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Reflections on dismantling racism in Seattle Works, a nonprofit organization

By Ben Reuler, Executive Director of Seattle Works

Note: This is a special guest post from Ben Reuler of Seattle Works that we wanted to share because we thought it was incredibly important and timely. Ben has given us permission to reprint his writing.


Ben Reuler

You have likely noticed that Seattle Works talks a lot about dismantling racism. Evolving a historically and predominantly white organization into one that is actively antiracist has been a challenging and invigorating journey.

A grant from a local foundation in 2016 helped unlock this journey for us. We started allocating time and money to being better. I want to share a little about this, because it is an area that is so desperately needed for nonprofits to address, to fully commit to the missions they lead to serve our communities.

The Building Movement Project’s report Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap emphasizes that those of us who oversee organizations in the nonprofit sector need to “embrace systems change work to ensure that [our sector’s] policies, practices and culture are aligned with the values of diversity, inclusion and equity.”

At Seattle Works we’ve been trying to change systems. Below, I’ve documented key factors in our journey so far, with the hopes of sharing what I’ve learned in the work we’ve done to-date, while acknowledging that dismantling racism is ongoing, evolving, and will never be fully “done,” given the historical and current context of our world. My reason for writing this, especially as a white executive director is to influence other nonprofit leaders to act in dismantling racism in their institutions, and to bring all of Seattle Works’s stakeholders and supporters along with us on this journey. I’ve also been moved by the candid, real-time blog reflections from RVC, and I was inspired, in part by them, to write this.

Step 1: Education — and learning from the right people

Three consultants and facilitators — all women of color — have been instrumental in leading the work. They empowered our board of directors to talk about race, guided our staff to launch an equity team and implement race-based caucusing, led the board and staff to align on the priority of disrupting white silence (perhaps the most important three words in this whole journey), and pushed us to align on- and document- our cultural norms.

They also reminded us to give ourselves grace, as it takes three years to change the culture of an organization so celebrating small wins along the way is a must. These consultants have been game-changers for Seattle Works. Their names are Caprice Hollins, Toi Sing Woo, and Kirsten Harris-Talley.

Additional educators and supporters have included guest speakers — all women of color, all paid — at our Equity Team meetings. Their names are Ijeoma Oluo, Ruchika Tulshyan, Karen Taylor, and Mindy Huang.

The Undoing Institutional Racism 2-day workshop by People’s Institute NW played an important role as well and is now mandatory for all staff members.

We have attended more than ten trainings led by local consulting firms HR & Equity, and Cultures Connecting, LLC, whose resources have helped immensely.

We devour anything written by Vu Le on his blog NonprofitAF, and anything and everything written by the fellows and staff at RVC.

For me, Ijeoma Oluo’s book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” hit at the right time and significantly influenced my approach to leadership.

These consultants, speakers, writers, and leaders know what they are talking about. And they are right here in Seattle. Literally this thought leadership is right here in Seattle — a place that fashions itself as liberal but continues to produce organizations (for-profit and nonprofit) that are anything but antiracist. A reminder that we can access all these resources in our own backyard. Books and articles written here. Trainings held here. Speeches given here. Coalitions led here.

Step 2: Improving organizational norms and processes

Doing this work in years’ past without a solid base of trust on the team, and with ambiguous norms, was beyond challenging at times. One person told me that trust will come with time and performance. And it has. Our staff and board are now rooted in trust and relationship and it feels good. But this has all been a slow burn. Operationalizing antiracism — truly embedding the dismantling of white supremacy into the DNA of our institution — has taken a lot of time. And it will never end.

We’ve slogged through various renditions of improving our hiring process with an antiracist, equitable lens. Rubrics, job postings, screening protocol, interview formats … constant iterations over years.

We’ve had countless meetings aligning on — and documenting — our cultural norms and group agreements. Hours upon hours, changes upon changes, adapting when new people come, and others leave.

We’ve experimented with various models of decision-making. Veto cards. Fist-to-Five. Consensus-based-decisions. And finally landing on, for now, a version of the final decision-making model.

We’ve improved compensation significantly. We have raised salaries by 45% from 2015 to 2019 while slashing the percentage difference between the highest paid FTE and lowest. And we have invested in solid benefits as well. This, too, has also required a lot of time, because raising money takes a lot of time (as does garnering buy-in from the board to slow our scale while investing in our people and infrastructure)! Budgets, compensation philosophies, landscape analyses, handbook language, etc.

Step 3: Becoming comfortable with disrupting whiteness

We have an organization-wide mandate to interrupt microaggressions and break white silence. Part of being at Seattle Works now means that we expect white people to step up and say something so that the burden of educating, interrupting, calling out, calling in, and saying something doesn’t default to people of color. Saying something in the moment gets a little easier each time. And in our quarterly white caucuses, we share about times when we didn’t speak up and wish we had, and what we can do differently next time. But again, even landing on this priority of “disrupting white silence” took a long time and was the culmination of a 7-hour board + staff session.

We are not expecting everyone to be perfect. In fact, we’re naming that none of us are perfect. We all have biases. We all cause harm. We all are flawed. And we’re all going to put our respective feet in our respective mouths. And that’s okay, so long as we’re waking up tomorrow doing better, making amends when harm has been done, and continuing to learn and evolve.

Step 4: Doing the hard work of diversifying our board

We have focused intently on diverse representation on our board. In 2015, our board was almost entirely white. Engaged, thoughtful, smart, committed … and very white. Similarly, the staff at the time was 100% white. Now, our board is around 50% POC, and our staff is 60% POC. This representation needle turned when we said: “No more.” No more excuses. If we believe in closing the racial leadership gap on our board, what are we going to do? So, we did some things. These things continue to take a lot of time and continue to evolve, but we’re doing them, including:

  • Only voting on new board members if at least one third of candidates are POC.
  • Requiring an understanding of systemic racism and commitment to antiracism work.
  • Naming and valuing lived experience as much as professional experience.
  • Allowing anybody to self-nominate for our board — or nominate someone they know — via our website.
  • Using LinkedIn to recruit board prospects just as a job recruiter would.
  • Doing away with mandatory board dues.
  • Incorporating antiracism into board meeting pre-reads, board retreat agendas, and board committee goals.
  • Choosing to struggle through conversations rather than avoid them.
  • Leaning into board culture — norms, inclusion, buddy system, cohorts, vice chairs…
  • Building strong, authentic relationships over time — playing the long game. Including identifying strong board prospects in our own programs and discussing board service with them.
  • Allocating money in our budget for board-specific equity work.

Step 5: Focusing on antiracism as a strategic priority

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve added antiracism to our strategic plan. So dismantling racism is now an institutional priority, not just an individual priority. It shows up in workplans, budgets, job descriptions, expectations of nonprofit partners, MOUs with corporations, conversations and proposals with each- and every funder, on our website, in our employee handbook, on our social media, in our approach to “performance management”, and in our programs.

It even shows up in our manager toolkit which mandates that managers must continuously learn about racial and power dynamics in management relationships. This toolkit directs managers to be responsible for professional and personal development to identify and manage biases; and to support staff members of color in finding mentorship, coaching, and networking opportunities.

Again, all these changes to how Seattle Works conducts business have taken a lot of time. Session after session, retreat after retreat, training after training, policy after policy, document after document, employee by employee, conversation by conversation, board recruit by board recruit, plan after plan, year over year. Literally, years.

In many ways, building an antiracist Seattle Works has just begun, especially when it comes to incorporating antiracist education into the historically white realm of “volunteerism.” This is our biggest work ahead: embedding antiracism externally in our programs. We’ll be sharing more about this in 2020 and beyond. I share all this with both humility and curiosity — my hope is that we can continue to support each other in doing the crucial work of antiracism — and share resources and ideas in this journey.

Ben Reuler can be reached at [email protected].

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