MACDC President Joe Kriesberg Reflects on The Racial Equity Pledge

Last November, MACDC launched its Racial Equity Pledge as a membership-wide initiative to disrupt systems within the community development field that produce or sustain racial inequity. Our goal is to provide a roadmap for MACDC members to identify and commit to actionable steps toward racial equity within the specific context of their organization and community.  Today, I’m proud to report that 30 of our members have joined with MACDC in adopting the pledge and doing the hard work of making it real. 

I have been impressed that our members are engaging the process with such seriousness and thoughtfulness (read some of their stories in this blog series: Harborlight Community Partners, Community Development Partnership, Somerville Community Corporation and Codman Sqaure NDC). Honestly, I was afraid that some CDCs might quickly and casually sign a pledge simply out of generalized support for the goals without necessarily having a commitment to make changes within their organizations. But that has not happened. Not at all. We have learned that many of our members were already deep into a process of internal reflection, planning, and change. Others are using the pledge as a needed impetus to take more concrete steps. We heard early on that our insistence that the full Board of Directors vote to adopt the pledge has prompted meaningful discussions at the board level, discussions that in many cases were long overdue.  We also heard that the existence of the pledge was helpful in moving reluctant or hesitant board members to action and communicating to everyone that racial equity is central to the work of community development. 

One challenge that CDC leaders (and frankly leaders of all organizations) have in confronting these issues is where to start. There are so many ways in which racial inequity, discrimination, bias, and structural racism impact our organizations and our communities that it can be overwhelming – even more so because these issues are often intertwined and mutually reinforcing. The Racial Equity Pledge tries to help by emphasizing the four levels of racism – internalized racism within individuals, interpersonal racism that occurs between individuals, institutional racism with our institutions and systems of power, and structural racism across our society. Understanding these levels – both their differences and their connections – can help groups decide where to start their journey. 

Leaders also must overcome the fear that embarking on this path will create discomfort, disagreements and tensions that might disrupt day-to-day operations, cause staff turnover or otherwise make things more difficult to manage. How do we find the “stretch zone” while avoiding the “panic zone”?  I’ll acknowledge that I have had those concerns myself. Even those who know the issues must be confronted may worry that doing so could make things worse if they are done poorly.  

In my experience, two steps are critical to creating the space and culture to engage this work effectively: shared education and relationship building. The Pledge recommends that organizations start with understanding the root causes of racism and racial inequities. Indeed, for years, MACDC has required all staff to attend racial equity training during their first year.  This is the reason we also decided in 2018 to participate in a YW sponsored program where our entire board and staff attended a series of five training sessions where we explored issues of racial equity both within our organizational culture and in our field.  While many of the board and staff had attended other trainings before, we believed it was important that we engage in this learning together in the specific context of MACDC. This ensures that we have some shared language and frameworks. Seeing each other engage in this learning builds credibility and mutual accountability. We know that when people from different backgrounds come together to discuss these issues, it is critical that participants feel like their colleagues have some basic and shared understanding about the history and context. While none of us can fully understand someone else’s lived experience, we can build trust by demonstrating that we are interested in that experience, that we are educating ourselves and listening. And this goes to the other core ingredient to effective racial equity work within organizations – relationship building. This work will be more effective when we know each other beyond our titles and physical identities – when we know each other’s stories and families and histories. Indeed, this was part of the YW program and part of what we try to do on an on-going basis both within our staff and our board.  

The commitment to education and relationship building has also been critical for me in my role as an executive director of a community development organization. It has helped to teach me (and frequently remind me when I forget) that effective leadership recognizes that good ideas come from many different places. Sometimes leadership requires following others. The Racial Equity Pledge was not my idea. The program of support that we are implementing is not my handiwork. I’d like to think that I contributed to the process, but this has been led by our members and our staff.   

I recognize that this type of leadership is particularly important for me as a white male leading an organization dedicated to racial equity.  I must continually ask myself when my leadership and my voice is essential to demonstrate our organization’s commitment to this work? When is my leadership and voice an obstacle to progress because I am taking up space from other, newer voices whose time has come?  When do I lean in and when do I step back?   

I have been struggling with these questions for the past two years and I expect that I and others will continue to struggle. I’m grateful to be in a relationship with so many other nonprofit leaders in our network who must deal with the same or similar questions. I’m lucky to have colleagues who are often unafraid to tell me what they think!  I invite you help me by giving me feedback and letting me know when it’s time for me to speak up and when it’s time to shut up.  Let me know when I make the right call and don’t hesitate when you think I have made the wrong one. When it comes to racial equity work, I, like all of us, am still learning.