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Who Gets to Lead?

The potential effects of the SCOTUS decision to strike down Affirmative Action as unconstitutional are sweeping. How is it impacting nonprofits working at the intersection of education and racial equity?

Between the affirmative action decision and the moment the labor movement’s been having this year, I can’t help but wonder: Why do we have such a hard time investing in the people who want to do the work?

The potential effects of the SCOTUS decision to strike down Affirmative Action as unconstitutional are sweeping. The conversation has largely revolved around its impact on colleges and rightfully so. But as a social impact communicator, my mind falls squarely on the nonprofit organizations working at the intersection of education and racial equity. These organizations have been co-creating solutions with schools, government, and philanthropies for more than half a century. Without wavering, they hold their foot on the gas to keep power pushing toward the people who are most impacted by decisions like this Affirmative Action ruling.

National Urban Fellows (NUF) is one such organization. I got to speak with their President & CEO, Lisa Rawlings about the ruling and how they’re thinking about it in relation to their work. NUF develops professionals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, particularly people of color and women, to be leaders committed to social justice and equity. The organization is designed to ensure the power to influence decisions is bent towards people who deeply and personally understand the implications those decisions will have on their communities.

“Intentional efforts have been made to exclude, discourage, and marginalize people of color from self-determination, from creating, and from being leaders in the communities that they come from, from making decisions in and being a part of decisions that affect their lives and communities, and from really having access to the opportunities that will prepare them to do exactly that,” said Rawlings. “That is the state of affairs and that requires intentional efforts to reverse those trends and to dismantle those structures.”

But potential threats to the fundraising and coalition-building efforts of organizations like NUF loom in the fallout of this ruling.

Philanthropic funding

Since George Floyd’s murder, there’s been a trend toward rethinking traditional grantmaking strategies to consider the impact of race in the philanthropic sector. The overarching ethos of the moment has been that the people most impacted by decisions should be at the center of decision-making. Will that start to change now that Washington is wavering?

“Foundations may be having these conversations about whether it’s safe for them to fund these areas or to fund in a particular way,” commented Rawlings.

There’s a clear and present danger to nonprofits’ ability to make significant strides if funding is redirected. “How are they going to be writing their priorities and their grant criteria,” questioned Rawlings. “Many of them may feel like they fulfilled commitments they made in the post-George George Floyd era, and now they’ll return to traditional funding strategies that don’t consider race or maybe don’t consider it in the same way that they have come to do more recently.”

Corporate partnerships

Similar to the philanthropic sector, bold commitments have been made these last few years by the business community to increase racial diversity in their supply chains and organizational leadership. Nonprofits and other social impact organizations aimed at forwarding racial justice saw major new relationships built as a result.

“Will there be a chilling effect across the social impact sector,” questioned Rawlings. “Will people be fearful to engage because of concerns around legal challenges?”

If we allow this moment to become a tipping point, it could erase hard-won progress made to make the most impactful sectors and organizations in this country more reflective of everyone in it. Especially in the leadership of those organizations.

Leadership diversity

We know that, in the U.S., who gets to lead is often directly related to who has access to the social and economic capital needed to ascend to leadership levels. That capital routinely comes from networks built through higher education. Then we’re left with 17% racial diversity in corporate executive levels.

And as quiet as it is kept, the racial diversity of social sector leadership isn’t any better. People of color account for just 13% of CEOs and Executive Directors at nonprofits.

“In the social sector, we don’t make the investments that we need to make in supporting our leaders. We see that the higher you get up the ladder, the less representative these organizations are, often when they’re very much focused on social issues that disproportionately affect people of color. And if you don’t have the team, the support, the perspectives, the capacity to fully understand and to thoughtfully and sensitively respond, then you’re going to be limited in your effectiveness in serving your mission,” explained Rawlings.

If we reverse or slow progress made to diversify leadership, then the only way the masses get their needs met is through successful collective action. And while unionizing is inching towards a comeback, so is union-busting. So the question remains: how do we ensure the power to influence decisions is bent towards people who deeply, personally, and in a nuanced way understand the implications of those decisions?

I don’t proclaim to know the way forward, but what I do wholeheartedly believe is what Lisa left me with at the end of our discussion:

“We can make incredible advances in technology. We can create very elegant systems. But if you don’t have the right people to lead these efforts, who will ask the right questions, who will challenge assumptions, who will be guided by principles and values that you can’t build into an algorithm? Then we will continue to replicate the inequities, the biases, and the failures that we have experienced and we’re not evolving as a society.”

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