DEI Approach is No Longer Relevant: Operationalizing Racial Justice in Non-Profit Organizations

Maggie Potapchuk, MP Associates
11 min readAug 7, 2020

Please explore the full version of Operationalizing Racial Justice in Non-Profit Organizations.

Baltimore Love Project, Picture taken by Joe W.

It is a pivotal moment. #BlackLivesMatter is finally being widely embraced instead of challenged and may be the largest movement in U.S. history,[1] with unprecedented uprisings happening globally. There are active discussions and steps being taken in communities to defund the police and transform public safety. Symbols of the confederacy are being removed and sports logos that denigrate Native Americans are being changed. Organizations’ and corporations’ letters of support of #BlackLivesMatter are being questioned to ensure the words are backed up with actions. White leaders and predominately white organizations are being called out for not addressing racism and white dominant culture.[2], [3], [4], [5] The stark medical and economic impact of COVID-19 on communities of color are beginning to be discussed, using a structural analysis and naming the racist policies and their impact over generations.[6] All of this is building momentum to lead to a point of no return. As Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy describes, we are in a portal, a gateway between two worlds. Roy offers, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[7] What door will (or has) your organization walk(ed) through?

At this pivotal moment, the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) approach and framing are no longer relevant. Diversity and inclusion played a role in this work, but their outcomes are very limited and do not address nor lead to dismantling structural racism[8]. The DEI approach does not address entrenched and accumulated racialized inequities in all qualities of life (such as health, housing, education, public safety, and work). The DEI approach does not focus on shifting power. Continuing to embrace the DEI approach at this point leads to a need to understand what is underneath it by asking three questions: 1) what is the organization actually risking and changing to reflect DEI values? 2) is whiteness being centered by using this frame? and 3) whose comfort is being privileged? Now is the time to act on our commitment to justice, to interrogate how the system of white supremacy is operating, to be bold and take significant risks, and to work collectively for organizational transformation. It is well past time to operationalize racial justice.

The terms racial equity and racial justice get thrown around a lot these days. OpenSource Leadership Strategies developed this definition of racial equity: “a mindset and method for solving problems that have endured for generations, seem intractable, harm people and communities of color most acutely and ultimately affect people of all races. This will require seeing differently, thinking differently, and doing the work differently. Racial equity is about results that make a difference and last.”[9] Racial equity work is about identifying and interrogating the practices that are creating and/or reinforcing racial inequities and white dominant culture. The Center for Assessment and Policy Development describes the results of racial equity as “[when] one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares…we are thinking about racial equity as one part of racial justice, and thus we also include work to address root causes of inequities not just their manifestation.”[10]

Operationalizing racial justice means reimagining and co-creating a just and liberated world and includes:

understanding the history of racism[11] and the system of white supremacy and addressing past harms,

working in right relationship[12] and accountability in an ecosystem[13] (an issue, sector or community ecosystem) for collective change,

implementing interventions that use an intersectional analysis and that impact multiple systems,

centering Blackness and building community, cultural, economic and political power of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC), and

applying the practice of love[14] along with disruption and resistance to the status quo.

In short, racial equity is used when describing a process, outcomes and a mindset, and racial justice is used when referring to a vision of transformational change.

Starting and Continuing the Racial Justice Journey

The first questions to plan what we should do to operationalize racial justice include what policies need to change, what training is needed, how to talk about racism with trustees, and how to address past harms. Sometimes they all come up at once. These are good questions, and all of them are components of making progress. It can be challenging to determine where to begin or what should be the next phase in deepening racial equity work. There is no formula for how to align an organization’s commitment to racial justice with its policies, practices, culture, and ethos. Doing this work organizationally is also about building internal will. It is about living the value of justice so that even in the face of public feedback about an organization’s actions, the work continues. It is about taking risks in word and deed. It is about working with integrity and being accountable to people and communities most impacted by structural racism.

Sometimes organizations move forward on racial equity change processes by replicating the way we might create a program or set up a service for constituents. I invite you to start at a different place and first, re-imagine what a racially just organization would look like?[15] Then the discussion to figure out how to begin or deepen the change process will open up a wide range of possibilities, and entry points and ideas that can be expansive about how to transform an organization to be racially just and liberated.

A racial equity organizational change process will disrupt and stretch the organization in sometimes scary, chaotic, and also unifying ways. It is important to have a healthy and candid conversation about taking on this work, especially for organizations who are just starting. Here are some discussion questions for you to reflect on as a group:

What risks is our organization willing to take to operationalize its value of racial justice? Is the organization open to being explicit about naming structural racism, anti-blackness, and the system of white supremacy?

How are we preparing to increase using our voice to ensure our values are in alignment with our actions? How is our organization open to using its power and privilege to make a stand and/or use its voice and standing in the community for justice?

How is our organization preparing for the potential disruption in work, while policies, practices, and culture are being transformed to align with the value of racial justice?

What are the practices that need to be put in place for staff and trustees to support each other, especially during complex change and uncertainty? How will our organization invest in and center building relationships? What types of supports will be put in place for staff and trustees of color, since they are often burdened by the racial equity organizational change process — e.g., by its pacing, by whites’ hesitations, and by the consequences when truth about the impact of racism is shared?

Is our organization building its backbone for examining everything the organization does using a racial equity analysis? Is our organization prepared to hear candid feedback and to listen to different points of view and hard truths?

Is our organization prepared to end programs and services that are not moving toward racial justice, even if they have been successful and received affirmation and/or funding? Is our organization ready to examine policies, practices, and partnerships to see if they are reinforcing white dominant culture[16] or racial inequities?

After reviewing policies and practices, if past or current policies or practices have reinforced inequities and/or caused harm is our organization willing to be transparent so credibility can be rebuilt and accountability is clear moving forward?

How will our organization respond to stakeholders who may not agree with being explicit about racial equity, and/or centering racial justice? How is our organization preparing to deal with the potential backlash?

This journey requires a deep investment organizationally and also individually. As you discuss the questions above as an organization, it is important for each staff and board member to also reflect individually on their own learning needs. Each person has a responsibility to create their own learning and action plan to contribute to the organization operationalizing racial justice, to have clarity on personal needs, and to ask for support from colleagues and the organization. Here are a couple of questions to begin to guide individual reflection:

How am I embedding the values of racial equity and justice in what I do at work? What has been challenging? What is confusing? What supports do I need?

How am I using my voice in ways that have been effective in talking about racism and racial equity? Are there times when my voice shakes or I am unsure of what to say? If so, what supports do I need? Have there been consequences when I have shared truths about the impact of racism? Going forward, how does the organization need to address the harm of those consequences and support me?

In what areas do I want to deepen my knowledge and skills? What questions do I have? What issues am I struggling with in thinking about my role and contribution?

The journey is also about building individual will and confidence to do the heavy lift of disrupting and transforming the organization’s current policies/practices/culture, leaning into learning and discomfort, being willing to take risks to act, and supporting others to collectively create traction in moving toward racial justice

Please explore the complete version of Operationalizing Racial Justice in Non-Profit Organizations. I discuss my reflections and experiences to five commonly asked questions and share a curated list of resources. The five questions discussed are:

1. How do we get started becoming a racially just organization?

2. How do we deal with conflicts and tensions that will happen in a racial equity change process, especially when they are complicated by power dynamics?

3. What can we expect may be included in an organization’s roadmap for racial justice?

4. What are ways to measure progress and be accountable to the communities and people we work with?

5. How do I choose what tools and resources to use in our work of becoming a racially just organization?

Conclusion

Starting or deepening your organization’s work to align with racial equity and to become a racially just organization will be a dynamic, maddening, emergent, intense and joyful process (sometimes all at the same time). Often in racial equity work, we say, “we need to meet people where they are.” As Arundhati Roy shared[17], we are in a portal between two worlds. Our focus needs to be not on meeting people where they are, rather we need to support people to re-imagine a just and liberated organization and then to collectively work to operationalize racial justice in our non-profit organization.

As we reimagine a racially just organization and work toward co-creating it, we need to increase our confidence to take risks, honor our justice warrior ancestors by acting with integrity and through solidarity, remember that racial justice work is done in right relationship and accountability to communities, specifically Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color communities, and act boldly while believing in what is possible. We are certainly at the point of no return.

Read Next Article: DEI Strategy is Limited and Potentially Harmful: So Now What?

[ Title Footnote 1] This is an excerpt from Operationalizing Racial Justice in Non-profit Organizations, which is based on Operationalizing Racial Justice which was developed for the philanthropic sector. An excerpt of that publication was included in Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity’s newest publication, Grantmaking with a Racial Justice Lens.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

[1] Buchanan, Larry, Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” The New York Times. (July 2 2020).

[2] LC Voices, “An Open Letter in Response to Ben Hecht’s ‘Moving Beyond Diversity to Racial Equity’,” Medium. Medium, July 6, 2020.

[3] Spencer, Whitney, “An Open Letter & a Call for True Healing Justice,” Medium. Medium, Jun 19, 2020.

[4] HEAL Food Alliance, “An Open Letter from BIPOC Leaders in Food & Agriculture to Food Systems Funders,” Medium. Medium, Jul 10, 2020,

[5] Tyson, Ruth, “An Open Letter to the Union of Concerned Scientists: On Black Death, Black Silencing, and Black Fugitivity,” 2020.

[6]In a Pandemic, All Some People See Is Your Color,” Calvin Baker, The Atlantic, June 2020. “COVID-19 and the Color Line,” C. Gordon, W. Johnson, J. Purnell, J. Rogers, Boston Review, May 1, 2020. “Black Communities Are on the ‘Frontline’ of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Here’s Why,” Anne Branigin. The Root. March 31, 2020.

[7] Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” Financial Times. (April 3 2020).

[8] Please use the www.racialequitytools.org glossary for clarity on the terms listed in this document. The glossary can be found at https://www.racialequitytools.org/glossary#

[9] This definition was developed by OpenSource Leadership Strategies, Inc. All work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial. No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

[10] Center for Assessment and Policy Development, “Racial Equity.” www.racialequitytools Glossary.

[11] This definition is based on and has been expanded on the one described in Sen, Rinku, and Lori Villarosa. Grantmaking with a Racial Justice Lens: A Practical Guide. Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (2019).

[12]adrienne maree brown on creating the future, Alice Grandiot. Deem Journal. W/S 20.

[13] Five Elements of a Thriving Justice Ecosystem: Pursuing Deep Equity, Sheryl Petty and Amy Dean, NonProfit Quarterly, April 13, 2017.

[14] Teng, Shiree, and Sammy Nuñez. Measuring Love on the Journey for Justice: A Brown Paper. Latino Community Foundation (San Francisco, CA: 2019).

[15] Bazant, Micah, “How to Reimagine the World.” Forward Together, 2020.

[16] “By “white [dominant] culture,” we mean the dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied by the vast majority of institutions in the United States. Because it is so normalized it can be hard to see, which only adds to its powerful hold. In many ways, it is indistinguishable from what we might call U.S. culture or norms — a focus on individuals over groups, for example, or an emphasis on the written word as a form of professional communication. But it operates in even more subtle ways, by actually defining what “normal” is — and likewise, what “professional,” “effective,” or even “good” is. In turn, white culture also defines what is not good, “at risk,” or “unsustainable.” White culture values some ways — ways that are more familiar and come more naturally to those from a white, western tradition — of thinking, behaving, deciding, and knowing, while devaluing or rendering invisible other ways. And it does this without ever having to explicitly say so.” Gulati-Partee, Gita, and Maggie Potapchuk. “Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A Missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity.” The Foundation Review 6, no. 1 (2014): 25–38.

[17] Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” Financial Times. (April 3 2020).

--

--

Maggie Potapchuk, MP Associates

Maggie Potapchuk is president of MP Associates and co-founder of www.racialequitytools.org. Learn more about her work at www.mpassociates.us