The Work Continues: CASE’s Ongoing Racial Justice Journey

August 2021

One year ago, we shared with you A Message from CASE on Racial Justice in America as part of our journey toward becoming anti-racist, particularly using three levers: our thought leadership platform, training the next generation of business leaders, and our own operations. We write to share where we are now.

As a team of predominately white, perfectionist, professionals, writing this post has been challenging. Like all transformational endeavors, this work is messy and complex – and our actions can feel like drops in a bottomless bucket. But perfectionism is a characteristic of White Supremacy Culture – and the work of becoming a more just and equitable organization is not only something we can never get perfect, but waiting for perfect can actually cause more harm.  So, in the spirit of continuous learning, we share our latest, highly imperfect, and always evolving insights from a few areas of work as we continue to live into our role in helping to build a more equitable future that dismantles oppressive systems and is guided by ethical and moral leaders.

Going Beyond Demographics: Tracking what really matters

As we embarked on our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts this year, we knew that “what gets measured, gets managed” so we set out to gather demographic data on our programs.  To track and ensure diversity in our student programs, we reviewed racial, ethnic, and gender demographics.  To ensure that we distributed our own resources equitably, we gathered demographics about the clients that we provide support to across our consulting practica and the applicants to our inaugural $100,000  F. M. Kirby Prize for Scaling Social Impact (Kirby Impact Prize).

The numbers told a good story and we were proud to see that our targeted efforts to engage a more diverse group of individuals and businesses made a difference.  Participants in our key student programs were at least as ethnically diverse as the business school population overall.  Forty-five percent of CEOs/Executive Directors of the organizations participating in our Board Fellows program identified as BIPOC. Half of our Kirby Impact Prize applicants reported that individuals from marginalized identities made up at least 40% of their senior leadership teams.     

But what we also realized was that we were falling into a trap that many organizations fall into: checking the “diversity box”.  What did those numbers actually mean and were they helping us drive to the world that we wanted to help create? 

The Kirby Impact Prize offers a good example.  As mentioned above, we required applicants to share the percentages of their boards, leadership teams, and staff that identified as marginalized groups.  However, when it came time to analyze and use this information, we learned that we had not had conversations about what mattered most and how we would actually use the data in decision-making.   For instance, in reviewing the reported percentage of applicant leadership teams that were from marginalized populations, the make-up of those marginalized populations and the percentages that were actually meaningful were highly context specific and challenging for our small selection committee to discern (e.g., which aspects of diversity were more relevant for a program serving youth in urban Minnesota vs farmers in rural Kenya?). Instead, our team found questions about beneficiary power within an applicant organization to more tactically highlight the extent to which an applicant organization was embedding equity and ultimately liberation into its work.

In the coming year, we will continue to iterate on the questions we ask to ensure a more diverse and inclusive group of partners, asking ourselves – and more importantly, our constituents –  “what really matters” for our work and for the change we are seeking to create.  As we think about measuring what matters across our programs, we will also draw from the frameworks and organizational insights on embedding equity in a data approach from our Scaling Pathways series.

Exposing students to more diverse perspectives … but first do no harm

We have also continued to work hard to diversify experiences for our students this past year.  Through our CASE Executive Speaker Series, we brought in leaders who spoke to using impact capital to create systemic change  and to convert disparity into opportunity (Rodney Foxworth, CEO of Common Future and Stephen DeBerry, Founder and Managing Partner of Bronze Investments, respectively), and scaling girls’ education in India (Safeena Husain, Founder and Executive Director of Educate Girls). We worked to diversify guest speakers in our classes, to provide students the opportunity to engage deeply in our community (e.g., working with Durham’s Thriving Community Fund), and recruited a more diverse set of impact consulting projects.  These efforts helped our students see perspectives beyond their own, and led them to have candid conversations about the root causes of the inequity and the social challenges they seek to help solve.

But we also recognize that even the most well-intentioned students can do harm if not properly prepared to engage in a curious, humble, open-minded way with a more diverse set of stakeholders.  As we bring in more diverse clients for our experiential learning, we have also learned – through our Culinary Femme Collective independent study – the importance of accompanying the work with learning about engaging with diverse audiences, power dynamics, and cultural context. MBA student Libby Towell shared some of her lessons on “challenging internalized white supremacy culture in business and social impact” from her engagement with the Femme Collective project. Fuqua has also been making strides in this arena, in particular with the launch of a Courageous Conversations series and racial equity trainings through the Assistant Dean of Community Engagement and Inclusion, Stephanie Robertson.

Aligning our values with our capital

In looking at our internal operations, we have paid critical attention over the last few years to where our money goes. While we are small university center, with a predominantly grant-funded budget, we recognize that money represents power and our intentions have been to use whatever financial power we do have for greater equity. 

To date, we have been more successful in diversifying our “product” purchases than our “service” purchases.  For product purchases, such as catering and gifts, we have successfully increased our procurement from BIPOC-led (and often local) enterprises.  However, our “service” purchases – such as design, writing, and research consultants – have remained largely from within our less-diverse historic networks. We find that we are still falling into the “urgency” trap that so many organizations struggle with – with limited time and bandwidth defaulting to recruiting from existing networks rather than slowing down to cast a wide net and be intentional about outreach to diverse populations.  We spent time learning from others about how to better diversify hiring and contracting and shared those lessons in the DEI section of our People Matter paper – tips such as not being limited in our thinking of who is right for a role, questioning feelings of “urgency” when hiring, and establishing intentional processes to pursue when hiring and contracting.

We know that we will continue to make mistakes along this journey, but we also see that we are learning every day and continuing to adjust our approach.  We would love to hear from any others who have lessons we could build upon through our small Center, so that together we can have outsized impact in making our world a more inclusive, just, safe place for all.