A Necessary Disruption: Taking Racial Equity from Idea to Reality

August 5, 2022

When people ask kids “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, no kid ever says, “I want to be a disrupter.” I certainly didn’t. “Disruption” has a negative connotation in our society – the child who interrupts the class and challenges the teacher’s authority.  

While I still may not like the word, in my career I’ve learned to value and embrace what disruption is all about. If a system is broken, you must disrupt it to fix it.   

My year as NFF’s Interim CEO was one defined by disruption. When I assumed the role, we were in the middle of a strategic shift: a complete reorientation of our organization around racial equity. We had set targets to ensure that at least 50% of our financing, consulting, and advocacy would directly support organizations led by and serving people of color, and that at least 50% of our staff – at every level – would be people of color as well. This past year, we needed to take action, to make hard decisions, to make sure those targets were met. 

To build a more equitable world, disruptive change is necessary. Disruptive change is uncomfortable. And disruptive change is so, so worth it. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned about the power of disruption. 

Disruptive change is hard to implement.

Stating a commitment to “Plan 50%+” was easy enough. Achieving it would turn out to be much more challenging. 

When we announced this goal, we were not positioned to achieve it. We had long been a part of the financial system that privileged white-dominant networks and organizations. We ourselves had been white-led for 40 years.  

We had to expand our own networks with communities of color, building relationships and trust. We had to learn to show up differently in our work and let go of our “we are the expert” approach.  

Instead, we needed to recognize and listen to the expertise of our clients, who know best what communities – and the organizations that serve them – need. We needed staff and leadership with lived experience so that our work could connect directly with where our clients were operating and what they were experiencing. And finally, we needed to structure ourselves in a way that created more equity and distributed decision-making internally. 

So... we did. We launched zero-interest loan funds targeted specifically at smaller-budget nonprofits led by people of color. We clarified our work so that finance was clear and relatable, not lofty and unfamiliar. We advocated for funders to expand their own networks. We incorporated lived experience – such as nonprofit work, community organizing, or deep roots in communities we serve – as a key factor in the hiring process. We trained those staff in social justice through an intensive 40-hour Social Justice Onboarding program. We completely reorganized our staff to break down silos and more widely distribute decision-making. And we are offering coaching to each and every employee to help them navigate through this disruptive change.  

If that sounds like a lot of work, it was. And while I certainly had my share of sleepless nights, the real work was done by my colleagues – each of whom had to absorb, accept, and act on these momentous changes almost overnight.  

This labor is difficult. It’s emotional. But it’s a labor of love. 

Today, I’m proud to say that NFF is an organization dedicated to racial equity. We’re channeling resources to communities of color in ways we’ve never done before. Our staff and leadership more accurately reflect the communities we serve. And our entire team knows that this is just the beginning. 

Is the work done? No. We’ve still got a long way to go, both within NFF and within the sector. But by holding ourselves accountable to big, disruptive changes, we're moving in the right direction. 

Disruptive change must be addressed holistically.

When doing this work, it sometimes felt like a Greek hydra: we'd solve for one equity issue, and five more challenges would pop up in its place. 

Here's an example. When we first pushed to hire more people of color, we struggled to retain them – especially Black men. The reason? We weren't making sure that our organization supported their well-being once they were on board.  

The decision to diversify staff is the first of many steps. Incoming employees need internal support and mentors, and if they don’t see opportunities for advancement and people who look like them in leadership, they probably aren’t going to stay long. Getting staff in the door is the beginning, but helping them stay and grow is where the work continues. 

So when we made a renewed push to hire more people of color, we needed to do things differently. We established employee resource groups, provided social justice training related to our industry, focused on determining opportunities for staff advancement, and created pathways for mentorship that didn't exist before. We also had a lot of help from these employees themselves; the Black men at NFF founded a group called “the Barbershop” where they offered each other mentorship – and, more importantly, a space to come together.  

If we intentionally hire people of color into an organization that has been white-dominated for decades, we need to acknowledge and undo the principles of white supremacy in our own organization and give BIPOC staff the resources they need to thrive. You can't address a single element in a vacuum; each piece of this work is deeply connected to the others. 

Disruptive change won’t make everyone happy.

Recently, I was speaking with a friend of mine – a white woman – who was furious with a disruptive change happening at her workplace. The organization’s chief diversity officer had recommended that, for the organization to achieve its goal of a diverse leadership team, three of its vice presidents would need to be people of color. My friend was very qualified for the position – she had worked at the organization for ten years, she was very talented, and she was ready for the next step. However, she felt like she was not being seriously considered for the position because she wouldn’t make the leadership team more diverse.  

So I asked her, "Well, do you think that diversity in leadership is important?” She responded that yes, of course she did. Then, I followed up with “Well, how will they achieve it if they promote you over a person of color?”  

Man, did she get quiet. 

What I’ve learned over my career is that it can be easy to prioritize folks for whom the status quo is working. When you announce a big change, the people who like the way things are will feel like they’re being asked to make a big sacrifice... a sacrifice they don’t necessarily like being asked to make. 

But when we prioritize those voices, we ignore those who have been marginalized in our work – those whose years of small, unspoken sacrifices collectively add up to something far greater than the sacrifice disruptive change calls on the privileged to make.  

Disruptive changes – like saying you’re going to diversify your organization’s staff, then actually taking the hard actions that are needed to do it – are going to make some people unhappy. That‘s a fact. But the solution isn’t to not make those changes; it’s to push through these moments of discomfort and arrive at the other side a stronger organization.  

Transformation is so, so worth it.

It's been a year of long hours, hard conversations, and many sleepless nights. But it was in service to disruptive change that I know was necessary. As I prepare to leave NFF, I do so knowing that the organization is more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive than it was before.  

We’re channeling more resources to nonprofits led by the people who have long been shut out of access to financing and consulting. Our staff better reflect the people we serve. Neither of these outcomes would have taken place without disruptive change. 

In my next chapter, I’ll be working full-time as a consultant and executive coach focusing on equity, strategy, and change management. As I enter this work, I still feel the memory inside me of the kid who didn’t want to be disruptive – the pull of wanting to fit in, to be a team player, to not rock the boat. 

I’ll listen to that kid. And I’ll tell her that being disruptive is OK. 

As I work with the next generation of leaders who are changing the world, I’ll tell them that disruption is hard. Disruption is complicated. And disruption might make a lot of people mad at them. 

But I’ll also tell them that transformation is also worth it – and that it’s the most impactful thing they’ll ever do. Lovingly disrupt to change!