This is Part 6 in a series on leadership coaching.
For a sector known for serving, and, in many cases, “empowering” racially diverse communities, not much progress has been made in having nonprofit leadership look like those in the communities we serve. Numerous studies examining the racial makeup of nonproﬁts have found that about 84 percent of such organizations are led by whites, with people of color holding 15 percent of deputy director positions and 10 percent serving as executive directors. [i]
The reasons why this disparity continues to exist are complex. One approach to addressing the issue is exploring mainstream ideas about leadership. A seminal report, How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice [ii], suggests that current leadership thinking and practice in the US focus on 3 beliefs: Individualism, the belief that people control their fates regardless of social position; Merit, the belief that talent and effort influence access to resources and opportunities; and Equal opportunity, the belief that we have a level playing field and race is no longer a barrier to employment, education and wealth.
This thinking, however, does not recognize that current systems (i.e. policy, culture and institutional practices) can limit one’s access to opportunities to step into leadership roles. Even if a person of color is able to attain a position of leadership, they may not have the needed resources and supports to effectively lead or to deal with resistance embedded within the cultures of institutions.
To examine the ability of people of color to not only assume but also succeed in leadership roles,tough questions need to be asked about your organization’s culture. These questions include: Whose voices are at the table? Whose are not? Is there a single cultural lens through which policies, practices, and experiences are interpreted and determined? Who benefits from the way things are done? What are the power dynamics at play?
Conversations about race, power and privilege and how they can affect access to leadership can be difficult. One strategy for a thoughtful and productive process is to form a committee that is charged with conducting organizational assessments, structuring staff conversations, organizing trainings, and ensuring that recommendations are implemented. Some organizations may also consider external expertise from professional consultants. An objective third-party can often help teams flag existing forms of racial bias and barriers, mitigate conflict, and come up with a shared language for talking about race and leadership.[iii]
[i] Workforce Issues in the Nonproﬁt Sector,” American Humanics, February 2006, “Change Ahead,” Anne E. Casey Foundation, 2004,“Daring to Lead 2006,” CompassPoint, The Meyer Foundation, 2006.