Memphis nonprofits ask, "Are we inclusive? Are we equitable?"

What does it mean for an employer to have an inclusive culture and equitable practices? And how does an organization truly reflect the values and identities of the communities it serves? 

Late last summer, a group of local nonprofits began to take a hard look at themselves and ask these questions and others. 

Do their employees feel a sense of belonging at work? Are their community programs authentic? Are their staff and community practices free of bias?

The group includes Momentum, BLDG Memphis, Center for Transforming Communities, Innovate Memphis, The Orpheum Theater and Orpheum Theater Group, ArtsMemphis, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, ALLMemphis.

The issues they're exploring are often multi-layered, emotionally-charged, and seen as ancillary to the real work of a nonprofit. A significant number of nonprofits are also understaffed. It's easier, at least in the short term, for an organization to side-step this work and focus on tasks that are less thorny and more clearly mission-aligned. 

From asking questions to creating a formal working group, the cohort of nonprofits is taking time to examine what's easy to ignore and create attainable plans for improvement. 
Dorian Spears, chief partnerships officer for Momentum Nonprofit Partners. (Submitted)
“We thought that one way to further engage Memphis nonprofits in this work was through a continuous training format,” said Dorian Spears, chief partnerships officer at Momentum.

Momentum engaged Beloved Community to develop and deliver a curriculum and facilitate the cohort's work. Beloved Community works with organizations nationwide to examine equity and inclusion in schools, workplaces, and homes. 

Lesley Brown Rawlings is Beloved Community's director of capacity building.

“ ... these are the three areas that consistently touch the lives of all members of our community,” said Brown Rawlings. “We believe that by engaging organizations across all three sectors we can build "beloved communities" that realize regional, sustainable, economic equity.”

To date, the group has held five four-hour sessions. The sixth and final session will be held on February 14. Beloved Community has invested an average of $7,000 to $10,000 thousand per organization to cover the cost of materials, the facilitators' time, and other class needs across the six sessions.

Each organization will depart the training with actionable steps and an equity work plan. The plan is a 3-year road map for workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“Nonprofits, and those who fund them, are designed to serve the people. We have seen locally, nationally, and globally that service [when] absent an equity lens rarely results in improved outcomes for the communities to whom we are committed,” said Brown Rawlings.

When the training course ends, the real challenge will begin—putting strategies into action and sustaining them through the long term.

“This work is ongoing and we must all hold each other accountable moving forward once we stop meeting regularly," said Jen McGrath, vice president of education and community engagement with the Orpheum Theater Group.

"It takes a 100% commitment from the top down in any organization, and it is necessary to continue to keep this work at the center of all that we do moving forward," she continued.

Progress To Date

In April 2019, Momentum organized a delegation to attend Policy Link’s Equity Summit in Chicago, Illinois. At the summit, delegation members learned how nationwide leaders in business, government, technology, and media were working to make their organizations and communities more equitable and inclusive.

“Equitable practices create space for and uplift the voices and full identities of all individuals that they are designed to support. They are representative of the identities, values and cultures of the populations and communities that an organization serves," said Brown Rawlings. 

When the group returned to Memphis and debriefed, they made the decision study their practices in depth and develop strategies towards embedding equity into their daily operations.

With Beloved Community's tools and guidance, each organization has now audited its organizational culture, employment practices, governance and leadership, resources, and finances to understand how shortcomings have manifested in day-to-day operations.

The organizations have looked at the racial, ethnic, and gender compositions of their offices. They've also worked through more nuanced topics like intersectionality and personal identity.

Often, communities are presented with solutions created by outsiders and designed without any input from the individuals who are the most affected. These solutions are often culturally insensitive and fail for a lack of community buy-in.

“An ideal practice for the larger community is to center the people impacted and allow them to lead where they are experts while the sectors that also impact their outcomes offer support, information, resources, and perspective where it makes sense," said Spears.

Spears also said that creating diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizations and programming is not the work of nonprofits alone. The philanthropic community has a role to play as well.

“Funders have leverage of both financial resources and power. These guide how rules are made and how systems are established and perpetuated,” said Spears “It is important for funders to understand their own power and privilege in society and how it connects to grantees.

At the conclusion of this cohort, Momentum will conduct a survey among other local organizations to gauge interest in future training cohorts.

Target audiences include nonprofits across sectors, small and growing local businesses, large corporations or specific company departments, business associations, and startup incubators. 
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Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.