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Racial Justice During Crises: COVID will show you whether it’s a priority

By Technical Assistance Manager Michael Durham

In college I waited tables at a fine dining restaurant. Our owner was one of these angry-chef caricatures: a tall, white man who leaned into his intimidating persona and yelled at staff during busy shifts. People who had worked there longer than me assured me that he was really a nice guy when he’s not working. I remember thinking in reaction that how you behave in times of stress is a better test of character than when you’re at leisure.

This is the case for racial justice during this pandemic. A national leader on poverty and racism, Marc Dones said it better than I could: “If equity is only your priority in times of ease and surplus then it was never really your priority.” If we are shelving whatever work we were doing on racial equity before the coronavirus outbreak, that shows us we were conceptualizing it as an initiative, something that can, in fact, be put on the backburner. The work of dismantling institutional racism within our organizations must in fact institutionalize antiracism. And the longer we wait, the more Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color will suffer.

We are witnessing the effects of structural racism in crisis response. Victims of COVID-19 are disproportionately African American. People of Asian descent are being persecuted. Compound this with the existing racial disparities in the homeless population and you have a perfect, racist storm. This should be no surprise to us given how intrinsic racism is to our society, but still calls us to action.

Many have already written about strategies to resist racism in pandemic response, which we are collecting in a section on our coronavirus webpage to supplement our antiracism resources; please listen to the calls of these Black and Brown leaders who are putting themselves at risk to show us the way. I’m also excited to host a related webinar discussion on May 26 featuring leaders from our learning collaboratives on antiracism in HCH. Please join us.

In addition, consider these lessons learned from the Council’s work so far. 

  • Experts disagree on critical issues, and that’s okay. Embrace the grey.
    Advocates and trainers on racial equity in the workplace promote many of the same strategies, but differences exist. But if diversity is a fundamental principle of the work, why would we expect uniformity?
  • Start where you are; determine where you are.
    This work often starts with assembling a committee to conduct an assessment, including analyzing your data. Tools for this abound. But don’t let data become just numbers and dehumanize the people we serve.
  • This work often starts in HR but it must extend beyond.
    Diversity is the first step, and that requires action in human resources, but if justice is the goal, it must extend beyond hiring and retention.
  • Size matters in DEI.
    Achieving a representative workforce, for example, differs with ten employees versus 100. Anonymity is another challenge for small organizations. But large organizations struggle to inspire hope that things can actually change.
  • It matters who champions equity in the organization.
    There is good reason for people of color to be suspicious of white folks who lead the charge for racial equity. But leaders of color ought not be expected to shoulder the burden. Partnership from both BIPOC and white people can be an effective solution.
  • Employing staff to oversee DEI is a rare but growing practice, and remains controversial.
    It has been useful for many homeless services nonprofits to hire Chief Equity Officers, for example, but it’s still uncommon. Some think dedicating staff to DEI outsources responsibility from management and others. It depends on to whom the Chief Equity Officer reports and the authority they have.
  • Are racially explicit or culturally specific services the future?
    We believe that if services that purport to be colorblind favor white people and disadvantage BIPOC, then equitable services will be racially and culturally explicit. But few examples exist so far.
  • Beware of checking boxes.
    When we think of this work as an initiative, we are missing the point. The goal is to move culture forward, starting with our own organizations. It is an evolutionary process.
  • External perspectives (i.e. consultants) can be helpful.
    Mistrust within organizations can stymie progress, and a third party can be a helpful mediator. Many have found investing in consultants rewarding.
  • Affinity spaces are important, but tricky.
    Many have organized affinity groups (aka caucuses) for staff to discuss racial equity with peers of the same identities. Among other virtues, this facilitates safe spaces for difficult and important discussion. Critics on process will emerge, but roll with it.
  • Buy-in from the top is essential.
    It’s hard to get anywhere if the CEO and other senior staff are resistant or complacent. If buy-in from leadership is elusive, consider finding allies who have leverage.
  • Be planful and careful, but don’t not start.
    Urgency is an element of white dominant culture, and there is no reason to rush. But complacency is also a danger. As you make careful plans, commit to near-term goals.
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