Racial Diversity in Community Development Leadership: A Roundtable Discussion on the Field’s Past, and Its Future

Several national organizations in the community development field have experienced transitions from white leadership to people of color.

From left to right, Priya Jayachandran of the National Housing Trust, Lisa Mensah of the Opportunity Finance Network, Tony Pickett of Grounded Solutions, Lisa Rice of the National Fair Housing Alliance, and Akilah Watkins-Butler of the Center for Community Progress

The impetus to host this conversation stemmed from our noticing over the past two years that a significant number of national organizations in the community development field were not only experiencing leadership transitions, but were going from white organization heads to people of color (not always for the first time, but for the most part).

Given concerns spanning decades about racial diversity in the field, we believed this represented something of a watershed moment, and wanted to capture leaders’ thoughts on it.

Joining us for this conversation were Priya Jayachandran of The National Housing Trust; Lisa Mensah of the Opportunity Finance Network; Tony Pickett of Grounded Solutions; Lisa Rice of the National Fair Housing Alliance; and Akilah Watkins-Butler of the Center for Community Progress.

As participants introduced themselves, they noted a career milestone they felt helped lead them to their current leadership role.

Priya Jayachandran: I’m the president of the National Housing Trust. I’ve been in my role a little over a year [succeeding] Michael Bodaken, who was in the role for almost 26 years. One factor, I feel, [is] the role of mentors. I’ve had a couple women of color who have been, and continue to be mentors to me, and I would go one step further and say they’re sponsors. Mentors give advice, sponsors open opportunities. They’ve put my name in for things, provided references, pulled me along with them.

Lisa Mensah: I’m the president and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network. I’ve been here almost two years. I succeeded Mark Pinsk­y, who had led the organization for over 20 years. If there’s a milestone that led me to Opportunity Finance Network, it probably was my work at the Ford Foundation, where I spent 13 years. I joined on the side that was concerned with rural poverty and resources, and ended up on the economic development side.

Ford was truly the seedbed, I think, of much of the community development field. I was coming from banking, and did not know this field until I reached Ford. When you work in a foundation that’s been committed to a field, you learn how to think deeply about where fields are going and changing. This one was very captivating for me, the field of community development. I met it in the late ’80s, and that’s helped me, since I have a 30-year view on this work, to think hard about where I think we’re headed.

Tony Pickett: I am the CEO of the Grounded Solutions Network. My predecessor [was] Melora Hiller, [and] I was also a member of her board of directors prior to taking this role. Next month will mark a year that I’ve been in the position. My milestone is not so much a specific event as the fact that I really came into my professional stride in Atlanta, where there was African-American leadership and a professional development community that really nurtured each other. All of us in the community development space there worked in and around each other for many years, and developed quite a bit of camaraderie. I’ve had the fortune of working beside partners like Egbert Perry, [the] African-American leader of a private development company that focuses on community development and affordable housing.

But he wasn’t the only one. There were many others like him in Atlanta, [at] organizations that were led by people of color. Watching them and learning from them over the years has been instrumental in guiding my progress. I very intentionally decided to work toward the benefit of communities of color and people who look like myself. That really started in the early 2000s. I consider myself lucky to have that context and those relationships continue today.

Lisa Rice: I’m the president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. And like Tony, next month will be my one-year anniversary. There were probably two, maybe three [significant milestones]. One is that I led the effort to establish the Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so I was a part of the core team working on Dodd-Frank and developing key components of that legislation. The Office of Fair Lending was my brainchild, and I made a lot of connections and developed a lot of relationships working on that. I think that helped to propel me in some respects, and in areas where I did not have a lot of connections.

The next, I would say, is something that I think pretty much everyone else has mentioned, and that is the important role of mentors and sponsors. One is the immediate past president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, Shanna Smith, who advocated very hard for me to get this role and gave me a lot of exposure and responsibilities to help prepare me for the role. The third [are] several cases that I helped to lead here at NFHA, precedent-setting cases [that] brought the organization a lot of exposure when they were settled.

Akilah Watkins-Butler: I’m president and CEO of the Center for Community Progress. I’ve been there 23 months now. The events that were probably instrumental in me getting to this place—some were good and some were really tough. First was my experience working at NeighborWorks America as their director of national partnerships. I really learned how to fundraise [and that was] the thing that the Center for Community Progress’s Board really liked about me. Working at NeighborWorks America allowed me to build a great portfolio of funders and build deep relationships that I’m able to transfer.

And all the funders that I’ve transferred have all been funders of color. So, whether they’re philanthropic or banking, the people that sit in those decision seats [who] have walked with me through several jobs have all been women of color. I am deeply appreciative of us building the relationship.

I think the second [milestone] was constantly being culturally “othered” [at] majority-[white] organizations.

[In a] job before Community Progress, I was the only person of color serving on the leadership team of an anti-racism organization, [and] I was the first person of color to serve on that team in 27 years. What people said did not match up with how they operated. We can’t just talk about equity, it has to permeate how we hire, how we treat people of color in organizations, how power is doled out.

The more I rose, especially in white-led organizations, not all of them, but most, the more disillusioned I became about race and how it gets played out at the leadership level. That propels me to want to lead and create a different paradigm for how leadership can be exercised. It was deeply painful while I was going through it, but that pain led me here.

We know that it’s important and beneficial to have diversity in leadership in all fields, but is there a reason why diversity in leadership is particularly important in community development?

Lisa Rice: I would say yes. As a person of color working in communities of color, one of the things that I was able to bring to the table, and other people of color were able to bring, is lived experience of the issues the organization was attempting to address. We’re living those challenges. Firsthand knowledge of the policies that were enacted by either the federal government, the state, or our local municipalities that had a direct impact on our lived environment, seeing this investment firsthand, and seeing firsthand the changes that our neighborhoods and communities were undergoing, and also understanding from the stories of our parents and elders in our community, about how our spaces changed as a result of, oftentimes, race-based policies that negatively impacted our environments. We [also] understand the nuances and the complexities of the spaces in which we work and, oftentimes, have to sadly play the role of dispelling many myths about our communities.

Can you give us any examples of a time when you had to take a colleague and say, “You’re missing a point,” “You don’t understand what’s going on here,” “That’s a myth,” or just, “Here’s how that policy should be changed because of these details from [my] lived experience?”

Lisa Rice: Yes. We [National Fair Housing Alliance] work on discrimination issues, and cover a range of sectors related to discriminatory housing and lending policies. One of the myths that I’m always dispelling over and over again is that all communities of color are poor and impoverished, and that people who live in communities of color are poor. That’s not the case. In fact, many communities of color are not poor or impoverished, and the people who live in them are professionals [who are] well-educated [and] make good money.

What oftentimes happens is, when I say this community of color is disinvested [in] and there are no bank branches, but there are a plethora of payday lenders and check cashers and “buy here-pay here” lenders, what other people hear is, “This is a poor community, and the banks have left this community because it’s a poor community, and subprime and fringe lenders have poured into this community because it’s a poor, impoverished community.” But that’s not what I said. Oftentimes, the community that I’m talking about is not a poor community. In fact, it could be an upper-income community, but people sort of viscerally equate race with risk and equate race with poor. I’m constantly having to dispel that myth.

Has anyone else had that kind of experience, or something similar, in their own organization?

Akilah Watkins-Butler: Yes, absolutely. Lisa is absolutely right that we do often spend a lot of our time [and] intellectual energy dispelling a lot of myths and being hyper-vigilant that there aren’t unintended negative consequences to communities of color. We spend a lot of our time teaching people about those things. And then absolutely [there’s the problem of] conflating race and class. A lot of times they are synonymous, and a lot of times they’re not. Conflating them does more damage than good. We can’t employ good strategies if we’re not really clear about what the challenges and problems really are.

Lisa [Mensah], how does this play out when your organization is kind of a group of bankers, as with CDFIs?

Lisa Mensah: The kind of lending that CDFIs were famous for is lending that’s against the tide, lending that is supposed to be to places that the market said couldn’t perform, [because] either there wasn’t enough profit or there wasn’t a chance of paying it back, so high-risk, no return. And I think starting out life as a minority makes you very capable of taking on the fight. Personally, I don’t start from a position of thinking that the status quo is good or is impervious to change. I think in some ways it’s a kind of advantage to [have] always had to fight against the tide. People always said no. And to me, that’s kind of a fit with a field that’s had to be more scrappy, and to say we are going to make loans in rural areas [and] persistently poor urban areas that people have written off.

Tony Pickett: I think also, as a leader of color, we inherently understand that there’s a lack of trust in communities of color when it comes to the outcomes related to large-scale financial investments made in communities of color. Historically, that has never gone well in the long run, and [I’m] really trying to figure out how to create more trust and more understanding between what is often grassroots communities of color, the leadership of those communities, and some of the mission-minded investors who really want to promote and get to some positive social impact outcomes. But first you’ve got to overcome a history of distrust and negative consequences. I heard it recently referred to as, sometimes you have to do a little “pain listening” before you can get to constructive dialogue. I think we are uniquely positioned to understand that and to create a bridge for some of that conversation to happen.

Priya Jayachandran: National Housing Trust has a small CDFI, and earlier in my career, I was at big banks and did a lot of lending to CDFIs. I was on the board or loan committees of several of them. Your own Shelterforce article talked about boards [being an obstacle to hiring diversity]. I think Lisa’s right, CDFIs, because of their history, start from that place of bucking the status quo.

But, and I think this is human nature and the evolution of a lot of industries, a lot of those boards of the bigger CDFIs tended to become a little bit more entrenched, a little bit less diverse, whether on their exterior or in their perspective. Constantly trying to bring the CDFI industry back to its roots through its boards is important. It’s not just the leader, but the governance.

Akilah Watkins-Butler: In terms of the leaders [of color] [at] these financial institutions, one of my small observations is that even if they aren’t really clear about equity and how it plays out in a particular community, they do come with a level of humbleness. They may not know the answers, but they will go and figure out who does. People look to them to understand what the equity play is, and they may not have that at their fingertips, but they are plugged in enough that they can call up anybody and talk off-script, just ask questions. It does help to create an atmosphere where people can be a bit vulnerable and say, look, I know what I don’t know, and I know what I do know. I think that’s important, too.

Why do you think there’s such a demographic mismatch between leadership of community development groups and the population they largely serve? Tony, you described your working in Atlanta and being surrounded by other organizations led by African Americans. And so, is that question the right question all over the country, or is it regional? Is it more right in the Northeast or the West than it is in the Midwest or the South? What have you all seen?

Tony Pickett: Based on my experiences [in] Atlanta, Denver, other places even, the number of people of color who are in leadership positions in communities is relatively small. In Atlanta, there’s a concentration, but overall in the community development space, I’d say the majority are not people of color typically, even in Atlanta [or] Georgia at large. So, I don’t think it’s a lot different. There just happens to be in that particular city several high-profile, high-performing, successful organizations. Because the political leadership [is] African American as well, it seems more prevalent, and it’s not such a rare occurrence to be sitting in a room with peer leaders of color. But it is not the Promised Land.

I would also say it’s not limited to community development. Anything related to real estate, finance, the IT industry, medicine, those professions are all suffering from that same deficit of leaders of color and experienced, proficient, technical expertise from workers of color. Ours is no different. One of my big pushes is to figure out how to create a pipeline of trained experts of color to increase the scale of shared equity housing across the country. We tend to focus on financial resources and organizational capacity. Well, part of organizational capacity comes from the people who actually have to perform the work. If we don’t have a pipeline of those folks in place, we’re only cannibalizing our existing successes in order to get to the next rung on the ladder.

Akilah Watkins-Butler: I remember when community development actually was a lot more diverse—not the leadership, but grassroots folks working in the field. The creation of NeighborWorks [was] one woman of color in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. But as the field started to professionalize, we started to lose more and more people of color. I remember a time when there weren’t any master’s degrees in community development. This wasn’t a highly professionalized field. Professionalizing the field has made a clear demarcation of who’s in and who’s out. And left out of that conversation were a lot of practitioners or would-be practitioners of color. That has had some real devastating effects on leadership and who actually works in these organizations. Everybody on my staff has a master’s degree. That gives you entree into organizations to develop certain types of experiences and expertise. So when we’re looking to fill positions in our organizations, we’re looking for expertise, because this work moves really fast. There are some clear benefits, because we have people more technically trained, we have more best practices—I want to be clear about that. But it also has had a negative impact on who gets to lead the work and who can have legitimate power in the work.

Are there other factors that have led to this mismatch?

Lisa Rice: Throughout my career, I’ve seen a number of factors that have led to this mismatch, one being that decision-makers haven’t been willing to promote people of color. That is really serious. I was president and CEO of a local community-based organization before coming here to NFHA. In the civil rights field there are a lot of white men who are leading and funding these organizations, and to get a voice at the table, I had to outperform other people. I had to work harder. I had to work later. I had to take on more projects. That can be really draining, and it’s not sustainable for the long-term, yet I didn’t have a lot of people who were in decision-making positions who were willing to recognize that hard work, but also be supportive of me in terms of understanding the contributions that I was able to make.

The second issue is that funders have to be willing to fund institutions that are led by people of color, and funders have to have faith in the leadership of people of color.

Akilah Watkins-Butler: That’s a huge one, huge.

Tony Pickett: Yes.

It is, and it’s an issue that mirrors some of the things that you’ve been describing about boards and the existing leadership structures. How do you break into that? How do you—besides working twice as hard and twice as long—how do you get beyond this entrenchment, both on the funding side and on the organization side?

Lisa Rice: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I will tell you this true story: I worked at a local organization in Ohio, leading an organization that was breaking all kinds of barriers. We grew our reserve fund from $33,000 to almost $10 million. We were bringing precedent-setting cases. We were being called to lead national initiatives because the work that we were doing was so precedent-setting. And my board would not give me a raise for almost four years. It was male leadership that was holding it up. My deputy was a man, and with his next raise, he would have been making more money than I was making, and I was the president and CEO of the organization. I kept giving him a raise because I wasn’t going to discriminate against him because the board was discriminating against me. He ultimately quit because he thought that the system was so unfair. And that didn’t change until I decided to leave. I told the board that I was leaving [and] they offered me a $35,000 raise, but I had had it by then.

So, I don’t know what it will take to break this cycle. I think it takes more people like us, all of us here, being willing to step in and make up that gap and be the bridge for others to walk over and to ensure that at the organizations that we’re running and impacting and the organizations where we are serving on boards, that we’re making sure that we’re paying attention to these kinds of issues so that others behind us won’t have to deal with the same tragedies or the same problems and ills.

[To] those of you who’ve taken over from organizations that were white-run immediately before you, or always, do you have a sense of what the organizations did to go beyond their limitations in their hiring process?

Tony Pickett: From Grounded Solutions’ standpoint, because I came from the board of directors, I had the benefit of being part of the process. There was a very intentional shift to emphasize our commitment to racial equity, and we started looking at that internally, what that meant for organizational culture, as well as externally, what that meant for the work that we were supporting by our members. If we’re going to be predominantly serving communities of color, what does our make-up look like in terms of the staff, the board’s leadership, and even the membership itself, what do those leaders look like in terms of their diversity, and what can we do to make sure that there’s greater alignment between the two, recognizing that there’s not currently. It was fortuitous that at the time we received a Ford Build grant from the Ford Foundation that allowed us to engage racial equity consultants to help us work through that process and what people’s various biases and feelings were about the change, [which goes] back to the point [that] funders have to also recognize imbalance in the field and be willing to commit resources to allowing the organization the space and the time to figure out how to make the transition.

Akilah Watkins-Butler: I was the first person of color, [and] it was a very difficult transition. While we had a Build Grant like [Grounded Solutions], equity [wasn’t] a priority for the organization. Mostly all of the staff were white. Everybody that controlled resources in the organization was white. I had one senior staff person of color [who] left because she was so disgruntled about how she was treated in the organization for two years. In terms of the fundraising, my board was very nervous about, “will funders fund an organization led by a black woman?” I got hit because I had [shared] an article on my Facebook page that talked about black fatherhood. And I guess in research [ing] who I was, some people thought I was just “too Black” to run this organization that talked about land reclamation. It was difficult.

Priya, you took over for a white male leader. How did the organization get to the point where they recognized that they needed to look for a person of color, or make it intentional, even if not exclusive? What moved them beyond their own experiences?

Priya Jayachandran: I give my predecessor, Michael [Bodaken], a lot of credit for that. I think they hired a search firm to vet candidates, [but] Michael did most of the recruiting. It was largely a budgetary decision, but also Michael’s style. I think that he saw a value to the organization there.

Part of it’s gender, [and] in my case, part of it is racial. I would argue, the other [part] for me has been generational. My predecessor, Michael, had been in the role for 26 years. It’s not easy, and it’s hard to parse out how much of it is that generational leadership, racial, or gender, but just a very different style than my predecessor. We’ve got a very stable staff — a good portion of the staff over 30 has been there over seven years, which in some ways is good. It’s also been, I’ve found, hard because they’ve been very used to a singular way of doing things. Michael, for those of you who know him, is a force of nature. He’s a very strong personality. And so, in a year, it’s hard to change that.

Think about the field as a whole—where do you think it should be going? What are some future challenges and opportunities?

Lisa Mensah: I think in the ’80s we were still proving that it was possible to lead change, sophisticated financial change from the communities, at the community levels with people, not to people. I think that we got that now, that we’ve proved that it’s possible to have a community development field.

I think we have to do the harder work now. I think we have to bring our financing and our solutions to the places in our communities that have been stubbornly hard and to still use our most trusted approach, which is with people.

I’ve been talking a lot about persistent poverty, which is both an urban and a rural phenomenon. It is Native American. It is Latinx. It’s African American. I think we need to go deep, I think investors are hungry for deeper impact, and I think that’s something we can offer.

Tony Pickett: I am struck by the fact that we need to have much more coordinated cross-sector collaboration toward specific outcomes for communities of color in particular. I would say a number of us on this call, we’re already working together or planning to work together in some specific fashion toward that end. But we’ve got to continue to broaden the tent and bring more folks and more sectors into the effort. I would say education, healthcare, right along with housing, are essential components to making a successful and thriving community. We’ve never really had enough of an intention that brings all of those pieces together to bear at once in the same location. I agree, we’ve kind of proven that we’re able to coalesce as a sector, but we’ve got to actually implement some success on the ground and be able to measure that in order to continue to make progress.

Akilah Watkins-Butler: It’s about creating a pipeline. We’ve got to create ways that folks can enter this field. We need to nurture them so they want to stay in this field, and then we’ve got to create opportunities to lead so they want to invest in this field and transform this field.

Priya Jayachandran: I agree with Akilah. I think it’s about building that pipeline. In the [Shelterforce] article, there was a diversity of views on how much skills matter. I think skills matter a lot, and the answer, therefore, is to get people those skills so [we’re] bringing people into the field, mentoring them, sponsor[ing] them, giving them those skills so that they can be the leaders that replace us.

Lisa Rice: I think we need to work in tandem with other entities to develop products and technology that will help us realize the outcomes that we seek. Our world is ever more information driven. Technology is sort of the next frontier. We have to demand that technology works in our favor in terms of advancing equity. We need to be a part of the conversation that is happening in the technology space, be right in the thick of what is happening, because technology has a very real danger of being a threat to the work that we do.

Thank you.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great views shared by all! As a minority woman with almost 10 years of experience in this field, I’ve seen the change of more white liberal, corporate types coming into the field. Some and definitely not all – are very self serving (individuals and organizations). Representation matters in this work and organizations must be intentional in their hiring and funding decisions to truly make a difference in the communities we serve.

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