Racial Equity Labs Providing ZSR Grantees with Racial Equity Training to Enhance their Missions

Social Justice and Equity, News

For decades, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has supported racial justice efforts and recognized the work of North Carolina's racial justice leaders. The Foundation has also had a keen interest in increasing racial inclusion among our grantees, primarily by promoting authentic diversity of representation of their staff and board members. The Foundation's grantmaking policies reflect the belief that organizational performance is greatly enhanced when people with different backgrounds and perspectives are engaged in an organization’s activities and decision-making processes. 

As many organizations have expanded their work to increase racial diversity and inclusion, the Foundation has sharpened its focus on racial equity as a cross-cutting priority for all of our focus areas. We have come to see that racial equity is a necessary element of a successful path to growth for individuals, organizations, communities, and the entire State. 

In 2011, the Foundation launched the Racial Equity Initiative. To date, this has included a series of four regional convenings that offered grantees a framework for understanding structural racism, provided a set of tools for strategic thinking to advance racial equity, and offered an opportunity to connect with other grantees around these priorities. In 2012-2014, through an initial round of technical assistance grants, ZSR helped 11 organizations deepen their racial equity analysis through customized training in the hope that each would be able to move forward in incorporating racial equity into its work. These 11 organizations were able to consider ways of enhancing diversity and hiring policies, revising internal practices, and strengthening partnerships and collaborations. 

In 2015, the Foundation sponsored a series of racial equity labs aimed at increasing the capacity of 20 grantee organizations to: 1) understand how race impacts their work internally and externally in communities and 2) develop actionable strategies to address the impact of race in their external work.

The first session, held in April 2015, focused on helping participants understand structural racism and how it affects outcomes that ZSR grantees pursue. Grantees practiced using a toolkit to understand and strategize for racial equity in issue work and to apply these learnings. The second session, held in June, was led by Professor john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California at Berkeley. This session focused on the topics of Implicit Bias and Targeted Universalism. Groups had the opportunity to work with one another to try out strategies to deconstruct specific inequities in the areas of criminal justice, education and environment. In October, the final session focused on racial equity and communications and was led by Alan Jenkins, executive director of The Opportunity Agenda – a communications, research, and policy organization dedicated to building the national will to expand opportunity in America.

Below, a selection of grantees weigh in on how the labs have impacted their work. The Foundation will be reviewing a comprehensive report of this past year's racial equity labs and will be developing a plan for next steps in the coming months. 

Bob Wagner, co-director of MountainTrue:

I have a better grasp of the depth and power of racial inequity, and the structures that sustain it. I also have more awareness of my role as a white male, the historical context, how I've personally been complicit in furthering inequities, and a better idea of what role I can play as an advocate for change.

It's like I've gone to the optometrist and had my eye glass prescription refined, helping me to see our work through a clearer lens. As staff we have discussed race and equity, the history of the environmental movement and MountainTrue as it pertains to race and equity, our stakeholders and programs. Our board has also engaged in discussions around racial equity. 

Our more traditional conservation work around healthy forests and rivers do not easily lend themselves to engaging people of color. Western North Carolina has the added challenge of demographics that are very white, and becoming whiter and older.

My hope is that as a result of internal and external discussions, learning, and new relationships, MountainTrue will make the needed changes to be, and to be seen as, an inclusive organization and leader in the community truly welcoming people of all races and socio-economic backgrounds into the environmental movement.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of Campaign for Southern Equality:

[The labs] have offered frameworks for analysis, a shared vocabulary, exposure to models of how other groups in NC and across the country are doing this work, and a shared experience for our staff to push our thinking and our work.

The framing and messaging content at the last lab has been particularly helpful as we think about values-driven ways to talk about issues of economic and racial disparity impacting LGBT people, and also the broader communities we are part of.

I am seeing a real and exciting shift in how our team engages with a racial equity analysis that is a fundamental part of our broader justice analysis, versus a related-but-distinct issue. It's been exciting to see staff come up with creative ideas about events, programming and messaging – from participating and supporting local events organized by #BlackLivesMatter organizers, to building more racially diverse leadership teams in our programming, to putting out writing and analysis about race in America.

Jim Cislar, board member of Parents for Public Schools of Pitt County:

The mission of our organization is to engage, educate and mobilize our community. Our ultimate goal is to change people from a passive customer to an active participant.

All three racial equity sessions have helped me learn: 1) that racial equity is not just about how many minorities are on board; 2) that we shouldn't look at racial equity as something we have to do, but more of what we want to do; and 3) how to have community conversations and the need to talk to the community differently.

It's a small example of how these labs have influenced our work, but we've recently added a mantra/tagline to the bottom of every agenda to keep these learnings at the forefront of people's minds:

'We seek to embody equality in all we do.'

Gretchen Engel, executive director of The Center for Death Penalty Litigation:

The Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) has a deep commitment to racial equity work because of the uniquely potent role of the death penalty in enforcing racial oppression. The labs have helped us to regain our focus and given us new energy to take on the difficult work of confronting racial disparities in our litigation and public advocacy efforts. In addition, we are committed to integrating racial equity principles into the daily operation of our office.

We have started to draft a racial equity mission statement and envision this document informing our future work on cases, public advocacy campaigns, as well as fundraising and hiring efforts.

We are also committed to working with new partners on a broad array of racial equity issues related to our system of crime and punishment. We want to deepen our own understanding of how persistent racial bias in the death penalty is linked to racial disparities in non-capital cases, to over policing of communities of color, and to mass incarceration and the collateral consequences disproportionately suffered by African Americans and Latinos.