Introspection: The Path to Inclusion. An Interview with Laura McCargar, President of The Perrin Family Foundation

Laura McCargar HeadshotAccording to Laura McCargar, true diversity, equity and inclusion can result only when an organization is willing to take part in an organizational introspection. This can be daunting and sometimes painful as there may be some hard truths to learn. But if an organization has the institutional courage and wherewithal to see something like this through, it will be profoundly more effective inside and out as it forges a deep connection to those it serves.

It’s no secret that nonprofits, overall, have struggled with diversity, both on staff and on boards. In what other ways have you seen nonprofits falling short on diversity?

One of the ways that nonprofits – and I include the philanthropic sector as part of the broader nonprofit sphere – have fallen short is by limiting their line of sight to solely the question of diversity.  If you’re focused only on diversity then you’re actually missing the full scope of what’s needed to build organizations that are truly inclusive, and truly equitable, in their desire and capacity to really share power with the communities that they are serving and anchored in – and accountable to.

When we talk about diversity, we often look at numbers: the range of representation across a demographic mix. So there can be diversity in an organization, but not necessarily inclusion. One of the first missteps is defining diversity as a goal rather than equity as the goal. When that happens, what can occur is that diversity is treated as a kind of a “checkbox.” If we have the right mix of people and faces demographically, then diversity has been achieved and therefore the work has been done. But when that occurs it’s a sign that we haven’t done the internal organizational work to think about what’s required in the organization culturally – to build inclusive processes and practices. So if there hasn’t been intentional exploration and discussion around what that means and looks like, then it’s never going to realize its full impact. Often folks want to do the work toward diversity without first doing the internal reflection and introspection that has to occur in order to reckon with why an organization – be it staff or board and the nonprofit sector more broadly – looks the way that it does.

Part of the reason of why people are sometimes more comfortable living in the vagueness of those terms is because to become more precise necessitates a real inward look not just at the organization, – to examine aspects of their own power, privilege and identity. So often, there are well-intentioned attempts to have conversations about diversity that may not be translating into actual shifts and changes at organizations.

Your BLOC initiative has been extremely active in working with organizations to build capacity for youth and community led change and supporting the development of organizations led by people of color. Do nonprofits overall need to change their mindsets to adopt forward looking measures like your BLOC initiative?

PFF’s BLOC initiative: Building Leadership and Organizing Capacity is about working with organizations that are committed to building young people’s power to advance social justice in their communities. The organizations that we’ve worked with through the BLOC initiative are coming to the table very clear sighted about what social justice and racial justice means and looks like for the young people that they’re working with and in the communities that they’re working.

I think one of the particular challenges from where we sit at PFF as a philanthropic institution, is that the philanthropic sector is certainly not immune to, and in many ways, has perpetuated the systemic disparities in the nonprofit sector itself.

One of the goals of the BLOC initiative is that we are very intentional about working with and engaging and supporting nascent and emerging organizations that are led by people of color who have a deep and accountable relationship with the communities that they’re working in. All too often, because of bias baked in to the philanthropic sector, a lot of those organizations haven’t benefited from the same kind of philanthropic support as older, more established, better resourced nonprofit organizations. So part of the goal of BLOC was really to identify, nurture and support organizations that have a tremendous amount of promise but haven’t benefited from the same kind of resource support.

You have done a lot of research on the Connecticut landscape, particularly as it relates to equitable access and opportunity gaps. Your publication “A New Role for Connecticut Youth: Leaders of Social Change” highlighted those issues and a number of others. In that report, you called on foundations to move beyond grants that provide shorter-term fixes on basic human needs, educational opportunities and community health to prioritizing and empowering underserved minority communities. Have you seen any traction in this among other foundations and funders?

The Perrin Family Foundation has been funding the youth sector for a long time and though we had certainly seen and celebrated the wonderful and powerful impact that the support for organizations had accomplished, not a lot was changing around the landscape of opportunities available to young people. So we shifted our focus.

Foundations have historically gravitated toward work that addresses the symptoms of problems rather than driving at the root cause. It feels better to provide afterschool tutoring to young people who are struggling academically than to think about what’s happening in our education systems.  We aren’t addressing whether educational resources are distributed in a way that provides equitable access and opportunity for all young people – regardless of race and class and geography. Our underlying premise is that if we really are trying to see sustainable, lasting change then we need to be working with and supporting those closest to the issues facing our communities. They are the people best positioned to frame, define and advance solutions. We recognize this work takes time; it’s not going to happen in a six-or eight-week program cycle. All too often, foundations expect to see lasting, large scale change without accounting for the long-term process that systemic change requires.

One of the things that’s been really exciting as we’ve engaged in this work over the past couple years has been witnessing a palpable shift in the broader philanthropic community across the state. There has been a slow but steady increase in the amount of resources available for groups that are engaged in community and youth organizing work around the state.  Today community leaders are supported to work for systemic and structural change around issues that they’ve identified. And so it’s been exciting to see that there’s been increase of resources for that.

Opportunity gaps are still prevalent in Connecticut. How much power do Connecticut’s nonprofits have in reducing or even eliminating these gaps?

The nonprofit sector has a lot of power to reduce and eliminate those gaps. Tapping into that power will require thinking differently – and intentionally – about the broader, underlying challenges or issues that their work seeks to address.

There is much that the nonprofit sector can do to define, articulate and analyze how the gaps in equitable opportunities are a function of longstanding policies and practices that can be changed through advocacy and organizing. Even organizations that are primarily focused on direct service can do a great deal to center the voices of their constituents and engage in coalitions or networks to really drive towards changing the systems that are fueling those opportunity gaps. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the nonprofit sector’s own apprehension around that has been fueled by the philanthropic sector’s unwarranted apprehension about supporting change and advocacy efforts.

I say this recognizing that we’re also at a moment where a lot of our nonprofit organizations – particularly those that provide direct services – are facing a dire outlook across the state with their own funding and resource base. We’re very much sensitive to that. But there can be missed opportunities. A lot of the advocacy work that many nonprofit organizations engage in is to protect and preserve, or work towards protecting and preserving, the resources afforded to them through state policy and budget and municipal policies and budgets. And I would say that they’re equally as capable of working to address the other systemic obstacles and barriers that are driving and shaping the opportunity gaps. This may take a different lens for how to think about their roles.

The staff and boards of nonprofits should be reflective of the communities they serve, but that is often not the case. What are some of the successes you’ve seen from organizations that have taken measures to be inclusive of the groups within the communities they serve?

From what we’ve witnessed, organizations have been most successful when they begin with their own internal introspection and reflection. That includes not only the hard data – the make-up of their staff and boards relative to the constituencies they serve – but really digging in to understanding why. Why has that been the norm for their organization?

We see the most traction when there has been an organization-wide commitment to the board, staff and constituents engaging in, and often training and learning together. In many cases we have supported trainings that both teach the historical origins of racism and encourage folks to think about how aspects of their own power and privilege is manifesting itself in an organization’s culture and dynamics. The work has to begin on that deep a level in order to generate full organizational culture shift. That can feel like a tall order. And it is. But organizations that have seen this shift have been ones that have really carved out intentional processes and resources for moving this work forward in their organization.

It’s also worth noting that there are many grassroots organizations led by people of color that are very much reflective of the communities they serve, but historic racial bias in the philanthropic sector has meant that they haven’t benefited from the equitable access to resources to build and sustain their organizations.

How does a nonprofit staff and board transform when they actually reflect the communities they serve?

Organizations can transform in so many ways. First and foremost, organizations become more effective at achieving their mission because they’re better attuned to what the real needs, challenges and solutions are. If you truly believe, as we do at PFF, that those closest to direct experience with the issues or challenges you’re trying to address are best positioned to define and craft the changes that they need, then you’re going to get real solutions.

Here’s an example: when I worked with youth before I came to Perrin Family Foundation, we had a discussion with a district on truancy and truancy rates in high school. Young people made clear that part of what was driving truancy was not that youth didn’t want to be in school but that in this school district the high school starts an hour before many of the elementary schools. And you had older siblings in high school who were responsible for getting their younger siblings on the bus and off to school because their parents worked.

With young people leading the exploration of this issue based on their lived experience, they unearthed a much deeper explanation about “why this is happening.” When you take this approach, the solutions that you craft are responsive to, and informed by the people’s lived reality.

Organizations also improve because they have a deeper investment on the part of the people they serve. There’s a more meaningful level of belonging and ownership that results when an organization becomes truly accountable to the communities they serve.

When you look at many nonprofit web pages and communication materials, what message are they sending relative to “diversity”? How can they change?

There is a lot to unpack with this question. One of the real challenges is that there may be reference or mention of diversity as a value, but not explicitness around what that means or evidence of how that is operationalized within an organization. Because “diversity” is generally valued and understood to be an important thing, there is a tendency to outwardly portray more diversity than actually exists. On a homepage you might see a picture with Black and Latinx youth, but when you dig in to staff and board pages you see mostly white adults. This reinforces a white savior construct that positions people of color as “recipients” of services and white folks are “leaders” or “providers.” Sometimes organizations will use an image or story of a young person and say “here’s a young person who represents the success story of the impact that we’re having” but it ends up being in many cases a patronizing or paternalistic portrayal of that young person’s experience and journey.

PFF is thinking deeply about this. We’ve come a long way and recognize that we also have a long way to go. We’re a family foundation which means that our governing board are family members: a white, affluent family. And so as we’ve grappled with our desire to live our values, we’ve had to ask ourselves “how are we walking the talk around this work?”

One way was to create a Strategy Council whose role is to ensure that our work is informed, strategic and accountable. This strategy council is comprised of young people, community members, folks who are in our grantee partner network, and people who may be outside of our grantee partner network but have had an impact on our work. One of the first pieces of feedback we received was that we should be far more explicit in our own communications around our commitment to racial justice and racial equity work. So that’s an area of work that PFF will tackle over the next year. We are also preparing to make shifts in our governance model which will expand our board beyond members of the family.

Will diversity in nonprofit staff and on boards become the norm in the future? If so, how will that change the social landscape in Connecticut and around the country?

There was a really important article in Nonprofit Quarterly a few years ago, titled The Nonprofit Sector Has a Ferguson Problem. Among the many data points cited in the article is the sobering statistic that while 63 percent of organizations say that diversity is a core value, the percentage of people of color on nonprofit boards has not changed in 18 years. So, it’s fair to say that there is a very long way to go, but I believe and am hopeful that we will see shifts. Part of the way that change can be realized is by moving more resources to organizations that are led and founded by people of color. I’m also hopeful that organizations will continue to do the internal organizational, cultural work necessary to shift their organizations’ practices.

We also have to work towards evolving language and analysis around “diversity” as the end goal. It must evolve so that people can lead with a frame around equity and justice. When that happens, I think it will have a positive impact on the social change landscape in Connecticut and beyond.

Laura McCargar has been instrumental in shaping the Perrin Family Foundation’s youth-led social change strategy and overseeing the development of capacity-building initiatives to strengthen and expand youth organizing across Connecticut. She has authored several publications including “Invisible Students” and “A New Role for CT Youth: Leaders of Social Change.”It’s no secret that nonprofits, overall, have struggled with diversity, both on staff and on boards. In what other ways have you seen nonprofits falling short on diversity?