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The Illusion of Inclusion

July 12, 2023 Category: FeatureFeaturedOp-ed

Disclosures

This guest post was written by Dyshaun Hines, Founder, CEO of METRODAO

Following the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2019, and the pandemic and recovery of 2020-2022, a promise was made to communities that there would be a deliberate effort to advance Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive (DEI) practices systemically.

Research by the Brookings Institute supported the call to action of listening first when addressing community needs by adopting “bottom-up” approaches to achieve sustainable regional brand development. Philadelphia’s 2020 Workforce Diversity Annual Report emphasized four key areas of development: building a diverse workforce, embedding racial equity as a governing principle, promoting equitable procurement and entrepreneurship outcomes, and collaborating with stakeholders to address institutional racism and improve outcomes for all.

A Seat at the Table – a phrase made popular by the 2016 album by Solange has become a rallying cry for community representation in economic development and epitomizes the demand for delivery on these promises. It represents the desire for equal opportunities to make an impact based on merit, experiences, skills, and priority needs alone. In my opinion, the mainstream has diluted this demand for a seat, into a passive request for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) – a more palatable tone that can be easily dismissed.

While DEI initiatives have ostensibly increased the number of seats at the table, in 2023 it’s common to hear stories of how these seats have been ignored, discounted, manipulated, and silenced by those in trusted positions of power. Seeking funding for marginalized groups often feels like using dating apps. You have to keep swiping in hope of finding sincere, aligned, and transparent relationships with partners who won’t mistreat you.

This raises deeper questions about whom we are making these requests to and the responsibility they have to provide appropriate responses. If we are merely asking for a seat at the table to improve our communities through informed perspectives, who are the individuals already occupying those seats, and what perspectives inform their decision-making?

In most cases, non-profit organizations serve as the first line of advocacy for the community. They are legally required to have a Board of Directors who are granted the executive power to influence budgeting, activations, and sustainability. These boards often consist of volunteer, public and private sector, executive level leaders who provide resources through their stakeholder networks.

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In an ideal scenario, a healthy board is committed to the mission, self-governs through democratic decision-making, and is accountable to the organization and its community. But what happens when these leaders fail to be self-accountable, who holds them responsible?

The worst case scenario. A board “Quietly Quits” and/or alienates diverse members in effect becoming disengaged, misaligned, uninformed, and conflicted in interest; without accountability. In this situation, a lack of accountability enables boards to change the rules, lower standards, and silence contrary opinions. When these leaders prioritize personal interests over needs of the community, it begins to compromise and fracture the community. The greater mission is further compromised resulting in misallocation of funds, missed collaborative opportunities, and reduced sustainable impact. Consequently, this level of unchecked detachment quickly spreads and becomes ingrained as culture.

For example, The Inquire published an article in April 2023, headlined: “Philly poured $22M into an anti-violence grant program. It picked some groups unable to deliver on their proposals.” In my opinion this highlights a notion that Philadelphia’s ecosystem has experienced a pervasive trend of “Executive Quiet Quitting” amongst impactful leaders – often attributed to “lack of bandwidth” post-pandemic.

In a hyper-competitive fundraising environment like Philadelphia, social impact has become more about personal relationships than the organization’s mission. It’s an environment fueled by nepotism where funds are granted to the “lowest hanging fruit” with minimum appetite for true diversity vs familiarity. Nonprofits are forced to pivot their programs to align with funders’ goals, even if it means diverting resources from addressing critical systemic issues. This catch-22 situation is intensified by a shared scarcity mindset between those seeking funding and the funders themselves.

We must acknowledge that DEI, Social Impact, and Community Development have become superficial and insincere branding campaigns controlled by misaligned and irresponsible gatekeepers. These entities perpetuate systems that leave communities disadvantaged while projecting an image of social responsibility – evident through the disingenuous creation and removal of seats at the table. Meanwhile, nationwide political pushback in 2023 against DEI and affirmative action further exposes the true insincerity behind these campaigns.

I’ll emphasize that I don’t believe most leaders are intentionally bad actors. We’re all human with limits, and have to protect our own well being. To create balance, we, the community, must remain informed, advocate for transparent and inclusive decision-making processes, and demand that leaders remove themselves from seats when they are no longer acting in the best interest of the community.

Only through these actions, do I believe we’ll be able to build systems that benefit all stakeholders and solve systemic challenges at their roots.

 

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