Transforming Organizational Practice With a Racial Equity Lens

Authored by Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D., President and CEO of St. Joseph Center, and Keith Anyon, Vice President, Administration, St. Joseph Center, Los Angeles, CA.

When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.”

― Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

The sobering reality is that while Black Americans make up just 12% of the population, they represent 39% of people experiencing homelessness — the largest share for any population. In Los Angeles County, where I am President and CEO of St. Joseph Center, a large nonprofit working to eradicate homelessness, this unfortunate ratio follows the same pattern: our Black neighbors account for a staggeringly disproportionate part of the homeless population.

How we got here

We know this over representation stems from structural and systemic racism. When we look at the history of our country, from being founded on slavery, to racial segregation, redlining, police violence and mass incarceration, these discriminatory practices have created a collective trauma with significant consequences, include rising rates of homelessness.

Targeted voter suppression of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) voters, the disparate rates of homeownership across suburban America, and the gaps in health care for communities of color are all unjust legacies of these laws and public policies. To combat racism, we need to not only identify and remedy larger social policies and institutional practices that advantage some groups at the expense of others, but we also must examine our own organizations and operational practices.

Organizational change

While many organizations recognize the value of “diversity” and “inclusion,” genuine racial equity requires a structural transformation that goes beyond surface level policies. We cannot only invite BIPOC folks to the table, instead we need to ensure the table is co-developed and that power is distributed equitably.

But how do agencies create true operational and organizational change? It is important to pursue policies that explicitly name racial disparities and seek to address them, recognizing how white supremacist cultural norms hurt all of us. Leaders can also seek to dismantle systems that further inequality and limit advancement for staff and clients from racially marginalized communities. To do this effectively, there are concrete steps we can take.

Start from the top

To make real progress, the longstanding leadership gap in our sector must be addressed. In the Nonprofits, Leadership, and Race survey, conducted by the Building Movement Project, respondents identified Boards of Directors and executive recruiters as “key barriers to the hiring of more people of color as Executive Directors/CEOs.” Studies show the percentage of people of color in the executive director/CEO role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years even as the country becomes more diverse. (Source: The Building Movement Project).

To increase diversity and equity in leadership, organizations need to address the practices and biases of those governing their organizations. Decision-makers must be educated on racial equity and implicit bias. At the Board of Director and Executive levels, organizations can then set actionable and measurable goals for change and adopt racially inclusive and equitable policies and practices.

Agency heads can also bring people to leadership positions that have historically been overlooked or cut off from avenues of advancement. For instance, policies can be created that center people with lived experience of homelessness and trauma as our teachers and subject matter experts and recognize that those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions.

At St. Joseph Center, we put in place demonstrable policies to address inequities, and through conscious adjustments, we have changed the face of the agency. We did this by:

Focusing on internal practices

  • We moved away from pursuing cultural competency in our service delivery to a deepened approach to cultural humility for all employees.
  • We launched a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Transformation Committee, comprised of staff from all levels, that created a safe space to address operational and organizational inequities.
  • We looked at the ‘give-get’ policy for our Board of Directors that required a substantial yearly donation as a condition of service, a requirement that would automatically exclude important voices who could not donate large sums of money. Due to this shift, we now have valuable members who bring lived expertise to our Board.

Overhaul hiring process

We put in place policies to cultivate a staff that reflects the ethnic and racial makeup of the communities we serve. These include:

  • Hiring diverse candidates that represent the people we serve.
  • Adjusting job requirements to reduce barriers, including eliminating the need for a college degree for certain jobs and giving more weight to lived experience.
  • Recruiting staff from historically excluded groups, including people with histories of justice-involvement or homelessness.
  • Establishing recruitment partnerships with community colleges that have high proportions of people of color in their student populations. This has created a pipeline of graduates from diverse backgrounds who are eager to join our field.

Through these targeted and conscious efforts, St. Joseph Center has a staff that is far more racially representative of the communities we serve. We also share power more equitably: for instance, in 2013, 60% of senior management was white. By 2019, those numbers flipped, with more than 65% of management being people of color. Additionally, 48% of staff self-report lived experience of trauma, mental illness, justice-involvement, or homelessness.

Transforming our organizational structures will take more than acknowledging the disparities. It requires assessing how you do what you do from the top down, looking at decisions through a racial equity lens, and then putting concrete policies in place to address injustices. Through this targeted effort we can effectively transform our workplaces and communities.

This publication is part of the Advancing Racial Equity: Community Highlights series.