When it comes to Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion work, A LOT matters…
By David Jernigan, President & CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta
For many companies and organizations, the past year has provoked critical conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and inspired many to take necessary steps to address systemic racism. While the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta (BGCMA) has been advocating for racial equity for over 80 years, we too have been on our own DEI journey over the past year. With nearly 90% of our youth identifying as African American or Latinx and the large majority of our employees coming from racially diverse backgrounds, this past year has been a deeply introspective period for our organization.
As the new President & CEO for BGCMA and as a white male who is on my own personal learning journey, attempting to lead a diverse organization through this essential DEI work has been humbling in so many ways. Although we have so much more progress to make, as an organization there are many truths that have crystalized for us this past year and will be central to our work ahead:
Yes, Black lives really do matter…
And so do Asian American lives. And so do LGBTQ lives. And so do the lives of our Latinx youth and our white employees. Yes, the lives of everyone matter. But we cannot ignore the recurring events of violence and injustice toward the Black community. These events are an unpalatable reminder of the systemic oppression and dehumanization that has plagued the Black community for centuries. Therefore, we felt compelled last summer to publicly state to all of our stakeholders that we, as an organization, stand firmly with the Black community and that we embrace the belief that Black lives matter.
We knew that when we printed a T-shirt with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on it, some would think that we were dabbling too far into politics, others would assume we were aligning to a left-leaning organization that does not support law enforcement, or still others would be concerned that we were implying that other lives don’t matter.
When we weighed the risks of alienating some of our supporters by taking a very public position in support of Black lives, it was the guidance provided by one of our board members that ultimately served as our anchor. She reminded us that as an organization that serves largely African American youth, we are sending a very strong message to all of our kids and teens that “YOU matter!”
And what about the other kids who do not identify as Black? What a powerful teachable moment to help them understand the historical and current context that would compel us to have to clarify that Black lives matter and that such a statement wasn’t at the exclusion of other people. Indeed, with the increase in inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric, harassment, and violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities since the start of the pandemic, we have also stood up against hate in these communities and have taken steps to educate our youth around the issues that have given rise to the #StopAsianHate movement.
It matters a lot that the kids, families, and communities we serve see and experience our unequivocal commitment to their dignity and rights as human-beings, which is why we cannot waiver in our willingness to declare that their lives matter.
Our language matters…
The past year has really challenged us to reflect on how we talk about our work, especially the kids and families we serve. Is it okay to call them “disadvantaged”? What about “at-risk”? Should we refer to their communities as “poor” or would it be more accurate to say they are “neighborhoods of historic disinvestment?” And what about our mission? Is it offensive to say that we are “saving kids’ lives” and what does that suggest about their own agency and that of their parents and community?
For some, this conversation gets quickly exhausting and feels too much like trying to be “politically correct,” but for those who are being “talked about,” it matters a lot.
Yes, it is offensive when we make assumptions about our kids and teens’ stories or fail to recognize the strengths of the village that is helping to raise them. And if we truly think that we alone are saving kids’ lives, perhaps we should pause and reflect on what that means we believe about the role that their families, churches, schools, and other community agencies play in supporting the youth that we have the privilege of serving each day.
For a non-profit organization like BGCMA that relies on the generous support of donors to keep doors open, this can be a challenging process to navigate because there is an assumption that to pull on the heartstrings of a donor, we must create a narrative that paints the bleakest possible picture of the constituents we serve. If left unchecked, this narrative can not only exaggerate the role that our organization plays within the support network of our constituents, but more importantly it can unintentionally dishonor the very people we serve, and in its extreme form can do damage to kids and teens who may internalize messages about their self-worth based upon the narrative we perpetuate.
The past year has taught us that our language is much more than just the words we put down on paper; our language reflects our mindset and our beliefs about a community we serve, which is why this has not been an easy process, and at times has even been painful. An honest conversation about language can easily put people on the defensive who are genuinely trying to communicate about a cause that matters to them. But for those who have embraced the process and authentically listened to understand how their message is landing with others and what assumptions might be behind their language, it has been such a powerful learning process that got quickly beyond the surface of word choice into the core of our belief systems and values, which is ultimately what really matters.
Diverse leadership matters…
Most companies and organizations have recognized this truth for many years, and some have even taken bold steps to do something about it. For an organization like BGCMA that serves mostly Black and Brown children and whose “front line” Club-based employees largely reflect the communities we serve, it is even more critical that we take intentional steps to build a diverse senior team and Board of Directors.
On the surface, this seems relatively straightforward, but for many organizations with legacy leaders (both paid employees and unpaid volunteer leaders) who are deeply committed to the mission, the process of diversifying the leadership can be difficult and at times makes those who have been in leadership question if they are valued or welcomed anymore. This is why aligning on the WHY matters just as much as the HOW when it comes to tackling this issue. And the WHY must be about more than just the optics, which is sadly at the heart of why too many organizations bring on diverse leaders.
Like many organizations, at BGCMA we have embraced the idea that diverse perspectives around the leadership table will help us make better decisions, especially when those diverse perspectives closely reflect and understand the communities we serve. We also understand that while change takes time, we must operate with urgency because our work is urgent. As such, we have committed to taking immediate steps to bring more diverse voices around the table while also tackling the longer-term strategic work of succession planning and pipeline development.
Our immediate work has involved the creation of an extended leadership team that brings our Club directors to the decision-making table on a consistent basis. By expanding the leadership table, we have challenged ourselves to pause and listen to the perspective of those who are working in our communities every day and we have chipped away at the natural division that can exist for organizations with a centralized support center and another group of employees who are on the frontlines.
As openings on our senior team and Board of Directors have become available, we have intentionally taken the time to build a diverse pool of candidates (even restarting the search in cases where the pool lacked diversity) and strengthened our vetting process to ensure that the leaders we were bringing on truly understood the communities we serve. As part of our Rise 2025 Strategic Plan, our Board made a commitment that 50% of its members would come from racially diverse backgrounds within five years, which has challenged us to think differently about how we recruit board volunteers. Our Board is committed to thoughtfully identifying diverse leaders from within our community through strategic succession planning and targeted outreach to companies and organizations that align with our values. We know that that we do not have to “lower the bar” or play games with numbers to find talented leaders who have deep connections to the communities we serve.
While we certainly have not “arrived,” we are making real progress that we are hopeful communicates to all of our stakeholders that leadership diversity matters at BGCMA.
Looking beyond the surface matters…
Like many organizations, as part of our new strategic plan, BGCMA has committed to building an organizational culture that promotes equity and inclusion, which has resulted in us engaging in a recent inclusion assessment to help us diagnose where to begin the work internally. Our data-driven partner Aleria engaged all our employees in an exercise wherein they shared personal experiences of exclusion in the workplace, and our partner ultimately analyzed the stories for trends, allowing us to focus our inclusion efforts.
While the analysis revealed many areas of opportunity for BGCMA (as it likely would with any organization), perhaps the most revealing insight had little to do with race, nationality, gender, religion, ability, or sexual orientation. It had everything to do with job classification within our organization, specifically our part-time employees, which make up 2/3 of our workforce. We have a lot of work to do to make our part-time employees feel more engaged and included within the BGCMA family, a revelation that may not have become apparent had we not dug beyond the standard demographic categories to understand the experience of our employees. Slicing the data in a variety of ways helped us hone in on a real opportunity to create a more inclusive culture.
It makes us wonder how many other insights might be just beneath the surface; indeed, looking beyond the surface matters.
Youth voice matters…
If there is anything that has been reinforced for us over the past year around issues of race and equity, it is that our young people have powerful voices and perspectives that not only should be listened to but should be amplified. Last summer, as protests were taking off around Metro Atlanta and across the nation, we knew that we needed to create a space for our youth to process what they were experiencing and to help them channel their emotions in a positive way.
After several virtual sessions with many of our teens, it became clear that they wanted to do more than just talk with each other about what they were feeling. They needed a platform to speak their truths, and we worked to create those avenues for them. A group of teens organized a presentation for our all-staff meeting, and another group was called upon to present at Boys & Girls Club of America national convening.
During our annual Youth of the Year gala, our teens shared their personal perspectives on issues that mattered to them – criminal justice reform, LGBTQ issues, racism, etc. – and while some were uncomfortable with our kids “getting political” in their speeches or taking positions that were contrary to their personal beliefs, most applauded our efforts to elevate the voices of our young people and to not censor them in that process.
While we have always believed that the voices of our youth matter, as we move forward, we are committed to being even more intentional about creating youth programs that provide a forum for young people to grapple with issues of racial equity and social justice so that they can become the agents of change for their own communities.
It is our sincere belief that our youth hold the answers to so many of our issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion. As we speak less and listen more, it will not only reinforce for our young people that their perspectives matter, we also just might learn a lot along the way.
The journey matters…
This past year has indeed been a journey for our organization, a journey that we have embraced and will remain steadfastly committed to for the months and years ahead. How we have gotten to the truths of what matters for BGCMA provides the roadmap for how we will continue to evolve and discover new truths. The journey has been deeply personal for so many of us, which is critical before attempting to align on professional clarity of truth. The journey has been inclusive, included many voices with different perspectives, and has been supported by facts and data. The journey has taken and will continue to take significant time. Most importantly, the journey has challenged all of us, especially me, to listen deeply and intently and speak less.
How we navigate this journey together matters and ultimately defines the organization that we will become. We recognize that we are still on a journey and our DEI efforts will not happen overnight and requires an ongoing commitment to change. We commit to listening to our kids, our staff, our donors, and our communities in response to racial injustice. If it matters to them, it matters to us.