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Racial equity IS ethical leadership.

“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ethics in victim services – and ethics in non-profit management more generally – have become a focus of my work over the past few years. It is no secret, at least for those that knew me personally, that ethical leadership, ethical services, and basic honesty are among the values that I hold most close to my core. And there isn’t enough of any of them in this world. As I watched George Floyd be murdered on tv in the Summer of 2020, it began a slow-to-start realization within me that racial equity in our work is a tenet of ethical non-profit leadership and ethical victim services. The quote above that I borrowed from Ta-Nehisi Coates, for me, encapsulates the problem of racism in the United States. For most of us, it’s not a hatred. We would never think in our hearts or in our head that we are racist. We don’t fundamentally believe that one race, ethnicity, religion – any classification – is better than or superior to another. We KNOW it’s wrong. But what about the stereotypes and implicit beliefs that creep into our consciousness when we aren’t thinking? What about the split-second decisions that we are making as a leader in our respective communities to favor one person over another? One position over another? One client over another? Chances are pretty good that the gut that is making those quick decisions is the same gut that was raised on television, radio, movies, books, and magazines that celebrated “White” culture while marginalizing any other culture. (For the record, I still don’t know if I can define “White” culture, but that’s part of the trick, isn’t it? We don’t have to.)

As leaders in our respective fields, we have a duty to learn about and try to understand the people from other cultures with who we are working and who we are serving. Can we really understand the triggers of an El Salvadoran refugee if we’ve never bothered to learn about why they are a refugee in the first place? Is it fair to say we are providing adequate services for a Native American-identifying LGBTQIA+ victim of intimate partner violence if we’ve never once stopped to think about what that person’s Native culture says about LGBTQIA+ relationships? And are we ethically serving people of color if we don’t listen to the stories of the racism that they face when they walk into a synagogue or church that is predominantly White? The answer is no. Racial equity is ethical leadership. It’s not easy ethical leadership, and it’s not comfortable ethical leadership, but it’s required ethical leadership.

And it’s a standard required for being certified as a Standards for Excellence non-profit. Standard II(C) states (in part) “nonprofit leaders should actively assess their policies, plans, procedures, as well as board and staff composition, to ensure that they are inclusive. Leaders should establish and implement an organization-wide strategy or plan that addresses gaps identified in the assessment and promote a culture that demonstrates practices of diversity, equity, and inclusion for board, staff, volunteers, and program participants.”

So, as people who think of ourselves as “not racist,” what do we do next?

  1. Take an implicit bias test. Project Implicit at Harvard University offers everyone the opportunity to take an evidence-based test – in our own homes – to gauge the biases that each of us hold when we aren’t thinking. Implicit – or subconscious – bias is an attitude or belief that people may have, but may be unwilling or unable to report. Often, our implicit biases aren’t something that we know we have. Sometimes our implicit biases are so deep within us that we don’t know that they are there. And, what’s worse is that our implicit biases drive our subconscious decision making. This decision making may drive decisions that result in disparities against people of color. As with anything, we cannot change a problem until we define it. Project Implicit helps us define it.

  2. And then do something about it. So now that you know that you have an implicit bias (and even if the test says that you don’t), read, follow, listen. The good news is that many platforms are giving us the names and the voices of Black and Brown people who are speaking to their experiences. It’s very easy to do an internet search and find 5 books to read, 5 influencers of color to follow, and 5 podcasts to listen to if you want to expand the universe of your knowledge. Now, do it. For real. As someone is on this same journey, I can tell you the ones that I enjoy the most, but it would be better for each of us to go on this journey themselves. To be clear, reading this blog is not doing something about it. As a White, heterosexual, cisgender woman, I’m here to do the same work – and to encourage people like me to do the same.

  3. Walk the walk. I will never forget working at a job and volunteering for a racial equity work group. I was so excited. It was all of the things that I loved – reading, thinking, and learning. It was time intensive, but I took it seriously and studiously scheduled my readings and learnings into my planner, ensuring that I had enough time to give the assignments my full attention. My workgroup and I were tasked with reading a lot of material and reflecting on each of the pieces that we read. I got into the group to discuss my reflections and the reflection of my boss was “It’s bad.” That’s it. “It’s bad.” What’s bad, I was left thinking? Did you even read the article? It was demoralizing and it sent a very clear message to me and to the rest of the group that this whole effort was performance. If you want to be an ethical leader, the first thing you need to do is be what you say you are. If you are doing something authentic, the people on your team will see that. Not only will many try to emulate that, but they will take you seriously as a leader who does what they say they will. If you are doing something authentic, your staff will see that, they may do something authentic, and the clients that your organization serves will benefit – in spades.

  4. Set measurable, objective goals for your professional life – and meet them. I recently attended a stellar (and virtual!) conference about working with victims of community violence – most of whom are Black and Brown men and boys. (Check out the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention). In one of their panels on advancing racial equity, I had the opportunity to hear from Pastor Michael McBride, Director of Urban Strategies for Faith in Action. He was speaking right to me as someone who considers herself to be a leader in the field of victim services and non-profits when he said that we have to set objectives and goals for our work and our agencies that are measurable and time bound. Don’t just say that you’re going to work toward racial equity in your organization and within your services without setting a goal and working towards that goal. If you do that, you are putting the onus on the backs of your Black and Brown colleagues to push you to meet those goals. And, your Black and Brown clients will accept less-than-competent services in the meantime.

  5. Use your voice to raise the voices of others. Since the Summer of 2020, we’ve heard that, as White people, we have a duty to raise the voices of our Black and Brown colleagues that haven’t been given the same platforms. And that applies also to our Black and Brown clients that are ignored in the media. Recently, we witnessed a maelstrom of media attention about the tragic loss and then eventual death of Gabby Petito. We followed her family as they openly mourned and pled for her safety. We grieved with her mother and father and all who loved and knew her. Our hearts still hurt as her family waits for a justice that may never come. But what about Jelani Day? Jelani Day was a graduate student at Indiana University who went missing on August 24 and, thirty days later, with little or no media attention, his body was found in a river. Gabby Petito’s family is grieving beyond measure, but so is Jelani Day’s. Make sure that all of the people in your community who need your help are hearing your advocacy. Don’t just focus on the ones that grab the media’s attention.

Adding a racial justice focus to our ethical leadership platform feels daunting. Many of us are scared that we won’t do it “right” or “well”. The only thing that is “wrong” is standing by and not doing anything at all. Making your organization anti-racist can be – it is – a series of simple steps that each of us can take by ourselves to make sure that we are providing the most ethical services to the people that we serve. Take the ethical leap forward. Contact me to discuss more about how we all can be ethical leaders by adding intentional racial justice outcomes to our work. I will work you,and with my colleagues who specialize in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion, to help you and your organization grow and change. Like me on Facebook and Instagram, follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, and sign up to get notifications if I post a new blog.


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