“The journey to equity is hard. Start by looking within.” Essay Published by Gail Fortes, Executive Director

Essay: The journey to equity is hard. Start by looking within.
Efforts must be authentic, intentional and purposeful

By Gail Fortes
July 22, 2021

When you walk into a room, what is the first thing you notice? Some might look for someone they know. Others may look at the décor or for a place to sit. For me, I look to see how many people of color are in the room. As a person of color, it is something that comes naturally to me. It is something I just do and have always done.

Why may you ask?

Recently I was on a Zoom call where this topic came up. All the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) individuals had the same response, to the surprise of the white people on the call. This is something that most white people have never even thought about, let alone experienced. One said, “Well, I am a woman, and that has happened to me, where I am the only woman in a group of men.”

She did not understand that it is not the same thing. Yes, there exists gender inequities, but she is still a white woman at the end of the day. You cannot compare the two. She has advantages and privileges that I do not have as a woman of color. That will never change, no matter how many letters are after my name, where I live, or my income. When all is said and done, when I walk into a room, the first thing anyone sees is a Black woman.

Right now, everywhere you look, everyone is talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The hot topic of conversation is “How do we diversify our board and staff?” My question is, “Why are you just starting this now? Was this not important to you before?” Is it only important to you now as people are watching and asking questions? There are many answers, I am sure to those questions. Still, before you even start this process, you need to look within and see if you are ready to begin this journey, as it begins first with the individual, then the internal organization, then the community you serve. It must be authentic, intentional and purposeful. If not, it won’t work.

Why do we need diverse leadership? People say we have many white leaders who are wonderful and doing amazing things. Again, this may be true, but studies have shown that a diverse board and staff, especially leadership staff, allows your group to better anticipate and consider concerns and perspectives from all your key stakeholders. Often, the direct-care staff are diverse, but not the middle and senior management or the board. This applies to nonprofit, public, and private-sector organizations.

DEI work is so important and needs to be more than one and done, not because you have to or just to check off a box. DEI should be embedded into the work of your organization because it is the right thing to do. It is not easy. It is hard, hard work, which many times can be uncomfortable. But, if this were easy, we would have done it a long, long time ago.

Organizations must ensure that they have the infrastructure to make these diverse leaders successful. Many times, people of color are asked to join a board or serve in a staff leadership position, but they are not supported and do not feel included. Therefore, they feel alone and isolated and often leave the organization after a short time, as they do not feel accepted and valued.

Diverse leaders provide guidance and bring new networks, skill sets and experiences that help organizations operationally and strategically. In addition, these diverse voices offer new and different views, perspectives and approaches to service provision and problem-solving.

As an example, a board I formerly served on was reviewing a new marketing campaign. When the staff showed some of the material to the board, everyone thought it was fantastic. However, the people in the photos were not racially diverse; they contained only middle-aged white men. I pointed out that the materials were not going to connect with the demographic they were trying to reach because the pictures didn’t represent all the people served by the organization. The information was also only available in English and the literacy level was high school level. I know this was not done intentionally. The team working on the campaign was not racially diverse. If they had been, the marketing campaign would have looked very different. To truly be inclusive, you must ensure all voices are heard and are represented in all spaces.

The board asked the team to revise the marketing campaign to reflect more diverse populations, and the organization successfully connected and engaged its audience.

Studies have shown that a diverse board and staff, especially leadership staff, allows your group to better anticipate and consider concerns and perspectives from all your key stakeholders.

How can we help solve this problem? The nonprofit, private and public sectors serve people in need, specifically people seeking equitable access to resources and services. For organizations to truly understand the needs of the people and the communities they serve, board and staff leadership should reflect the communities they serve. A diverse board of directors and staff that includes people of all genders, races, ages, sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds and levels of ability will consider various perspectives and ultimately make more informed decisions. A diverse group of leaders, one composed of individuals with a variety of skills, perspectives, backgrounds and resources, not only promotes creativity and innovation but yields differing voices that can play an essential role in accomplishing the organization’s mission and increasing understanding of constituents and the community need.

On June 8, the SouthCoast Community Foundation introduced our new Leadership Equity Fund to address racial disparities and work toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive society. The mission of the SouthCoast Community Foundation is to mobilize philanthropy by matching donors and resources with community needs for the benefit of our region. The Community Foundation’s areas of focus include education, arts and culture, and economic opportunity. Woven throughout this work is the Community Foundation’s commitment to elevate and realize its obligation to be actively anti-racist.

Grants from the Leadership Equity Fund will support and serve two purposes; nonprofit organizations working to end racism and run by leaders who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and the professional development and advancement of employees of nonprofit organizations who identify as BIPOC.

The Community Foundation believes that for significant and sustainable racial equity to occur in our community, we must ensure that people of color are given the opportunity and support to lead and influence our community from positions of power and authority. With this fund, we can help organizations better embrace diversity, create more inclusive environments, and advance their organization’s mission and delivery of services to the community equitably.

It is my hope that you will support this fund as we work toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community. Learn more about the SouthCoast Community Foundation and its Leadership Equity Fund to Support BIPOC Organizations and Future BIPOC Leaders here.

Gail Fortes is vice-chair of SouthCoast Community Foundation and executive director at the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts.

Artist’s statement by Cedric “Vise1” Douglas

I’m an artist, designer who integrates graffiti ideology into design and advertising. My work is inspired by every day life idioms and the subculture of guerilla, or street art. I use this approach to express my social views on the world. I’m presently pursuing a BFA in Graphic Design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I’m an active member of the Ad Club and AIGA of Boston chapters.