During Black History Month, there is recognition of Black leaders, from famous individuals to lesser-known people of color who’ve transformed society in big and small ways. It is those trailblazers who’ve laid the groundwork for the achievements of today’s leaders in ways only dreamed of by previous generations. What these examples show is that meaningful change often starts small, in the resilience of African Americans who strive for what all people want: To earn, learn, and belong.

Change rooted in local communities and the organizations that authentically engage community leaders and residents often has the best potential to impact racism, inequity, and poverty. It is necessary, then, to help organizations lead from a deep and genuine culture of race equity. This starts with people—emerging leaders, senior leaders, board members, and more—growing individually and in their respective roles. This work also includes critically evaluating organizational practices, policies, and programs that often benefit those who are already in a privileged position because of the dominant white society. It is this culture that concurrently marginalizes Black and Brown individuals, families, and communities and perpetuates systemic inequities that result in poor social and political determinants of health, often stemming from adverse childhood experiences.

Advancing Equity in the Social Sector Workforce

Because white supremacy and racism are embedded in all sectors of our society, policies, and systems, they have created both intended and unintended consequences that drive disparities in opportunity and outcomes. The social sector should be a place where diverse populations can gain meaningful employment, feel valued in and contribute to inclusive workplace cultures, have opportunities for advancement to leadership roles, and create programs and approaches that reflect and honor the communities served. 

But there is a persistent racial leadership gap in the nonprofit sector. In the report, Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap by the Building Movement Project as part of their Race to Lead initiative, data shows that people of color in the sector “were similarly qualified as white respondents and had more interest than white peers in becoming a nonprofit leader,” yet a leadership gap exists because of racialized barriers and “entrenched disparity of white privilege that continues to dominate the nonprofit sector.” Despite there being increased awareness of race and racism in the sector, it has not translated into more diversity in leadership ranks. 

For community-based organizations and partners in the social sector to effectively combat root causes, they must address their own practices that contribute to racism and its consequences. This is done through developing the competencies, practices, and policies that further organizational equity goals related to workplace culture, human resources, and leadership and governance. 

Building the Nonprofit Leadership Pipeline

A significant part of creating a culture of equity in the sector is intentional disruption to the leadership pipeline. White advantage is complex and its sway is deep. But there are proven pathways for advancement of people of color, often beginning in the communities that nonprofit organizations serve. Organizations can apply evidence-based strategies for emerging leaders, and the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and Council on Accreditation (COA) work alongside groups seeking to do this work, through training and coaching, assessment and evaluation, learning and knowledge building, and co-creation of strategic plans designed for lasting impact. 

Convenings and cohorts are useful in promoting group learning and designing action plans that advance a culture of equity. In 2018, the Alliance created the Advancing Organizational Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion cohort, funded by American Express. The two-year program included adaptive leadership training and coaching that guided participants toward creating organizational cultures to attract, develop, and retain racially diverse leaders, particularly young leaders of color. 

“This cohort was really the perfect opportunity to align our shared interest in advancing EDI work and uncover some key insights that will benefit organizations throughout the public and private sectors who are recognizing the need for this work,” Richard Brown, vice president of philanthropy at American Express.

Another example is the Alliance’s Equity Forward: Nonprofit Leadership Summit, which convened 170 national and local human services professionals and community leaders to share, learn, and discuss common challenges and opportunities and to create equity action plans. Using a human-centered design approach, participants focused on opportunities to accelerate collective efforts over the next three to five years. This summit brought together national thought leaders from the Building Movement Project, ProInspire, Equity in the Center, and  FrontLine Solutions who shared information on new national efforts to advance systems change in nonprofit sector diversity and leadership. Additional workshops in the U.S. to build organizational capacity were co-led by the Alliance and FEI Behavioral Health at UCAN in Chicago, Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville, and Neighborhood House Association in San Diego. 

Affinity groups are another valuable effort to partner established and emerging leaders of color with the resources, support, and safe spaces to achieve personal and professional goals. In 2021, the Alliance and COA are launching a program funded by American Express comprised of four affinity groups – for African-American men, African-American women, Latinx leaders, and white leaders committed to advancing equity – to support leaders as they develop professional networks, engage in training, and access mentoring/coaching. The Live at the Virtual Barbershop webinar series recreates the neighborhood barbershop, where Black men feel comfortable having candid conversations in a space of refuge, healing, and compassion. The series features Black male executives from around the country who speak their truth, share recommendations for advancing anti-racist leadership, and champion equity-focused action in nonprofit organizations. 

The Advancing Equity Alliance Peer Exchange (APEX) group also offers a virtual gathering place for the Alliance and COA network that fosters relationships, provides informal and formal learning, and shares resources. Within this peer exchange is the Women of Color Leaders affinity group which nurtures an intersectionality approach that centers the achievements and barriers Black and Brown women encounter when developing their careers. At the 2020 Excelerator: A Community in Action event, the panel discussion Women of Color Leaders Present: When the Glass Ceiling Turns to Concrete addressed racial bias and systemic inequities, as well as suggestions for recognizing the creativity and resourcefulness of women while prioritizing self-care and mentoring.

Take Action

Here are a few ways you can support Black and Brown individuals to reach their career aspirations:

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