Nonprofit Sector

What I learned as a founding member of NFF’s Social Innovation and Equity Council (SIEC)

April 21, 2022

NFF’s Social Innovation and Equity Council (SIEC) is now two years old. The eight founding members started and ended our tenures in a pandemic, and NFF as a whole (and the world) has changed immensely in the past two years. NFF has restructured departments to better center clients, undergone leadership changes, and hired many new staff: 50% of NFFers were brought on during the pandemic. Amid all of that, the SIEC met on a weekly basis to push projects forward, give feedback and advice, and plan trainings and curricula to advance NFF’s equity practices internally and externally. It’s been a difficult but rewarding journey. Here are some of the things that I learned as a founding member of the SIEC.  

It's labor.

At work, oftentimes there’s your job, and then there are things you do on top of your job: professional development opportunities, passion projects, volunteering, etc. Let’s be honest about what all of that is – it's labor. This was a subtle yet sobering realization in my early days on the SIEC. When I joined, I figured that since I was already constantly thinking about equity in my work, why not “volunteer” my time to more formally and intentionally think about equity at work? Well, in the midst of a global pandemic, senseless murders of Black people, a surge in hate crimes against the Asian community, and many other crises, this work is emotionally exhausting. And there’s no precedent for fair compensation for emotional labor. This brings me to my next point. 

Compensate for emotional labor. Period.

Also: 

Set boundaries.

Since entering the workforce in 2017, I’ve found that I have to constantly reconcile my Asian American heritage with what is valued in a work culture born out of white supremacy. Growing up in my household, I was taught that I should try to work harder than my peers, respect authority, and always remain humble. In the workplace, this mentality can easily lead to extraction, under-compensation, and extreme burnout. I found that I was taking on more than my share of work because: 1) I care a lot, 2) it would be good work, and most importantly 3) I would make sure it would get done. While it went against the voices of my parents in the back of my head, perhaps the most important lesson I learned in this time was how to set boundaries. A few examples: 

  • The moments after a member of the SIEC would ask for help on a project were usually followed by silence. Old Kathy would act on the urge to immediately fill the silence and volunteer herself. Boundary-setting Kathy lets the silence continue until we figure it out as a group.  
  • One year into the SIEC, I took on the role of managing what we call Equity in Action Forums and the accompanying Equity in Action Fund. These forums occur on a monthly basis and hold space for equity-related topics at work. The Equity in Action Fund is a pool of money that staff can use toward equity-related activities, such as for museums, books, and historical tours. Old Kathy would have carried out these responsibilities, knowing full well that managing these two bodies of work were far above the four hours per week I was supposed to spend dedicated to the SIEC. Boundary-setting Kathy came up with a proposal to transfer the Equity in Action Fund to another member whose role didn’t require weekly upkeep, and a rotating facilitation schedule for the Equity in Action Forums so the work was distributed more evenly.
  • Being a member of the SIEC can give you an “equity expert” label, even though our goal was not to become “experts,” but to instill the practice of considering and centering equity into all staff, our culture and our interactions. When NFF instituted an internal committee of staff from across the organization to diversify budget decision-making, I was told, “You would be good for this,” with the subtext that it was important to have a person of color from my team represented on this committee. Old Kathy would have felt validated by that comment and joined that committee. Boundary-setting Kathy said, “I already have enough on my plate,” and accepted that I (and NFF as a whole) have to be comfortable trusting that white people can also carry the burden of advocating for equity.  

“There’s no model for freedom.”

This is something that Trella Walker, interim Chief Executive Officer and former Chief Strategy Officer, says often. Everyone and every place is shackled by something (feel free to fact-check us on this). It’s a helpful reference point for a group of people with a direction but no roadmap. But Trella would also say that this group must model the type of culture we want to see at NFF. If we couldn’t treat each other with the tenets we were trying to instill throughout the organization, how could we expect others to? 

The day after hate crimes were perpetrated against Asian spa workers in Georgia in March 2021, it just so happened that I was on the docket to facilitate a conversation about how race and culture show up in the workplace. This was simply not something I had the emotional capacity to do after seeing victims in the news who could have easily been my mom, my aunts, my cousins. The SIEC recognized this and 15 minutes before the conversation, pivoted and carried my burden for me. Thank you, SIEC. 

Maybe we can’t yet model what freedom looks like, but we can model what it looks like to care for one another, to acknowledge each other’s pain, to respect each other’s cultural characteristics and practices, to check-in on one another, and to treat each other as whole people far beyond what one can produce or create. 

Be bold.

The SIEC has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had in the workplace. It challenged me to be patient, to choose my battles wisely, to disagree with others, and to lead.  

One of the benefits of being on the SIEC – which I didn’t realize was a benefit at the time – was proximity to and the attention of NFF’s leadership. Not every staff member’s work requires weekly or otherwise regular interaction with NFF’s leadership, and the lack of precedent for a body like the SIEC gave us incentive to be bold in our interactions. Again, there’s no model or precedent we’re working from, so everything is on the table. 

Through my role managing the Equity in Action Forums, there were various times where I collected both qualitative and quantitative data from staff on topics of race and culture in the workplace to inform Forum topics. Oftentimes, I saw real pain in the data. I felt a responsibility to act on what I was seeing so that 1) staff felt heard and 2) actions were being taken that would positively influence the way staff felt about equity and culture the next time these questions were asked.  

Lacy Serros and I took it upon ourselves to look at all the data we had collected, lift up major themes and concerns, and present recommendations to leadership for addressing these major themes and concerns. No one asked us to do this, but the SIEC lent us the credibility and the courage to speak honestly about where the organization is falling short and what we thought might help. A few wins that were prompted by our recommendations: 

  • To help foster more relationship-building among staff in a virtual workplace, NFF created a Culture Club, which includes social stipends for staff to connect over coffee breaks, happy hours, etc.  
  • To address a heavy meeting culture, leadership instituted no-meeting Fridays and formalized quarterly no-meeting weeks. 
  • To respond to concerns from staff about decision-making transparency, particularly throughout NFF’s restructure, a working group at NFF is exploring what inclusive decision-making looks like for us.  
  • To acknowledge and redress the privilege associated with an unpaid sabbatical program, leadership revisited our paid-time-off policies and revised our sabbatical program from unpaid to fully paid.  
  • To reduce the disparity in workplace experiences and advancement, the SIEC and leadership are working with an outside consultant to provide trainings for supervisors and promote greater mentorship for staff who manage others.  

These are lessons that I will carry with me far beyond my career at NFF. And the impact that our recommendations have had on significant organizational policy change in a relatively short period of time is one of my greatest accomplishments in my time here. While the day-to-day work was messy and really challenging at times, I look back on our two-year tenure and am amazed at what we were able to accomplish. I couldn’t be more excited for the next iteration of the SIEC and I only hope that they are even bolder (and set boundaries too).  

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