It’s time for radical honesty.
I’m happy to share what I’ve learned about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with others. In fact, I view it as part of my job. When I started in my new role as DEI manager more than four years ago, I appreciated anyone who made the time to talk with me—so I’m happy to pay it forward.
In the past year, though, I’ve been inundated with requests to talk about DEI. As much as I’d like to honor all of the requests, I just don’t have the time to honor all of them. (Hence, this blog post, which addresses a number of the ideas I want to share with my colleagues at other organizations.)
Margie as a panelist for the June 2019 Minnesota Council on Foundation’s Equity in Action convening.
You can’t change if you don’t listen.
Recently a foundation invited me to share my insights on DEI. Since we’re still in a pandemic, I joined via a video call with a handful of people from the organization, who told me they were in the early stages of their DEI journey.
I agreed to join this particular meeting because a colleague specifically asked me to attend, and because a person of color (POC)-led organization I support recommended that the foundation reach out to me.
During the Zoom call, I swear I said really good stuff—like how DEI can’t be separated from organizational culture, how DEI needs to be organization wide, and how to cultivate conversations about uncomfortable topics. After some remarks, I paused for questions.
Their first questions made it clear they hadn’t really listened. And, further, maybe they weren’t interested in learning as a way to actually make change.
Their response was, essentially: “But can you tell me exactly what to do about a way we can show we’re committed to DEI externally? Do you think it’s okay to ask our staff members of color to handle it for us?”
Something snapped inside me. My jaw tightened, and the heat started to rise in my body.
“Their first questions made it clear they hadn’t really listened. And, further, maybe they weren’t interested in learning as a way to actually make change.”
The pressures are cumulative.
I’d spent the last few months feeling intense anger, grief, and tension with the Chauvin trial and the murder of Daunte Wright nearby, occasioning the presence of militarized police in the Twin Cities. And I was still reeling from the mass murder of Asian women in Atlanta.
In the midst of all that, I joined a virtual staff meeting where others were bantering about mundane things. I sat on camera, not participating because, honestly, it took a lot of energy to even show up.
Later in the meeting, I had a sudden urge to cry, so I turned off my camera to do just that as the meeting continued. I’m glad I didn’t hold in that emotion. But it made me realize my spirit was off. I needed regrounding.
“Some of the most important work I do is reaching out individually to support fellow staff members. My other key responsibility is speaking out with hard truths and creating the conditions for others to do the same.”
A few weeks after the Atlanta shootings, a fellow co-worker, who’s a person of color, said to me in an all-staff meeting, “We’re with you. We stand by you. We’re sending you good prayers and energy.”
I recognized his statement for what it was: a shared understanding of pain and trauma out of one’s control. I didn’t realize just how much I needed to hear that from a co-worker until he voiced it.
I’m often the caregiver in my organization. Some of the most important work I do is reaching out individually to support fellow staff members. My other key responsibility is speaking out with hard truths and creating the conditions for others to do the same.
Staff join together virtually for NWAF’s October 2020 DEI learning summit.
Radical honesty clears the air and forges connections.
Let’s go back to the meeting with this other foundation. In that moment of rising frustration, I decided what this group really needed was some radical honesty or straight talk. When I finally spoke, my voice was calm but full of conviction. I said something like:
NO. If you haven’t built a relationship with these staff members of color—if you’re just reaching out now for their labor, but you haven’t done anything to support them and their needs recently, please don’t.
My voice was raw as I continued:
I need you to pause and really consider: Do you want change? Don’t ask staff people of color to give you thoughts if you’re not serious about heeding their advice and putting significant resources behind their ideas.
To make change, you must be willing to give up power and let go of the way things have always been done. And you should build meaningful relationships with staff of color long before you ask for their help addressing institutional inequities.
I’m getting emotional because I’m tired of people and organizations that say they’re committed to DEI but don’t actually want change (especially not long-term change). Many of us are trying to figure out ways to dismantle dominant culture, policies, and practices internally. Our Foundation is struggling with this too; I’m here with you. And asking yourself if you really want change is a very important step.
Whew. Deep breath.
“To make change, you must be willing to give up power and let go of the way things have always been done. And you should build meaningful relationships with staff of color long before you ask for their help addressing institutional inequities. ”
As I talked, I saw one of their staff members of color—whom I don’t know, and who was quiet for most of the meeting—break into a big grin. When I paused for a breath, he burst out, “Finally! Yes! Thank you!” His whole body showed a different engagement. He rolled back his shoulders and clapped his hands together. With a new gleam in his eyes, he said he had questions for me.
Thank goodness, I thought. Our mutual affirmation in that moment was worth the discomfort. I hope my words changed something, but even if they didn’t, I’m glad I voiced my own truth to his colleagues.
I’m not sharing this story to shame the other foundation. We all have different starting points, and it’s an encouraging step to reach out and learn from other organizations about their DEI journeys.
I can’t prevent my colleagues leading DEI efforts from having similarly frustrating encounters, especially if they’re a person of color, but I can share some of the strategies that have helped me forge ahead.
Members of CHANGE Philanthropy’s November 2019 Unity Summit panel “Directing DEI: Structuring Organizational Change in Foundations” included Margie (second from left) and staff from Raikes Foundation, Meyer Foundation, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
Margie Jo Eun Joo Andreason
Diversity Equity Inclusion Manager, Northwest Area Foundation
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MY INSIGHTS ON HOW TO LEAD DEI EFFORTS, AND STAY WHOLE.
To my fellow Indigenous and staff of color leading DEI for their organizations—and to those who, because you care so deeply, do this work in addition to your other responsibilities:
I SEE YOU. WHAT YOU DO IS IMPORTANT.
It’s really hard not to care deeply about the world around us. It’s taxing on our spirits, on our souls. Our proximity to wealth privilege means we hold that weight of responsibility to do what we can for those with less privilege. It takes a certain kind of resiliency to be in that spot—but what you’re doing is making a difference. I deeply appreciate your leadership in this critical time.
FOCUS ON WHAT’S IN YOUR REALM OF IMPACT AND PUT ENERGY TOWARD PEOPLE WHO VALUE YOU.
Figure out where you can make a difference—that includes your role in philanthropy. It’s not your job to change everyone’s hearts and minds. All you can do is provide opportunities for others to do that for themselves. You need to not get burnt out, so don’t give away all your energy.
CULTIVATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH TWO OR THREE CO-WORKERS WITH WHOM YOU CAN BE YOUR WHOLE SELF.
Ask for their help, get their support. I hope you have these people and those spaces in your organization, but if you don’t, look outside of it.
SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO DROP EVERYTHING.
Take the time to ask yourself, “What do I need in this moment to be taken care of and whole? What do I need in the long term?” I was recently asked this and made my own list, which informs my next few points.
FIND THE SPACES THAT INSPIRE AND REFUEL YOU.
Being in spaces where you’re giving back to your own community can inspire you to keep going. For me, the Coalition of Asian American Leaders is a space where I feel as if I’m building with others rather than fighting. I recently held space for Asian women adoptees for the Network of Politicized Adoptees outside of work, and it reminded me that I can make a difference.
CONTINUE YOUR HEALING JOURNEY.
One of my favorite Grace Lee Boggs quotes is: “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.”
My resiliency practices and somatic bodywork help support my ability to do DEI work with an open heart, help me uncover my truths, and give me the agency to share my journey with others. One place to start is the podcast episode “The Body as Compass” with Nkem Ndefo. Decolonizing Wealth Project also hosts healing summits for those of us in philanthropy, and I’ve found those refueling. We can’t be effective DEI leaders without doing the work of healing ourselves and our communities.
STAY OPEN TO CONSTANTLY LEARNING AND GROWING.
I’m always expanding how I think and act in the world. It requires shifting, self-reflection, and holding complexity. It also requires me to be humble and commit to being curious instead of being “right.” We’re part of the larger movement for social justice and shared liberation, but we aren’t on the front lines. We should be listening to those individuals and communities most impacted. They’ve been doing this work way longer than any of our foundations.
NWAF’s DEI steering committee in April 2019.
We’re not alone.
Wherever you are on your DEI journey, keep listening toward change. It’s not easy to advance DEI within our organizations, but I’m glad we’re doing it. You’re not alone. We’re pushing our organizations to be better internally because we know it will make a difference to the communities we serve.
Keep speaking radical truth.
Keep speaking up about social justice.
Keep dismantling systems that don’t serve racial justice.
Keep sharing your institutional power.
Keep on healing on all the levels.
And after you generate your list of what you need in this moment and in the long term, please share your wisdom with others. We must take care of each other—the value of “heart” is really at the center of DEI work. In truth, it’s more vital and sustaining than any DEI plan or tool we can create.