Challenging Assumptions and Practices in Board Diversity

Our grantee-partners and their boards continue the conversation at a day-long event.

Josephine Ramirez
Nov 29, 2016 · 9 min read
Oakland Museum of California’s Pacific Worlds Community Welcoming | Photo: Alessandra Mello
  • Judy Belk, President and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation, and a frequent writer and speaker on organizational ethics, race, and social change.
  • Cedric Brown, Chief of Community Engagement at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, working to increase diverse representation in the high-tech sector.
  • Jeff Chang, Director of the Stanford Institute for Diversity in the Arts and author of numerous works on culture and race in the U.S., including the new We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation.

What does a pivot toward equity look like for a board?

It’s worth it to watch the whole two hour conversation, but here’s my play-by-play of the morning. Deidra kicked the discussion off with a guiding question: What does a pivot toward equity look like for a board?

Some practical advice for boards.

After the prepared remarks, Judy outlined a host of tactics and ideas. In her words:

  • If you grab anybody that’s breathing off the street, you deserve whoever you get around your [board] table. If you pick someone because they have a lot of money and then you find out that they are kind of crazy…The boards that I have joined and been most impressed with are the ones that have really put me through the paces to even get in the room. They’re judging, ‘are you good enough to join this board that we care about so much?’ At least give me an interview and a job description.
  • How are you evaluating your CEO? Does your CEO have within his or her goals something that deals with building an equitable, inclusive organization? We do what we think is the bottom line for our boards. My board is really clear: it’s not how many grants you get out, but how you are you furthering our commitment around equity and inclusion.
  • Look at your governance structure. Most large boards are really guilty of having two boards in one: it’s the executive board where all the decisions are made and then there’s all the rest of the peons. Why is it that most boards’ audit and finance committees are run by men, no matter how many women are on the board?
  • Have you ever thought, as my board did just recently and the guy turned purple, could you tell us about your audit firm’s commitment to equity, to diversity, to inclusion? Because if you want to do business with this board, you need to know we’re looking for partners that share our values.

Equity is all of us.

After Deidra asked about challenging our assumptions and our practices, Jeff advised us to remember that “equity is all of us.”

What about socioeconomic diversity?

At this point our grantee-partner board members in the audience jumped into the conversation. Mark Nielsen from Pacific Symphony’s board asked, “There is a lot of discussion recently about equality, diversity, which seems to focus on race, ethnicity, or sex, but socioeconomic seems to be a piece that’s often missing. Is there really diversity if we have a [racially diverse] board but all of us are “the elites”? Isn’t it an interesting commentary on the organizations if most of our desired audiences are more of the middle class and yet we have no representation [of them]?”

How to find diverse board members?

Lynelle Lynch from the La Jolla Playhouse board asked for advice on how best to identify and cultivate more diverse board members. Cedric recommended a general call for nominations to the board to anyone who comes through your doors, even though, “it requires much more leg work and sifting through, but that’s a way to discover undiscovered talent, people, contributors… I [also] love partnerships with other community-based organizations that may be working directly with those constituencies but not in your particular subject matter area that would yield potential nominations based on folks that they know.”

How intentional should we be?

Dana King, a trustee with the Oakland Museum, asked “Since it’s 2016 and communities of color still self-segregate, why can’t we be intentional with our selection of our board members? Is it to wrong to say that the best people who know the people in these communities are people from those communities?” Judy responded with a great example from sitting on the Surdna Foundation board.

Facilitate your own conversation.

We wrapped up the panel discussion to break into small discussion groups for the remainder of the day. I left our Governance for Social Impact convening inspired not just by the conversation, but by the commitments to change I was overhearing from many trustees and staff of our grantee-partners. If you’re interested in facilitating a conversation with your own governance board about these issues, feel free to download the questions and prompts prepared by our grantee-partners for their boards here.

Oakland Museum of California’s Black Panthers at 50 Exhibit | Photo: Oakland Museum of California

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This story is part of a series on Medium exploring how arts organizations are adapting to reflect the changing demographics of California, engage with their communities, and become more resilient organizations.


Inspiring stories and practical advice about embedding art in our communities and community in our organizations.

Josephine Ramirez

Written by

Portfolio Director, The James Irvine Foundation


Inspiring stories and practical advice about embedding art in our communities and community in our organizations.