Philanthropy Must be a Voice and Take Action

579707_846954855592_898411162_n-2The last ten years of my career have been spent working in the philanthropic sector. My experience as a youth grantmaker in Saginaw, Michigan was the truest and most authentic form of empowerment I had ever experienced – I loved it. As I began working in the profession, I found that what was endearing at first was silenced on reception. My experiences as a young woman of color were only valuable when I was connected to a microphone and on display. In the spaces where my voice needed to matter (ex: the board room, a staff meeting, a strategic planning session); it did not. In the rooms where policy decisions were being made and my critical thinking skills were met with the adoration attributed to a newborn pup that attempts to bark, I found a deafening silence.

With age, the spaces I was occupying became increasingly complex. I discovered not only did my opinions not matter but also my voice did not exist; just the visual – the visual representation of this young black woman being given space, but no air. So when I read a piece like the one written by Maxwell King, the chief executive officer of the Pittsburg Foundation, I am reminded of why highlighting the experiences of people of color within our organizations is so vitally important. In Mr. King’s piece he talked about the need of the philanthropic community to combat rhetoric that risks destroying our democracy. He cited the rhetoric of Donald Trump as being “a threat to civility, to civil discourse, and to the public trust.” To which end I think any individual who cares about the integrity of a democratic society would find hard to disagree with. However, the idea of philanthropic institutions – or really any institution for that matter – needing to make sweeping statements as a way of combating the wildly divisive and hateful rhetoric being displayed on the national stage, I believe is misguided.

The comparison between the rhetoric pushed by Hitler and the fascism that massacred a people and the hate speech that is being placed on a national stage for public consumption, is an accurate one. I challenge the idea, however, that the true intervention missed – as alluded to in the reference to Pastor Niemoller – was not speaking up in time. The missed opportunity is where rhetoric is reinforced by action.

The issue is not only the need for big statements to be made; there is a need for big ideas to be met with small and large actions. In the philanthropic community we have to look at ourselves and ask are we truly practicing what we are preaching? We cannot speak to the importance of inclusive environments where all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity – can succeed without getting our house in order. If you are really committed to inclusion, are you making sure you are listening to those most affected by the environments you create? Do you genuinely value the opinions of your employees? Are clients’ opinions valued in the same way you assess that of a donor? Have you created spaces where employees feel empowered to voice concerns about the organization? Have you intentionally engaged in work to enhance the competency of the organization around key dynamics that impact the inclusiveness of the organization to those externally and internally (i.e. cultural competency training, intercultural development inventory, etc.)?

Perhaps the most important piece to this is: do you speak up when it matters most? When you encounter a micro-aggression in the office, do you address it? When an employee displays a pattern of discriminatory actions, will you fire them? When an employee expresses discomfort around the work environment, will you work to improve the conditions? When an employee says something disparaging to a client because of an individual bias, will you name it and address it?

As a person of color in the workplace, I personally see these elements as key interventions that never occurred in situations where they were necessary. In situations where clear bias was displayed I was waiting for my leadership to step up and do something. Situations in which racism was displayed and my existence was disregarded, I was waiting for leadership to affirm my position and value. While words are meaningful, actions (and inactions) are what curb or reinforce harmful behaviors. In philanthropy, our greatest liability is often that we avoid taking a stand to maintain neutral positioning in spaces where our neutrality is actually damaging. For every opportunity we miss to make a statement and back it up with action, we exclude more people from this space. Diversity and inclusion is sexy language for us in this field and we have worn out the rhetorical elements of Act I; Act II is where we reinforce rhetoric with action. Act II is where we show our counterparts how to create, as best put by Maxwell King, “a society that respects and protects the rights of Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, those with disabilities – and everyone else.”

What maintained my faith in this space, were the interventions that did happen. In a specific situation where bias was being pointed in my direction at a pivotal moment in my career, I had advocates who spoke up and acted on my behalf. I am painfully aware of my positioning, every time I think about where I would be if those individuals had not spoken up when they did. I am haunted by the notion that, had people who saw promise and valued my opinion not hired me at key moments, I would not occupy the spaces I do today. Interventions by people, in moments when my voice was suppressed, mattered. And for too many current and future stakeholders in the philanthropic community, there are not enough voices taking action. There are not enough people giving minorities space to breathe. Even today, I find myself in rooms where I must relentlessly affirm my positioning in this space.

I’m waiting for the moment I don’t need to say “I, too, am philanthropy.” Until then – I need more than rhetoric to make our space more inclusive.

My First Job

230487_503693808482_3367_nI am a firm believer in the idea that the first employment experience is a truly formative experience. In many ways, your first job can shape the trajectory of your longterm employment expectations. Sometimes your first job is even a pathway to other more substantial opportunities. Technically my first job was as a youth sports referee, but since that was a more sporadic nontraditional job I’m going to skip to my first job at 16.

When I was 16 I wanted exactly one thing: a car. My entire reasoning behind getting a job was not for the experience of being employed in a more traditional nature. I wanted to acquire purchasing power and that meant acquiring a position that had the ability to provide funds. So I walked into Bed, Bath and Beyond in Saginaw, Michigan. No resume. No relevant experience. Just a polo, jeans, K-Swiss and a smile. I requested an application. Returned the application. At that time the company’s policy was that they were always accepting applications and upon return of the application the manager would meet the applicant submitting and ask some baseline questions and then repeat the aforementioned application policy. That is exactly what happened.

I got home and waited. My mom told me to do some follow up and check on the status of my application (good call mom). I called. The store manager invited me to do an interview. At the interview he offered me the position. I was elated. It was the first position I had applied for. I was put through a series of trainings. I had to learn some of the key products in the store. They taught me the difference between 650 thread count sheets and 300 thread count sheets, the difference between a Krups coffee maker and Mr. Coffee, and perhaps most importantly the use of certain kinds of stemware – the longterm significance of this job for my personal home preferences was endless. Nonetheless, I was the most knowledgeable 16 year old on household items in (probably) Saginaw County.

Shortly after my start the store manager that hired me was moved to a different store and a new store manager was brought in. What is important to note about Bed, Bath and Beyond was a few things. First, I was expected to provide excellent service to customers. I was the first 16 year old they had ever hired in that particular store (something I would find out later on) and so the idea that high expectations were placed on my performance was important. They did equip me with the information so entrusting me to follow through with what they trained me on was crucial. The other crucial part of this experience is when I made a mistake they would bring it to my attention and make it a teachable moment.

My first job would be my primary job up until I went to college and the staff would be an important staple in formulating my understanding of what a workplace could be and the types of learning experiences retail spaces, in particular, had to offer.

I remember I had a boss, in the nonprofit sector, that told me my resume read like I was seeking to be a manager at Macy’s. He told me I needed to remove that portion of my employment experience because it wasn’t relevant. Ironically enough, it was because of my formative employment years in retail that I could endure some of what the nonprofit sector had to offer. Working at Bed, Bath and Beyond taught me tons of translatable skills that allowed me to be a better professional in the nonprofit sector. The idea that employment experience is not translatable across the board underlines the deficit in true training and mentorship occurring in the workplace present day.

My managers were mentoring me to be a better professional and they didn’t even realize it. Certainly they made comments eluding to the fact that retail was not going to be a longterm professional move for me (to which end I think they often undervalued the significance of their service to their clients) but they were very intentional with their interventions and empowerment. When you entrust a 17 year old to take bridal customers through registry items and overview key products that says a lot about your faith in their ability – and as the 17 year old on the receiving end of that trust, that was important. That was vital.

I say all of this to say that the professional development that occurred during this first employment experience, during a time where I was still discovering my sense of self and developing my understanding of the realities of the world, was a pivotal experience. What’s ironic is that the nonprofit boss that benefited the most from my training did not actually functionally understand what it meant to authentically empower someone in a way that impacted their longterm outcomes.

My first job helped me see people first and profit second; a lesson that retail taught me and the nonprofit sector has benefited from.

Who Cares About Employment and Why Inclusion?

Have you ever worked a job? Do you have a career? Do you know the difference? Have you ever been used as a means to an end? Would you know you were being used if asked to evaluate your current employment situation? Would you quit your job on principle? Do you consider employment a luxury? Do you believe you have rights in the workplace? Does the employer have an obligation to respect you? Should employers intentionally invest in employees? Should the employee expect work life balance? Who holds the employer accountable for creating unhealthy working conditions? Should happiness be a factor in your employment choices?

These are all questions that on some level we ask, or should ask, on a daily basis. We spend, on average (assuming you are only working 40 hours a week), 24 percent of our year at work. If you are middle to low income and can afford to pay all of your bills, lets increase that by at least 15 percent to account for the number of hours at slightly above the federal minimum wage you would need to work to make those conditions possible and lone behold you spend a substantial amount of your hours awake, working.  That said, community outcomes are affected by workplace satisfaction (let’s assume that our working definition of workplace satisfaction is contentment with the position, environment and supervision) and if individuals are not satisfied in the workplace this inevitably affects the rest of their existence…or at least this is my hypothesis. Or common sense. Or both.

My career interests have always in some way been reflective of my passion for improving the outcomes of people. As I have progressed in my career and held various positions in the workplace, I have settled on a few key conclusions. First, employees no longer possess a sense of ownership of their workplace.  Employees have become passive actors in their working environment shifting their sense of control and changing the nature of accountability in the workplace. Secondly, employers are increasingly empowered (whether directly or indirectly) to take advantage of their personnel.  This seems very harsh and mind you what this means is relative to the workplace in which we are applying this concept but across the board there has been a noticeable addiction to increasing productivity without accounting for the workforce that is being forced to adjust.  There is less commitment to companies, with individuals changing jobs every 5 years on average and fewer companies strategically investing (via incentives and learning opportunities) in their personnel (there are examples of companies making intentional investments and we will cover a few of them in delving deeper through this website).

We won’t bother talking about succession planning, I digress.

Thirdly, in a world where our work often melts all over our life, there is no flexibility. This is perhaps the most detrimental of trends. We are the most technologically advanced society yet very few companies have reimagined the workplace to account for the changing desires of the workforce from which they are pulling talent.

And that’s the key element we must remember: talent. The workforce has not become less talented, the workforce has become more diverse. Increased diversity means that the hiring practices and the workplace dynamics must change to nurture inclusion. This is why inclusion matters. As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse culturally, intellectually, professionally among so many other elements impacting the pool of talent, our NGO’s, businesses, government agencies must adjust their policies, procedures — quite frankly their existence, accordingly.

This site will explore the complexities of working faced by the employee. We will look at employers doing innovative things affecting the experience of the employee but we will primarily target the ways in which the employees are affected by work environments, hiring policies, inclusion techniques or lack thereof while also working to flesh out what work place satisfaction means for various groups of people in the workforce.

I will post about personal experiences and observations but I will also interview and solicit participation from individuals in the community to ensure that this is an informed investigation and one the delves deep into one of the most crucial issues impacting the outcomes of our respective communities.