Navigating challenging conversations is a skill that Diana Noriega has mastered, which is good because she does it for a living. As the chief anti-racism and equity officer at Good Shepherd Services, a youth development and family service nonprofit organization, she has led racial equity initiatives, including restructuring Good Shepherd Services’ executive leadership team from 90% white to 63% people of color. She also spearheaded the development and implementation of hiring practices that would help achieve greater diversity, such as DEI-centered job descriptions as well as bias-minimizing résumé rubrics and interview questions.
She is also one of the leaders of the NYS Equitable Economies Coalition, which is dedicated to ensuring people of color obtain more opportunities as vendors with the nonprofit sector, and founder of the Anti-Racism and Equity Institute, a 128-hour intensive program that empowers nonprofit leaders to lead diversity and equity initiatives in their own organizations.
New York Nonprofit Media sat down with Noriega to speak about what brought her to this work, how she was able to create such significant change at GSS and what she hopes for the nonprofit sector in the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you begin your work in anti-racism? What led you to this work?
When I was 14, I was actually in student government in my high school and that led to summer youth employment, and at that time they were teaching us as young people on how to facilitate workshops to our peers about implementing the new math and science standards. Some people think it’s odd, but for me it actually created my trajectory and commitment into being in a nonprofit as a profession. I learned at 15 how to facilitate a workshop and was really kind of ingrained, even at that point in time, what does it mean to watch the New York City education system change and how can I as a young person help advocate for young people? So that’s kind of how I truthfully started on the path in the work.
I got the Posse (Foundation) scholarship and I went to Wheaton College, and I was the first Posse that had gone to Wheaton College. And this is all so important because Wheaton College was a predominantly white institution. And so here I was a city kid, a woman of color, going into predominantly white space. And I think, for the first time in my life, I had experienced discrimination. So imagine being 17 in this environment, and it was a shock to the system. I simultaneously took for the first time in my life courses, such as one course on Africa and the Americas and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it was related to really that narrative of how folks came to this side of the hemisphere. So you juxtapose that culturally responsive learning with being in an all-white environment as a woman of color, and ask, “Why didn’t anyone ever teach me about how my ancestors kind of came to be in existence?” That kind of created for me internally like this deep commitment to come back home and work with communities that look like me.
Can you give me a sense of what Good Shepherd Services was like before all of your transformational work and what it looks like now?
I was at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families leading the policy and advocacy and programs there. But I had realized as I was doing the work there that I really wanted to just focus on racial and social justice. What does it look like to really have a bigger impact on communities of color? And at that time, The Hispanic Federation had asked me to lead the creation of a communities of color values platform for them and I said, sure, I would love to, and that kind of really moved me more towards a full-time job where I could do deep transformative work. It was by luck and by design that I got the job at Good Shepherd Services, but it was my dream job at the moment. Prior to me getting there, Good Shepherd Services, probably around 2016, had promoted three white women to the executive team without a process. The executive team was already 90% white and only had one Black person on it. And then making this decision without a process further exacerbated the lack of diversity in the senior and even executive team. Senior leadership is also very white, so, one woman was already on the executive team, but she had gotten a promotion into a higher role, and then they had agreed to promote two other white women into executive team level roles, again, with no process.
In 2016, the presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement were on the rise. And so you combine what I call that outside storm and disturbances with these three promotions internally and what you create is a collective disturbance. And staff of color, who are a large majority of staff at Good Shepherd Services, then saying, “Wait a second, this is not OK. We want to see people who look like us in the leadership structure and we deserve to see people who look like us in the leadership structure.” So Good Shepherd had to respond. Truthfully. They had to ask, “How do we shift?”
So the senior and executive leadership had hired consultants, they did a lot of training with consultants. They ran the People’s Institute training for senior leadership and executive leadership – quite a few things were happening to move them along. In the process, they created an equity council where that was then responsible for thinking about how to hold people accountable. It was co-chaired by a staff person in the agency. So that’s kind of what I stepped into. So then the equity council, based on the recommendation from the consultants, had decided to advocate for a full-time role. We want someone who has the expertise and can lead this work and carry it as an agency. And they fought to make that role an executive level role. Most agencies who hire somebody for this role do not make them an executive level role. Most people put them in the HR department, which I totally get. But that also gives people the room and the space to not really commit to the actions that are needed to really move the agency forward. So, I really always give a lot of respect to our equity council for carrying this work and for fighting for it and making sure that this role got its proper level of respect that it needed within the agency structure. That’s what I stepped into at the same time.
We launched an equitable hiring practice process. Through all of the hiring practices there, we flipped our executive team to a 63% BIPOC executive team. I’m excited to say that we have been making significant changes to our senior leadership group.
We had a moment of racial reckoning in the summer of 2020, how do we make sure that momentum doesn’t die? How do we keep the momentum going for organizations to take action on their commitment to anti-racism?
The very first thing is: What does this work actually mean? Because again, I might have a different definition than somebody else and it’s not that both are wrong, but until we can get into the same understanding of what we mean by it, then we can’t even move to accountability. So the very first step is: What does it mean? What does it look like to do this work? So, we did a series of training exercises and I created a definition’s guide for staff. We have a framework that we’ve also created around what the work means that’s informed by other frameworks. That then allows us to anchor clear goals and a clear understanding.
You have to also develop people’s muscles to have challenging conversations, because the work will die if people are conflict-averse. And so you want to think about those for challenging conversations and constantly introducing it regularly into meeting spaces, because again, when people are confronted with conflict, the work just might end right there. They’re going to say, “well I don’t want to talk about this,” versus staying in the mess of it. So build that muscle of building relationships, though it goes hand in hand with building the muscle to have challenging conversations because if I don’t have good relationships with you, I’m more likely to check out And then the work will die. It’ll end. The other key thing is people should be connecting this to their missions. If people don’t get the clear connection between why racial and social justice matters in the work that they do, it’s easy to kind of avoid. What I like to do, we start our training with our mission statement. Then when we’re talking through the training, we start to cultivate a better understanding: Why does this connect? Why does this matter?
What is your vision for the nonprofit sector and anti-racism work?
I think the first thing I thought of was sharing power, transparency, better pay for front-line staff. A sector that truly values each and every single human being in principle and in practice. How am I valuing the fullness of a human being? My favorite quote is by Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And I think that’s what this is right? Liberation is about freedom, because that’s the goal of anti-racism and equity work. How am I creating a liberated society where people can honor their own self-determination and participate in ways that make sense to them, but are fully resourced to be able to do that. And how are we then as agencies doing that? So that’s about sharing power. It looks so many different ways. It’s about supporting even environmental justice. So, our definition of social justice includes having an ecologically sustainable kind of resources, how are we doing that? Because climate change has a deeper impact. It’s a deep impact across the globe, but it also has a deeper impact in communities of color. And so you see that’s an element we don’t talk about. And so in our work, how are we also supporting that? So there’s so many layers, but I think if people came to work and felt like they were thriving, and if communities felt like they were thriving, we would have achieved the goal.