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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: What's the Role of Philanthropy?

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More than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation and banned employment discrimination throughout the United States, this country continually and increasingly finds itself grappling with the issues of racism, prejudice and unconscious bias.

In June 2020, like thousands of other organizations across the country, Akron Community Foundation created a statement on racism. In that statement, the foundation pledged its commitment to the Black/African American community and other communities of color and vowed to continue doing its part to help eradicate racism at the local level. Leadership at the foundation believes that philanthropy can, and should, play a part in addressing this crisis.

"Racism and social justice were issues that not only did we think and feel were important for us to address, but they were issues that kept coming up in our research, too," said John T. Petures Jr., president and CEO of Akron Community Foundation. "Through research completed by the Center for Community Solutions, as well as personal feedback from over 21,000 participants in our On the Table conversations from 2017-19, it became clear that racism is one of the biggest issues facing our community, with inadequate resources being directed to combat it. This made it imperative for us to determine how best to listen and learn, so we could ultimately lead funding and other philanthropic initiatives on this issue."

Proactive Funding

In 2019, Akron Community Foundation’s board of directors announced its first round of proactive grants, meaning grants that were not tied to one of the foundation’s typical quarterly grantmaking cycles. Based on the aforementioned research, the board narrowed down its proactive priorities to: Drugs & Addiction; the Aging Senior Population; and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI).

In its first round of funding last year, the community foundation awarded $225,000, of which $125,000 went to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Women’s Network received $25,000 to improve on key findings from its Gender Equity & Women’s Leadership Study, a comprehensive local examination of women in leadership roles. This study found that compared to the national average, local women – particularly women of color – are underrepresented in leadership.

Even when faced with complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Women’s Network was able to implement training programs for high-potential female leaders, such as its Authentic Leadership: Leading with Strength program. The program had 74 participants with 18% minority participation.

In addition, the Greater Akron Chamber received the first portion of its $100,000 grant in the fall of 2019 for its Elevate Greater Akron initiative. One of the first programs the grant supported was the inaugural Greater Akron Inclusion Summit, which convened more than 400 business and community leaders in a dialogue on the state of inclusion in Summit County.

"Because of our efforts, the business community has a stronger understanding of the racial inequities that exist and is working more cohesively to address these issues," said Robert DeJournett, vice president of opportunity and inclusion for the Greater Akron Chamber. "We’ve created a forum to discuss issues and solutions as a community, which wasn’t happening within the business community prior to this work. The region’s civic, community and business leaders are stepping forward and making commitments to address racial inequities, and the ecosystem is working more cohesively to develop a sustainable infrastructure to support the growth and development of minority-owned companies."

In September 2020, Akron Community Foundation announced two more proactive grants for DEI initiatives: $50,000 to ConxusNEO to connect Black residents in Summit County with career opportunities and job preparation resources, and $100,000 to the Akron Urban League to increase its capacity to lead social justice efforts through the addition of a director of diversity and strategic initiatives. Both grants will be paid over the next three years.

Introspection Required

As DEI was beginning to emerge as a funding priority, the community foundation also began to look inward, establishing a small internal committee to vet staff diversity training and initiatives.

One of the first trainings introduced to staff was a lunch and learn series hosted by the Akron Urban League in the summer and fall of 2018. The series focused on topics such as understanding microaggressions, implicit biases, and cultural competency, and 100% of foundation staff members participated in at least one of the programs.

From there, the internal DEI staff committee enlisted the assistance of Project Ujima, a local nonprofit that primarily facilitates discussion circles for diverse groups of individuals to help them discover common ground. Crystal Jones, then the executive director of Project Ujima, worked with the staff committee to develop a customized series of initiatives designed to elicit introspection and thought-provoking conversation among the foundation’s predominantly white staff.

The first initiative included all staff taking the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI), an assessment tool used by individuals and organizations to build intercultural competence to achieve diversity and inclusion goals. Following the assessment, staff members participated in discussion circles based on the book "White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" by anti-racism educator Robin DiAngelo.

"In keeping with the adage 'know thyself,' the IDI allowed staff first to learn more about where they stand individually and collectively in their ability to bridge racial and cultural differences," said Jones, who is now the circle services director and co-founder of Project Ujima. "While a challenging and at times uncomfortable read, ‘White Fragility’ was a logical next step and served as a good foundation for the staff to talk openly and honestly about difficult issues relating to race and systemic racism."

Recently, the foundation’s board of directors completed the IDI assessment, too, and is planning a group review session to determine its next steps.

Strength in Numbers

While the foundation had already been focusing on its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for some time, the societal uproar unleashed by the deaths of numerous Black individuals over the spring and summer of 2020 put into laser focus the need to do more, to do it faster, and to work with others to achieve racial equity and justice in Summit County.

The foundation enlisted the expertise of Robin Shabazz, principal of The Eastledge Group, a consulting firm specializing in DEI, to facilitate large-scale discussions among a diverse group of key stakeholders throughout the community.

Akron Community Foundation partnered with Peg’s Foundation and the Summit County ADM Board to invite approximately 50 community leaders, from a variety of racial backgrounds, industries and professions, to inventory current initiatives, brainstorm different approaches and, ultimately, identify actionable solutions to further promote racial equity and justice in the community. The group will also identify and recommend the organizations that are best equipped to implement these solutions to drive positive systemic change and deliver measurable results.

The leaders met in mid-November, and The Eastledge Group will produce a report with the findings by the end of 2020. Although Akron Community Foundation has already begun to identify next steps for both its internal and external DEI initiatives, such as evaluating the diversity of its vendors, bringing in DEI experts to speak to community members, and evaluating its grantmaking efforts to become more equitable, this report will likely drive initiatives for the foundation for years to come.

"While highlighting the small steps we’ve begun and continue to take to become a more inclusive organization, we also must acknowledge that we still have so much to learn and, frankly, unlearn," said Petures. "We know we have a lot of work ahead and that this must be a deliberate journey with a long-term commitment to change."

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