In 2019, the Annie E. Casey Foundation partnered with Associated Black Charities and Workforce Matters to launch the Advancing Racial Equity in Workforce Development initiative.  The initiative focused on building the capacity of workforce field-building organizations to integrate and apply a racial equity lens to their organizational, operational, and programmatic practices in addition to their policies and strategies.  The initiative concluded in December 2020 with a webinar featuring reflections from grantees and lessons learned.   

Workforce Matters had a chance to catch up with Diane Bell-McKoy, President and CEO of Associated Black Charities (ABC), to reflect on the initiative and what we learned.

Q: Why were you interested in participating in this initiative, and what was significant about it? How did you see your role as an intermediary?

ABC’s mission is to serve as an educator, advocate and supporter to eliminate race-based structural barriers and advance long-term solutions that create new opportunities for African Americans to thrive financially and build a stronger economy for all.  Over the last several years, we have developed a body of work focused on applying a race equity lens to workforce development, so we were excited to work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Workforce Matters, and field leaders to deepen and broaden the application of a racial equity lens. This work mattered and continues to matter for us because ABC wants to move the needle for Black workers and workers of color who experience racialized disparities from hiring/firing to compensation to exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, and furthermore, we know that closing the gap for Black and brown workers will not only improve outcomes for them but for all workers and for the entire economy.

Q: How did this initiative roll out? Can you give us a sense of how the grantees approached the work?

One of the things that we felt was most important about this initiative was the flexibility to honor where organizations were in their racial equity journey and help them take the next steps, whether through training, planning, capacity building, or addressing organizational culture.

The seven selected grantees were asked to complete a self-assessment, identify areas in which they wanted to grow as an organization, and check-in regularly with project consultants.

All of the grantees brought in external assistance/consultants to assist them with growth areas identified through the self-assessment areas and selected internal teams to implement the work.

At the conclusion of the initiative, grantees were invited to share their learning, progress, opportunities and challenges with funders and field leaders to inform next steps.

Q: What about the work from this initiative did you find encouraging?

I am greatly encouraged by the ways that each organization leaned into this work and invested additional time, resources, leadership, and organizational capital into seeing this work take shape and become integrated into their DNA.

Some of the work they did also showed tangible evidence of progress: investing in professional development and training around strengthening equity competent leadership; developing plans to operationalize and sustain diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; developing and supporting employee resource groups; increasing support for employee mental health, including time off to participate in protests; reviewing and revising onboarding to address racial equity and bring new hires up to speed; and reviewing public communications, curricula, and convening agendas and content through a race equity lens.

Q: What are some key takeaways you think funders should keep in mind if they would like to support similar work in the future?

Here are some of the takeaways I would lift up for funders:

  • This work takes time, resources, and capacity. Funders need to recognize that in the way that they design their investments in this area and evaluate readiness to take on this work.
  • This work is not a product or an event, but a journey. That said, navigating this journey does require thinking about and putting in place manageable outcomes and plans for future work, which funders can support.
  • This work is personal. It requires investment and engagement from each individual on a team to move the work forward, and organizations and funders must recognize that individuals are often on their own racial equity journeys even as their organizations are exploring and implementing this work.
  • This work is organizational. This work must be done in the context of existing organizational culture, which may hamper or accelerate the work.  And, implementing a racial equity lens often requires organizational culture change, which needs leadership commitment.
  • The nature and scope of the work means that collaboration and partnership are required, not optional, to make advancing equitable outcomes possible. Organizations and funders must recognize their role in the ecosystem and identify their partners and leverage points.  Building in opportunities to support partnership and narrative building across organizations can change the conversation and the “frame” for workforce development and economic opportunity to be more race-explicit and systemic in addressing disparities.

Diane Bell-McKoy is President and CEO of Associated Black Charities (ABC) in Baltimore, Maryland.