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Lessons From a Cross-Racial Team About Building Belonging

As nonprofit consultants, we’ve found the need for board guidance and support with regards to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) has been steadily growing over the years. When it comes to this important work, we know that just diversity, or recruiting board members from different racial backgrounds alone, is not enough. Boards of historically white-led organizations must do more to intentionally work to build diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into board culture.

Recently, we received an inquiry from an organization that wanted to hire consultants to lead conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. While we didn’t receive many details from the organization upfront, we later learned that several Women of Color (WOC) had resigned from the board after a contentious governance committee meeting. Unfortunately, it seemed like these women were weary from the consistent disrespect and racism that they experienced being on this mostly white and wealthy board serving POC.

Our observations of situations like the one mentioned above align with BoardSource’s recent Leading with Intent report, which found that the majority of boards are committed to understanding the diversity of the community it serves yet have not been able to raise their awareness and understanding of the relevance of racial inequality to the organization’s mission. We know with the current climate that some people are exhausted and sick of hearing about this work. Others believe it to be a trend and feel that nonprofits are not authentically interested in changing their behaviors and cultures. In some cases, this is true. But there are genuine disruptive leaders that know what we know:

There is no longer a choice. The world is changing and to stay relevant, ethical, and just, nonprofits have a responsibility to look inwards and critique their leadership, positions in the community, and poor behavior when it comes to building trust with People of Color. This includes board members, staff, volunteers, donors, and clients.

In our work with nonprofit boards, we have noticed knowledge gaps between Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and white board members. Although BIPOC members suffer, white board members are often blind to racism and, therefore, at a disadvantage. Below are some particularly eye-opening experiences that were shared with us, which represent the following key insights:

  • BIPOC board members understand and recognize the economic inequality and inequity, including lack of power and access, when it comes to nonprofit boards. This was particularly evident with Trina*, an accomplished Black professional woman who mentioned that she never really felt “a part” of her board because the core board members were wealthy white people who socialized in similar circles; different than hers. She had served on this board for years but did not feel a sense of belonging due to race, class, and social status. Board members were cordial, but she felt like an outsider.

  • BIPOC board members are painfully aware that bringing diverse members on to a board, and even becoming board leaders, does not eradicate the pervasive racism they confront daily. Tyrone, a Black male bank Vice President, had become President of the board of an arts organization. He shared the hurt he felt in his perception that white board members and organizational staff did not support his leadership as board president, which he attributed directly to the color of his skin. He contrasted his reception as board president with the white man who had served before him.

  • Many BIPOC board members are exhausted from racism, microaggressions, and expectations that they should be the ones to educate their white colleagues. Stan, a Black community organizer and board member, said this directly in one of our group conversations: He didn’t feel that coming to a “meeting on equity” was “a good use of his time.” His Black community needed him. For some of the teens he worked with, his presence “might be the difference between life and death.”

So, what should boards do once they recognize that their practices and cultures are out-of-sync with new realities?

Unfortunately, there is no guidebook that suits the needs of every board. As you may know, each board is unique, and a book or article may not be enough to help them get started. Thankfully, outside consultants like us can support them if they are struggling. For others, there are plenty of resources gathered from organizations like Equity in the Center, The Racial Equity Institute, Racial Equity Tools, Building Movement Project, Rise for Racial Justice, and many more to support their efforts.

As DEIB consultants, we are fans of the Awake to Woke to Work framework created by Equity in the Center. For them, a race equity culture focuses on proactively counteracting race inequities inside and outside of an organization. Theirs is a roadmap for centering equity in all aspects of nonprofit work. This includes how boards can change their behaviors, policies, and practices to become more equitable in the ways they support their prospective organizations.

We enthusiastically share this model with our clients. However, we are learning that some are not ready to talk about equity—they haven’t yet reached the “Awake” stage. They must first recognize that there is a problem and that it is interfering and prohibiting them from optimally serving their nonprofits. Many boards are still “asleep.”

For those boards who are not yet “awake”, here are five steps to awaken from your slumber and change the way your boards are operating:

1. Get started. Look inward.

All board members, but especially white board members, should show a willingness to review their own personal beliefs and biases. For white board members, their paths may be slower and difficult to traverse due to their lack of lived experience with racism.

They must reconcile the horrible past of slavery in our country and own how it has afforded them comfort and privilege while tearing apart BIPOC families and communities. The long-lasting impact of this sad history is still being felt today.

These white board members must find their motivation for moving through discomfort and behavior change. Some will be motivated by a desire for overdue social justice for those on the margins of the margins. For others, the sting of past mistakes causes deep reflection and an eagerness to do better. Whatever the motivation, board members must commit to getting started by looking in the mirror.

2. Find some champions.

Organizations need a couple of board champions, white and BIPOC. We’re thinking of Emily, a white board member who spoke bravely and directly about the sadness she felt about her complicity in contributing to racism. She expressed a desire to do everything in her power to build a new board dynamic. Many boards have an Emily - someone who will courageously express the vision for a new way of being as a board.

3. Talk about race.

We have incorporated sharing race stories in our trainings. After sharing our race autobiographies with our peer board members, we find that there is a sense of empathy and understanding of the shared human experience and respect for our differences. We encourage our clients to create safe and brave spaces for authentic sharing.

4. Deepen safety and take the pressure off by holding race caucus meetings.

By separating the board by race and giving them privacy to share, we’ve found that members can be more authentic and worry-free about judgement, hostility, backlash, or dismissal by others. As cross-racial consultants, we facilitate open dialogue with members from our race groups. The results have been transformative.

5. Commit to the long journey.

Remember, this is not a quick and easy fix to a four-hundred-year dilemma. Each board should shift their gears to “cruise” and allow the process to naturally unfold, knowing there will be steps forward and back. Also, know there will be some losses along the way. Some board members may not commit to doing this work fully, and that’s ok.

Of course, there are never guarantees, but we wholeheartedly believe that these steps will steer your board in the right direction. Progress is rarely easy. In this case, what we all learn along the way matters. Both of us, a Black woman born and raised in New York City and a white woman, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, are committed to the long journey of learning, discovery, healing, and sharing as we continue to support nonprofits by guiding and training its leaders. With each new client, there is an awakening and lesson for us to absorb and grow.

We remain open and committed to doing the work and encourage our beloved nonprofit board members to do the same.

*Names and identifying details changed to protect client confidentiality.

Christal M. Cherry and Dr. Renee Rubin Ross are DEIB nonprofit consultants. To learn more about their deep dive DEIB experience for boards, “Planting the Seeds of Chan

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