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Kerrien Suarez shares her journey of moving from being employed in the for-profit and social sector to her current role leading Equity in the Center, an initiative that addresses the gap in the diversity, inclusion and equity practices in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. She discusses the various causes of racism and how organizations can make structural changes that empower leaders to have a personal transformation. She also reveals how to build a “race equity culture” and the various levers that organizations can use to effect change.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  •  A new approach to challenging the status quo (6:00)
  • The four levels in which racism operates (11:00)
  • The continuum of “Awake To Work To Work” (14:00)
  • How to move beyond “check the box” diversity efforts (19:30)
  • The seven levers to generate progress in an organization (24:00)
  • How to build a “race equity culture” (28:00)
  • The support needed to create personal transformation for leaders (31:00)
  • Five recommendations for organizations (33:00)
  • How structural changes can lead to personal change (36:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: On today’s Will to Change episode, we are joined by Kay Suarez, director of Equity in the Center. Kay is working to address the gap in philanthropic and nonprofit organization’s current diversity, equity and inclusion practices, which is that so often social sector organizations lack race equity inside their organizations while promoting it externally for the populations they serve. This takes me back to my early twenties when I worked for a wonderful nonprofit in Boston. We were really proud of working with the communities in Boston that were largely black and brown, but in the organizational culture, nobody talked about race and how the organization was overwhelmingly white and importantly how that might have been relevant to our ability to develop solutions for our constituents. In hindsight, I realized the leadership of the organization was also largely white, and I learned from Kay in this episode that this persists today, people of color are less likely to be offered leadership roles in nonprofits despite having the same academic accomplishments, skills, and aspirations as their white counterparts. Such disparities are rooted as we speak about all the time on the Will to Change in implicit biases and systemic barriers. Equity In The Center recently produced the white paper “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture,” which I highly recommend. Kay, welcome to The Will to Change.

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I was delighted to learn about your work and your broad-ranging career on a personal level, but also your focus on the social sector and the nonprofit world. I’m not sure a lot of people know about me, but when I came out of college, I worked for this incredible organization called City Year in Boston, and now they’re all over the country, and I always thought I was destined for nonprofit work because I wanted to do something that mattered. I never knew I would end up doing what I do now, which is largely serving for-profit, large, corporations, which were not even on my radar screen.

I learned so much and I felt awakened to my advocacy for the first time during those early years at an organization like City Year, which now has expanded around the world and does a year of community service for its corps members, who are between the ages of 17 to 23.

And it suggests that we all do this as society, we all take a year, we all use that year to give back and be of service, whether that’s a pre-college year or, “I just graduated and I don’t know what to do with my life,” or even for people that aren’t headed for college and want to get introduced to that world.

So, it was really an incredible experience, but reading your work now and seen through the lens of 2018 and what we know about race equity, which we’re going to be talking about today, it’s really interesting that it was a very white organization and struggled with some of the things we’re going to talk about today, that the nonprofit world really struggles with. And it’s really doing some cutting-edge work compared to where my corporate clients are and the work that they’re undertaking, which is considerably less sophisticated in a way.

I’m really excited to hear from you today and have our audience hear some of the innovations that you’ve been focused on, and hopefully take those back to their workplace.

Before we do that, Kay, I’d love to hear, as we always start The Will to Change with people’s diversity stories, I’d love to hear yours. What would you consider to be your diversity story, so people can get to know you?

KERRIEN SUAREZ: I think in terms of why I do this work, it ties to my experience as a professional in the for-profit space. When I, largely, was successful in and raised with values and priorities around how to be successful in a white-dominant context. I went to certain schools that would allow me to get certain jobs and be accepted, quote/unquote, in those spaces.

I thought about diversity. I was a diverse hire when I was in the for-profit space, starting out in consulting and in other roles, but I didn’t really start to think about race equity until I was working in the social sector. And by “social sector,” I’m talking about nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, social enterprises, even impact investing will sometimes be included in that sector, but really nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

When I was working as a consultant at a firm that supported the social sector and as one of very few people of color serving clients that overwhelmingly served black and brown communities, the tension between the absence of a discussion on the significance of race to our work and what I perceived to be bragging on the part of colleagues who felt very good about saying that our client base was comprised of organizations that served black and brown communities, that tension was no longer tenable for me.

As a result of that, and also just experiencing the micro aggressions that are part of day-to-day life and work for people of color and also gay and lesbian individuals and Muslim individuals, I basically quit in the middle of a check-in, and that was the beginning of my career focused on diversity, inclusion, and equity.

I left with the intent to do something around the role and significance of race in social-sector organizations and hoping I could address the failure of the sector to address it as a critical component of work in service of black and brown communities, but I didn’t really know how that was going to turn out.

I stared by coaching individuals, leaders of color through fellowship programs, just doing independent consulting, and through my support of Pro Inspire, a nonprofit that focuses on talent in the social sector, and does programs and develops resources to make sure that social-sector organizations have the talent they need to address the world’s greatest challenges.

I landed at Equity in the Center, which I think is what I wanted to do when I left the firm, but wasn’t sure it was an actual job. And I’ve had a lot of experiences in the social sector where it’s been made clear that as a person of color, I’m not qualified to lead initiatives that serve black and brown communities. I spent a lot of time in ed reform and in ed-reform-adjacent contexts, as well as in philanthropic contexts. And probably the last straw for me in terms of my diversity story was when I was in the middle of an interview and the headhunter interviewing me told me that as a leader of color, I was less credible, and that the board of the organization that was hiring had had explicit conversations about how leaders of color were not as credible as white leaders, and they did not trust a leader of color to head the organization and steward their investments.

I think that was probably the last straw in terms of the imperative for me to be explicit and activist in my work around race equity in the social sector.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. That is so disturbing that you had to hear those things. Would you share with us the statistics around representation at the leadership levels of nonprofits? I found them really startling. I’d also like you to explain a bit about the old approach to social sector leadership, which came from the white community and you differentiated the question of what makes a movement when we talked. You said it’s actually education reform led by organizations like Teach for America, et cetera, really contained a fatal flaw in their own thinking and how they set themselves up and the assumptions that they took out to help the black and brown communities they were there to help.

Go back and share some of the statistics, because I found it, sadly, very reminiscent of the lack of diversity we see in corporate leadership. In many ways, it’s echoing that world, but it’s particularly tragic because of the mission of so many of these organizations and who they serve.

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Yes. And it’s definitely not just TFA, it’s social-sector organizations. As you framed it, it’s the old way of leadership, it’s the standard way of leadership, it’s the status quo. But people are starting to push for change and greater representation and greater shifts in organizational culture to drive equity. It’s all rooted in what we may have talked about before as a charity mindset. This is the charitable sector, people who receive programming, communities, are beneficiaries of the largesse and the beneficence of donors, foundations, and programs that deliver them services. That is related to the fatal flaw that communities are not seen as equal in the philanthropic sector.

What that’s led to is that the leadership of the sector reflects the social hierarchy of U.S. society more broadly in that white Americans are at the top, and black and brown Americans are at the bottom.

I think it’s the status quo, and people are beginning to talk ask, “Is there a new approach? A new way of leadership?” But when you look at the numbers, and I’ll share some of them now, it’s very much current, this white leadership in a sector that’s serving overwhelmingly black and brown communities, particularly when you talk about programs that service the achievement gap, like TFA and other education-reform organizations, or workforce development, health equity – all of these subsectors of the social sector serve, overwhelmingly, communities of color. And, yet, when you look at the top of the sector, only 10 percent of CEOs are people of color, 10 percent of board chairs are people of color in the social sector, and 16 percent of board members are people of color. That’s the racial leadership gap at the CEO and the board level of nonprofits, and there are 40 percent people of color in the broader population.

In an ideal world, you would see proportional representation, and we’re nowhere near that. Traditionally, the argument has been that there was not a talent pipeline that would support proportional leadership or proportional representation at the top of the social sector, but Building Movement Project released a series of reports starting last year, and one of them focused on the fact that when you look at people of color in the nonprofit sector, nonprofit employees, there is no difference in education or credentials or qualification between black employees and brown employees, employees of color, and their white colleagues. But, yet, their trajectory toward leadership is completely different. In fact, nonprofit staff of color aspire to the top job in their organizations more often than their white colleagues, yet I just shared the numbers for what the top looks like.

It begs the question: If it’s not education and qualifications, then what is it? Building Movement Project advances and Equity in the Center also advances the position that it’s structural racism that drives the gap.

JENNIFER BROWN: This is all so interesting. Can you describe the different kinds of racism and the levels? It’s a prism. I think that’s a level of sophistication we’re all coming to in the corporate world. I don’t think we have these nuanced conversations, and they’re very important to understand what the difference is between your colleague sitting next to you and things that you might hear and the institutionalized biases that are difficult to route out that may be hiding in plain sight, maybe not hiding. The whole structural piece fascinates me because I feel like in the workplace, we’re dealing with the individual level a lot, but I’m lacking some of the language and understanding that this is a structural problem as well. How do we go after that? How do we go beyond the ways we can change on a personal level and step up to the plate? As we talk about, how do we become accomplices and not just allies? Accomplices tackle the systems and structures that need to change so that we have, frankly, less need for allyship because they’re more equitable structures. We want to work ourselves out of a job, but it’s going to be a very, very long time coming because we don’t have the nuanced language that I see you write about.

Can you tease apart the different kinds of racism from all the different levels, and explain how you write about them and why they’re each really important and how we need to look at each one of them?

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Sure. Well, there’s really just one kind of racism, but it operates at four levels – personal, interpersonal, institutional, structural, and sometimes systemic.

Personal is basically in your individual identity, how you navigate and engage or don’t engage with issues of race and racism within yourself, how you reconcile it as an individual. Interpersonal is how those dynamics, issues of race and racism would show up in your interactions with other people, so that’s where micro aggressions, which I talked about earlier, come up. And micro aggressions, in case folks don’t know what a micro aggression is, it’s when an individual who’s coming from a white-dominant position, it doesn’t actually have to be a white person, it can just be someone who’s operating with a white-dominant context, and makes a comment that insults, diminishes, or dismisses the experience of a person of color in my case, but it happens across identities. So, things like, “You’re too pretty to be gay.” “You must be the first person in your family to go to college.” This is where implicit bias lives. So, in the assumptions we make about other people interpersonally. That shows up in how I engage with people at Starbucks and assumptions I make about them in public spaces, but it also shows up in private spaces at work and at home in terms of the assumptions you make about individuals, where they come from, what value they hold, and it shifts our behavior.

A lot of us don’t like to think that race matters, but when we look at how our brains function and the way implicit bias operates, race and other identities are always there in terms of how we sort information and make decisions. That’s where the interpersonal is.

At the institutional level, it’s the reflection of racism in institutional policies and procedures. An example would be in pretty much every organization in which I’ve ever worked, there’s been a requirement for every job that you have a college degree. That’s an example of institutional racism, how you’re basically systematically discriminating or excluding people who might have the lived experience, but don’t have the educational experience to hold a certain job.

Other examples would be in terms of how you hire individuals. Generally, we circulate job descriptions through our social networks, which are overwhelmingly like ourselves. And when you look at requirements for dress, speaking, deportment, and what we in the workplace generally refer to as “fit,” those are all aspects or characteristics of institutional racism.

For example, when you have a panel of candidates and the decision is that the individual or individuals of color, quote, “aren’t a fit.” That would be a reflection of institutional racism.

At the structural level, you’re looking at broader society and policies like red-lining, which have historically excluded people of color, black people specifically as well as Jews, from living in certain communities.

You can also look at, for example, at the GI Bill, when veterans came back from the war, only white veterans were entitled to the benefits of the GI Bill. Folks came home, they got tuition to go back to college, they got no-money-down, low-interest loans to buy homes, and none of those benefits were afforded to the black service men who came back. People frequently say things like, “My grandfather worked so hard for –” without a recognition that, structurally, my grandfather and many other grandfathers couldn’t take advantage of the benefits programs that allowed others to get ahead.

You can also look at the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in certain contexts. There’s the documentary by Ava DuVernay which talks about how slave labor is still legal when the individuals are imprisoned, so that was a structural way to perpetuate discrimination against, at that point in time, former enslaved Africans, who could then be pulled into the prison system and continue to work for no compensation.

There are myriad of other examples, but basically policies, government policies, structures, and procedures that systematically exclude people from opportunity.

JENNIFER BROWN: Got it. The four levels: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural. When a nonprofit organization undertakes this work, it’s certainly a complete revision about how they think about themselves, how they’re showing up in the world. You were using examples of who they hire, who they promote, who they see as a leader. Those little micro aggressions, those biases are informed by one of these four levels, or maybe multiple of these at the same time. We’re all living in a racist, white-dominated world, so we carry all of that with us every day.

That’s why it’s so difficult to tackle as an organization, because organizations are made up of people, and we are all so informed by this world. We’ve been taught the norms and they live in his now.

When you wrote this paper Awake to Woke to Work, which I recommend as reading for everyone on The Will to Change, you’ve really dissected, I think the levels that an organization needs to undertake to awaken itself to the problem, to articulate that problem, to undertake the work, which requires a lot of brave, honest, and difficult discussion, and then the structural changes that they will need to undertake as well for their own organizational structure, org chart, or who has leadership or what they think a leader looks like. All of that work needs to change.

Tell us about, I suppose, if you can give us an example of how you define each of these – awake to woke to work – and then how are organizations undertaking this work at the individual level, the interpersonal level, and the levels that you talked about as well? It’s a big question, but you have a lot of success stories because, as you said, organizations are really waking up to this.

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Sure. Well, we frame Awake to Woke to Work in terms of what people would traditionally call diversity, inclusion, and equity. So, at the “awake” stage, organizations are focused on representation, so how many people of color or people of other identities are present in the organization, and they focus on increasing numbers of racially diverse people, so it’s very transactional. People would call this, “check the box” diversity.

Then, the second stage is what we call “woke,” or what many people would refer to as inclusion. Organizations are evolving their culture to value all people’s contributions. And in the case of race, recognizing that people have different lived experiences inside of organizations and in broader society as a result of their racial identity. And then with social sector organizations, acknowledging those lived experiences and making an explicit connection between those experiences and the value of those experiences inside of the organization and the attainment of that organization’s mission.

There’s the work stage, finally, which traditionally we would call “equity.” And at the work stage, organizations are accountable to addressing systematic racism and root causes of inequity internally and externally. So, organizations would be implementing policies and procedures to ensure that equity is being achieved inside of the organization. The way that that would look, for example, is that if organizations disaggregated their staff data – staff compensation, engagement, performance, promotion, and retention data by race, there would be no disparity, so that would be equity inside of an organization, so putting in place cross-functional policies and procedures to make that happen.

And then outside of the organization, they would be advocating for the implementation of policies and procedures that mitigate structural racism – modeling that behavior by how their culture internally has shifted, and then pushing their colleagues and the social sector more broadly to adopt policies and procedures that drive race equity.

I don’t think that we defined race equity. Externally, what that would look like is there would be no disparities by race if you looked at outcomes for education, income, housing, health, criminal justice – there would be no disparities by race. That’s the dream, to achieve that degree of race equity in society.

We outline seven levers that the organizations we studied have leveraged to generate progress in moving through the cycle – moving from awake, to woke, to work. Those seven are: Senior leaders, data, organizational culture, learning environment, board of directors, communities, and managers. We don’t outline the best-practice tactics that we identified around these levers by the levels of racism, we outline them by the stage of the race equity cycle – awake to woke to work. But what you’ll find as you view our report and look at the tables that give example tactics of the senior leadership lever, for example, at the awake, woke, and work stage, you see tactics that reflect a level of work at each of the four levels at which racism operates.

For example, the senior leadership lever at the awake state, some of the personal beliefs and behaviors that would characterize in an organization at this point is that the organization believes diverse representation is important, but may feel uncomfortable discussing issues tied to race, and the organization is responsive and encourages staff to increase diversity, but never talks about its connection to their mission or anything like that. There would be some policies in HR around creating and enforcing DEI policies within the organization, but it’s really in the transactional stage.

At the “woke” stage, if you’re looking at the senior leadership lever, the organization would prioritize an environment where different lived experiences and backgrounds are valued, as I mentioned earlier. They would also regularly discuss issues tied to race and recognize that each individual in the organization is on their own personal journey to learning more about race and racism and how that ties to the organization’s culture.

The organization would also take responsibility for a long-term change management initiative to build a race equity culture, and also focus on hiring a critical mass of people of color in leadership positions. When we say critical mass, we’re talking about proportional representation. Again, there are 40 percent people of color in the U.S.

Another example would be that the organization would evaluate hiring and advancement requirements that often ignore system inequities and reinforce white-dominant culture, as I talked about earlier, so college degrees, graduate degrees, internship experience. On the data side, as I talked about earlier, the organization would be beginning to gather and disaggregate data to identify disparities within the organization, particularly around leadership roles, professional development, promotion, and retention.

And then at the work stage, the organization, as I mentioned, would be modeling policies and procedures internally that drive race equity, and then promoting those more broadly in the broader society, senior leaders would show a willingness to review personal and organizational oppression, and have the tools to analyze their contribution to structural racism. As individuals, as individual leaders upholding a system, and then as an organization that’s part of a broader system of structural racism in U.S. society.

Another characteristic might be that they use a vetting process to identify vendors and partners that share their commitment to race equity. And on the data side, they might be beginning to illustrate, through longitudinal outcomes data, how their efforts are impacting race disparities in the communities that they serve. Those are some examples of what it looks like around one of the levers.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. One of many levers in this Awake to Woke to Work study. I really recommend people check it out.

I love continua, as a consultant. I love that you structured it this way. If I can generalize about them, our learners like to know where they’re at. It helps people to relax. While it’s not a critical model, it’s more that this is a journey and there are increasingly deep lenses that you can look at these things through, but that you have to start somewhere.

My observation of our constituencies, even saying the words “race” and “ethnicity” – when I stand up and talk about white, male leadership, I have some white men who were offended that I said the words “white” and “male.”

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Yeah. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: I am trying to push the envelope always. We’ve got to name things, name our ethnicity, and not make assumptions about the fact that it’s going to take care of itself – obviously, it’s not. Just because we’re well intended, and just because we’re a social justice organization even, which is what we’re learning from all of your research, that these things don’t just happen. They have to be really intentional.

I wanted to hear from you, when people awaken to this, the resistance particularly that, perhaps, white leaders have to even feeling comfortable talking about these things, how do we get people over the hump so that this can become something they really stand up to work on proactively and publicly without feeling like they’re being called out as racist? That is what is being heard by 90 percent of people as we start to talk about these things. We’re not wasting time, to me it’s a more interesting challenge to say, “How do we get people over the hump of feeling they’re being attacked or described in a derogatory way?” And how do we get them to, then, sign up for more and get past that? Do you have any advice or tactics to do that?

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Sure. Sure. I’m glad you like our cycle. Initially, we started out with a continuum. It’s a cycle that you can enter and exit at any point as an individual or as an organization.

I was part of a conversation this morning that played out exactly as you described in terms of people being made uncomfortable by stating facts. So, the example that you said, you are in meetings and you point out white, male leadership and people are offended by that. People are uncomfortable with facts. It’s really all about their feelings about those facts and we need to get to a point, as you said, where we’re more comfortable discussing these issues openly.

We talked a little bit about the four levels at which racism operates. On a personal level, people need to give thought to the significance of race and racism in their own life, even if they are white, or even if they’re a person of color who has some economic advantage and has been successful in a white-dominant context. We encourage people to decolonize their mind. That’s actually a tactic that’s included in Equity in the Center’s call to action.

But what’s critical for people’s ability to have what a colleague at Georgetown called a “radical transformation of personal consciousness” around race, there needs to be some degree of support from an organization at the interpersonal, institutional, and structural level.

What you’ll find in the report as you go through each of the levers that we’ve outlined are tactics that organizations can employ at each of the four levels at which racism operates.

Sometimes, an organization has to have a training on structural racism and initiate a cross-functional race equity initiative before some people will ever do the personal work because our societal norm is not to talk about it and not to do the work. That’s what privilege is – you get to live and move in the world as a white man, a white woman, or even people of color have certain advantages and privileges in a white-dominant society, and you don’t have to think about it.

A big part of the recommendations that we lay out in the publication is that the organization has to star to provide the institutional framework and structural supports for people to do their own work, so providing them the opportunity to go to a Race Forward training, to do a People’s Institute training, to do an Interaction Institute for Social Justice training, where you spend a day learning about structural racism – essentially learning the facts that none of us have been taught in school. Beginning to see the water that’s in the fish bowl, because structural racism is what we don’t see, and we don’t see it because that’s how it’s designed. Organizations can provide opportunities for their staff to learn about structural racism, how it plays out in society broadly, and begin to support the realization that there’s a vast divide between structural racism and being a racist.

I gave some examples of training programs and organizations that can create these environments for people to learn and begin their personal journey, but many of the tactics that I shared when we were going through the senior leadership lever, creating space for people to talk about this at work, creating affinity groups for people to gather and talk about race and how it shows up at work within their identity group, initiating initiatives to explore how HR, vendor policies, promotion, professional development policies can be evaluated with a race equity lens. These are all things that organizations can begin to do to provide the context in which people can begin to do that personal work.

We do have a set of five recommendations for organizations that are trying to get started on this, and we believe that by doing this, you provide the context in which the personal work you’re talking about can begin.

We suggest that organizations establish a shared vocabulary, ground your organization in shared meaning around race equity, structural racism, and other terms related to this work. That can be a relatively light lift in terms of starting a conversation. Identifying race equity champions at the board or senior leadership levels, who can push an organization to invest in one of the programs I mentioned earlier. They can communicate them broadly, drive accountability from the top to the bottom of the organization for beginning to address this in their work formally.

You can name race equity as a strategic imperative for your organization. This is where you were talking about the differences between the for-profit and the nonprofit sector. Race equity is tied explicitly to many of the missions for organizations in the social sector. Coming to this point in a for-profit context would look different. Another recommendation we have is just opening a continuous dialogue about race equity work. You can do that through the affinity groups I mentioned. Some organizations start a brown bag lunch where issues of race, racism, and broader structural inequities are explored by staff. Another thing we recommend is disaggregating the data that you have, so looking at your staff data and disaggregating by race, looking at performance, compensation, engagement, promotion, and performance, identifying the disparities, and then having a discussion as a team about those disparities. That can be a great place to start.

Those are some of the recommendations that you’ll find in the report.

JENNIFER BROWN: Kay, this is so helpful. I love those recommendations. The big “ah-hahs” for me are, first, this definition of race equity. I just want to recap it and leave our conversation with this: The condition where one’s race identity has no influence on how one fares on society. We will probably not achieve this in our lifetime, but you and I are going to work very hard. I know we’ve got a big community that’s also working hard on remedying some of these things.

The other big take-away, starting at the structural conversation level, maybe before you can create the environment and the understanding and the knowledge in order for the personal transformation to happen. I’ve been thinking about it in the other way. I’ve been speaking that individual leaders need to do their own personal work and transform, but really understanding structural differences like this for white leaders requires a real investment on their part. You just threw out about four different workshops that I want to make sure we capture in our show notes, where people can go and actually do a deep dive into the structural conditions and what is baked into the system in which we all operate, that we take for granted, that we don’t see because it’s the water in the fish bowl, as you said, and I love that image.

Then and only then can leaders who are in the majority, as we often refer to leadership in organizations, understand that, A, I am not being called racist while I am talking about race and talking about ethnicity and talking about my identity within that context.

Boy, wouldn’t it be incredible to have leaders who were this fluent and this comfortable speaking about this? We’ve gotten there with some other issues like we’ve just gotten leaders to a point where they can say the letters “LGBT,” and then we added Q on and you can see people’s head explode. (Laughter.) It’s baby steps for some of our leaders.

In the corporate sector, we really do need to have a more specific conversation about these things without feeling triggered, without feeling defensive or personally attacked, but that we can have the energy of the accomplice. Which means that I understand the problem, I understand that it has been many centuries in the making, I understand that it’s a language that I’ve learned, that I propagate, hopefully unwittingly, but that, then, that is where the real work starts, and that’s where we can really get down to business. I think this has been really excellent.

Thank you for joining us. Let me just mention the name of Equity in the Center is the organization that Kay Suarez is involved in and mentioning today. Her research is Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture. Kay, is there any other place you’d like to point folks to learn more about your work and find some resources they can use?

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Our website. Just go to equityinthecenter.org and go to the resources page. You’ll find the report that you just mentioned, thank you. There’s also a two-page infographic that summarizes the research and additional resources, as well as some links to our partner organizations that have some recommendations on how you might approach this.

Thank you for the great synthesis of how we ended the conversation. Focusing on the structural does provide an important context for the personal, and I think my colleagues and I have found that that’s a best practice, because on the personal level, we don’t actually have the skills to do this work because that’s the outcome that the system produces. You need some external support to learn about the system, and then with external consultants generally, defining a process that will help take your team through the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural artifacts or characteristics of racism within your organization.

We’ve been doing this for 400 years, so we don’t actually know how to create an equitable society. The presumption that we’ll just figure it out is false because it’s been 400 years, here we are, and we don’t talk about it. We’re awkward when the issue of race comes up because that’s literally how the system is designed. That’s the outcome of structural racism. You need external support. This isn’t a journey that you can lead by yourself. As an individual and as an organization, it requires external support and a container and skilled facilitator to help people navigate all the feelings that you mentioned earlier in terms of, “Oh, I feel like I’m being told that I’m a racist.”

Sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about the broader system in which we exist and helping people pull the thread from personal to interpersonal to institutional to structural. And there are lots of organizations and consulting firms and independent consultants that are expert at doing that for both nonprofit and for-profit clients. We focus on all organizations in the social sector and encouraging them to take a look at how white-dominant culture and the legacy of racism in the U.S. is embodied in the way that they do their work every day.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That was another huge “ah-hah” around that whole charitable mindset. Yes. You’ve educated me so much, and you’ve allowed me to connect some dots of my own professional past and involvement in nonprofits. Seen through the lens of what I know today, it’s an exciting new learning. This space is so dynamic, and we’re uncovering new insights all the time if we just open our eyes and make some time to do the work that you’re suggesting.

Put defensiveness aside. As you said, sometimes it’s not about you. I love that you also said it’s not something we know how to remedy on a personal level because it’s 400 years old. There are a lot of frustrated people out there right now who are watching the news or watching their colleagues and having really difficult conversations and not able to solve for it. I think that’s another really big takeaway, Kay. There is help, but we need to make sure we’re making time to learn about this in different spaces and have the structural conversation first, so that we can understand the circumstances that are so much bigger than all of us. That is not at all to say we are off the hook just because those things are bigger than us and baked into the system.

KERRIEN SUAREZ: It’s collective.


KERRIEN SUAREZ: One of the ironies of the system is that white people and people of color are all complicit in upholding structural racism by virtue of how we’re socialized in this country. It’s about accountability for a shared system in which we all play a role, and becoming aware of that and understanding how personally, interpersonally, and institutionally you can mitigate the effects of racism.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s fabulous. Thank you, Kay, for coming on The Will to Change.

KERRIEN SUAREZ: Thank you for having me.


Equity in the Center