Embracing Discomfort

06/29/2016 05:45 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2017

Like many, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about what more I -- and, by extension, the organization I lead, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations -- can do to address the long-standing, structural inequities that people of color face in our country.

The GEO community works hard to make sure that philanthropy's precious resources make the biggest difference in our communities and in people's lives. Racial equity is an effectiveness imperative because people of color are disproportionately affected by many of society's deep-rooted challenges. We need to face the structural and systemic causes of this disparity head on in order for philanthropy to be most effective.

Though there's plenty we have yet to learn, one thing we clearly understand is that in order to be active in the effort to eradicate racial inequity, we need to embrace discomfort. We took a few steps down that path at our recent National Conference where racial equity was a prominent theme in many, possibly most, of the conference sessions.

The discomfort sparked by conversations about racial injustice takes many forms. Some white people might be uncomfortable because they don't see themselves contributing to racial inequity. Others may not have yet come to grips with their own privilege. For some people of color, these conversations may dredge up negative emotions and personal experiences they'd prefer not to revisit. For others, they may feel impatient as white people catch up to their understanding of these issues.

Discomfort can be enormously productive, though, especially when we move outside of our own life experiences and validate what others see and have experienced. During the racial equity plenary at our recent 2016 National Conference, three panelists shared their stories.
  • Peggy Flanagan, a Native American woman and state representative from Minnesota, talked about growing up in poverty and as a Native American with a name like "Flanagan", which made it hard for many to see and acknowledge her identity.
  • Doug Stamm, a white man in his sixties who is President and CEO of the Meyer Memorial Trust, admitted he wished he'd started on the path to become an advocate for racial equity sooner.
  • And Michael McAfee, a black man who is vice president of programs at PolicyLink, told a moving story about embracing discomfort by attempting to build relationships with white men who had previously admitted to being scared of him.

Michael McAfee said it best in response to one white participant who didn't see race as the issue, but poverty: "It's easy for us to leave these discussions when we think it's not our problem. But while you may not see my life experience, that doesn't invalidate it. Don't erase my experience."

Seeing and enabling people to be seen. That's an important step in the journey toward racial justice. In the coming months, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations will elevate stories from our community of those who are acting on racial justice as an effectiveness imperative. GEO's contributions to this effort are in support of those who have led this charge for decades -- organizations like D5, PolicyLink, ABFE: A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities, Change Philanthropy, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Neighborhood Funders Group, many regional associations (notably the Minnesota Council on Foundations) and many others. In partnership with our Equity Advisory Group, chaired by Reverend Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, GEO board member and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, three truths inform how we are approaching equity. They include:
  1. Equity must be incorporated into every facet of our work. One attendee at the 2016 National Conference said they appreciated that equity wasn't a "track", but instead it was part of nearly all conversations. As we move ahead from the conference, a focus on equity will begin to have a strong and important effect on everything GEO does. We'll work with those in our community who are committed to racial equity, but are just starting to incorporate a focus on equity in their work. And we will continue to listen to and learn from field leaders like those named above and amplify their wisdom to the GEO community. The message for all of us: Equity is an effectiveness imperative, no matter how you do your work.
  2. For many, embracing equity will require a profound culture shift. Doug Stamm shared the difficult transition he and the Meyer Memorial Trust went through as they made an intentional shift to embrace diversity in all aspects of their work. The foundation was setting big goals to remove barriers community members face in building healthy and happy lives. But it wasn't until a staff retreat focused on white privilege, race and disparity that the foundation staff realized that they had only been addressing equity with platitudes. As a result, the foundation made a number of intentional shifts, from their grantmaking practices to their hiring approach. You can read more about Doug and the foundation's journey in a recent blog post.
  3. Most importantly: There is a difference between doing the work and being the work. Raquel Gutierrez, director of strategic learning and practice at Vitalyst Health Foundation said it well at our equity advisory meeting: "It feels like when we talk about equity, we talk about it like it's external to us. In every moment, we have the opportunity to be equity and live it." Equity isn't a practical set of steps or something we add to our to-do list -- it's a mindset that should come into play at every decision point in our work.

These conversation are not just uncomfortable, they require vulnerability. As the leader of GEO, I am committed to admitting my blind spots and acknowledging what I don't know. I'm grateful to others who are willing to disclose their personal experiences related to race. Any work on racial equity will inevitably include both those who have already made progress and those who are just figuring out where to start. For GEO staff, we're learning together and reflecting on racial equity through staff discussion groups and a formal training from ABFE. I look forward to embracing the discomfort with others on this journey so that we can learn and make progress together.

How you are addressing racial equity by doing and being the work? And what role would you like to play to help the GEO community be a better participant in the quest for racial equity?