Community Matters

How We’re Advancing Racial Equity Inside the Foundation

Sandra Fishel-Booth, Lisa Purcell
October 26, 2021

Diversity. Inclusion. Equity. These words are often discussed in terms of personal learning opportunities and organizational trainings. Yet, increasingly over time, the Foundation recognized that to truly transform our strategy, align our work to our values, and advance our mission, we needed to engage in a comprehensive internal change process. For more than three years now, our staff has worked to strengthen our commitment to racial equity by building our skills, tools, and confidence to advance equity in all aspects of our work.

In this inaugural Community Matters blog post, staff members Sandra Fishel-Booth and Lisa Purcell share their insights on the impact of this work and their experiences to-date.

Can you give us some background on the Foundation’s racial equity journey? Take us back to the beginning and tell us what initial approaches you used to start building this capacity.

Lisa: This intentional process started in 2018 when our Community Investment team held community listening sessions and developed our new focus areas, Advancing Equity in Education and Building an Inclusive Economy. At that time, we knew that if we were going to focus on building racial equity out in the community, then we needed to first take a hard look at how race was operating internally within the Foundation. 

Sandra: Yes, and once we committed to taking on this work internally, our first step was to hire OpenSource Leadership Strategies. Since this work was so new to us, we knew we needed to seek guidance and add capacity, especially in the beginning. 

In 2018, Lisa and I joined the newly formed Equity Leadership Team (ELT) consisting of four Black and five white staff members. This group met regularly to better understand how race was operating internally and to determine the best way to begin changing our culture. At that time, learning opportunities were also extended to all staff through training as well as individual and group coaching.

Tell us more about your experience as a founding member of the Foundation’s Equity Leadership team. What is the group’s purpose and how has it shaped the organization’s exploration and actions towards racial equity? 

Sandra: We created the Equity Leadership Team (ELT) to begin thinking about race and racial equity as it relates to our programs, policies, and processes on a regular basis.  Staff who volunteered to be a part of ELT came together to have authentic conversations around race. In the beginning, it was very uncomfortable because none of us were used to talking with each other about concepts like race, whiteness, and privilege, and we were especially uncomfortable talking about how race was showing up at work. 

And then with a lot more practice, we could finally begin to consider: What does this journey look like for the rest of the Foundation? How do we begin to widen this circle and bring everyone on staff into the conversation and create the workplace culture we want to see? 

Now all staff are involved in this work in different ways, and we’ve formed newer workgroups focused on creating an anti-racist workplace culture and building racial equity competencies. It's exciting to see this work growing and expanding. 

Lisa: Yes, it’s definitely evolved since we first started this work. I’ll share that even though I attended many other trainings throughout my career, nothing prepared me for the personal conversations that we had together on the ELT. Once we really started to talk about race, I felt relationships breaking down. But, as with people who weightlift or exercise, I think this group had to strain our muscles and break them down before we could build them up again. 

When my teammates of color were asked to explain what it felt like to live in their shoes, at times it was paralyzing to me. I realized I had a lot of work to do educating myself not only on white fragility, but also white privilege. I’ve learned how I’ve benefited just from being a white person, a white woman with a long career working in corporate America. 

Serving on the ELT has been transformative for me both personally and professionally. These difficult conversations were key to our progress, and eventually, I saw dialogue as a tool for change. We now have a number of caucus groups to create space for exploration, introspection, and action to move us forward. I’ve joined a caucus with other white colleagues, offering a supportive environment to challenge each other and find ways to center the needs of our colleagues of color in the workplace.

To better understand the overall trajectory of the Foundation’s internal racial equity work to-date, check out this more detailed graphic reflecting milestones achieved over the past four years.

What has surprised you most as you advance your learning and confront racism and systemic inequities at the Foundation and in the community? 

Sandra: Most of my learning comes from my experience of growing up as a Black woman in this country. At a very early age I realized people saw me as something different and wrong. So that's just the way I was used to operating. 

You’d think that people of color would know all about how the system has over privileged white people and underprivileged people of color. But I’m still learning just like most people are. For example, I recently learned that my own grandmother wasn't eligible for Social Security benefits because she was employed as a domestic worker. It was shocking for me to learn, and it’s even more shocking to realize this kind of discrimination from our recent history still has an impact today. (Read more on the 1935 Social Security Act.)

Lisa: Before I came to the Foundation I went through a few diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings, but it wasn't until I experienced a Racial Equity Institute training that layers of history really opened up to me. I was 55 years old, and I just couldn't believe I didn't know the real history of Jim Crow, of redlining, and the school-to-prison pipeline. I wasn’t taught those things, and it was like an awakening. And then I needed to learn more because that was just the tip of the iceberg. Most importantly, I learned that race and power are always operating, in every aspect of life. So, I no longer ask myself if race is operating here, but instead, how is race operating here?

How has the organization’s racial equity journey impacted your work specifically?

Sandra: I’m a program officer on the Community Investment team, and the tools we use to effect positive change include proactive and responsive grantmaking and forming active partnerships with local organizations. My role is to listen to community needs and work toward a future where everyone in Forsyth County has access to the opportunities to earn a good living and have a good, stable life.

This work has helped me reevaluate the unintentional role I've played as a gatekeeper and a holder of power. As a grantmaker, it’s easy to over privilege certain voices in the community. I’ve learned that smaller grassroots organizations, often Black-led ones, aren’t connected to the networks that many white-led organizations are. So, it’s important to stop and ask, how do we bring diverse voices and those with lived experience to the table? How do we make sure we’re distributing money in a way that doesn't just build up institutions, but also supports emerging community efforts and Black-led work? 

Lisa: As executive vice president, my role is to manage our day-to-day processes, oversee our staff, and keep operations running smoothly. I've learned the importance of intentionally and actively listening to everyone on staff and incorporating more voices in our decision-making processes. I can honestly say that our outcomes are stronger because of these shifts.

Our strategic planning process is a great example. We completely revamped the process so that every staff member participated in research and development for a part of the strategic plan. When all staff can have the opportunity to share their unique lived experiences, no matter their position in the organization, then I know we are headed in the right direction.

What advice would you have for other organizations who want to enter more intentionally into this work?

Sandra: That’s a great question. Organizations should keep in mind that this work will put a burden on individuals of color who have experienced racialized trauma and the effects of internalized racial oppression. But also recognize that white people in the organization will feel very uncomfortable, too. Along the way, it’s important to create space for self-care and opportunities for staff to build relationships with each other. As you get started, recognize that relationship-building and learning how to be vulnerable with your colleagues really is the work. And, in those moments where you’re feeling the most uncomfortable, you should know that you’re on the right track because discomfort means you have a chance to learn, and if you’re learning, then you’re on the way to making real progress.

Lisa: I agree with Sandra that relationship building is vital for doing racial equity work. Now three years in, we're still learning. We're still growing and having to challenge ourselves. We're still making mistakes. And we’ve learned to regroup and move forward together as a team. 

I've had calls from other organizations who want to hear more, and I usually share these tips:

  1. Make sure you're willing to examine all aspects of your work with a racial equity lens, both internally and externally.
  2. Know you need to shift the power for decision making and consider many different perspectives in your deliberation and decision-making processes.
  3. Realize that you’re creating a major inflection point in your organization. This means you’ll continue to evolve, but over time you’ll be leaving behind the old ways of leading that often caused harm.
  4. Understand this is a journey that will not be accomplished by one training session. Or in a year. Or in two years. It’s a forever journey.

Want to learn more?

Here are some resources that helped us get started.

If there is language in this blog post that is new to you, we invite you to review the Racial Equity Tools Glossary.

Books and podcast that Lisa and Sandra recommend:

  • White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Seeing White podcast produced by John Biewen

Racial Equity Training and Consultant Partners:

If you’re a Forsyth County nonprofit, learn more about funding opportunities for diversity/equity/inclusion training and coaching within our Capacity-Building Grants program.

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