Feeling Uncomfortable: First Reflections on our DEI Journey

At CASE, we believe in the power of individuals and organizations to create positive social change.  And there has been much progress (I often revisit the 2017 Gates Foundation annual letter when I need some reminding about all the progress being made).  But we also know that many of the social and environmental challenges that communities face are rooted in systems of oppression and structural inequity. Here in the United States, for example, deep issues of race, class, citizenship, and gender make achieving lasting social change – in which all can thrive – nearly impossible and that has become even clearer in recent years.

But let me pause there.

I believe deeply in everything I just wrote. But, was I doing anything about it? When I looked at my closest colleagues and advisors, it was clear that I was operating in a very homogeneous environment. What kind of perspectives was I missing, without even knowing I was missing them? What blindspots was that covering up for me? What could I, and others like me, be doing differently to help achieve more equitable, transformational impact?

Let me be clear that I don’t have all the answers, but our team at CASE has made it a priority to begin deeper learning and reflection. We hired a Senior Fellow for DEI to help us explore racial equity and justice issues, have been engaging in lots of conversations and deep listening, and are beginning to hold a mirror up to our own mindsets and work to see how we can be more powerful agents of change.  And we promised we’d share reflections from our journey and, most importantly, share some of the voices of experts whose work we are learning from:

Get uncomfortable  

Only a few months in to our learning journey and I can say that it has been a time of deep listening, reflection, and … discomfort.  And I think that is my most important learning to date – that we, as leaders of social impact organizations (whether nonprofit or for-profit, large or small), need to get uncomfortable. We need to step outside of our comfort zones to truly listen and learn from different viewpoints, interrogate our own actions (not just what we think we do and believe, but the actions we are actually taking each day), ask questions about who’s voices are being represented in our work, and push ourselves beyond the tendency to “check the box” on diversity to reach towards broader goals of inclusion, equity, and social justice.

On that note, listen to this powerful speech by Bryan Stevenson at the 2018 Skoll World Forum. In it he outlines four steps to justice and equality:

  1. Get proximate
  2. Change narratives
  3. Stay hopeful
  4. Be willing to get uncomfortable

On the last point, he says “We’ve got to be willing to do inconvenient and uncomfortable things. The world changes, justice rises when good people are willing to do the inconvenient and uncomfortable. And it is hard, it’s very hard.”

Hold up the mirror to your own work

I had the chance to listen to North Carolina activist and trainer Tema Okun give a talk about dismantling white supremacy. Tema prompted the group to think about what cultural norms we are creating in our own organizations and missions that make it difficult for diverse perspectives and approaches to be heard, unless they adapt to the pre-existing systems? For me, reading her article “White Supremacy Culture” was eye-opening.

Or the powerful calls to action from Dorian Burton and Brian Barnes in “Paid in Full” and “Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Justice.” In the latter, Burton and Barnes offer up 7 questions to help shift to a justice-based framework of change. Though directly targeted at philanthropic leaders, these questions also apply to those of us leading and participating in impact organizations and will help us interrogate whether we are valuing existing leadership in the communities we hope to serve, acknowledging historical factors, driving to systems-level change, and much more. As Burton and Barnes posture, “Charity is commendable, but justice is transformational. How will you spend your resources?”

Learn with others

There are so many leaders that are grappling with these issues which gives me hope for what we can learn and do together to find better solutions.  Read B Lab co-founder Jay Coen Gilbert’s excellent Forbes piece, “I’m Complicit to Institutional Bias.” Listen to Teach for America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard talk about the challenges of moving beyond diversity in our CASE in Point podcast interview.  Or learn alongside organizations looking deeply at their own work – like public policy nonprofit Demos’ transformation led by then-President Heather McGhee and documented in the report, “Dēmos’ Racial Equity Transformation: Key Components, Process and Lessons.”

Clearly, there is so much more… We are excited to see where this learning journey takes us in 2019 and beyond and how we can better use our platform to achieve lasting change for all.

And we are excited to learn from you as well.  Where else do you find inspiration and learning from? What are the questions that you are grappling with? Let us know via email: case@fuqua.duke.edu or on Twitter.