Progressive organizations need, must have racial diversity

Sarah Audelo_optOver the past decade, it has become increasingly common to see organizations posting jobs that specifically encourage people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals; and people with disabilities to apply.

While this is an important step toward expanding the diversity of the applicant pool and provides a clear signal that those identities are valued, more action is necessary. What’s needed are conversations about how to keep diverse communities on staffs and in leadership positions in the workforce.

This is particularly true and valuable for progressive and social justice organizations, the work of which centers around those most in need.

I know this firsthand. As a Latina and new manager with a team of individuals who can check off many identity boxes, I’ve searched for insights and tools to make me a better leader of a diverse staff. Sadly, I’ve come up incredibly short on resources, as many are specific to corporate environments and a bit more surface level than what I have hoped to find.

Perhaps because there is so much focus on getting a representative mix of people in the door, there is a tendency to forget what is needed to keep them in the work for the long run.

For the past year, I’ve watched our diverse communities take to the streets to address a variety of important issues — police brutality, separation of families due to deportation, high murder rates of transgender women of color, fights to raise wages — all of which are issues that progressives address.

But to wage the good fight, progressive and social justice organizations must have staffers who come from these communities, who are personally affected by these issues, and who are given the support that they need to do this work effectively and in a sustained way.

For example, in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and following the failure of a grand jury to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of 19-year-old Michael Brown, I remember staying up for hours watching as young people — fellow Millennials, my generation of social justice activists —mounted protest demonstrations to demand justice.

It was an emotional time for me. As a former teacher who mostly worked with young Latino males, I saw my students in Michael Brown. But I also saw friends who have been harassed by the police and communities that have been too long ignored.

As for those young people who took to the streets of Ferguson, I saw the youth activists with whom I’ve been privileged to work.

I recall walking to the office bleary-eyed one morning after a marathon viewing session of the news and live-streamed footage from activists in Ferguson via Twitter and stopping by a Dunkin Donuts to pick up a box of goodies. Upon arriving at work, I offered the donuts and a space for my team to talk about the events on all of our minds.

As many of us identify with the activists and community members of Ferguson and as all of us are engaged daily with social justice issues, it was a simple gesture that allowed those in my office a space to express their concerns and share their feelings before plunging back into the grind of work.

These small conversations may not have changed the course of history, but they provided a moment for reflection and acknowledgment that our communities were angry and hurting.

Sadly, police brutality is not the only issue with which my colleagues must grapple. Some of those I have supervised were born in another country, and others have parents who are immigrants.

If you work with Millennials, this is relatively common: 15 percent of the generation was born outside the United States. So while my job is to press lawmakers and policy experts to pass inclusive laws, some of those in our communities — my colleagues — bear witness to government officials facilitating the separation of their families or questioning their loyalty to the United States.

This often provokes challenging and emotional responses to the work they’re doing related to immigration or other important issues. How do you engage with elected officials when those same elected officials are calling your family members criminals and working to pass legislation that would facilitate their deportation?

And what do you do when you see elected officials fight so hard against your ability to live your life? How do you react as they work to block marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections that could protect you from being fired or ensure you right to remain in housing?

And what happens when you work in a place such as the District of Columbia, which has these protections, but where your family and friends are on constant alert, as their ability to use a restroom is in question or their families are refused health care by discriminatory providers?

For managers at social justice organizations like myself, and especially for those of us who supervise young people still finding themselves in their careers, it’s important to at least acknowledge these personal challenges.

These challenges are real and may have an impact on young people’s personal and professional lives.

Whether it is student debt forcing someone to work an additional job on the weekend or whether people are forced to listen to those who have never lived a working-class life telling their community how to pull itself up by its bootstraps, such experiences can trigger negative and even demoralizing feelings that can drive those most affected by social justice issues out of the work.

While many managers may not have encountered personally any of the challenges facing their staffs, they nonetheless must be sensitive to those dealing with them.

For example, I understand it’s fairly common for bosses to be supportive of valued staffers who are going through a divorce or struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction — as they should be.

However, as conversations with peers and youth activists have brought to light, these same bosses are often less sensitive — or at least are perceived as less sensitive — to the needs of employees with incarcerated or homeless family members.

When communities of color are criminalized and face higher rates of incarceration — often due to the War on Drugs and drug-related offenses —this understanding and support matters.

How are we supposed to fight on behalf of those most in need if we are unable to work in close contact with or take direction from them? The lack of diversity on staffs and among the leadership of progressive organizations comes across as a form of cruel insincerity to many within the communities we say we’re fighting for.

It’s not enough to talk and write about diversity — which, to be honest, still far too few youth spaces are doing, even those that call themselves progressive. We also must ensure that those who have experienced the issues facing LGBT communities, communities of color, and the community of people with disabilities are at the table for the long haul, not just for a one-off event or for a show-and-tell media forum.

And while it shouldn’t have to be said, this commentary is not about creating excuses for staff members not to do their jobs. It’s about supervising staff in ways that meet both their and their organization’s needs, hopefully resulting in better work and a pipeline where those most affected by the issues that progressives address become the leaders of our progressive movements.

For all the talk about diversity in our organizations, we have to start walking the walk.

Sarah Audelo is the policy director for Generation Progress. Her work focuses on directing youth-led policy solutions to economic justice, civil and human rights, and democracy

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