Journeying into the Equity Conversation

Author: Tracy Sawicki

For a little less than a year, the staff at the Tower Foundation has been exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as it relates to our work. This post is the first of several in which we will share about our path and process, some of the challenges we have experienced, and the opportunities that await us. 

We use the definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as provided by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in their Power Moves resource

Diversity: The demographic mix of a specific collection of people, taking into account elements of human difference, including but not limited to race, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and disability status. 

Equity: Achieved when you can no longer predict an advantage or disadvantage based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or ability. An equity framework is a proactive, strategic approach to improving outcomes that accounts for structural differences in opportunities, burdens and needs in order to advance targeted solutions that fulfill the promise of true equality for all.

Inclusion: The degree to which diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes within an organization or group. While a truly “inclusive” group is necessarily diverse, a “diverse” group may or may not be “inclusive.”

Our First Steps

Over the last few years, the Tower Foundation staff and board have explored elements of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in a piecemeal fashion. After hearing Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, present at the 2017 Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conference, the Tower Foundation staff decided to explore the four solutions he proposes to combatting intractable societal challenges: (1) getting proximate with those who we try to empower, (2) getting uncomfortable, (3) changing the narratives that sustain unjust practices and policies, and (4) staying hopeful. This reflection led us down the path of promoting proximity by re-thinking our site visits and launching a human-centered design initiative. This ultimately led to the launch of an Advisory Team in late 2019 comprising young adults with intellectual disabilities who reviewed two rounds of grants with us; a form of inclusion we had never before imagined. 

We also started to explore our own unconscious biases by taking several (free) Implicit Association Tests from Harvard University and watching a series of videos about implicit bias from Grovo together.  Unconscious, or implicit, biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside of their own conscious awareness. Mitigating the potentially harmful impact of our unconscious biases on our grantmaking, by working to become more aware of them ourselves, was a natural place for us to begin.

In August, 2019, led by two of our Program Officers, Chuck Colston and Megan MacDavey, we set out to dive into a series of explicit conversations at the staff-level about diversity, equity, and inclusion and what it means for our work. Chuck and Megan decided to utilize the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s Power Moves framework to guide our conversations. This framework is a natural fit for the Foundation, showing that embedding DEI practices is necessary to advance systems-level change – a targeted area of focus for us through our Community Change portfolio. The focus on building and sharing power also deeply resonated with us on the heels of the lessons we learned in authentic inclusion from our Advisory Team.

After committing to the conversation at the staff level, we knew we had work to do to establish consensus on why this work was important for us as we prepared to engage our Trustees in these conversations. Once we got started, it wasn’t hard to articulate how becoming a more equitable grantmaker aligned with our interests.

For instance, equity is an important part of our vision: The Tower Foundation envisions equitable communities where all young people are included, accepted, and valued; and are confident in themselves. The Tower Foundation also calls out diverse voices as one of our four organizational values. Our vision statement and values optimally position us to think holistically about integrating diverse, equitable and inclusive practices throughout our work. 

Even beyond modeling our vision and values, we see a multitude of benefits to DEI that allow us to:

  • Recognize and address implicit biases in our grantmaking;
  • Gain new perspectives and access to a wider network or organizations;
  • Become a more equitable grantmaker by reaching populations that have historically been oppressed and ignored; and
  • Connect to a national network of funders championing these efforts across the country.

Context: Equity Work in Philanthropy

This is a good start, but there is another layer of important context to share about how our work fits into the field-wide movement to promote DEI throughout philanthropy over the last decade. Conversations have increased in the last few years, as funders of all sizes are grappling with how to better include the voices of historically excluded individuals and target resources to communities that need them most. 

D5 (a five-year coalition formed to provide resources to help advance DEI practices for funders) points out that, “the more balanced the power between foundations and nonprofits, the more foundations and nonprofit partners can act as partners, rather than benefactor/beneficiary. And when this balanced relationship is achieved, the system is more conducive to DEI in practice”. We appreciate the weight that the D5 Coalition places on power imbalances. One of the ways that we try to address this ourselves is through active listening in our site visits, grant inquiries, and check-ins with grant partners. Yet there is no simple antidote to the power imbalance that often is the unspoken “elephant” in the room. Quite frankly, our grant partners are way ahead of us in bringing DEI to the forefront through their work on the ground.

Over the years, we have learned from funder colleagues within the geographies where we fund, like the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, about the ways in which they were embedding a racial equity framework into their grantmaking. A few years ago, some staff participated in the Racial Equity Impact Analysis (REIA) Training hosted by the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo. Last month, several of our Trustees participated in the virtual, adapted version of this training. 

For years we watched other funders begin their journeys down a path toward baking DEI practices into their work. But truthfully, we struggled to see the alignment of our work with these efforts. The populations that we focus on – young people with mental health challenges, intellectual disabilities, substance use disorders, and learning disabilities – are themselves marginalized populations. Will going down a racial equity path diminish the focus on one aspect of diversity (e.g., disabilities) in favor of another (e.g., race)? It turns out we had work to do to learn about the many facets of diversity and the importance of intersectionality.

Over the past year, we have placed a strong emphasis on learning from those who have already started down this path. Conversations with some of our nonprofit partners helped us build our capacity and gain knowledge about key resources when we started. Several of these nonprofits were moving much faster and had already received buy-in at all levels of the organization. Those conversations helped us to anticipate potential challenges along the road and to ground our work internally in clarity and purpose. 

Other thought partners, such as the John R. Oishei Foundation, Bush Foundation, and Northwest Area Foundation, have provided different examples of ways that we might incorporate DEI into our internal policies, procedures, operations, and grantmaking. But it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and that this work is a marathon rather than a sprint. There is still much more for us to learn as we look to build our awareness and model our vision and values as funders. 

The Opportunities that Await Us

Before we go, let’s acknowledge the moment we are in. Right now, it’s clearer than ever that the well-being of black people is under threat due to structures, policies, and practices that continue to place them at an unfair disadvantage and cause harm. At the same time, the pandemic has brought heartbreak to so many families, and affected so many in disproportionate ways, including communities of color, people with disabilities, and those with chronic health issues – many of whom are served by our grant partners. These heightened racial disparities and injustices have brought an urgency to the conversation about DEI in our personal lives and in our work. 

Even though we have made progress over the past year on recognizing and mitigating power imbalances, implementing more equitable grantmaking practices, and looking in the mirror at the work that we have to do ourselves, we know that we must deepen our efforts and seize the opportunity amidst the unfolding crisis. But we certainly can’t do it alone. We have come this distance because of the other funders and nonprofits that have shared and modeled their work for us. We welcome your outreach, ideas, and partnership as we continue on the journey. 

Image Credit:
Elizabeth C. Tower (1920-2013), Birmingham, 1963; oil on canvas, 25 x 37 inches (Frame: 25 x 37 inches); Gift of Liz and Peter Tower, 2006 – Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY