By Guest Blogger and S&G Partner Consultant: Rene Rivera
As a leader of a bicycle advocacy organization over the past eight years I have seen diversity equity and inclusion become a central concern for this movement. The leading organizations in this space have all made equity central to their organizational goals. At the same time it seems like many organizations are struggling with how to implement equity within their organizations.
From my own experience as executive director of Bike East Bay, based in Oakland California, I would like to offer my perspective on how one organization integrated diversity, equity and inclusion into our values and strategic goals.
When I joined Bike East Bay (then the East Bay Bicycle Coalition) in 2011 equity was already part of the conversation. The organization had one board member who was a strong champion for equity, though the board itself was majority white hetero cis male, as many bicycle advocacy orgs are. The board made a fairly bold choice to hire a mixed race queer gender nonconforming executive director. OK, they could have been bolder still and hired a Black or Brown executive, but let’s give them credit for not hiring another cis hetero white man as so many organizations in the space have done.
- Who is in leadership matters.
All the equity work in the world will not change an organization if you do not change who is in leadership. In bicycle advocacy, and I would say in the environmental movement overall, there is a lot of talk about equity, but very little change in who fills board seats and who fills executive and director level staff roles. According to the Race to Lead report from the Building Movement Project there has been no increase in the numbers of POC in executive roles over the past 15 year.
Perhaps the most important equity work an organization can do is hiring. And not just hiring Black and Brown folks to staff your outreach coordinator positions or your entry level program positions. There is a lot to say about this so I will leave it to another post to address how equity intersects with succession planning and executive search. In this story it matters that I was the person selected for this executive role. At the time I believe I was the only person of color, only gender nonconforming, and possibly the only queer executive director of a bicycle advocacy organization out of about 200 orgs across the country.
So, now that I found myself in the key leadership role at this organization how did I go about implementing equity goals? Well, that would be leaping ahead to the end of the story. To advance equity in an organization you cannot just look around for best practices and adopt them. We find ourselves in a world where racism and white supremacy are the unstated norm. In order to even begin the conversation about equity there is a lot of work to do to get a given group of people, like the board and staff of an organization, to have enough of a shared language and understanding to even have the conversation.
- Work from the inside out.
In our case this meant starting where we were. The organization had never created a strategic plan, so that was needed just to get everyone on the same page around the mission, vision, values and goals. Equity came up in our strategic planning conversations, but there wasn’t enough shared understanding to create strong goals around it.
Once we had a strategic plan we were able to bring in a facilitator to do a basic training on diversity. As we had white board members who had never looked at difference or examined their own privilege we had to start there. From there we moved on to a second level of training that focused on developing a shared vocabulary around diversity equity and inclusion.
With raising awareness, particularly in our board around diversity equity and inclusion, we were able to have conversations about our board culture and how that impacted board retention. We noticed that while we brought on a number of people of color as board members they often didn’t stay long. At this point we engaged a consultant to interview past POC board members and the report from these interviews made it clear that our board’s white culture created an environment where POC were excluded and tokenized. This galvanized the white members of our board to engage in an intensive year-long self-education process around whiteness and racism. This process, more than any other factor, shifted the conversation on our board from a vague interest in equity, to a strong and informed commitment to equity and to dismantling racism and white privilege in our organization.
- Organizational culture matters.
To center equity in our organization we had to address our organizational culture. The board took this on directly through addressing how whiteness shows up on our culture. The staff, which is significantly more diverse than the board and also is discussing these issue on a daily basis, was farther along in integrating equity into our day to day working culture. At the staff level this looked like developing dispersed leadership structures, embracing differences of experience and opinion and generative conflict, creating a culture of deep respect that treated each staff member as a whole human being.
- Articulate your values.
This phase started with the staff assessing the equity work we were already engaged in, to start from a place of strength. This included our work to make our bicycle education instructors majority women and POC, our analysis of biased police enforcement, and organizing work in partnership with Black, Brown and low-income communities. We also drew on work from around the country like the Untokening Principles for Mobility Justice and People for Mobility Justice.
From the work we were already doing and the work we aspired to do we created a set of values. This was the starting point for a board and staff conversation on our equity values that resulted in Bike East Bay’s Statement of Values for Equity and Social Justice.
- Create strong goals.
With the right leadership, inside work done, our organizational culture and clear equity values, we finally had the elements in place to be able to create strong equity goals. We did not want to create a stand alone set of equity goals. Often when equity goals are separate from strategic or operating goals they become a lesser set of goals, something that is set aside until we have met our fundraising goals or met our campaign goals. We wanted equity to be integrated into every part of our work and organization. So we took our most recent strategic plan and completely revised it with equity in mind, so that equity was a part of every goal.
I wish I could point you to a great equity plan that you could just do a search and replace on to add your organization’s name and then bring it to your board to adopt. Oh, if only it were that easy.
But, in truth I wouldn’t want you to do that because if you did you would skip over work that will have long term benefits for you, for your staff and board, for your organization, and for the world. This is the work of our time. To dismantle racism and white privilege in ourselves and in our workplaces is hard but deeply satisfying work. Creating workplaces and organizations where we can all be our full selves pays off in greater work satisfaction, in highly productive and motivated teams, and in a deeper impact in our communities.
So don’t skip over the work!
Recapping my key learning’s from seven years leading Bike East Bay to center equity in our bicycle advocacy work:
- Who is in leadership matters
- Work from the inside out
- Organizational culture matters
- Articulate your values
- Create strong goals
Let me know how it goes! I believe it will pay off.