Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Diversity, Power and Authority.

Understanding and Managing Diversity highlights the organizational advantages to maintaining a diverse culture. Organizations can capture unique capabilities and foster shared learning experiences which will have positive effects on their missions.  This dovetails nicely with collaborative theory.  Atul Gawande theorizes that the world has grown too complex for individuals to manage.  Therefore, incorporating unique perspectives can only provide an edge to an organization navigating a complicated world. 

So, theoretically: all good.  Yet this framework (or how I presented it) assumes that diversity is the intermingling of equal actors.  At this point ample evidence exists that the problems in Baltimore, in Madison, and across the country are the result of long festering disparities among diverse groups.  It should noted that these disparities are in part the result of public policy. 

As of late, I’ve been struck by a thought contained in a Ta-Nehisi Coates blog post. I have excerpted the key graf below:

In the black community, [police officers face] a problem of legitimacy. In his 1953 book The Quest For Community, conservative Robert Nisbet distinguishes between "power" and "authority." Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is "based ultimately upon the consent of those under it." Power, on the other hand, is "external" and "based upon force." Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all. "Power arises," writes Nesbit, "only when authority breaks down."
African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity.

Coates is referring to police power, however his notion of power can be extrapolated to schools which disproportionately suspend black preschoolers and when parents assert that their children are tracked away from challenging classes.   Meanwhile, hidden power is exercised when bus routes don’t connect job seekers to job centers and municipalities refuse to zone for affordable housing.  The public sector exercises a great deal of power through the policies it implements and doesn't implement. The question is does it have the authority to do so? Recent events suggest no.

Nonprofits have two roles in this construction: they frequently carry out or support public services thought to be valuable and they advocate to make these services better.  Because of these roles and their proximity to the public sector I think the question of authority extends to nonprofits as well.  Nonprofits might be less powerful, but this doesn’t mean that they can carry out programs without authority.  And without authority, the value of diversity explained in Understanding and Managing Diversity cannot be attained in the nonprofit sector.

The question then becomes 'how is authority attained?.'  Katy highlights the importance of listening.  Franny speaks to the role of independently educating ourselves.  We cannot expect others to take on the arduous task of educating us on the occasionally traumatic reality found in communities of color.   I would co-sign both add my own suggestion: be aware of the mechanisms of implicit bias and follow research on implicit bias tests and training.  Implicit bias is frequently cited as a greater threat than explicit racism to equality and is inherently difficult to diagnose and repair.  Therefore, a leader must not only advocate for implicit bias training internally but also turn their gaze inward and analyze themselves. 

These suggestions can help position nonprofit leaders to garner authority.  They will not, on their own, grant authority.  Counter-intuitively, I believe that in order to gain authority, nonprofits must cede some authority and share leadership with organizations currently launching to tackle issues of disparities.  I am finishing up my time in this leadership class and feel that I have gained valuable skills. This very expensive, very respected path I have taken to become a leader (that of higher education) is not the only path out there.  Leaders are launching their own organizations across the country. These organizations are empowering communities and can speak better to the lived reality these communities face.  We need to ensure that we aren’t crowding them out. 

*Also, I blew through the word requirement, but that excerpt and the framing it implies matters, so I kept it in despite the fact that with those words I’m over the limit.