When I’m in a professional setting and I see a conversation about race materializing, my heart beats faster and I become acutely tuned into the room’s social dynamics. My whiteness is top of mind. I interrogate my observations and comments before sharing them. I load my statements and questions with qualifiers the way you might pack a fragile vase to be shipped cross-country by freight.
And I shipped truckloads of freight on Tuesday night.
Education Pioneers (EP) hosted an alumni event called Black Lives Matter to the Education Community, where I joined about 20 education leaders representing EP’s diverse network to reflect independently and engage in small- and large-group “courageous conversations about race” prompted by the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
It’s my understanding that the event was first-come-first-served, so the demographics were largely a function of chance. Even so, the room was fairly racially diverse, although there were fewer black attendees than I would have expected considering the topic.
The Education Pioneers’ program team is full of expert facilitators so it wasn’t surprising to see a thoughtful agenda that began with introductions and brief check-ins on everyone’s feelings and expectations for the evening. “Eager,” “vulnerable,” “nervous,” and “open” were common sentiments.
But even with the best facilitation and when everyone’s part of a trusted and familiar professional network, there’s always a fair bit of hesitation to dive into a discussion about race with semi-strangers. Raising issues about race in a professional setting can be fraught with risks including personal discomfort, poorly received messages, and marginalization. As a result, public dialogue tends to be academic in nature and disassociated from lived experiences and feelings. In general, this was the tenor of the conversation on Tuesday too, but there were moments when people left their comfort zone to share their perspectives. In those moments, the room seemed quieter and participants were more reverent, sensing that something uncommon was happening.
“How incredible would it be,” I thought, “if these moments were the rule instead of the exception.”
I’ve recently vowed to be more proactive and vocal around issues of race and class in my work and am always looking for patterns, barriers, and opportunities to improve myself, my colleagues, Bellwether, and our clients. So here are my three big takeaways from the night:
Last week, Bellwether Partner, Tina Fernandez, and I provided commentary on the importance of understanding why organizations fail to move from commitment to action when pursuing diversity initiatives. The post was prompted by From Intention to Action: Building Diverse, Inclusive Teams in Education to Deepen Impact, a report released last week by Education Pioneers and Koya Leadership Partners.
In the process of reviewing the report, my colleagues amassed a list of reactions that include plusses, minuses, methodological quibbles, and questions that were provoked. While we all agreed that the topic is important and necessary to examine, there were aspects of the report that I wished were more rigorous and comprehensive.
Let me pause here to say that I’m a huge fan of Education Pioneers. I’m an active alumnus and I worked there happily for six years. In my last post, I worked in close partnership with the Koya team, which was phenomenal. So raising critical questions about Intention to Action caused me great consternation. Through conversations with numerous colleagues (many of which are EP alums), I was ultimately able to separate my backing for Education Pioneers’ programs from my analysis of their report.
I believe we’ll make more progress as a field if we push each other to do our best work as individuals and organizations, keep exchanges centered on issues, and assume best intentions. I try to model that here.
Plusses: Continue reading
If you haven’t seen it yet, Education Pioneers and Koya Leadership Partners released a report last week, From Intention to Action: Building Diverse, Inclusive Teams in Education to Deepen Impact.
This is an important piece for the field and definitely worth the read. The report calls out the gap between the widely held imperative to have racially diverse leadership in education nonprofits and the dearth of action that they’re taking to get there.
To close this gap, they propose five best practices:
- Customize your vision and strategy
- Focus on impacts and metrics
- Focus on recruiting and selection practices
- Invest in leadership development to retain high performers
- Ensure ongoing discussion
The report’s main finding is notable and squares with our experiences working with education nonprofits of all stripes across the country. The recommendations and audit at the back of the report are solid for organizations ready to take action.
But in-between pledging commitment and implementing policies and practices, there’s a critical middle step that the report doesn’t address: diagnosing why organizations are failing to implement these best practices. Is it a lack of capacity? Lack of knowledge? Lack of leadership? Institutional barriers? Personal and procedural biases?
The answers will be different for every organization and tracking them down is no easy feat. We’ve been involved in diversity initiatives in the private and public sector, within education organizations and others, and have learned that achieving diversity goals requires much more than instituting policies and metrics.
It is a heavy lift and it is messy.
Achieving true diversity and inclusion requires a structured change management process and a deep understanding of the social constructs and systemic issues that have led to majority-led institutions. It requires leaders to be highly self-aware and prepared to initiate courageous conversations. It often also involves relinquishment of power – whether in leadership roles or dominant cultural practices and norms. While it is important to take actionable steps to improve diversity, in order to build organizations where a diverse group of individuals can thrive and sustain themselves to drive impact, organizations must engage in a continuous learning and reflection process.
Clearly we think a lot about this stuff here at Bellwether as we work with clients through our Talent practice. But building a diverse and inclusive education organization is also a priority for us internally and engaging in the process has heightened our appreciation for how difficult the work really is. From Intention to Action has pushed our conversations forward in a positive way.
We consider ourselves critical friends to both EP and Koya based on the belief that we do our best work when pushed by people who care deeply about the same issues. In a post slated for next week, we bundle ten reactions to the report that include praise, methodological quibbles, and questions for future work to keep the conversation going.
In my last two posts I cited a new report by Joe Cortright at City Observatory that describes an increase in the number of young and educated workers moving to America’s inner-cities over the last decade, the upside of this trend, and dangers of gentrification and segregation that it could bring. All in all, I think there’s a huge opportunity for city and education leaders to attract and retain young and educated workers in their city’s urban education reform movement while honoring long-time residents.
How might they do this? Here are six strategies they can employ:
- Make your city a magnet. Macro-level demographic shifts emerge from millions of individuals making decisions. For college graduates, cities with good public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, diversity, culture, professional sports teams, and nightlife are important. Richard Florida has complementary posts on this here and here. In many cities, these attributes exist but aren’t known widely. Take entrepreneurial activity in Baltimore or the art scene in Detroit as examples. In these cases, there’s an opportunity for intermediary organizations and city governments to launch aggressive recruitment campaigns that highlight their assets. Where these urban assets aren’t present, education leaders should team up with city and business leaders to create policies that invest in walkability, affordable housing, nightlife, and entrepreneurial opportunity as a long-term talent strategy.
- Source local talent and recapture diasporans. The focus of this series has been on young educated professionals moving into the inner city at a rapid rate, but every city has native talent and natives who’ve moved away. To create a talent strategy only around newcomers would be incomplete and insulting to a city’s long-time residents. State, cities, and universities could work together to market the professional and social benefits of living in inner cities to college juniors and seniors. Kansas provided loan forgiveness to recent college grads if they moved to rural areas. Why can’t states do the same for inner cities? Organizations like Challenge Detroit that run programs to identify native talent and provide them with career advancing opportunities can help establish local talent pipelines. Another valuable segment to pursue is diasporans, people from a city who have left, but still have an affinity for their hometown. Recapturing diasporans would likely take the form of marketing in targeted geographies coupled aggressive, high-touch recruiting from local organizations, and incentives like relocation stipends or loan forgiveness.
- Build pipelines. Having talent pipeline organizations with expertise recruiting young professionals from across the country is critical. Teach for America, TNTP, New Leaders, Education Pioneers, The Strategic Data Project, and the Broad Residency are musts. The immediate benefit of having a steady stream of top talent is clear: organizations get skilled workers to execute their mission. But there’s more to it. When nationally recognized organizations put down roots in a city, it also signals to top-shelf school operators looking to expand that there will be enough quality principals and teachers to fuel their schools. City and education leaders should look to recruit such organizations, curry local support for their expansion, lower any barriers to entry, and fund startup costs to ensure a successful launch.
- Introduce the neighbors. Urban planner and blogger, Pete Saunders sees bringing these two populations together as an opportunity to introduce vital social, professional, and housing networks to low-income communities that need them. “Doing so, however, requires engagement by city newcomers in the neighborhoods they move into, and the companies they work for, in ways perhaps they had not imagined.” He has some great ideas on this; read them here. But it’s not a one-way street. Inner city communities can also help bridge differences that they might have with their neighbors by providing opportunities for newcomers to learn about local history in engaging, age-appropriate ways. For millennials, civic center lectures and walking history tours aren’t going to cut it. Instead, think along the lines of Nerd Nite where people give funny, alcohol-fueled, informative lectures at bars. Smart, compelling local media coverage like this and this, social media campaigns like Humans of New York, and public art installations can raise awareness as well. It’s likelier that someone will protect what is good and unique about a place if provided compelling opportunities to learn about its history.
- Catch and DON’T release. Retaining young talent after they’ve migrated is an equally important but often neglected part of a long-term talent strategy. At the organization level, education organizations must strive to be talent-ready by building truly diverse teams as well as providing competitive compensation, autonomy, career development opportunities, recognition, effective management, and work-life balance – factors shown to increase retention. At the system level, local foundations and intermediaries must create a local ecosystem teeming with high-quality organizations so that young and highly mobile workers don’t feel constrained by a lack of options and flee to another city. Policy can play a role here too. Cities and states can offer incentives to individuals working for education organizations, such as low-interest home loans and student loan forgiveness.
- Double down on dramatic reform efforts. As young professional age, start families, and look to put down roots, their desires shift from an active nightlife scene to things like single-family homes, open space, convenience, and (of course) schools. A looming question exists around whether there will be enough high-performing inner city schools to keep them from fleeing to the suburbs, what Mike Petrilli calls the diverse schools dilemma. Education reform is rarely considered a talent strategy, but access to good schools is a driving factor for relocation decisions which reinforces the importance of dramatic, swift, and cost effective city-wide reform efforts. Cities must work across all three sectors – district, charter, and private – to create a common vision for a dynamic system of schools and aggressively pursue strategies that deliver results quickly and cost efficiently.
In a country where the population of tier two and three cities fluctuate wildly over time, these tactics can help smaller cities compete in the war for talent and distinguish themselves from the rest.
I opened this series with a lyric from the song Enter the Young by The Association because it expresses a combination of energy, optimism, intelligence, caring, and daring that can invigorate urban education reform. It’s easy to envision deep racial and economic divides resulting from this trend, but that doesn’t make it inevitable. The work in front of us is to proactively mitigate risks and maximize benefits to urban communities through policy, planning, and practice.
But the influx of young, educated talent moving into America’s inner cities is a trend. And like all trends, it will change over time so acting on it with urgency is important. I’m convinced that coordinated policies, creativity, and a vigilant stance toward equity can capture this vital demographic and integrate them into communities so there’s mutual benefit.