Ok White Leaders, Now What?

This post was originally shared on June 14, 2020 by Jeff Olivet at jo consulting's blog. Jeff has worked in homelessness, behavioral health, and public health for more than 25 years. As a speaker, writer, and policy leader, he has shaped new directions for organizations across the United States and internationally. In addition to his work with jo consulting, Jeff is a Founding Partner at Racial Equity Partners.


While this was shared in the days directly following George Floyd's murder, it's message continues to be relevant. With a new president-elect, we cannot become complacent to the systemic issues that brought this country to its current crossroads. We must do the hard work of dismantling inequity in our nonprofit spaces and systems if we are going to work toward equity and justice for all.


In the 19 days since George Floyd’s brutal murder, people have taken to the streets in cities across the globe to say, “Enough.” In the past 19 days, leaders of hundreds, even thousands, of organizations have issued statements of solidarity. One after another, these statements have affirmed that Black Lives Matter.


From the NFL to local soup kitchens, from massive international corporations to national and local non-profits, leaders have issued statements. Because white people run most organizations in most sectors, the vast majority of these statements came from white leaders. One after another, they have issued statements. Some are better than others. Some reflect a clear commitment to racial justice that is grounded in sustained individual and institutional work . Others make clear through their vague platitudes that this is the first time the organization or its leader has spoken publicly about racism. Some were developed in close consultation with people of color, while others were ghost written by communications professionals. 


Effective examples of powerful statements include those that were clearly a collective cry for justice, like that of True Colors United and the National Youth Forum on Homelessness—a statement that reflects the perspective of young LGBTQ people of color who have themselves been homeless. It is effective because it is grounded in a structural analysis of racism in America and its intersectionality with sexual orientation and gender identity, poverty, and oppression. It is powerful because it is signed by every individual who contributed to it. 44 signatures. 


Or the statement issued by Etsy’s white CEO. Etsy’s statement includes reminders of concrete steps the company had already taken to advance racial equity, including measurable targets for diversity, inclusion, and economic opportunity for people of color. More importantly, the statement issued on June 1 announced $1 million in donations to two racial justice organizations—Equal Justice Initiative and Borealis Philanthropy’s Black-Led Movement Fund. Not only did the statement use the right words. The company put money behind those words.


I must admit that my reactions to the statements have been mixed. On one hand, it is heartening to see some unexpected groups step up. On the other, I wonder what has taken them so long. I try to assume the best about the motives behind these statements, but it is difficult not to wonder if some are motivated by pressure from staff or customers, or by fear of blowback if they continue to say nothing. Every time another statement is issued, I do my best to check my cynicism and let go of my judgment about the lack of leadership by white executives to champion racial equity.


On my good days, I do my best to say: “Well, here we are. However you got to this point, whenever you got to this point, you’re here now. Let’s go.”  


recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy poses the critical question: “Statements About George Floyd Are a Start, but How Will Organizations Live Their Values?”


I write with white leaders principally in mind. I challenge them to think critically about their individual and organizational roles in the fight for racial justice and to map out clear steps to “live their values.” I encourage them to consider thoughtfully how to use their power, privilege, and influence. At the same time, my hope is that this piece may be helpful to people of all races and all positions in their organizations as they challenge their leadership and hold it accountable to live out the pronouncements made in the mountain of statements issued over the past 19 days. 


Here are some thoughts for white leaders and their organizations as they step courageously into the work of racial justice. 


Create space. Some people on your staff are ready to move beyond the words to action. Others are not feeling in “fix-it mode” at the moment, needing instead space to sit in the anger, sadness, and fatigue of witnessing one killing after another of Black people in America, each time seeing no change come about. Create spaces for people to be wherever they are. Allow staff to voice to one another and to leadership their hopes for how the organization will chart a course in the days ahead. Mostly, listen more than you talk. Executives too often fall into the trap of dominating the conversation. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to learn. 


Listen to people of color. Most importantly, leaders must listen to the people of color in their organization, on their boards, and among those they serve. Offer town halls. Conduct surveys. Invite groups of staff to lunch (virtually if you need to). Get curious about the experience of people of color in your company. Stay open to hearing difficult truths. If your organization doesn’t have many (or any) people of color, especially in senior leadership…then you must figure out what you’re going to do about that fundamental flaw. 


Commit resources. Not every organization can donate a million dollars to justice organizations, but every organization can make budget decisions that center racial equity. When you hire vendors, you can commit to contracting with businesses owned by people of color. You can dedicate professional development dollars to antiracism training. You can put other priorities on hold to center racial equity, diversity, and inclusion in your strategic planning process, staff meetings, and programmatic priorities. If you are truly committed the words in the statement you issued, then money must follow. After all, budgets are moral documents.


Conduct an organizational assessment. Organizations are in very different places on their racial equity journeys. Some have made significant commitments of time and resources. Some have embedded an equity focus in their goals, plans, and outcomes. Others are just getting going. If you have not done so already, conduct a racial equity organizational assessment. This should include an examination of data and outcomes, staff diversity and engagement, a review of policies and procedures, and other steps tailored to the specific organization. 


Develop an antiracist training strategy. One focus that often becomes clear as we listen to staff of color and examine our organization’s performance relative to racial equity is the need for staff training. In the past, leaders have turned to trainings on cultural sensitivity and cultural competence. Too often, after these trainings, organizations check that box and move on. While it is certainly important to be culturally sensitive, that is not enough. In America in 2020, we don’t need more culturally competent organizations. We don’t need more organizations with diversity, equity, and inclusion committees. We need more antiracist organizations. If you have not yet read Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, start there. 


Develop a racial equity action plan. Assessment and training are important. Listening to staff is important. But a racial equity action plan can help translate words into action. Plans look different for different organizations and different sectors. Many experts provide support in this arena, and many tools exist. Equity in the Center’s Awake to Work to Work offers guidance to organizations on building a culture around race equity. Another tool outlines a continuum for “Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization” in which diversity, equity, and inclusion are embraced as organizational assets.   


Create formal structures for ongoing work and accountability. We are in a moment of monumental change. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economic collapse, and the world-wide uprising against racism and white supremacy, if we cannot make change happen now, I am not sure when we will be able to. We are at an inflection point. It would be a tragedy if white leaders allow this moment to pass, missing the opportunity to build structures that ensure a commitment to racial equity is woven into the fabric of the organization. To do that, you must put in place clear and specific outcomes, oversight bodies, and mechanisms for reporting to staff, funders, shareholders, and boards. You must put people of color in positions of leadership. A good plan with no accountability will ultimately fall short. 


A few last thoughts as you think about the next steps for you and your organization:

  1. Commit to organizational transformation, not tinkering around the edges.

  2. Share power with people of color, including bringing people of color into leadership roles and board rooms.

  3. Move your organization beyond cultural competence, beyond diversity and inclusion, to antiracism.

  4. Antiracism is not a checklist. It is a fundamental change in thinking and behavior.

  5. Sustained leadership is required to build antiracist organizations and create a just society.

  6. Racial justice requires individual, organizational, and systemic change. Start with your own personal transformation. That will ripple out to your organization and to the world. 

  7. Remember that racial justice is not a fad. It is not a moment. It is a movement.

Ok, white leaders, you’ve made your statements. Now let’s get to work. 

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