A Conversation on Equity

By Laura Bradley Davis - May 20, 2020

As our world navigates the impact of the coronavirus, systemic inequities—from educational access to mortality rates—are being exposed and exacerbated.

In recent years, well before the crisis we find ourselves navigating today, PFS has been working to center diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do. As part of that ongoing effort, we have been lucky to partner with two thought leaders and expert communicators, Bina M. Patel and Laura Bradley Davis. Bina and Laura talked about the impacts of the pandemic, particularly on the nonprofit sector, and what this crisis can teach us about ourselves, our society, and hopefully, the way forward. Laura’s questions are in bold, followed by Bina’s responses.

Bina M. Patel has worked for more than 20 years to advance social good and justice. As CEO and founder of Saathi Impact, Bina partners with philanthropic, nonprofit, and social good leaders to reimagine and redesign the world around us to serve the collective good.

Laura Bradley Davis, principal of LBD Consulting has provided strategic and communications counsel to leaders and teams in the arts, philanthropy, education and social change sectors for over 14 years. A skilled strategist, coach and facilitator, Laura collaborates with organizations to catalyze internal effectiveness and external impact.

Q: This pandemic has exposed and heightened inequities that have long existed. What concerns you most?

A: On the most basic level, I wonder why it’s taken a pandemic to expose inequity to the broader public. It seems as if in this moment, we realize that there are people living paycheck to paycheck. It takes a picture of thousands of cars lined up outside a food bank for us to know that families that were working were already hungry. It’s shocking that this is just now dawning on people. The house has been on fire, but people just didn’t see it. It shows how privilege works in an inequitable system. So, first, we have to acknowledge that this is real and true. Then I think the question is, how do we use the pain of this moment to learn and change?

Q: Speaking of change, you work with many nonprofit leaders. What’s your advice to leaders in this time of crisis?

A: I keep thinking of something my Dad used to tell me in difficult times, ‘keep a cool head and a warm heart.’ For leaders, my advice is to really lean in to being human and prioritize the people you work with and the people you serve. Right now, we need to be a little less committed to our plans and typical ways of doing business, and instead open up to being deeply supportive of our staff, colleagues, and the communities we support. Also, nonprofit leaders really need to take care of themselves. Simply put, breathe, stretch, drink water and nurture yourselves so you can come back strong when this passes, because we need you.

Q: Sadly, many nonprofits are being forced to lay-off or furlough workers; how can a nonprofit manage this grim reality with equity and justice at the forefront?

A: Organizations are thinking about how to survive and that is scary, but I don’t know that layoffs are the answer in the short-term. In the nonprofit sector, when you lose a person you lose part of your mission. Leading with equity and justice means you start with the people, not the organizational chart. We need to think creatively and be more adaptive. Rather than layoffs, consider hard costs of office space, travel, and also pay cuts, furloughs, or other ways to maintain your people. Consider what other expenses could be cut or delayed. A lot of Executive Directors feel they have to make these tough decisions alone, but it’s important to lean on your board, peers, and colleagues. Layoffs are so final. Once trust is broken, getting that staff person back will take an awful lot of work. So, I would challenge organizations to consider whether they might find another way. Nonprofits also need to be bold with donors and ask them for help. Let them know that because of this, you’re about to lay people off—and they have names and families. Everything is changing so rapidly that we just don’t know if our funders will come through and enable us to keep people.

Q: With schools closed, education has moved into the home, highlighting persistent inequities in our school system and the digital divide. How might this moment change education?

A: For a long time in education, we’ve focused on the system and what it can deliver, rather than asking what students really need and whether they’re being served. I’m hoping we can re-focus on students and on developing the kinds of supports, access, arts, playtime, and experiences that young people need to be nourished on their learning journey. There are all kinds of disparities in the education system, and perhaps this unwelcome crisis will be an opportunity. I think of all the things we’ve put in place that didn’t need to be there—like the debates on school testing and grades—and it took a pandemic to say, ‘we’re not going to do it the way we always have.’ Perhaps this experiment in how quickly we can adapt the rules will give us the freedom to stop and ask what an inclusive anti-racist, anti-patriarchal education looks like; to reconsider the inherent inequities in what the system has valued, and focus instead on how we can prepare all students to learn and thrive.

Q: You work with many philanthropic organizations; what’s your message to philanthropists right now?

A: My message is this: give, do not withhold. I want philanthropy and donors to get closer to the edge of what’s possible with their money and get into a space of deep, true generosity. This is the moment to give more—more to the organizations that are the backbone of your community, and more to organizations you’ve never supported. Endowments will come back. Markets will rebound. Wealth will be regenerated. But many nonprofits, especially smaller, community-based organizations led by people of color, will not come back and the humans that run them and the communities they support and nourish will suffer. This is the moment many foundations have been planning for and investing in, and if we come out of this with fewer community-led, diverse-leadership organizations, we will have regressed 50 years in our work. If smaller nonprofits led by people of color have not been in your portfolio, I say, add them now. I urge philanthropists to focus more on those at the margins of society, because the margins are getting further away and we’re losing important voices. There are communities that are losing people because there is no food, no housing, no healthcare. We have indigenous communities losing their elders and with them, their languages and practices. The uphill battle is enormous, but this is the time to decide what we will be remembered for—do funders want to be remembered for their generosity and focus on community, or for protecting an endowment?

Q: I appreciate the optimism that permeates your advocacy. What are you doing to adapt and stay positive?

A: I’m trying to observe the full range of emotions when they come up and let myself bear witness to the realities of this moment, which includes stories that are uplifting and also those that are heartbreaking, shocking, and painful. I’m trying to be generous and offer pro-bono support.

I’m also mindful of boundaries and when I have to turn things off. I’m trying to hold on to the idea that not only are new things possible, but a new future is probable. I don’t want to recover into the way we were. As Maya Angelou said, ‘when we know better, we do better.’ I’m uplifted by seeing so many colleagues and leaders with a vision and commitment to realizing new way forward.

Q: What has been the biggest silver lining for you?

A: I’m seeing people show up in a more holistic, humanized way. The system has created dehumanization, but we are humans first. In this pandemic, people are seeing each other—literally, in our homes—and keeping it real. When I ask someone, ‘how are you?’ they say what’s true. Something more authentic is emerging. I’m excited too about new ways of leading and this idea of moving from ‘what’s possible’ into what’s probable. Also, I ordered a new surfboard and I know I’ll surf again someday soon.

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