Justice Starts on the Inside: How We’re Building a Diverse and Equitable Workplace

National Women's Law Center

National Women's Law CenterAs businesses and organizations across the country are building out internal diversity and inclusion programs to appeal to workers, supporters, and consumers – it’s time to start asking our sector what that work really means in practice, and what it means to truly embrace a workforce that represents the constituents we serve. After all, what is the value of a rainbow logo if an organization doesn’t show up in any meaningful ways to support its LGBTQ+ workers and their rights? What’s the point of intentional hiring for racial diversity if we don’t provide staff of color with leadership opportunities and the ability to contribute their unique perspectives at every level of an organization?
These are questions we’ve been asking and challenging ourselves with at the National Women’s Law Center since beginning more intensive equity, culture and inclusion endeavors two years ago. This work is ongoing, indefinite, and non-linear, and we understand that it’s not enough to simply identify, train and reinforce core management skills and hire for meaningful and intentional diversity. Being a great manager and an effective institution in today’s nonprofit sector also means developing the cultural competency needed to attract, retain and fully embrace a truly diverse workforce. What we’ve identified as our guiding light is not just the hiring and retention of diverse teams, but the preparation of those teammates for leadership in our sector.
As Edgar Villanueva writes in Decolonizing Wealth, people of color and indigenous people bring vital perspectives that strengthen organizations: “We are… masters of alternative possibilities…We cultivate this level of awareness in a way our white colleagues, especially the monolingual ones, never have to. It’s a burden, but it’s also a superpower.” To state the should-be-obvious, we need the perspectives of all kinds of people in order to understand and serve the needs of all kinds of people. Moreover, codeswitching and the ability to communicate authentically with diverse audiences should be recognized as valuable assets and treated as such in decisions around hiring, competency, and compensation.
Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector is losing more than just the inherent strengths and opportunities that come with having diverse teams and workers. As documented by CompassPoint in its 2013 report UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, our sector’s lack of investment in strengthening and diversifying the talent pool has contributed to a “vicious cycle” of under-resourced, unstable organizations whose development directors and executive directors are predominantly over 40, female and white. This means nonprofits are less effective at addressing social problems, with numerous studies cited in Equity in the Center’s Awake to Woke to Work report demonstrating that diverse teams lead to better outputs.
The Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead reports show that the racial leadership gap is not due to differences in skills, interest or education among people of color but rather stems from structural issues within the sector. They offer calls to action that we must take to develop great managers in our increasingly diverse country:

  • Recruit more diverse teams
  • Identify and address implicit bias in our organizations
  • Pay staff fairly and create transparency around pay scales, and
  • Invite donors to invest in these efforts.

At the National Women’s Law Center, we recognize that management and equity skills can be taught – and that this learning must be intentional and ongoing. Under the leadership of our first Black President and CEO, Fatima Goss Graves, we have invested significantly in staff development, including mandatory anti-bias training. Thanks to intentional shifts in our recruitment practices, a majority of our staff now identify as people of color. Just two years ago our development staff, for example, used to be entirely white, straight and female; now one-third of the staff on that team identify as people of color. We have also updated our non-discrimination policy and are designing a new, simpler and more transparent compensation program.
Recognizing that making time for management and unlearning old habits is not easy, we are experimenting with strategies to ensure skills stick. We’ve formed an internal working group which comprises a diverse community of staff – across race, ethnicity, generation, seniority, and team – who serve as partners to the COO & Chief of Staff regarding how to reinforce this continuous learning and offer input to ensure that best practices are implemented consistently. We are adding capacity to our human resources team and have brought in trained facilitators to lead team retreats and anti-bias training, and to provide more intensive coaching. None of this would have been possible without a transformational five-year grant from the Ford Foundation’s BUILD program.
Embarking on efforts like these is not for the faint-hearted. This work is messy, complicated, and emotionally intense – disproportionately so for people of color. While we at NWLC have made significant progress in increasing the percentage of Black and brown people on staff – nearly half of senior-level staff identify as people color today compared with just 20% two years ago – we have work to do to develop and recruit more Black and Latinx people into director-level and higher positions. Because staff of color are somewhat more concentrated in entry-and mid-level roles, there is an imbalance in positional power that requires senior-level staff to become culturally- and emotionally-skilled enough to recognize and mitigate bias when it shows up – and self-aware enough to avoid reacting defensively when we empower staff to be explicit about racial dynamics as they play out in routine office tensions.
Too often in U.S. institutions, equity is expressed as a throw-away bullet point trailing a long list of other organizational priorities. What too many managers and leaders fail to realize is that when we make equity and inclusion core institutional values and practices, other priorities fall into place. We generate better ideas, we attract more donor dollars, and we achieve more impact.
We believe strongly that the National Women’s Law Center is becoming even more effective at advancing our mission – to fight for gender justice through law, policy and culture change – because we are strengthening our management practices and explicitly centering equity. Since we began this journey in 2017, we have been growing significantly in size, influence and impact, including having taken on housing the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund. We have a long way to go on our journey to fully live our equity agenda, but we know that our most promising staff can grow into great managers and leaders and that they will help us become an even more powerful institution and movement.