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How to Push DEI Conversations Out of the Comfort Zone

How to Push DEI Conversations Out of the Comfort Zone

How do those, like us, committed to advancing racial equity in philanthropy find our learning edge — what  "the edge of our comfort zone and competence?" Moreover, how do we do so when our efforts are focused locally, in organizations and communities, yet have an impact on global society? 

Philanthropy's growing embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion requires retooled, if not fully reimagined, structures and practices that can advance racial and economic justice. And as those efforts cross borders, we must recognize the limitations of the  that confuses evolution for progress and which places humans at "the pinnacle of all life."

We are practitioners working in philanthropy, specifically at the crossroads of strategy and evaluation, where data-informed decisions determine who gets funding and who does not, in what amount, and to what end. For us, the intersection of strategy and evaluation is contextualized, personalized, values-informed, and exists in service to an emerging world — and that is both transformative and freeing.

To realize this aspiration, we embrace our full identities and commit to practices that push our learning edge as black American, heterosexual, cisgender women. And as we pursue more equitable processes and outcomes, both locally and globally, we turn to four practices to help us center race through an intersectional lens.

1. Ask a "real" question. Carol Gilligan, New York University professor and author of , teaches a methodological  on psychological inquiry in which she asks her students to write down a question about which they are truly curious. This prompt invites students to step away from their position of expertise toward one of learning. Gilligan then asks students to further break down their question: "What do I know about my question" and "What don't I know about my question." Generally, what happens next is that, on their first attempt, most students find they actually know a lot about what they don't know. Students then repeat the exercise, with a focus on their "knowing." Then students are asked to formulate a "real" question — a question that sparks their curiosity and isn't tethered to a preconceived answer. The "real" question becomes the launching point for inquiry, for considering who might inform the question, and for preparing to listen.

2. Name orthodoxies. Orthodoxies often are invisible norms masquerading as common sense.  us in deciding what is valid, trustworthy, and rigorous, and come to be seen as foundational. As practitioners, we must name and push against these norms, particularly if they reinforce a stance that diminishes the insights and experiences of those who are different from us. For example, the belief that quantitative metrics are the gold standard of proof ignores the value of metrics that are narrative, verbal, and/or a synthesis of all three. Accepted ways of being must be interrogated through a lens of curiosity. Whose intentions, beliefs, and biases led us to our current assumptions? Given our identities, our training, and our experiences, how do we un-learn and create something new, particularly if what we seek is racial and economic justice? At, Jara Dean-Coffey and her colleagues have debated these questions as longtime partners to foundations working to create fair and more just societies. The (EEI) is a change and organizing effort incubated by the organization. As its national director, Jara works in partnership with others in the philanthropic ecosystem to co-create evaluative practice that is itself an instrument of and for equity.

3. Shift the center and share power. Recognizing the complexity of people in their fully human, multiple identities is essential to racial equity. When we shift the center, we extend W.E.B. DuBois's , the feeling that one's identity is divided into several parts. For DuBois, to be African American was to understand his self through multiple, sometimes conflicting, lenses that rendered part of himself invisible: he knew he was discriminated against as a member of a subjugated racial group, but he also identified with a  American .

Using an intersectional lens allows for the recognition and centering of multiple, traditionally marginalized identities. As we shift the center, we must also share power. Philanthropy and evaluation prioritize particular ways of thinking based on quantitative reasoning, definitions of evidence, and ideas around worth and merit. Both continuously reassert privilege and power through knowledge creation. Others in the ecosystem, including PhD students and nonprofit partners, must go along if they wish to obtain and maintain access to resources and be deemed of value. We acknowledge that the roots of philanthropy and evaluation are firmly grounded in power.

Equity — both racial and economic — requires us to be in proximity to and in a position of interdependence with others as the path to our collective health and well-being. Sharing power means asking grantee partners about their vision for community well-being using related outcomes to guide evaluation. And it means turning an evaluative lens on our efforts so that we can continuously improve our practice. 

4. Mind yourself. If we are to function with any degree of success in complex systems in the United States (and beyond), we have to not only become comfortable with but also embrace the multiple realities — and histories — of people and communities. We have to seek epistemological and ontological frames that challenge us. We must seek out definitions of evidence, truth, and rigor that reflect the complexity of the issues we seek to address, the intersectional identities of all humans, and the historical and sociopolitical phenomena that have brought us to this point. For example, in their respective work, , , and  offer indigenous frameworks for evaluative work that centers culture and seeks to be an expression of liberation. These frameworks acknowledge and embrace multiple truths, interdependence, and the fact that time is non-linear. As our philanthropic strategies embody greater complexity (and sometimes even chaos) and increasingly reach beyond our local and regional boundaries, it would behoove us to listen to and learn from those whose mindsets, experiences, and approaches stem from a belief in the collective.

Moving Forward

We are habituated to centering ourselves and our institutions, so we must seek the edges of our comfort zone and competence if we are to truly create equitable processes and outcomes. The four learning edge practices are designed to unsettle in ways that allow us to stay curious and ask real questions. They are not only about whom we listen to but how we listen and how we interpret. It's all about the way we analyze and make sense of the information we glean and the degree to which we allow the complexity of what we hear to inform our actions and decisions.

It's a natural human tendency to want to create order within complex, adaptive systems. But in our desire to create meaning, we mustn't lose sight of the many challenging paradigms that shape our worlds and work. To advance equity locally and globally, we must build a future that embraces the complexity of our varied histories and experiences — our own personal histories and experiences, our organizations' collective histories and experiences, and the stories, both past and present, of our partner organizations.

We continue the work of our ancestors toward an imagined future centered on love.

Chera Reid is director of strategic learning, research, and evaluation at the Kresge Foundation. Jara Dean-Coffey is founder of Luminare Group, a minority woman-owned strategic planning, evaluation, and capacity-building firm, and director of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative.