Illustration by Rebecca Ustrell
From the narrative-changing storytelling initiative, “Driving Change From the Inside“, a look at the DE+I movement in organizations across the country.
CHECK OUT THE FULL SERIES: Featuring Summaries, Key takeaways, and Video Highlights
The saying goes: What doesn’t break you makes you stronger. That seems to be the case during the pandemic for Robin Hood Foundation, the largest poverty nonprofit in New York City. Because of catastrophes like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, Robin Hood already had procedures in place that enabled it to act decisively and respond quickly supporting at-risk communities during the pandemic.
At the start of Covid-19, Robin Hood raised $90mm for grants across the city to improve the lives of people who were experiencing poverty as a result of the pandemic. But they’ve got their work cut out for them – now, and always.
To gain greater insight into how the organization appears to be thriving through the pandemic and the overlapping racial justice movement, we sat down with the organization’s Chief People Officer, Stephanie Royal.
As Stephanie recounts, “the murder of George Floyd really helped to inspire, mobilize, and accelerate action that had already started. There was such a tremendous outpouring of support within our organization to take the work that had already started even before I got here, and to really accelerate it to help us move toward becoming an anti-racist organization.”
The phrase “becoming an anti-racist organization” stands out. Few I’ve spoken to call out the issue so overtly. This sentiment is indicative of Stephanie’s self-awareness and of the culture being nurtured at Robin Hood. When asked to comment on her upbringing in an upper middle-class Black family, Stephanie shared a sobering dose of realism:
“We’re not far from people who experience poverty on a daily basis within our own family. While my dad was able to go to college — he’s a graduate of Fisk University, a historically Black college — his education changed the game for our family. Part of why I’m so committed to the work that we do at Robin Hood is because we know that access to good quality education is a lever for economic mobility.”
Stephanie helps to illuminate that, for many of our DEIJ leaders, it’s not enough to strive for and achieve excellence. There are headwinds that make achieving and maintaining excellence more difficult. It’s imperative that we have people in leadership roles who have purview into what’s required to overcome poverty, and what’s needed to create a sustained cycle of mobility.
She notes that, “We all know how disproportionately affected communities of color were with health disparities and Covid just made it even worse. We knew that we had to mobilize quickly, and do so in a way that was intensive and meaningful and really holistic.”
Through this learning and growing process Royal has seen that creating a culture of inclusivity and vulnerability requires an evolution of emotional intelligence across the organization. It means ensuring that everyone has the safety to respectfully express their views and ideas. Equally important to working to foster safety for underrepresented and under resourced groups, is having empathy for every voice in the room. Stephanie describes this need well:
“I can only imagine what it must feel like to be someone entering a conversation about race, never having done it before. Feeling like they should not be in the conversation because of a certain aspect of their identity, or having anxiety around it. It requires vulnerability, and it requires an incredible amount of self-reflection. Based on that, we do have responsibility, those that are further along this pathway, to bring along those that are not there yet.”
In our conversation, Royal offered insights from her journey as a professional, from Wall Street, to the classroom, to her current leadership role as Chief People Officer at Robin Hood. Her story is inspiring for those among us, who could direct our intellect and energy almost anywhere, but choose a path of curiosity, compassion, and purpose.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation (full transcript), curated to help any individual or organization seeking to adapt to societal change and create a safe space for employees of all backgrounds, orientations, races, and beliefs.
1. Dig deeper into your DEIJ Commitment
Listen and learn:
“We could not have meaningful conversations about DEI without reflecting on who we were as an organization. Were we reflective on racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and cultural identifiers. Were they reflected in the staff at the time? No.”
“We took a comprehensive approach to how we’ve recruited, how we made decisions about hiring, how we onboarded our staff, how we made decisions about advancement and promotion, so we could embody the values that we set forth.”
“During Covid, we engaged an outside consultant to continue the work of a wholesale cultural assessment. That was a very intensive process. A deeply meaningful and personal process. I know that the results will help to inspire that next level of work.”
“I think our staff would say they are happy to be here, very much committed to the mission. They’re participating and helping to develop a culture where everyone can be their authentic selves, continue to learn, grow, thrive and contribute to advancing our mission.”
Today, a commitment to DEIJ is crucial to the overall health of organizational culture. True commitment requires the willingness to continue finding and repairing gaps in equity and justice proactively. The investment of time and effort might be challenging. However, the rewards from meaningful education, engagement, and growth can be seen in employee values alignment, retention, and output in times of crisis and for years to come.
2. Understand the influence of policy
Listen and learn:
“After we worked on the talent side, we wanted to dig into policy, practices, protocols, procedures. Were they equitable? We continued to dig into the policies related to HR, vendor selection, legal, through a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. I’ll say it’s a different organization now.”
“There are policies within our cities and at the state and federal levels, that don’t make it easy to access fundamental needs such as quality affordable housing, high quality food, basic clean water. These are not distributed equitably across all communities in this country. Where you see inequity and lack of access somehow seems to align with under-resourced communities populated by people of color.”
“We are trying to address issues of people experiencing poverty through grant-making to the amazing non-profits here in New York City, and across the country, so that direct service can be administered, so that people can access good quality food, quality education, and enter the sectors where jobs are abundant.”
We are all pieces of a larger puzzle. Being a proactive ally for DEIJ requires understanding the rules, procedures, and policies that affect inequity on a micro (in your lives and offices) and macro perspective (in our communities). Start by looking at areas of improvement within your own organization. Examine the procedures that might contribute to inequity and lack of representation. Compassion for our own areas of growth yields ideas and solutions that positively affect the collective.
3. Recognize the link between inclusivity and innovation
Listen and learn:
“We are a place that is welcoming to all people however they show up. I reinforce that in every conversation. I want people to be free, because if you’re not, you can’t do your best work.”
“One of the things that we are most proud of is our Design Insight Group. DIG emerged from the work of our tech incubator Blue Ridge Labs, which works to help founders create tech solutions to some of the drivers of poverty. We invite people from under-resourced communities to work alongside our program officers to develop programs to help in relief efforts.”
“We can, in a very respectful way, engage the experiences of people who have lived experience with poverty and get their input, get their expertise, intelligence, and deep understanding around problem solving to help us find solutions. It’s also important that we compensate them at a level to help them gain sustained economic mobility, for themselves and their families.”
Great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere. In the case of fighting the causes of poverty, it takes first hand experience to illuminate the real problems and the blind spots in existing solutions. When wealth, education, security and power gaps exist, it can be difficult to build trust. Attention to thoughtful engagement and trust building, as well as ensuring fair compensation, can yield needle-moving collaboration and innovation alongside the communities that you serve.
4. Invest in building trust and progress toward anti-racism
Listen and learn:
“In this type of work, which is so human, you won’t be successful unless you have a culture of trust and mutual understanding rooted in safety.”
“What results from those moments are meaningful relationships, deeper friendships, the willingness to step out of your own space and join someone. These are the experiences that make for a stronger team in this culture.”
“There are people who are at different places on their journey of being able to address race, class, privilege, but we’re all on board. It is okay to be at the beginning of that DEI journey.”
“You have to be ready and open and provide the psychological safety for people to show up as they are, no matter where they are on their DEI journey.”
Language is important. So, leaders need to speak about the importance for all to be bought in and supported, no matter where they are on their DEI journey. At Robin Hood, becoming an antiracist organization is essential to their health and culture. They see the results in retention, innovation, and passion. Combining the business imperative with examples of tangible and measurable benefits of anti-racism help organizations and the people they employ stay committed to long term DEIJ goals.
5. Gather a community of support and collaboration
Listen and learn:
“I found my tribe when I first came to New York City. A small group of Black women all working at banks. We relied on each other to make it, to draw upon each other’s good energy, and to share experiences so we could grow and thrive in a foreign world.”
“In my professional life, my responsibility is to care for others.There’s a team of people that look to me for support, for answers, for guidance, and that can be very lonely if you don’t have your own place of respite.”
“I know that I’m a role model to our junior staff. I have to show up for them and be my best self and make myself available to help them understand that this can be their seat as well.”
“We want to be partners with other nonprofits, other philanthropies, government, corporate communities, because we know that philanthropy cannot solve poverty alone.”
You can’t go it alone. Whether you are early in your career or sitting at the top, resilience requires teamwork and support. This is crucial for individuals from under represented groups because of the combined psychological and systemic hurdles that lay as obstacles. Peers and mentors illuminate roadblocks and strategies for presenting your best self. For marginalized individuals and groups, allies, and institutions, we get further by identifying values and goals alignment, and pursuing necessary work, in partnership.
Watch or listen to highlights of Michael and Stephanie’s conversation:
About the author
Michael Tennant is a founder, writer, and movement-builder dedicated to spreading tools of empathy and helping people find their purpose. Before founding Curiosity Lab, Tennant spent 15-years becoming a media, advertising, and nonprofit executive, and delivering award-winning marketing strategies for companies like MTV, VICE, P&G, Coca-Cola, sweetgreen, and Oatly.
Tennant founded Curiosity Lab in 2017 and created the conversation card game Actually Curious. Actually Curious became a viral sensation in 2020 during Covid-19 and the rise of the racial justice movement for helping people build meaningful connections and to tackle the important topics facing our world.
He has channeled his business success and momentum into a sustained movement supporting BIPOC and other underrepresented communities through speaking, writing, leadership, mentorship, consulting, partnerships, and talent-pipeline programs.