The Elephant in the Room

| by Leslie Starsoneck

I love talking to my friend, Bernice Sanders Smoot.  She is the founder and principal of a firm called Saint Wall Street, LLC that helps nonprofits capture and articulate their value.   The first time I heard her speak, I had one of those “I really need to meet her” moments. 

Because of a shared interest in the topic, it’s not unusual for our long conversations to go to race.  Why do I enjoy our talks?  Bernice is wise. She is righteous.  She is funny.  She is black.

During one of our conversations about leadership teams lacking in diversity, Bernice said something like “I don’t need you to designate a seat at the table for me.  I just need you to treat me equally when I’m in it.”  Too many people are recruited for their personal demographics, not their talents and treasures.  I had a colleague once tell me she was a “professional minority” relentlessly sought out for board service to diversify the board with little regard for her interests, expertise or other dimensions important to consider when recruiting board members. 

During our most recent conversation, Bernice and I talked about how we might go about integrating a highly segregated community.  My solutions were around access and getting those who are out of power into positions of power, decision-making, and influence.  Bernice’s solution was much simpler and elegant.  It was to create informal, unstructured ways for black and brown and white people to spend time together so that they would come to know each other.  Sort of like Bernice and I have come to know each other? 

This conversation led me to reflect on what it must be like to be a person of color who becomes a new leader of a largely white organization.  And how they come to understand – if they do understand - the expectations of the organization, the board, and the community.  Are they implicitly tasked with making the organization, the board, and the community more culturally competent?  Are they the ombudsman for micro-aggressions – against themselves, against everyone else?  Are they expected to further diversify the board, staff, and volunteer corps?  Will they open previously closed doors, especially those of donors?   

How do we explore these expectations in the hiring process?  I think Bernice might suggest something short of preparing “race-related interview questions” but not ignoring the elephant in the room and the realities of organizational and community make-up/history.  Perhaps it’s more of a dialogue about how this person perceives their impact internally and externally based on the many characteristics they bring to the position and what specific expectations the hiring committee and board of directors have. 

Here are some conversation starters that a candidate might consider asking a hiring committee: 

  • How does or doesn’t racial equity and inclusion fit into your mission? How is it expressed internally and externally?
  • What are the organization’s goal in relation to diversity and inclusion?
  • As a/the first/the only  ______________, how do you think I will be received by _____________?  What role does the board have, if any, in my welcoming and reception?
  • Were you/why were you actively seeking a person of ____________ for this leadership position?
  • What board or staff activities are in place that review efforts related to diversity and inclusion?
  • What importance (or metrics) is placed on staff, board and volunteer composition?  

I think these conversations should be held as part of the hiring process, and their outcomes reflected in the person’s onboarding.  Too often, conversations don’t happen either because of discomfort or a sense that race is irrelevant (“we don’t ask other candidates these kinds of questions”).

How would you approach this? 

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