Diversity is the New Black: Thoughts on Public Sector Board Diversity

by Ebonie Johnson Cooper

Why is Everybody White? (source)
Why is Everybody White? (source)

Here we are in 2014. Full throttle 21st century “post-racial America” and yet the latest and greatest buzzword is: diversity.

Like the word millennials, everyone wants a piece of diversity but no one has any idea of what to really do with it. No company wants to racist, so it says it is committed to “diversity and inclusion” on its website, it adds the EEOC clause to employee applications, and if the company is Google it releases that 2% of  its employees are black as a first step to creating change. (I know one of the two black people who work at Google! #winning) But for executives like Mellody Hobson, one of two black women to chair a publicly traded company, the problem doesn’t just start in the cubicles, it starts in the boardroom. After sharing that she and former Tennessee House of Representative, Harold Ford, were mistaken for kitchen help at their own event, she broke down just how staggering things are in corporate America. “Even though white men make up just 30% of the U.S. population, they make up 70% of the corporate board seats,” said Hobson. I also found out that 93% of white men chair these boards and oh yeah, 87% of all corporate boards are all white.(source) And what about public sector organizations? Not much better. “About 20 years ago [nonprofit boards] were 86 percent Caucasian, and in our 2012 Nonprofit Governance Index, that number dropped to about 82 percent,” Board Source, Chief Governing Officer, Vernetta Walker shared on Associations Now. However, thirty percent of the 1,300 CEOs surveyed in 2012 by Board Source said their boards are 100% white.

Le sigh.

Over the last month, I’ve had four conversations with colleagues in the philanthropic sector, two white men and two black women, all of which have coincidentally delved into the topic of diversity – or lack thereof within the sector. It goes without saying that because I am a black woman and the nature of my work is with black millennials and giving, the comfort to address this topic probably seemed apparent. But what wasn’t so apparent to me is the lack of open-mindedness that exists within philanthropy and particularly, non-profit board governance. In a sector that prides itself on helping the disadvantaged, many of whom are black and brown, it amazes me that the black and brown are rarely at the table helping to make decisions about their own communities.

In one of my meetings, it was shared that management felt that finding black professionals to serve on the foundation’s board seemed “out of reach.” In another meeting, the resolution to creating diversity during a company-wide panel was to add a white woman. I want to argue that this is 2014 and for goodness sake, we have a black President, shouldn’t that count for something? But this is also the same 2014 where black boys are killed for wearing hoodies and playing loud music. So depending on your point of reference, it’s either attainable or it’s not.

My goal is to help nonprofits and foundations know that board diversity IS attainable. I know black people give back- and not just in church. I know black people serve as leaders- and their names aren’t just Jesse and Rev. Al. And hey, I even know that using leadership skills is the number one way African American millennials want to give their time. And yes, I know where to find all of these black people and how to engage them. But the question is, are non-profits and foundations, really ready to embrace them? How long are these institutions going to remain beholden to what is comfortable before they take the risk to do what is smart? How long will they cheer that diversity needs to happen before there is actually something done about it? And how long will philanthropy as a sector operate under the fallacy that their programs and funding are making a difference without having diverse perspectives at the to guide them? Walker says it best with this question, “if you’re not ensuring that your leadership is as diverse and inclusive as those that you’re serving, then you have to ask, ‘Are you missing an opportunity? Are you truly representing those who you say you are?’”

Diversity isn’t just a buzzword, it’s the real world. The negative images we see of both black and white Americans, a la Love & Hip Hop ATL and Donald Sterling, are not representative of all Americans. And in order for us to all be part of the change we wish to see, we ALL need to be at the table. As Dr. Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”

I encourage those young black professionals seeking to serve on boards or those already serving on boards, to attend the Changing the Face of Philanthropy Summit. The Summit will feature a 90-minute board leadership training customized for young black professionals, facilitated by Vernetta Walker, CGO of Board Source. The best practices you will learn in this session alone is priceless. Learn more about the Summit and register here: http://changingthefacesummit.com/ And for organizations seeking to recruit diverse, young talent to their boards, let me help you. Take a look at my millennial workshop series, and let’s talk!

3 thoughts on “Diversity is the New Black: Thoughts on Public Sector Board Diversity

  1. “in order for us to all be part of the change we wish to see, we ALL need to be at the table.” Your observation of the relationship between Diversity and Representation is notable. Your contribution is appreciated. A thought: diversity includes “age” diversity. Thank you for your work.

  2. “in order for us to all be part of the change we wish to see, we ALL need to be at the table” Your association of Diversity and Representation is appreciated. Embracing diversity (by age as well) will save our country. Thank you for your work and thoughtful contributions.

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