When Your Diversity Problem is Actually a Design Problem

design problemAt the very beginning of efforts, we must gather the finest group of thinkers and planners around the table – and that group must always include the constituents we hope to serve.

By Ilana Kaufman

Earlier in March, I got a call from a mainstream Jewish organizational leader. She prefaced her comments by announcing that her organization was rededicating itself to their long-standing commitment to social justice, and their current focus would be on racial justice. While this organization has a reputation for being rather left in its lean, I asked,

“Why now?” offering a Hillel inspired inquiry.

“We have always been dedicated to social justice values,” she said.

“But why this specific time to focus on racial justice?” I wondered out loud.

“Because this is the time. The modern Civil Rights Movement. Ilana, Black Lives Matter!”

“Right on!” I said, throwing a fist in the air demonstrating across-the-phone solidarity. “So how’s it going with your movement, and how can I be of service?” I asked.

Our colleague went on to describe the very thoughtful plans she and her team laid-out and activated to engage in action. They sent emails to their constituent base making clear statements about their support of racial justice in the United States. They spoke out against police brutality. They have even taken on political and legislative efforts to systematize and institutionalize equal access to various civil rightswhich is kind of like the social justice equivalent to Maimonides’ highest level of charity, as it frees one from being dependent on another. “Fabulous, we need more Jewish organizations and more allies like you!” I said out loud. “So why the call?”

“Well, it’s kind of like we threw a party, and none of the people we most wanted to attend, showed up.”

I didn’t understand. The organization seemed to be wildly successful in advancing their initiatives.

“That sounds like a drag.” I said. “Who missed the party?”

It turned out that this organization has been working hard to attract Jews of Color to their efforts and events. They thought the content of fighting for racial justice in-and-of itself world be compelling enough. But no Jews of Color showed up to volunteer for a signature drive. Dayenu. There were protests, marches and speeches, but there were no Jews of Color, anywhere. Dayenu. There was even a chance to have voices heard in front of elected officials, but still not a single Jew of Color. Not even one. Dayenu, Dayenu, Dayenu. “Ilana…” she said in a voice filled with worry, “…are we super racist? Do we have a terrible diversity problem?”

It didn’t sound to me like they were super racist and had a terrible problem.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but let me ask you a few questions. Are there any Jews of Color on your Board? You know – the team you work with to set strategic direction, to affirm your annual budget allocation, to have your back if you get arrested at a protest?”

“No.” she said.

“OK, but what about your staff? The folks who bring the vision to life, who design the efforts, who implement the programs?”

“No.” she stated, rather matter-of-factly.

“Huh. But what about ranking Lay Leaders? Were there any Jews of Color involved in your leadership group; the influencers and decision makers?”

“Nope.” she said, sounding a little fed up with my questions.

“Well, were there any Jews of Color reviewing your plans, approaches and ideas before you launched them? Did you ask any Jews of Color for their opinions? Their feedback?”

“No.” she responded, this time with a tone of impatience.

“So, you wanted Jews of Color to participate in your efforts, but none are on your Board, Staff, you have no Jew of Color Lay Leaders, and none of them participated in the planning of your efforts? Not even one responded to your ideas before you went live?”

“No,” she said again. And then just waited…

Careful to not pause so long as to concern my colleague, I said, “I’m not sure that you have a terrible diversity problem. But it’s clear you do have a serious design problem. You can’t meet the goal of working with Jews of Color if you’ve got none on your Board, Staff, Lay Leadership or planning groups. And it’s hard to align the goal of working with any group if you don’t identify working with them as a goal from the outset.”

Sometimes in the rush to take action and do the right thing, we forget basic principles related to fail-safe program design. At the very beginning of efforts, we must gather the finest group of thinkers and planners around the table – and that group must always include the constituents we hope to serve. Very simply, most of us are not clairvoyant and cannot speak for others or on their behalf. When we plan, we must be disciplined about clearly identifying goals and outcomes, have a well considered process, test our ideas with our target groups, and fold in their feedback as we revise and replan. Then before any action is taken, mini-test the idea to make sure it meets the intended goals and outcomes. Rushing into unplanned action causes mistakes, predestines less-than-ideal outcomes, and in most cases wastes valuable resources.

In this organization’s inspired momentum to take action, they neither articulated a structured approach to their efforts nor identified their goals. And despite all of the success achieved by this organization; the public statements supporting racial justice, the speaking out against police brutality, and the forwarding of legislation to protect Black and Brown lives, lack of planning meant that this leader ensured that Jews of Color were left out. In this case the impulse of being an ally, and the resulting actions omitted the very group this leader hoped to partner with. And as we reflected, our colleague shared how disappointed she was in her lack of intentionality and planning. The absence of excellent design resulted in the omission of Jews of Color. And to her, that was a fail, because our lives really do matter.

Ilana Kaufman lives in Berkeley, California. Want to connect? ilana.kaufman@gmail.com