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What’s it going to take to make CDC leadership more diverse?

December 14, 2015 Category: FeaturedPeople

The social sector has a diversity problem. Communities of color tend to be better supported when they have leaders who look like them. But say some, too often that’s not what happens.

Is that true? We’re not quite sure, since locally nobody is tracking such data, at least not on the diversity of community development corporations — nonprofits that aid communities economically and otherwise.

That’s according to Pamela Bridgeforth, the director of programs of Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, but she says diversity is an understood challenge among larger CDCs with PACDC membership: The prevalence of leaders reflecting the communities they serve “is just not quite there across the board,” she said.

The challenge then follows: How do we encourage people in the community to step into leadership, and what are the barriers to achieving that?

(1) Be intentional in reaching new leaders

A top-down approach could be the first step, suggested Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs. She said this while moderating a panel about diversity in leadership during PACDC’s Community Development Leadership Institute Symposium last week.

“We need to be more intentional” in reaching out to those who might not otherwise by called upon for leadership roles, she said. Rodriguez partially attributed her own rise in the ranks of city government to “sponsors” putting in a good word for her.

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She also identified the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Access Network, which fosters relationships between CEOs of big companies like Comcast with minority CEOs of smaller companies to give the minority CEOs access to networks they wouldn’t otherwise reach.

(2) Build new networks

People of color who want to earn leadership positions need to “make themselves uncomfortable by, at times, being the only minority in the room,” said panelist Akeem Dixon, the 52nd Street commercial corridor manager under The Enterprise Center CDC.

“Understand it’s going to be a rough path, trying to break into a new field,” he said. “It really is who you know, because people do make phone calls for you.”

Panelist Karyntha Cadogan also cited networking as important to advancement.

“Over the past eight years, I’ve probably met about 10 black women who do what I do,” said Cadogan, who previously worked in affordable housing at the Women’s Community Revitalization Project and is now a senior project manager at a real estate firm.

“The kinship is important,” especially because oftentimes in professional settings, she is both the youngest and the only non-white person in the room, she said. “It built my confidence to have those networks.”

(3) Be aware of power dynamics

It’s also important for those at the leadership table to acknowledge the disparity of representation at that table — simply put, “white people have to be more aware of their whiteness,” said Rebecca Johnson, the executive director of the Philadelphia Center for Architecture who previously served as executive director of Fairmount CDC

In all social situations, people should be aware of their “master status” — the primary trait by which they are perceived by other people and by themselves — according to Philip Green, director of the North 5th Street Revitalization Project in Olney.

“In Center City or South Philly, I’m the gay guy or the tall guy,” he said. “In Olney, I’m the white guy.”

Because he does not hail from the neighborhood, he strives to take a personal back seat to his work.

“It’s not about my role in the neighborhood, it’s about coordinating everybody else’s role in the neighborhood,” he said.

(4) Fix the holes in the system

A fatal flaw in the system is its inability to pay well for a lot of work due to limited operating budgets. That right away excludes many lower-income people from being able to accept roles in the social sector. 

There’s also a need to build excitement around CDC careers so young people and others not exposed to that world see it as a viable career path.

As the first person in her family to go to college and a law school graduate who passed the bar exam on her first try, panelist Kimberly Washington had planned to find work somewhere more glamorous than the neighborhood in which she grew up. The executive director of the Frankford CDC fell into the social sector because it was the only work she could find after graduation, but finds it rewarding now.

Frankford CDC now runs a summer program through the Philadelphia Youth Network that teaches local kids about retail development and neighborhood planning to make the social sector more accessible. 

(5) Fight founder syndrome

“Founder syndrome” is another flaw, Green said, referring to some founders’ tendency to have a hand in every part of an organization. Oftentimes, “the only person who can make that machine run is the person who concocted it and made stew in the first place.”

To solve this, Green suggested, CDC leadership could develop more clearly stated job descriptions as well as succession plans so the organization can last beyond the founder’s departure. That way, those working in the lower ranks can have a chance to step up more smoothly. 


Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations

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