Ahead of the Heard

Diversity Necessary But (Insufficient) by Xiomara Padamsee

Our country has a long history of social movements that fight inequity, injustice, and institutionalized oppression and which are led by marginalized or oppressed groups. But the educational equity “movement” is unique in that it has, from the beginning, been led largely by white, economically privileged leaders and funders, while the communities most impacted by educational injustice are largely brown, black, and poor.

The outcomes of this disconnect are approaches, practices, and structures that are not deeply and authentically informed by the communities being served. They often lack sociological and cultural context and relevance. This reinforces power dynamics between school leaders and families, educators and students, and organizational leaders and their key constituencies. And these dynamics perpetuate dominant white culture, practices, and beliefs and maintain the systemic oppression living comfortably and largely untouched at the root of educational inequity.

In recent years, the consciousness about this disconnect has risen in our field, and with that increased awareness has come a desire to change. School leaders have started to shift away from zero-tolerance discipline policies that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline and towards restorative justice approaches. Educators have started to examine pedagogy for cultural relevance. Organizational leaders have started to prioritize diversifying their organizations. Funders have started to see the dramatic lack of ways to track data and metrics related to diversifying school staff, organizational leaders, and volunteer bases and boards.

As more nonprofits, charter schools and networks, and district leaders have come to our Bellwether Talent Advising practice frustrated by lack of progress on their diversity, equity, and inclusion aspirations, we have articulated an approach called the Funnel of Impact. This approach helps organizational leaders to build and run educational equity organizations that are what we call “talent-ready,” organizations that live and act in deep alignment with beliefs around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Talent-ready organizations are innovative, effectively managed, great places to work that generate sustainable results for kids. Importantly, they also have durable and authentic relationships with the communities they serve so that they can effectively attract and retain a diverse talent base, ensure all people have development opportunities to optimize their potential in service of kids, and create a culture where diversity tangibly enhances the organization’s mission.

The Funnel of Impact has three main zones to guide organizations through a set of self-reflective questions. At the top of the Funnel, organizations examine WHAT is currently going on with organizational or field-level demographics. In this phase, organizations should ask themselves (and funders should ask of their grantees):

  • What are our organization’s demographics and how representative are we of the communities we [seek to] serve?
  • Is there a disconnect between the leadership demographics of our grantees and the communities that those grantees serve, and if so, how deep of a disconnect?
  • What metrics might we look to at the organizational or field level to monitor progress?

These questions are important to ask, but many organizations and funders stop here without recognizing that these questions take on demographic diversity without thinking further about the conditions which enable or inhibit that diversity. Ending at the surface level at the top of the funnel is the approach most commonly pursued, but the one least likely to enable action and drive change.

Instead of stopping at this first zone, we encourage organizations to go deeper into the Funnel of Impact to ask WHY these realities exist and persist. In the next level of the funnel, organizations examine whether they have built a culture of inclusion:

  • Are we hiring for and rewarding white dominant speech patterns, approaches, and cultures?
  • Are we equating assimilation into white dominant environments and navigation of white dominant cultural norms with success?
  • To what degree do staff members and leaders from historically underrepresented groups experience an organization where they can bring their whole, authentic selves to work; perceive equitable practices; and witness the interruption of micro-aggressions without carrying the burden of initiating these interruptions?

In this second level of the funnel, organizations also examine equity:

  • Have we prioritized, invested in, adopted, and held each other accountable for systems, processes, and behaviors that institutionalize equity?
  • Have we enabled our leaders to spot for and guard against biases in their own practices around hiring, developing, and evaluating their people?
  • While enabling more regional or school-based autonomy and control for key decisions and resource allocation, have organizations with national offices also put checks and balances for equity into place?

These “why” questions serve to move deep under the surface and down in the Funnel of Impact, but by themselves, they are still insufficient to drive accelerated progress.

The bottom of the Funnel of Impact, where organizations ask HOW, is where real, accelerated progress can happen. It starts with a deep and authentic examination of core beliefs and commitments related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. What we are not referring to here is writing up a polished set of website-ready diversity principles that are generic enough to be all things to all people and avoid clear definitions and bold statements. Instead we need to engage in the difficult discussions around questions like:

  • How do we define “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” and why?
  • To what degree is this diversity, equity, and inclusion work important in the context of other competing priorities?
  • What are we actually trying to accomplish and why does it matter?
  • What investments, trade-offs, and even sacrifices are we willing to make in service of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization?

Only once we have answered these questions at the bottom of the Funnel of Impact, are we positioned to make real, accelerated progress toward bringing the organization into alignment with core beliefs.