Obama’s Election and the Challenge of Inclusion

With the global economic crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tense relations between and among countries from Europe to Asia to the Middle East, Barack Obama – the United States’ first African-American president – is front and center on the world stage. Major news outlets, blogs, commentators and Average Joes around the globe call Obama “the most important man in the world.”

With the global economic crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tense relations between and among countries from Europe to Asia to the Middle East, Barack Obama – the United States’ first African-American president – is front and center on the world stage. Major news outlets, blogs, commentators and Average Joes around the globe call Obama “the most important man in the world.”

Happily Ever After?

However, little over a year ago, many called his bid at the presidency “the biggest fairy tale … ever seen.” Many doubted that the United States would elect an African American to lead the nation as commander in chief. And when Barack Obama was elected on November 4, 2008, many agreed with the BBC’s Justin Webb, that the American people were “slamming the door on the country’s racial past.”

The New York Times proclaimed that with Obama’s election “the last racial barrier in American politics” had been swept away “with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive.”

Seeing 2 million Americans and citizens from around the world crowd together peacefully – even joyfully – in a tiny expanse of land in Washington, D.C., to hail the new president was astounding for many of us raised before and during the Civil Rights era. The crowd on the National Mall was extraordinarily diverse. And instead of allowing the long waiting times, poor weather conditions and sometimes confusing directions from officials to spark confrontation, the participants greeted each other with cheerfulness and respect. 

Can We Choose Our Better History?

So does this mean that we will soon see a post-racial United States and world? Do we believe, as our new president has stated, that as Americans we will “choose our better history”? Are we now at a place where we will “carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”?

A few short decades ago, the white and non-white members of the 2 million strong Inaugural observers would not have been allowed to dine together in the same restaurants, ride next to each other on public transportation or stay in the same hotels.

Acknowledging the Challenge

Certainly, with the election of Barack Obama, we are at the crossroads of a major cultural shift.

If we are to build on President Obama’s election and accelerate the work of diversity and inclusion within our organizations and the communities we serve, then we must acknowledge the challenges we face and face them together.

After nearly 20 years of working with nonprofit organizations in the field of diversity and inclusion, Diversity & Inclusion Initiative staff knows that we have a long and arduous journey ahead. But are we “cowards”?

As the wealthiest country in the world, we cannot hide from the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression and its impact on the United States and countries around the world.

Confluence of Hope and Despair

The election has come at a most interesting confluence of hope and despair. The playing field has never been less level for citizens of color. In its current report, State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression, 1 United for a Fair Economy (UFE) reports that: 

  • “…overall 24 percent of Blacks and 21 percent of Latinos are in poverty versus 8 percent of Whites. 
  • A deep recession would see median family income decline by 4 percent. Thirty-three percent of Blacks and 41 percent of Latinos would drop out of the middle class. The overall national rate would be 25 percent.” 

The impact that a sustained economic recession could have on families – and especially for families of color – is enormous. And, of course, the increased needs of these families would have an enormous impact on service providers. In fact, organizations in the business of providing services that stabilize communities are already beginning to feel the strain.

These statistics cited in the UFE report are a reality for the residents of the United States. Beneath their surface lies the institutional racism that makes disparities possible. We cannot assume that the past is past, if it continues to inform the present.  

The Need to Dismantle Norms

Attorney General Eric Holder angered some who smarted at the notion that, in this regard, we Americans have been cowardly in regards to discussing race. It is not enough for people of color to talk about racism. Beneficiaries of racism most participate as well. Both sides must confront racism’s impact and systemic detriment. Equally, we must accept that truly moving forward requires dismantling norms exacerbated by biases – including those about class, gender, orientation, religion and disability – that plague our communities.

Rolling Up Our Sleeves

The Diversity & Inclusion Initiative has worked with nearly 100 nonprofits since 1990 in an effort to define within the context of their missions how becoming more diverse and inclusive their organizations can be more mission effective. The work is challenging.

It is no surprise that the initial reaction by some of the nonprofit organizations with which we’ve worked is to “hunker down,” to retreat from the challenge once there is a glimpse of how difficult it is to redefine ourselves after centuries of dominant culture thinking and action.

This is complex stuff and most of us would, of course, prefer an easier route. However, ignoring the problem is not an option. Building a world where, as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” is a long, uncomfortable, painstaking process of trying to work together to get it right.  

An Approach to Consider

But how do we begin this process? Collaborating with our colleagues, a number of strategies have emerged to help nonprofits achieve more diverse and inclusive organizations that are better able to serve constituents and communities. Here is one approach your nonprofit can consider: 

Assess Readiness

A shift in mind-set is required. The process of becoming more diverse and inclusive is ongoing. There is no point in time when the work is complete. Consider what an inclusive and diverse organization would look like, as well as how it would function.

Prepare for Start-Up

Before introducing organization-wide diversity efforts, senior-level staff and the board of directors should learn as much as possible about implementing a diversity process. They should also identify internal and external resources that they can rely on for support and assistance.

Establish a Framework

A substantive framework will help the organization build and reinforce the commitment to the diversity initiative and respond to pressure from internal and external sources of resistance.

Begin Implementation

During this phase, the organization continues to build knowledge through needs assessments or cultural audit and is able to identify issues and themes that relate to diversity. It also sorts out other issues that represent general organizational and management problems. Perhaps at this juncture, an organization can craft a working definition of diversity.

Integrate Diversity and Organizational Goals

Individuals at all levels of the organization become involved through education and training programs, while diversity committee members continue to review existing policies and procedures as they relate to diversity.

Evaluate Progress

Engage in a formal evaluation with a design and methodology that will assess overall organizational change and measure the impact of diversity efforts.

Redefine Direction and Goals

Use the results of the evaluation to reexamine and redefine its direction, clarify and focus goals and objectives, develop new strategies and plan for the future.

Consolidate Activities and Policies

The most successful aspects of the diversity initiative should be incorporated into the general activities and policies of the organization. This will help to ensure the ongoing presence and vitality of diversity efforts even as an organization takes steps to address other unmet diversity needs. 

The Way Forward

Our work is with nonprofit organizations that provide programs and services to communities in the sectors of culture, environment, community development and human services. Through their efforts to become more diverse and inclusive, organizations open the door to broader constituent involvement and support, and in doing so, confront and address issues of race, class and bias. By having authentic conversations, can we discover opportunities that create the avenues for changes we seek? 

With the election of Barack Hussein Obama, we have arrived at the beginning of the path to resolution: the opportunity to hunker down together to discuss and clarify issues of race, diversity and inclusion. And as we do, let us remember the words of our new president, “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” 

 

1 Huezo, Kasica, Muhammad, Rivera,The Silent Depression State of the Dream 2009, United For a Fair Economy, January 15, 2009.

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