While the personal stuff is really important, don’t stop there! I spent time this last weekend reminding myself that examining and uprooting racial bias in workplace structures, policies, procedures, and practices is still critical, especially during a pandemic that impacts so many workers unjustly! If we wrap ourselves around work systems and strategically root out bias and replace them with just strategies, our efforts can ripple out to the greater world! To help you with this work, I am committing myself to sharing more tangible workplace activities in my blogs that you can use at your organizations to deconstruct supremacy. 

So, to that end, here is today’s activity: Examining Organizational Racial Equity Statements (see below). We are so trained in white dominant culture to code our words for safety in order to not offend anyone…but who is it that we are worried about offending? (Be honest.) The truth is, these statements need to be more than pretty words to show funders how “woke” we are; these statements need to set a bar for us to reach for, something that pushes us to a high, impactful, urgent, and authentic standard. If these statements use coded language or have unexamined assumptions, they can lose their potency as standard-bearers for our work, thereby allowing us to “skate by.” This is why critical examination is so important: it can keep us real and honest. And, this examination (though challenging) is very much within our control. I focused on race in the questions below, but you can adapt them to focus on any specific “ism” that your organization is trying to uproot. 

That’s it for this month’s blog but I will keep sharing activities and resources to help you identify and uproot organizational injustices. And, please share resources of your own! Together, we can support each other and give everyone a little bit more stretch to do the hard work without breaking in these challenging times!

Sapna Strategies’ Activity to Examine Organizational Racial Equity Statements:


Many organizations have equity statements, so as we craft ours, let’s research what our colleagues are writing! Evaluation of these statements is not meant to unduly praise or criticize any single organization. We have no idea how these statements are being brought to life within the organizations. Also, there may be internal documents not available to external audiences like us. Lastly, there is no “perfect” statement. 

But, these types of statements do hold an organization to a standard. By examining others’ statements critically, we can better craft an equity statement that holds us to a high, impactful, urgent, and authentic standard. Once completed, this statement should be centered in our work, from strategic planning to lesson planning and everything in between. For every action we consider, we must ask the question, “how will this action get us closer to meeting that standard?” 

Steps to this activity:

  1. Find and read at least one racial equity statement from an organization/s that you are interested in, partner with, work at, etc. Many orgs have their statements posted online, so a quick Google search should produce results. 
  2. Then, ruminate on the questions below. REMEMBER: the point of these questions is to get us thinking about our work and our statement, not to judge or poke holes in another organization. Peer review is a helpful tool to help us learn more about ourselves. 
  3. Though most of the questions below are in a yes/no format, it does not mean that “no” answers are bad. As we craft our own statement, if we choose to say “no” to any of the questions, we need to examine the reason why. And then, we need to ask if this reason must to stay inside the organization, or would we be comfortable sharing it externally. Why or why not? Keep asking “why” until it can’t be asked any longer. Every decision does not need to be shared externally; but, every decision does need to be examined and owned by those making it. 

Questions to consider after reading the equity statement/s:

  • Racism: 
    • Does the statement clearly call out racism (or does it generally refer to all the “isms”)? 
    • If so, does it explain why it focused on race? If not, does it explain why it focused on all “diversity?”
    • Is there a clear connection between uprooting racism and the mission of the organization? 
    • Does it acknowledge the sector’s racist past and present?  
    • Does it acknowledge urgency centered on those historically and currently negatively impacted by racism?  
    • Does it acknowledge how those same demographics contributed the least to the disruptions they must now navigate?   
       
  • Whiteness: 
    • Does it call out underrepresented populations? Overrepresented populations? 
    • Does it explain how whiteness fits into dismantling racism? 
    • If the organization is HWL, does it address how it benefits from the system as it stands? 
    • Does it explain this organization’s role in changing the system?  
  • Structural changes:  
    • Does this statement call for fundamental changes in the structures of the organization, or is it additive in nature, focusing on programs to add or additional work it will do (i.e. not really requiring the organization to examine and uproot the biases baked into its core)? 
    • Does it explain how it will do it?  
    • Does it state what the organization is willing to risk in order to do this? (this can get us past safe actions and push us to “put our money where our mouth is,” so to speak)
       
  • Future/Urgency: 
    • Does it paint a picture of what a racially equitable future in this sector looks/sounds/feels like?  
    • Does it explain what happens if the organization doesn’t do this work? 
    • Does it explain why this organization needs to uproot racism? 
       
  • Impressions: 
    • Is it vulnerable?  
    • Do you detect any saviorism or deficit modeling (the overt or covert implication that a perceived “deficiency” or “dysfunctionality” in a nondominant population is the reason for the injustice imposed on them)?  
    • Based on the writing, who do you think crafted the statement: people at the top? White people? BIPOC? Why do you think that? 
       
  • If this were our organization’s statement, how would it make you feel? 
    • Uncomfortable?  
    • Nervous?  
    • Excited?  
    • Unprepared?  
    • Confident? 
    • Inspired? Uninspired?
    • Other? 
    • Examine those feelings and explain in detail.  

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Who’s Setting Your DEI Pace? Part II: An Interview with Principal Angela Sheffey-Bogan

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

*acronyms used: DEI – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; BIPOC – Black/Indigenous/People of Color 

Last month, I wrote a blog titled Who’s Setting Your DEI Pace?, which asked leaders to internally reflect on their organizations and think about which staffers they look to when pacing their DEI initiatives. This month, I’m highlighting a local leader of color, Principal Angela Sheffey-Boganwho internally reflected on her school and set her equity pace based on her students’ needs. Read on to learn how this educational leader is making real equity change for her students, teachers, and community!  

Angela Sheffey-Bogan is a veteran public school educator and Principal of Sartori Elementary School, an innovative STEM school in Renton. Sartori is Angela’s pride and joy and she takes very seriously her responsibility and privilege to teach a student body composed predominantly of low-income students of color. In her first weeks as Principal, Angela developed Sartori’s vision – that every child shows up every day as their authentic self; no one should have to assimilate. On the surface, this seems like a straightforward and simple goal, but scratch the surface and you can see how it clearly addresses the oppressive systems that surround the daily lives of Sartori students. And the pace is clear: every day. Not, “for one hour of each day” or “by the end of second grade,” but every day. Children should not have to wait until the adults feel comfortable to move forward. They should be able to show up today and engage authentically in their learning.  

By setting this vision and pace, Angela is directly upending the dominant norm that allows the guise of “comfort” to slow the work, and instead she truly centers her students’ lives, families, and cultures. Angela also understands that DEI work cannot be done in isolation or as a side project. This is why she baked it into the overall vision of the organization. And this vision guides everything she and her staff do. Her understanding is built on an age-old mantra: know, do, become. As Angela explains it, you have to “think about what you want to become and then work backwards to determine the steps you take to get there and then the knowledge you need to take those steps.”  

Angela Sheffey Bogan


Children should not have to wait until the adults feel comfortable to move forward.


Angela may have set the vision but she made sure that her staff takes the lead on how to get there because they work most closely with the students and best understand their needs. To do this requires openly uprooting internalized bias, which can be challenging for individuals. So, Angela works with her team to collaboratively build a community first: “If you’re not comfortable with each other, you can’t talk about this work. We need to be able to openly ask each other, ‘Are we looking at this issue through an equity lens?’ We must be able to trust each other to have hard conversations.” An example of how the staff leads the work towards the vision is how they revamped the application process for Sartori’s school lottery. Sartori is a public magnet school, which means attendance is determined by applications from parents, not just district boundaries. Initially, Angela proposed the traditional lottery process used by most public magnets, which is to post the application on the website where interested parents can submit their child’s name. But, her teachers began asking if they were really reaching everyone within school district boundaries. What about parents without internet access or those who don’t speak English? Angela took pride in telling me how her staff was comfortable “calling her” on this issue: “This is just what we do, [these conversations] are common practice for us. Because we trust each other and we know where we want to go, I can let the staff take the lead and propose solutions that work best for our students.”  

One of the dispositions that makes Angela so successful at connecting with diverse teachers, students, and parents is the humility of a life-long learner: “I am never ‘the expert,’ I am always learning…I co-evolve with my staff.” Angela recognizes that just because she has the lived experience of a black woman doesn’t mean she doesn’t have biases herself. As she says, “You have to be okay examining your own biases and beliefs in order to best support the students. Intrapersonal exploration is really important for me. I was very assimilated as a kid, so until I examined my own values and upbringing, I wasn’t as able to understand how others interact with the world. [I try to] take this awareness and turn it into grace for myself and for others to make mistakes.” This vulnerable humility is the foundation of trust-building at her school.  

To illustrate this, Angela shared an example of a challenging situation she had with a staff member and parent. Last year, an African American student reported concerns about microagression from their white teacher. Angela connected with the teacher and then set up a meeting with teacher, student, and the student’s parent. The teacher came to the meeting prepared to defend herself, showing pictures of the many children of color in her family and life. The parent was upset by this because they perceived this as a variation on the “I can’t be racist because I have black friends” argument. The teacher responded to the parent’s anger with their own frustration. This is an all too familiar downward spiral that happens in many interracial conversations. But Angela wasn’t daunted. She regularly and intentionally worked with the teacher over the year to build the trust between the two of them and to overcome defensiveness. They discussed intent vs impact, and how the teacher’s actions when viewed through the lens of oppressive systems explained how the parent felt in that moment. Angela proudly shared that the teacher really embraced the perspective shift, and the teacher and student were able to heal their relationship. And, to the immense credit of the teacher, they are still at the school and now actively engaged in the DEI work. It is this type of committed support and guidance from leadership that brings community together. 

Angela also told me that she doesn’t want her staff to embrace the work “just because of what she looks like;” she wants them to genuinely engage with it because they want to and they understand its importance to teaching well at her school. Because she had already set a strong vision that centers the students, it’s the students’ needs that guide the staff, not her identity. When Sartori started, Angela initiated a DEI team, but it is now such an embedded part of the culture that she feels comfortable to give input as a regular staff member, not as “the Principal.” The DEI team is empowered to propose structural and programmatic steps to bring Sartori as a whole closer to that vision. For example, the staff suggested (and Angela approved) time for monthly meetings that all staff attend on Race and Equity. These are not training sessions but rather working sessions where the teams can bring practical concerns and challenges to each other to collaboratively address them in a trusting and accountable environment.  

I asked Angela if she had advice for other leaders who want to embed this type of vision and pace in their organizations. She said you have to “set and hold firm on that vision. Any time someone is doing the opposite of that, you need processes to call it out in right when it happens, at the beginning; don’t wait for it to fester. And when you do call it out, don’t sugar coat it.” She does this for her staff and they do it for her; it’s how they show care for each other and their students. Important note here: Angela sees this “calling out” not as what has come to be known as “call out culture” but rather “supportively watching each other’s blind spots for potential negative impacts despite intentions.”  

For other womxn of color in senior leadership positions, Angela had this advice to share: 

  1. Stay humble – you’ll always learn something from your staff, your students, your peers. 
  1. Push the envelope – don’t do things the way they have always been done. Be open to new ways of doing things. Your staff and students are always changing and you need to change with them.  
  1. Get a white ally who is also in leadership – this allows you to speak the same leadership language but get a different racial perspective. She recommends finding a “thought partner,” like another principal or CEO. But, don’t forget that you need to build that trust and shared vision with this person first or it won’t be an honest relationship, which is what you need to really hear what needs to be said. 

So, how is all this playing out with her community? I could hear Angela’s smile through the phone when she answered. She regularly receives appreciation from parents and staff of all racial identities for having a clearly antiracist vision to focus on and the empowerment to move towards it at the pace the students need. Many teachers, both white and BIPOC, tell her that this is the first time they’ve had the opportunity to support students in this way. But the biggest feedback/measure of success comes from the students themselves. They are comfortable to be who they truly are, to engage authentically in the learning, and openly communicate what they need to get there. Angela and Sartori clearly model how when the vision and pace center those most impacted by injusticeand the humans tasked with achieving this vision are supported to grow and learn, the work is able follow. Sartori is a school that moves at the pace its students need.  

If you would like to know more about Angela and Sartori, please visit their website at https://sartori.rentonschools.us/non-discrimination-policy1.

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Who’s Setting Your DEI Pace?

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

*Acronyms used: BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, & People of Color; DEI = Diversity, Equity,
Inclusion

I consider myself in pretty good shape. I work out a few times a week on the treadmill or in a
power-stretching class (I refuse to call it “yoga”). But the other day, I was helping a friend
out at his winery and I learned how not in shape I am. I had a fun vision in my head of stomping on grapes in a barrel, like that classic I Love Lucy episode…but the reality was a lot harder than I anticipated and I was sore for days! I found muscles I didn’t know I had! I was turning a 500-pound pressing block, shoveling grapes from a hot tub-sized bin, mixing the fermenting wine with a potato masher that stood almost as tall as me, and more. Full. Body. Workout. What really blew me away was that my friend was outpacing me without even breaking a sweat! This is his daily life, so he is in much better shape for this work than I am. He doesn’t need to count his steps or go to crossfit because his regular routine makes him stronger than any scheduled activity possibly could.

And, that got me thinking about how we build the strength and set the pace to tackle issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workplaces. Is it through the rigors of daily life or is it through opt-in experiences like classes, books, podcasts, etc.? The reason I ask this is because there is an assumption that these two ways of knowing are the same. But they aren’t.

People lifting barbells in a gym. Image courtesy of RXFit.com.
People at a Black Lives Matter march. Image courtesy of BBC.com.

The strength built up by people of color who experience and struggle through racism every day is different than that of their white counterparts, who are generally able to “opt-into” the racial
equity fight. There is often a history of racism for BIPOC that goes beyond an individual
lifetime, spanning hundreds of years and even crossing continents. The constant effort needed to navigate daily life, to survive and thrive in a system designed to keep you down, requires a level of strength and resilience not attainable through a few hours a week of reading blogs or books or watching movies. In other words, reading The New Jim Crow is not the same as living it.*


“Reading The New Jim Crow is not the same as living it.


And, I bet that most people, white and BIPOC alike, understand this difference in regard to daily
life. But when it comes to our workplaces and the DEI goals we hope to achieve, we pretend like these two ways of knowing lead to the same level of strength and resilience. So, let’s ask ourselves some hard questions: in regard to employees within organizations tackling DEI initiatives…

  • Does everyone have the same level of strength, resilience, and understanding of racism?
  • Who is in better “diversity shape” to address the issues of racism head on?
  • Shouldn’t the people with the greatest understanding of the issue set the pace** for the DEI work in their organizations?

I mean, if I went to help my friend at his winery and asked him to slow down the work until I
built up my strength, would I actually be helping? Or worse: what if I went to him and demanded that I lead the work? This is not to say that I shouldn’t try to help. I most definitely should help, regardless of how out of shape I am at that moment. But I need to choose the right mindset: an understanding that just because I want to work doesn’t make me the most qualified to lead the work. I need to take on appropriate work that fits my current strength-level and helps me grow so I can build my strength and be more impactful in the future. And I have to be okay with giving my friend the space to lead the work at his accelerated pace, and not make him feel badly about being stronger and faster than me. Otherwise, I would be centering the experience on my needs, not the needs of the work itself. There’s a subtle but critical difference. And, if I was really serious about helping him out, I would support him more often, work out on my own to get stronger faster, push myself harder and use him as a model instead of trying to slow him down to my level.

The fact is that organizational leadership will determine the direction and pace of DEI initiatives. But it is also a fact that leadership positions are mostly held by white people. BIPOC employees are more likely to be in lower level positions and often are implicitly tasked with accommodating the burgeoning understanding of their white counterparts (especially those in leadership). All the while, the BIPOC still have to grapple with the racist structures and systems held in place by the slow pace of the DEI work. And this dynamic of slowing down the pace of the work to accommodate those least “in shape” sends 3 implicit and completely erroneous messages:

  1. That the work is not urgent enough and can afford to go at a slow pace;
  2. That the white staffers are not capable of developing their resilience and strength at a faster pace; and,
  3. That BIPOC employees and stakeholders who are ready to go faster will wait around while the organization moves along at a pace that accommodates those least impacted by racism.

None of these messages are true. Not a single one. But because we rarely take the time to
unpack the issues around our DEI pace-setting and leadership, we often send these messages
unintentionally. This all said, a common retort I hear to statements above is that going faster will risk losing white stakeholders, including staff and funders. Part of this is correct: there will be risk, but there is also risk if you don’t speed up the pace: you risk losing engagement from BIPOC employees and stakeholders. But this retort also comes with its own implicit and erroneous message: that BIPOC employees aren’t capable of understanding those risks and developing with white leadership a scaffolded strategy to address them. That message is just as false as the previously stated myth that white staffers aren’t capable of following a faster pace. Slowing down the pace is denigrating to all people involved, white and BIPOC.

So, if you don’t believe these myths, ask yourself: who is setting the DEI pace at your
organization, and does that pace unintentionally send any of these messages?
These are hard questions to ask and answer. Most organizations don’t even try. But, if you want to really unpack the possible implicit bias of the DEI work at your organization and unleash its full potential, I can help. I work with leadership teams to examine their DEI work, specifically around complex issues such as these. This is what leads to setting and achieving real diversity goals. Together, we can create Just Strategies for Just Solutions!

Side notes/food for thought:

* This is not to denigrate learning about racism through opt-in experiences. These learning
opportunities are very important for everyone who wants to engage in anti-racism work, both to develop critical white allies and for BIPOC to examine our internalized racism (just because we know we are oppressed doesn’t mean we know how to dismantle the oppressive systems). I am simply advocating that classes cannot fully convey the daily life of someone on the receiving end of society’s racist structures and beliefs.


**It is important to note that “setting the pace” for DEI work does not mean doing all of it alone
or even taking on the bulk of the work. When I was at my friend’s winery, he set the pace but I
worked super hard, too, and my time and efforts were greatly appreciated because I allowed him the bandwidth to do the more complicated and challenging tasks I wasn’t ready for yet. He could also take a break, which given that he was working on this way before me and would be way after I left, I felt really good about providing him. I was part of a team and I trusted my friend to set a pace that achieved a goal he understood far better than I did. Why are we comfortable following someone else’s lead in situations like volunteering at a winery but when it comes to DEI in our workplace we get all prickly? Hmmmm…

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Okay, Ladies, Now Let’s Get INFORMATION! – 
Resources for Womxn in Business

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC.

Vocabulary used: Womxn – inclusive of transgender womxn, womxn of color, and all self-distinguishing womxn.

I have big feet. Always have. Many stores don’t even carry my size (women’s 11), so for most of my life I had to buy men’s shoes instead. This was hard as a kid because my feet had a growth spurt way before my body did. I vividly remember having to buy sneakers in the boys’ department when all the other girls had on cute high tops with sparkly designs and pretty laces. As I got older, I got better at buying men’s shoes that worked for my style, but because my feet are also really narrow (my brother used to say I skied everywhere I went), I had to adapt the generally wider men’s shoes by using inserts and thick socks. In the end, I made the men’s shoes fit my fashion life. 

And then internet shopping was invented, and everything changed! I was opened up to a new world of foot fashions IN MY SIZE!!! Pretty shoes for long skinny feet! Since then, I’ve never looked back at the old days of making the best out of shoes that were not meant for me. 

And this got me thinking about being a woman of color in the workplace. Business, and especially entrepreneurship, is very male dominated, therefore the resources are generally by and for men, and white men in particular. As a business professional, I’m always on the hunt for new strategies, theories, approaches, and methodologies that will make me a better manager, leader, coworker, and entrepreneur. Throughout my career, I adapted many resources on “general” management to fit me and my workplaces. Just like with my shoes, I made them work. So, when I finally found resources that were by and for womxn in business, I felt just like I did when I tried on my first pair of size W11 narrow shoes: a whole new world had opened up for me! (Cue Aladdin music here.) I didn’t have to translate or adapt the strategies. The womxn authors were speaking to me about issues that directly impact me and my business! The resources fit!

And, unlike a shoe, these resources not only speak to my current “size” but are also meant to help me grow in new areas. For example: as a cis-hetero woman, I am working to improve my knowledge and support of LGBTQ-friendly work cultures and policies. Many of these resources exposed my own internalized biases and inherent systemic privileges that I often take for granted. By raising my awareness and providing tangible actions, I can be a better ally and not allow my ignorance to unintentionally undermine my LGBTQ colleagues and friends. Another example: as a childless by choice woman, I don’t have personal experience with the challenges of motherhood (though I was raised by a single working mom and omg, so much respect!!!). I’ve learned about HR strategies to support family leave, flexible work schedules, and compensation policies that center the experience of new parents. And all of this is from the perspective of womxn career professionals. Fits like a glove!


“If we want womxn to compete on even footing in business, we’re gonna need shoes that fit!”


So, here are a few of my favorite resources, and I hope they speak to you* as they did to me. Because let’s face it: if we want womxn to compete on even footing in business, we’re gonna need shoes that fit! 

Resource:  Why I love it: (These are mostly podcasts because I’m a podcast junky! #sorrynotsorry #yourwelcome)
Women at Work (by Harvard Business Review) This was the first womxn-in-business podcast I found, and it opened my eyes to how much resource-adapting I was doing to make the “general” business resources fit my identity and needs. This is a broad-range but in-depth look at issues regularly faced by womxn in the workplace, and the discussions and interviews are very insightful. As I mentioned, I am working to understand my cis-hetero privilege and make workspaces more LGBTQ-friendly, so I especially appreciated Season 3 Episode 7 “There’s more to gender than ‘man’ and ‘woman.’”
Lean the F*ck Out: a podcast for fempreneurs
I love rebels, and the hosts, Gretchen and Tera, rebelliously designed this podcast to challenge the notion that womxn can succeed if they just “lean in” more at work. There are so few resources out there specific to womxn entrepreneurs, so this niche podcast is a goldmine for me, and the hosts do a great job of interviewing racially diverse womxn. I especially loved Episode 110 on “Badass Budgeting.” Yaaaa$$$$!!!
Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace

What I love about Battle Tactics is the hosts, Jeannie and Eula, are a racially diverse pair who bring their personal lives into their analysis of the strategies they recommend to womxn. Just listening to these two is like hanging out with super savvy and skilled friends, and they also bring in very racially diverse womxn to interview. As an entrepreneur, I especially enjoyed the September 10th Episode titled, “I’m the best boss I ever had: lessons from Celeste Headlee on freelancing.” I’ve listened to this one on repeat and never got bored! 
Scene on Radio: Series 3 – Men
This podcast is actually hosted by a white man, John Biewen, but his work is incredibly applicable for all of us because he examines in-depth the source and evolution of the sexism and misogyny in our culture. Why is this important for womxn to understand? Well, just because we are oppressed by it doesn’t mean that we see it or know how to dismantle it. And this podcast definitely helps raise critical awareness. One of the episodes I found most impactful was #53 on Himpathy (warning: this particular episode examines a sexual assault). Celeste Headlee (mentioned above)  is the cohost of this series and deepens the conversation from her perspective as a womxn of color. 
Future for Us
I’ve called out Future for Us before but it bears amplifying, esp. on this blog. Founders Aparna and Sage (also featured on Episode #108 of Lean the F*ck Out) have created a supportive, dynamic, and inspiring space and I have reveled in it. Events include: Salary Negotiations as Womxn of Color; Using Data Like You Give a Damn; and The State of Womxn of Color Summits.

*BTW, if don’t identify as a womxn, you can still learn from these resources because you likely share a workspace with us! These resources expose issues that womxn are grappling with in professional spheres, and the discussions are often very open and vulnerable. Listening to these podcasts gives you the opportunity to be a woke fly on the wall. 😉

How I can help: It is hard work uprooting sexism in the workplace, but I am here to help! I work with leadership teams to set and achieve their diversity goals, so check out my website for more information on what I offer and contact me at Sapna@SapnaStrategies.com to start the conversation!

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Tofu, Field Roast, or Soyrizo? Questions for POC in HWLs

*Acronyms used: BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, People of Color; HWLs = Historically White Led organizations; DEI = Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

I’m a vegetarian, so I’m always on the hunt (pun intended) for plant-based protein sources. I use tofu when I want to really taste the ingredients of a marinade, since tofu does a great job of carrying the flavors around it. When I use Soyrizo (a vegetarian chorizo), I know that everything else in the dish will bow to its intense flavor. And, when I want to create a balanced flavor profile, I use Field Roast because it carries its own flavor while allowing the rest of the ingredients to gently follow and be amplified in turn. 

And this got me thinking about being a racial minority employee in a predominantly white workplace.

(Not kidding. This is how my brain works.)

As a woman of color, I spent my career in mainstream environmentalism, which is a very white sector. And so it’s no surprise that most of my career has been in historically white led organizations (HWLs). Many of these organizations were working hard to racially diversify their staffs: revamping job descriptions to be more inclusive, posting on BIPOC listserves, sharing their Diversity/Equity/Inclusions (DEI) statements on their websites, etc. But the reality is that I was still often part of a small minority of BIPOC staff members, especially as I rose in management and leadership ranks (side note: there are often plenty of BIPOC staffers in entry level, seasonal, and/or ‘back of house’ jobs like kitchens and maintenance…but that is an important issue of workplace segregation that deserves its own future blog post).

So, what does this have to do with vegetarian protein options? Well, I constantly had to figure out what my stance was on the DEI work happening in the HWLs: would I be tofu that stepped back and allowed others to push the work? Or, would I be Soyrizo that spoke up loudly and defiantly against the status quo? Or, would I voice my opinions in a highly polished, balanced, “professional” manner like Field Roast? This was a constant internal conversation I had with myself. Seriously. It was constant. BIPOC in HWLs risk a lot when we do DEI work. This is not just an initiative for us. It’s about the communities we represent in ways that our white counterparts can’t. It’s about surviving and thriving in this work when we are often in low-power positions, both hierarchically in the organization and socially by race.

Will you be tofu?
Soyrizo?

…Or Field Roast?

It’s not a 9-5 thing for us; it’s our lives, our families, our names and reputations. So, in meetings, in conversations, in emails, etc., I was always trying to find the balance between what needed to be said, what would actually be heard, and what my own self-care required. I am not sharing this to complain but rather to raise awareness 1) with other BIPOC in HWLs to let you know that if you resonate with these feelings, you are not alone, and 2) with white allies to recognize that though we are so happy to have your support, this work is likely way more exhausting for us than it is for you.  


“It’s not a 9-5 thing with us; it’s our lives, our families, our names.”


But this post is for my BIPOC colleagues because we have to regularly navigate when we will be tofu, Field Roast, or Soyrizo. Because everyone’s situation is unique, there is no single, constant, or right choice, which is why I would like to crowdsource with this blog. If you are BIPOC in a HWL, please indulge me in answering the following questions:

  • How do we as BIPOC working in HWLs take pride in the good, small steps forward of HWLs towards justice without allowing our praise to legitimize the slow pace of development and/or the low bar to which most HWLs are held?
  • How do we hold our HWLs accountable without incurring negative repercussions against ourselves?
  • How do we balance our own need to believe in our HWL with our moral obligation to support fellow BIPOC and white allies who are subject to negative repercussions by the same HWL when they risk for justice?
  • How do we balance between towing the company line when speaking with other BIPOC outside the organization with the community responsibility to share the truth about the state of the HWLs we work in? Especially if we are in roles to recruit other BIPOC to our orgs?

If you feel comfortable, please share your answers to one or more of these questions in the comments section of this post. I’m eager to learn from your experiences and to use this platform to share with others who may be grappling with the same issues. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, I understand; it can be vulnerable to do so, and maybe not in a safe way. But, I would still encourage you to either internally process these questions on your own or externally with a trusted BIPOC colleague. We so often navigate our work situations by gut feeling and it can help to bring the issues and strategies to conscious awareness. 

On a related note, if you are in need of a BIPOC community to engage with on topics like this, please check out the Seattle Chapter of the Environmental Professionals of Color, which is a program of the Center for Diversity in the Environment and has chapters across the country, or Future For Us, which is an organization dedicated to supporting womxn of color in business. Both are fantastic organizations from which I draw so much life and inspiration! 

How I can help: If your organization is working to center justice and really address DEI in its work, they will need to grapple with these questions in order to best support their nondominant staff and stakeholders. And I can help with that! My job is to work with leadership teams to set and achieve their diversity goals, so contact me at Sapna@SapnaStrategies.com

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


Let’s Make Greta Proud: Reforming Environmental Education for Adults

Acronym: EE = Environmental Education; POC = People of Color

I spent most of my career in environmental education (EE) for youth. For 2 decades, I worked with and for kids of all ages in a variety of communities and organizations. I even went back to school to learn how to do all this better. I evolved my teaching to focus on environmental justice education for children, supporting schools and teachers to expand their climate change education to center the most impacted human communities and question all our roles in supporting that dynamic. Good stuff, right? Sure…but at the same time I was making these strides to reform EE for school kids, I didn’t even think about reforming the adult education programming I also led. 

read our related leader highlight:
marcos trinidad | center director of thr audubon center at debs park
Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

Somehow in my mind these two spheres, youth and adult education, remained separate: formal youth education was for the hard work of engaging across boundaries, challenging assumptions, and collective action, but informal adult education was mostly about appreciation of nature and individual action. I was preparing my young students for a future spent collaboratively solving the environmental problems being compounded by today’s adults…including me! 

Don’t get me wrong: I did teach adults about action, but it was focused on what each of them could do as individuals within the status quo rather than challenging the systems themselves – I taught them how to reduce/reuse/recycle rather than question why we have a disposable culture to start with; how to get rid of the invasive weeds in their backyards rather than how to examine the intentional placement of toxic superfund sites in vulnerable communities; why we should buy reusable water bottles rather than how to hold elected officials accountable for water crises like in Flint. I should have been teaching environmental justice to adults* as well as kids because we are the population who has the most power to make real environmental change today: unlike most kids, adults can activate our dollars to impactfully fund change, we can engage with and expand our networks to leverage shared voice, and we can vote to restructure broken systems and find just solutions. Instead, I put all my teaching eggs in the next generation basket. So, when I saw Greta Thunberg’s justifiable anger at the UN**, I knew she was talking to me, too. 


“When I saw Greta Thunberg’s justifiable anger at the UN, I knew she was talking to me too.”


So, why did I and many other EE nonprofit leaders choose to reform education for kids but not for adults? It’s possible we felt that adults already knew this stuff or maybe that they wouldn’t be interested in these topics. But, I think if we really dig deep, we might find another, less comfortable possibility: I think a significant factor in why we don’t reform adult education is that EE nonprofits receive funding from individual donations, and there is a subtle fear that if we teach adults about challenging topics, it could depress or offend them, which could put their donations at risk. 

Upon truly honest reflection, I know this fear influenced me because I had to make payroll and hit fundraising targets and build community support, and I thought that reforming my adult education could risk that. But, there is a serious problem with this fear. My inaction unwittingly supported the notion that my adult populations were not capable of understanding and embracing these issues without becoming depressed or offended, and that is absolutely not true. And I unwittingly supported the notion that I wasn’t a capable enough educator to create programming that challenged adults without depressing or offending, which is also not true. Without thinking, I let my fear of financial risk do a disservice to my adult students, myself, and the young Gretas out there.   

I know this isn’t the case for all EE nonprofits (see my interview with Marcos Trinidad, Executive Director Of the Audubon Center at Debs Park). And, I am not advocating that all of adult education programs focus solely on environmental justice, as there is great value to having programs that also focus on nature appreciation and individual action. But this question of the link between philanthropy and programming is important to explore, and though it may cause discomfort, I want us to put aside our defensiveness for a moment and really examine this possibility. Are we holding our adults to as high a standard as we hold our kids? And, if not, why not? What’s holding us back?


“Are we holding our adults to as high a standard as we hold our kids? And, if not, why not? What’s holding us back?”


So, if you work in an EE nonprofit, please indulge me in the following activity: 

  • Make a list of all your adult education classes. Include open-enrollment/drop-in classes for the public as well as those that have more stringent admissions processes, like certifications or grad school. Include any training you offer volunteers/docents and your board. 
  • Then ask yourself the following questions: 
    • How many of these programs address climate justice and not just the science of climate change? (For reference, here’s a little YouTube video to explain the difference)
    • Do your adult education programs include the 3 aspects of action? 
      • Intrapersonal: what we as individuals believe, 
      • Interpersonal: how we relate to and engage with each other that can lead to collective action, 
      • AND Structural: how the systems within which we function guide our individual beliefs and behaviors unless we are aware of them and take collective action to address them (ex. legislation, housing segregation, funding, etc.)
  • Given all this, how do you think Greta would feel about your adult education programs? 

If after reflecting on this post you want to go further with your adult education, contact me. This is hard work but I know we are up to the challenge together.  And this work shouldn’t be solely on the shoulders of an Educator or Coordinator or Manager. It should be lifted up by the Organization as a whole, which will include conversations with leadership, administration, and philanthropy. My job is to bring these teams together to envision a just outcome for your organization and build capacity to achieve it.

I am here to help.

Together, we can make Greta proud!

*It’s important to note that most of the folks who came to my programs were mid- to upper-class white adults who didn’t grow up with the lived experience of environmental injustice. The Environmental Justice Movement was founded by communities of color across the country who experienced negative, often fatal ramifications of intentional pollution in their homes. Because of housing segregation and the fact that “mainstream environmentalism” is a historically white sector, it is not surprising that my adult education audience had always been primarily white and likely to not have this personal understanding of systematic environmental injustice. For this reason and because white populations hold the most social and economic power in the US, I believe environmental justice education is very important for white adult populations. 

**Greta has a lot of attention right now but she is not the first or only young person to advocate for environmental justice. Youth of Color have been advocating for change for years. Be sure to look for and support them, and check out one in particular who just won the Global Peace Prize: 15-year old Anishinabek Water Commissioner Autumn Peltier. 

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