Challenging Assumptions and Practices in Board Diversity

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

Josephine Ramirez


Oakland Museum of California’s Pacific Worlds Community Welcoming | Photo: Alessandra Mello

I recently attended a day-long convening organized by our grantee-partners from the California Shakespeare Theater, Oakland Museum of California, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, to continue the conversation about board diversity and a board’s relationship to community, with more than 40 board members in the room. The morning was moderated by Diedra Barber, CEO at Filament Consulting Group, and featured panelists:

  • Roberto Bedoya, Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland, innovator, thought leader, and champion of art-based civic engagement projects and creative placemaking.
  • 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?

Jeff jumped in, “in the spirit of discomfort with an uncomfortable fact: [When asked by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs] if you think your organization is diverse, 69% of arts organizations said absolutely we’re diverse. But if you looked at the staffing and the board makeup, over 3/4 of the staff and boards of those same organizations were white. This in a city that’s about one-third white. We’re hurtling toward 2042, the year in which the U.S. becomes a majority/minority. I tell [my students] the most important question of their time, up there with climate change, is the question that if we’re all minorities, how do we form a new majority?”

Judy spoke eloquently and passionately about how the arts have transformed her life and told a story about one of her first, and worst, decisions to join a board:

She ended with, “I’m still asked to be on boards, and I’m a little smarter so I’ll ask up front now: Why? And most of the time folks would say that they’re really trying to increase their diversity. And that is still as painful as it was the first time. Because, yes, I am an African-American. I’m a woman. And I own all of that. But I bring much more to the table.”

Cedric asked the room to look through a socio-economic lens noting, “My fear is that without a conscious and consistent effort to strike a balance between the money and the subject matter expertise, organizations are going to fall into this trap of defaulting to those same circumscribed pools of potential board members with the financial and social capital. The challenge is to legitimately solicit and value the input of board members who may not have had the same kind of financial or social capital as wealthier members of the board but whose information and perspectives advance the mission and impact the bottom line.”

Roberto asked the room to consider the language we use to evaluate nonprofits, in particular, “I’ve seen how, over the last 20 years, the definition of sustainability has been used against organizations of color that fail in some measurement of it, yet they’re still around. If we look at stewardship instead as a way to understand impact and value, what does it mean to be good stewards? Stewardship is the key ingredient for creating a sense of community, for developing the ability for collective action, and for building a healthy democracy.”

Some practical advice for boards.

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

  • If you’re thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got to have money raised,’ look at research that Scott Page from the University of Michigan has done where he makes a business case for equity and inclusion. He did a study [where] he took a really diverse average-intelligence group and a homogeneous group of geniuses. In every way that matters for organizations and problem solving, the average diverse group was more productive.
  • 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.”

Roberto pushed back a bit on Jeff’s charge, contending, “I think the equity charge is a racial equity charge. Grantmakers in the Arts has done lots of work on studying how racial equity operates in arts philanthropy. Where do we begin to unpack structural racism? You have to study it. You have to send your board to do anti-racism work. It’s not like I take a pill and all of a sudden I’m no longer racist. John Powell from Berkeley, he’s one of the most brilliant thinkers around understanding structural racism and how it gets embedded in systems of governance. Structural racism, he says, is a silent opportunity killer…I’ve witnessed how cultural equity still maintains whiteness as a dominant ideology.”

Judy also asked us to challenge the assumption that “folks of color don’t give. I’ve actually heard some diverse donors saying that I’m never asked by two sectors — the environmental sector and the arts sector — for dollars. It’s like there is an assumption that if I do give, I’m only going to give to communities of color. The other issue is: Who is asking for the money? I would say I could probably count the number on one hand of development directors that are in the position of doing the ask in the cultural setting that are folks of color.”

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]?”

While Judy shared her appreciation of being on boards where she had the opportunity to better connect the organization with loyal donors rather than give at a high level herself, Cedric commented, “I’d really struggle with give or get. I’m glad there is a give or get provision that will allow folks who can’t write the check to be kind of equals but, again, I think that buys into and promotes the system where you have to either be networked or you have to have it yourself in order to represent on a board. It overlooks other kinds of assets and knowledge. So I wonder about re-examining the basic premise of how the board selects its members. Is it for mission or money? If it’s about the mission, then what does the board need to do to restructure and reassert itself so it is including all the folks that get affected by, or are included in, its programs and/or its mission.

Pacific Symphony board member, Charles Zhang, told his story of bringing both money and mission expertise to the board, and passing on the legacy to his children.

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.”

Judy observed that, “arts organizations have a competitive edge in that your product is key to your brand. There is a buzz that I’m hearing even in Los Angeles about the exhibit at the Oakland Museum on the Black Panthers. I’ve already gotten several invitations from folks saying we need to see this exhibit because the art really responds [to a community].”

Jeff remarked about that same Black Panther exhibit, “that was a product of a lot of work that the Oakland Museum was doing with a lot of folks in the community, and the staff were interacting with folks in a much deeper way. The staff were empowered to be talent scouts for the board.”

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.

Cedric also recommended, “You don’t want to get anybody who feels like a token coming into a situation that might be hostile, where they won’t be heard, where they’re sitting there just as a representative from a community but they can’t speak for the myriad voices of that community. If people are really proactive and thoughtful about the folks they’re trying to bring on boards to represent certain communities, they will have built partnerships and relationships [in advance] and there will be a critical mass of other voices like where the person is coming from. Be thoughtful about it and make sure that the person is set up to succeed.”

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.

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Special thanks to panel discussion moderator, Diedra Barber, and the panelists, Roberto Bedoya, Judy Belk, Cedric Brown, and Jeff Chang. And thanks to the Irvine Foundation’s New California Arts Fund grantee-partners who organized this event: California Shakespeare Theater, Oakland Museum of California, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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