NeighborWorks America’s race, equity, diversity and inclusion, or REDI work, is here to stay, says Rutledge Simmons, executive vice president, general counsel and REDI officer. “It’s not an initiative,” he says. It’s a value structure. “We want to make sure it’s part of our everyday thinking.”
With Don Trahan Jr., the organization’s new REDI director, on board, it’s a good time to look at where NeighborWorks America has been and at what’s coming next in the effort to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront – and to keep it there.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re building a culture of inclusiveness,” Simmons says. “An inclusive environment where everyone feels they have a fair shot to achieve, participate in the work of the organization and feel valued, particularly those who may have been marginalized in the past.”
Providing “a fair shot” has always been at the core of NeighborWorks’ mission, from its beginnings with a community-building visionary who led the revitalization effort for her discounted Pittsburgh neighborhood to its congressional charter 40 years ago as a nonpartisan nonprofit with a focus on housing, neighborhoods and financial literacy.
The catalyst for immersion in diversity and inclusion, Simmons says, came from the reaction of a prior NeighborWorks CEO to the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. He wanted a more intense, intentional focus on inclusion. Leadership agreed. The new way of thinking had an uneven start, but we’ve found our footing. NeighborWorks employees have moved forward in a number of areas, Simmons says, including an Employee Advisory Committee, multiple facilitator training sessions and the expansion of the pool of contractors with a focus on diversity. Our equity work is also changing the way we vet new network organizations, Simmons says. “And it’s creating another avenue for people to express concerns about our culture.”
Simmons says that as we focus on race, equity, diversity and inclusion, our mission is strengthened. It makes us think differently about the needs of stakeholders, he says. “At the end of the day, it’s helping our employees do the best for the clients they’re trying to help.” For network organizations, it’s even more important, he says, because they’re the ones working directly with the people in the communities we strive to improve. “They have direct contact.”
Simmons says Trahan, who has been asked to come up with a short-term and long-term vision for NeighborWorks’ REDI work, brings a breadth of experience to the director’s position. “He brings management experience and understands the challenges a corporation may have when undertaking and implementing this work. I think we share a lot of the same thinking.”
Enhancing and Advancing
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Trahan (pronounced Tra-Hahn) has a doctorate in counseling, which he says is good background for diversity and inclusion work. He became interested in the specialty during graduate school when he was asked to provide insight on a racial bias incident.
For his first months at NeighborWorks, he’s been on a listening tour. The biggest challenge, he says, “is really understanding ‘What is the crux of our REDI work?’ We have an idea of what race is and how race has influence. We have an idea of equity, diversity and inclusion. But from a comprehensive, organizational culture ─ from a foundational perspective ─ we’re not clear.”
The next step, he says, is to work with the leadership team and our headquarters team to clarify what REDI is and what it is not.
NeighborWorks’ network organizations have challenges, too, he says. Because their journeys are different, the populations they serve are different and their challenges are different. His hope is that NeighborWorks will become a prototype for doing this type of work.
“We want to get in front of things to ensure that we are always thinking about what could impact, what are the trends that may come up,” he says. “There will never be a state that we will reach when we can say we’re done with our REDI work. We are always enhancing and advancing and so that means that we are forever growing as an organization.”
Trahan says he hopes to focus on three pillars to guide our REDI work: workplace diversity, workforce diversity and emerging markets. “What makes this an equitable environment? What are we seeing? What are we doing with our policies, procedures and practices?”
He and Simmons both speak of approaching things with a different point of view ─ an equity lens that makes us ask questions.
“It pushes you to think beyond your own perspective,” Trahan says. And it helps us avoid stereotypes and misconceptions.
Knowledge of history ─ including housing history ─ is important, too. Otherwise, Trahan says, “you run the risk of making the same mistakes or reinforcing systems that intentionally marginalize individuals.”
He points to redlining and policies that supported segregation and discrimination. To some, redlining may seem like a topic addressed in history books, but the reality is that we continue to tackle these issues today. A gap in black and minority home ownership still exists.
Diversity and inclusion work is a way to acknowledge that, Trahan says. “I think putting it into segments of race, equity, diversity and inclusion provides you with another lens through which to view and understand how it ties back into that access and the chance to be able to own a home.”
Trahan offered some tips for the NeighborWorks staff and network organizations as we continue to move forward with race, equity, diversity and inclusion work:
- Beware of unintentionally stereotyping a group of individuals in order to be inclusive. Sometimes, Trahan says, that becomes a way of doing the opposite.
- Be mindful of language. Just because a slight or insult is unintentional doesn’t mean it won’t have impact.
- Be intentional and pay attention. Consider: What else could we do that we're not doing?
- Remember that the application of diversity and inclusion is going to look different from person to person, division to division, state to state, community to community.
In time, Trahan says, organizational change can generate cultural change. “Social change means that you carry it into your daily life, how you operate,” he says. “Over time, you have a more informed lens to view things.”
Simmons agrees. “I think the REDI work is giving a number of employees the opportunity to stretch,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for us all to grow.”
To read more about NeighborWorks history of addressing inequity in housing: https://neighborworks.org/About-Us/What-We-Do/History
The following books have been part of NeighborWorks America’s REDI facilitator training: