Best practices for combating racism in nonprofit workplaces

Here’s how to implement a sustainable, anti-racism policy framework, according to Diana Noriega, chief anti-racism and equity officer at Good Shepherd Services.


Following 2020's global protests for racial justice, organizations are beginning to put into action concrete anti-racism policies as workers return to in-office work. Creating a safe, equitable and inclusive space for your organization's employees is integral to building a sustainable team. According to a 2021 study by Future Forum, only 3% of Black white-collar workers wanted to return to in-person work, contrasted with 21% of their white colleagues. 

As workers return to  the office post-COVID-19, they face new hybrid work models, shifts in organizational policies and in some cases, new teams entirely. Additionally, many organizations have denounced discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion and gender, contributing to the changing dynamics of workplaces. 

Navigating these policies as a team is a challenging feat. How do teams ensure leadership is held accountable? How do you implement new policies and engage in difficult conversations? What does it look like to be vulnerable and brave? 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke with Diana Noriega, chief anti-racism and equity officer at Good Shepherd Services, to discuss coming together in the workplace as a community, beginning difficult conversations and integrating anti-racist and equity frameworks into existing organizational structures. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How do we hold organizations accountable and ensure organizations take action on their commitments to anti-racism?

Firstly, if you're not developing a strategic action plan that has deliverables and outcomes attached to it, and there are no systems of metrics named, why would anybody be accountable to it? If you're doing this work, you're doing logic model design, building out around it and creating some structure so that you and those implementing it are held accountable.

There's also a hierarchical nature, you have a leadership structure and everyone has someone to report to. So, if nonprofits have a board of directors who aren't bought into the mission, why would the senior and executive leaders be accountable for it? When you have a hierarchy, you must consider how every level is involved. It has to be addressed in multiple directions. Even if you don't have positional power, you start to force the conversation by supporting your coworkers, creating collective power in a bottom-up approach. The loudest people in a space get their voices heard more than those who don't.

We had a moment of racial reckoning in the summer of 2020; how do we ensure that momentum doesn't die? How do we keep the momentum for organizations to take action on their commitment to anti-racism?

One strategy to incorporate as an organization is outlining your commitment to anti-racism work in job descriptions and performance evaluations. This is something that we're doing at Good Shepherd Services. The first step was to generate buy-in so that we would receive only a little resistance. I ran about 12 focus groups with program directors, senior leaders, the executive team and our equity council to say, “What do you think should be our core competencies for all leaders?”

From those focus groups, expectations were co-created as we all contributed to a new set of competencies that includes race equity competencies. Even if there were people who would resist because we did such an inclusive and collaborative process, their voices got minimized. We then had all senior and executive leaders sign new job descriptions attached to those core competencies last year.

The next phase of the work was to revamp our entire performance management system and align them around those core competencies. One example is that I, as a supervisor, must understand racial and gender microaggressions and interrupt them. That's now an expectation of our leaders. We've been mapping out these expectations of supervisors that will continue in the next fiscal year. Those are some strategies around accountability.

What do you do when persons of color disagree with other persons of color? What is the best way to communicate and find a way to be on the same page?

The first thing I tell people is: What are you just doing to build relationships? If I am not in an authentic relationship with somebody, it's harder to have a challenging conversation. Therefore, we must take a step back and think, how are we building relationships across our communities? The general idea is that if I don't know you as a person, it's going to be hard for me to humanize you. If I can humanize you, it will be easier to engage in challenging dialogue and move forward to a better proactive space. 

Secondly, it is essential to look at the contributing factors to disagreements. When people come from different cultural contexts, they bring their culture and their experiences to the table. Sometimes a conflict boils down to cultural or values misalignment. Meaning I might not be what you value. For us to identify that, we have to determine what the value is. When I facilitate workshops, I tell people this always; we do 'agreements' as a strategy. If I'm having a meeting or a conversation, I ask, can I set the container for safety in my comfort zone? When you're from a privileged group, sometimes "you're making me uncomfortable" can be conflated with a threat to security. Yet, in anti-racism inequity work, it's about feeling safe enough to be brave. How am I creating a container to be safe enough to be brave? This is an essential part of real groundbreaking work: how will we even engage in dialogue in a way that allows us both to feel seen and heard? 

How can boundaries be co-created when engaging in these difficult conversations?

In a workshop, I set aside time to decode this. What is required of us? Sometimes people will say respect, but I might view respect very differently than you. We need to identify what it looks like as an action in practice before we continue having issues. Therefore shared understanding is also a big part of this. Respect can mean eye contact, a nod of the head, etc. People need different things to feel affirmed and seen in space. We can do that and commit to that agreement. But again, if I use generic terms, it leaves room for cultural interpretation. Bravery requires some form of discomfort. 

If we can humanize one another, we can find some pathways forward. We move fast as a society, and we are not trained on how to be thoughtful listeners. You have to build that muscle. What does it mean to listen? How to be a witness to someone's story and to someone's pain? These courageous racial conversations take time. It doesn't happen in one sit down or session and needs proper care.  

When people have experienced trauma and abandonment, it follows them. That trauma will appear, and you have to be prepared for that. When people are in a very personal conversation connected to their value system, it can hit them in a wound. It's natural to have trauma responses of fight, freeze and fawn. If we discuss tools, I can intervene before it gets to that point. It's co-created between the facilitator and participants and never one-directional. I'll ask the group for permission in these situations: Are we okay? How can we foster community and get consensus before moving forward in the dialogue? It's a very critical step. 

Another strategy is to introduce breathing into conversation spaces. Breathing is the anchor to life. When people undergo a trauma response, their body naturally starts to breathe fast as the body goes into survival mode. If you introduce slow breathing techniques in the beginning, it can calm the nervous system down. When the nervous system comes down, you can insert reason into the conversation. 

How do we move from a place of reactionary action to continuous practice for racial justice?

As an organization, the framework created around this work is essential, allowing us to anchor in clear goals and clear understanding. For some, this work may mean equal access. So how am I either creating opportunities to increase access to opportunities or how am I failing to?

There's also a whole hiring strategy around this. You can use the hiring practices as an opportunity to call on staff aligned with racial and social justice principles. As well as reshaping interview practices, job descriptions and 

The other thing you want to do is you have to build infrastructure and systems within your performance management process. The accountability metrics may vary, but one method is inviting a new staff person into knowledge management conversations. Those folks will ask the beginning questions that a senior leader won't because they're so deep into the process. You're also recognizing that we're interconnected, bringing it back to the mission. This work is about the impact we want on the community.