Reflections on Leading for Racial Equity

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Data unmistakably link race with poor health and housing outcomes, and leaders within public health agencies, community health care organizations, and housing and homeless services entities have attempted to develop new strategies to produce more equitable outcomes. In seeking deep and lasting impact, however, these leaders encounter barriers stemming from the persistent influence of unconscious bias and white supremacy that pervades our culture. For instance, researchers found that the most commonly used assessment tool for prioritizing access to scarce housing units for people experiencing homelessness results in statistically significant discrepancies in scores that favor whites over people of color. Genuine dialogue around these issues, which includes both clients and staff of color as well as managers at all levels, regardless of their racial identity, is needed.  

Even leaders committed to equity and social justice can find this prospect intimidating. In my experience as the white director of a 10-agency network annually serving more than 10,000 homeless individuals identifying as people of color, the basic question of how to start lacked an obvious answer. Furthermore, the work of supporting open, honest dialogue about racism as the foundation for strategic planning demanded that I personally dig deeper than on any project I led in 20 years in community health care administration. I present lessons learned from recent racial equity work at Seattle, Washington’s Health Care for the Homeless Network (HCHN). 

Talking About Racism

After studying the stark overrepresentation of people of color within Seattle and King County’s homeless population, the leaders of HCHN’s provider agencies and our governing board committed, in 2018, to do more to reverse racial outcome disparities. We also committed to develop an action plan rooted in input from front-line service staff. We soon discovered, however, that engaging front-line teams about disparities data and options for producing more equitable outcomes elevated simmering frustrations and distrust among many staff of color. 

At that point, we reached a crossroads: Would we check the “staff input boxes” somewhat superficially to move quickly into action planning? Or would we hit pause on action planning and attempt to build a more solid foundation through candid and far-ranging discussions about what lay beneath the frustrations and distrust? The first option would move us along more quickly, but the second option had greater integrity. In the end, I took the second route—a more transformational, albeit more vulnerable, way forward. 

We participated in a four-month facilitated process of racial affinity group caucusing and other staff engagement designed to directly address the uncomfortable disconnect between the perception of our work and the reality: That is, I felt trusted by the virtually all-white group of leaders at our partner organizations and by managers within my own agency, but clearly we were not as trusted by many of the network’s staff of color as I had believed. This process produced both a robust menu of realistic next steps and some vitally important lessons for strengthening our teams and entire network. 

Staff-developed proposals included providing HCHN financial support for member agency programs only to those agencies with a racial equity work plan and requiring these agencies to submit outcomes directly related to these plans. They also included:

  • Supporting member agencies in the development of human resources policies and procedures around recruiting, hiring, retaining, and providing clear opportunities for promotion for people of color;
  • Requiring leadership from member agencies to regularly attend HCHN-sponsored racial equity professional development training; and
  • Creating a cross-agency racial equity team at the HCHN. 

We discovered the immense value of having caucuses for people of color and for white employees, in which the respective caucuses started their work separately and then moved into collaboration. The caucus structure created containers within which staff could feel safer about delving into subjects that, for at least some, triggered intense feelings. As the consultant’s final report on the caucusing outcomes makes clear, our direct-service providers and supervisors used the caucuses to dive deeply into the impacts of unconscious bias and pervasive white supremacist assumptions on their organizations and work experiences.  

I can personally testify to the power of this approach. As a participant in our administrative team’s caucusing, I discovered a critical obstacle to effective leadership of which I hadn’t been aware. In clinging to my identity as a progressive, “colorblind” leader whose decision making is not affected by bias, I was closing my mind down to innovative disruption rather than opening it up. Moreover, I learned how the identity I was clinging to can perpetuate systems that effectively hold back people of color, whether they be staff or clients. I learned that I needed the relatively safe container that caucusing provided to more vulnerably dive into the smog of white supremacist assumptions that we have all grown up breathing in the United States. I also learned that real discussions about racism are not possible when holding tightly to the notion of colorblindness. 

Vulnerable Leadership

In the HCHN experience, normalizing discussions about race and racism led to a much deeper appreciation of the barriers to trust and accumulated experiences of aggression with which many people of color must continually grapple. This normalization highlighted the inherent worth and dignity of all staff, colleagues, and clients. It provided avenues for strengthening organizational cultures and fighting against inequity that a “colorblind” approach to strategic planning would never have reached.  

Trust, although difficult to measure, must be central to planning around better serving marginalized populations. Without diving deeply into why people of color who are potential and current clients of the HCHN hesitate to trust our organizations and services, we can spend months and months engineering new outreach, engagement, and assessment strategies that won’t accomplish much. Likewise, without taking the time and effort to deeply consider why people of color on our staffs may not fully trust the leadership, we will be hamstrung in our efforts to innovate. Earning the trust of clients and potential clients depends on a strong organizational culture, and a strong organizational culture depends on a high level of trust in leadership among the people who work directly with those clients and potential clients. 

In communities impacted by stark health and housing outcome disparities, the process of increasing this trust demands real, vulnerable dialogue about the insidious influence of bias. This dialogue must include discussions not only about how America’s history of racism has created a legacy of bias within society, but also the ways that this legacy continues to manifest within organizations committed to social justice. Successfully moving from dialogue to effective and sustainable actions for change demands that leadership demonstrates openness to feedback that emerges from the dialogue and full engagement in personal learning about the impact of unconscious bias and white supremacy. 

While this necessity may sound straightforward enough, in my experience it produced some intense discomfort. I had learned from decades of organizational conditioning that leaders project competence and always put their best foot forward. I felt an acute tension between “looking good” in front of my team and allowing my team to see me deconstruct and let go of the notion of my own colorblindness. Ultimately, however, I discovered that allowing my team to witness me contemplating my own biases had a palpable positive impact on our collective ability to dive deeply.  

The vulnerability that accompanied this openness turned out to be the part of the process that required me to dig the deepest. In the end, I took away a valuable lesson that now informs my new role as a leadership coach and consultant: If we ask our teams to meet their learning edge in bringing about change, we should be prepared to do the same and, in fact, model the way to meet that edge in a brave and vulnerable way.

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