Diversity and Representation, For Real

pocI feel quite fortunate to have role models and other professional peers whom I admire in the broader philanthropic and civic engagement movements. Thomasina Williams is one of these people. She’s the Program Officer for Democracy, Rights and Justice Program at the Ford Foundation and has a rich herstory as a civil rights attorney and legal advocate for social justice. We met through the Funders Committee for Civic Engagement, where she serves on the Steering Committee. More than once I’ve asked myself, when at the crossroads of a grantmaking dilemma, “What would Thomasina do?” I trust her vision and observations about the power dynamics inherent to electoral politics and what marginalized communities must do in order to break our elections processes free from the stranglehold of big money.

A conversation with Thomasina last week gave me the following inspiration: we must push beyond “diversity.” We’ve heard it used as lingo to indicate that people were at least *considering* the racial/ethnic/gender makeup of a particular entity. Yet, superficial treatment of representation doesn’t ensure that people’s voices, experiences, and opinions are taken into consideration during decision-making processes. Diversity in and of itself does not guarantee that pluralism is woven into setting policy or direction.

If we’re going to really embrace this nation’s diverse demographics, we also have to be willing to build our institutions that are inclusive from the beginning. And if they aren’t inclusive from the beginning, they are doggedly determined to have appropriate representation on the staff and board.  “We’re thinking about it” is so 1987. Do it. And – to borrow another inspiration from the intrepid Ludovic Blain, if orgs aren’t inclusive and don’t have appropriate representation, stop claiming to be diverse or represent diverse communities. Tokenism doesn’t count. Having racial and gender castes by job level (from executive leadership to support staff) doesn’t either.

We’ve made great progress in this nation; I remain cautiously optimistic that we can get even closer to the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” For real.

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