Nonprofit Sector

Flexibility, Resilience, and a Good Coach: Why Equity Work is a Lot Like Gymnastics

December 15, 2021

When I was little, I wanted so badly to be like Mary Lou Retton, the first US woman to earn an Olympic all-around title in gymnastics. I, along with the rest of the country, watched in awe as the US Olympic women’s gymnastics team made history by winning the team’s first gold medals. Inspired by their accomplishments, I convinced my parents to scrape together some money for gymnastics practice. There, I saw with my own eyes the glorious physical presence of the balance beam, uneven bars, and vault that I had previously only seen on TV.

In this gym, I learned life lessons I carry with me to this day. Coach Buddy taught me about the importance of mentorship. Stretching before and after taught me about flexibility. My team taught me about resilience. Today at NFF, I lead, contribute to, and pilot many of our initiatives about equity. As I do this work, I think back to these three principles I learned in gymnastics that have served me just as well in my equity work as they did in my gym back home.

Mentorship

When I first walked into USA Elite Gymnastics, I spotted and immediately feared the balance beam. It was narrow, it felt like it was a million feet in the air, and it hurt when you missed your landing. But with some mentorship, I slowly worked up the courage to shoot for my ultimate goal: doing a cartwheel on the beam. My coaches encouraged me to stay disciplined and keep practicing; these mentors – coaches and peers alike – instilled into my young brain critical concepts that helped me keep pushing forward in gymnastics and in life. NFF’s equity work has similarly benefited from external experts for guidance, validation, coaching, and peer-to-peer learning.

Since 2016, NFF has partnered with several consultants who have provided guidance on equity topics like implicit bias, microaggressions, and racial equity communications. One of these consultants, the Center for Social Inclusion (now part of Race Forward) encouraged us to apply the below framework to our racial equity work. Training all staff on how to apply this framework to their own work was crucial to unifying our organization around a shared understanding of what racial equity work looks like at NFF – and inviting expert mentors from outside of our organization into the process ensured that that training was as effective as possible. (Learn more about this framework [PDF].)

A racial equity framework: Normalize, Organize, Operationalize.

We all knew that adopting an equity stance across NFF would be a lengthy and sensitive process. But NFF’s leadership team continued to push us forward, confident that adopting racial equity into our organization’s DNA would allow us to better serve the community-centered organizations at the core of our mission. They appointed me and two other women of color at NFF to lead the efforts of the organization to adopt a fifth core value, Equity in Action. The process was challenging and at times exhausting because a focus on staff engagement pushed our timeline out further than expected, but this allowed us to be more inclusive. We embraced the diversity of each other’s ideas and approaches, and intentionally focused on staff embracing the language and further supporting the concept in their team’s daily work.

Consultants, leadership, external partners, and frameworks contributed greatly to the beginning stages of normalizing equity at NFF. By the end of 2019, Equity in Action had continued to be built into all aspects of our work, and in early 2020, we took some giant, first steps toward building a permanent council of staff members responsible for continuing equity work at NFF.

(And yes, I did learn how to do a cartwheel on the balance beam!)

Flexibility

In gymnastics, flexibility is essential. Gymnasts must stretch their bodies in seemingly impossible ways in order to conquer the uneven bars and balance beam, tumble across the floor, or stick the landing after a vault. There’s a reason that we stretched every inch of our bodies before we so much as looked at one of the four events! We were also expected to stretch after practice, which was often painful but helpful in reducing soreness.

Similarly, equity work requires immense flexibility. Since we began our equity journey, it has evolved constantly to meet the ever-changing needs of our staff, our organization, and the communities we serve. We launched our first NFF Equity Committee in 2017 with around 20 people, about one-quarter of the staff at that time, all of whom served as volunteers. We had strength in numbers, but the group’s size made it unwieldy, so we quickly evolved into smaller work groups based on role and function.

As it turned out, having this work be done on a purely volunteer basis was unsustainable. It’s hard to call equity work a priority when you’re tasking folks to do it for free on top of their full-time jobs! So we had to be flexible again – and morphed into our current form, the Social Innovation & Equity Council (SIEC). Today, each member of the SIEC has a dedicated title, and equity work is baked into each of our job descriptions. In this iteration, we developed the enterprise-wide training program on social justice and accompanying employee resource groups organized around racial identity, with the goal of helping all NFFers get to a baseline understanding of concepts like structural racism. This work has strengthened the organization’s core mission and shown us different ways to more effectively achieve our equity goals.

Just like in gymnastics, equity work requires us to work on our flexibility over time. You can't do a round-off back handspring into a back tuck the first day! As the Council continues to evolve its infrastructure and responsibilities, it will remain flexible – consistently adapting to use the most effective ways to implement equity concepts across the entire organization.

Resilience

As an aspiring gymnast, the floor exercise was my favorite. Learning the tumbles and developing a floor routine was challenging yet exciting for me. I listened to the music and my coach to figure out what tricks could work for my tumbling passes, but knowing the routine was ultimately up to me was incredibly empowering. It was here that I learned the importance of being resilient. With so many different elements over the course of a single routine, there were countless opportunities to mess up, fall down, and pick up bruises. But if I pushed through those setbacks, I got to create something beautiful: a three-minute union of music, athleticism, and joy that I got to call my own with pride.

Our first pass at implementing equity principles across NFF was a “DEI Action Plan”: several pages of priorities stapled together and organized by category. It was a solid first effort, but this project-oriented plan did not address the way that our organizational culture needed to evolve for those projects to happen. In order to give those projects the support they needed to succeed, we needed to embed the concept of equity into the organization and hold ourselves accountable to each other in the implementation of our equity activities. Therefore, the plan evolved into NFF Enterprise Priorities that were delegated to the business units to implement. Over time we’ve tried different approaches to hold each other accountable, starting with business unit/department goals, and now our equity goals are integrated at every level in the organization. You can read them here!

Resilience is a willingness to try, fail, adjust, and try again. And just like gymnastics, equity work has and will continue to require us to be resilient. It’s complicated, it brings up a lot of hard feelings, and nobody has ever done it perfectly. It’s not something we’re going to get right on the first try! However, just like my gymnastic teammates, we can provide moral support and remind each other that we are part of something greater than our individual selves at NFF. Equity work, like gymnastics, is a lifelong sport, so keep practicing!

Looking Forward

As we begin a new year, I would like to offer a few pieces of advice. First, seek and offer guidance, coaching, and mentorship as you move through strategic transformation. We can better understand how to support one another through active listening and deepening our equity practice. Identify ways to encourage one another to try again when things don’t work out. Document lessons learned and share across the enterprise.

Second, remain flexible when circumstances change. Staff’s strengths lie in our diversity of experience, education, geography, tenure, and wide range of lived experience. At NFF we now have a staff representing the same ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations as our clients and the communities they serve. NFF hiring over 40 additional professionals in the last year resulted in our collective ability to shift, adapt, and push forward these past two years. As a current member of the SIEC, I have witnessed the importance of pulling from this treasure trove of voices to create equity-centered change.

Lastly, continue to iterate and reflect, pausing when necessary, and pivot to try another approach when you fall down. Resilience, both mental and physical, is not just work; it is also a state of mind. It’s getting back up to achieve your goal even when you may not want to or think you can. And while becoming resilient is an individual experience, your community is essential. Who is by your side? How can they help you try again? How are you committed to a group growth mindset? We’ll stay resilient by practicing and incorporating new ideas into our mix of thinking, decision-making, and adaptability.

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