Leaders Gather to Explore their Personal Journeys Toward Racial Equity

Last year, Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc. (KHA) did something somewhat remarkable. The team invited 30 CEOs of the biggest foundations in the country to have an open and personal conversation about race. The Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy was not a strategy session or a time to learn about the latest framework. Instead, it was an intimate and deeply personal engagement where individuals brought their whole selves to a body of work that requires deep self-reflection, awareness, and sensemaking to bring us into a better more equitable future.

So when Larry Kramer – president and CEO of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, IS board member, and key planner for the Forum – suggested I connect with Keecha Harris about an idea to bring this concept to Upswell Chicago in November, I was thrilled to bring a collective approach to this work. In that spirit, I sat down with Keecha recently to learn more about the President’s Forum and the long-term vision of this initiative.

DC: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea of the President’s Forum come from?

KH: Thank you for the opportunity to share this information with your network, Dan. The Presidents’ Forum was envisioned as a series of in-person leadership development sessions for CEOs of U.S. foundations. Informed by interviews of nearly three dozen foundation executives, the Forum is a constructive space to address issues like talent development, board engagement, and sector impact. We were thrilled that we had 17 foundations invest in the Forum, including the Annie E. Casey, Ford, Gordon and Betty Moore, James Irvine, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr., the Walton Family, and Hewlett foundations, as well as the California Endowment and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, indicating the level of commitment from these leaders. We see this level of commitment as a signal that foundation leaders are looking for a peer-to-peer learning cohort where vulnerability and openness to personal transformation become a hallmark.

DC: You had foundation leaders representing an aggregate of $25 billion in assets in the room, but this wasn’t about the organizations’ work or strategies. It was much more about the leaders themselves. Can you tell me why that was the preferred approach?

KH: We truly believe that the work of racial equity is deeply personal, and that personal commitment is necessary for all of us to see progress toward equity for the sector and society at large. The goal of the December Forum was to a create space where CEOs could grapple with racial equity leadership dilemmas and seek solutions through peer-to-peer conversations. The design is aimed at reducing the gap between the intentions and the actual practices of leaders seeking to effectively address racial disparities in the arts, education, science, environment, health, and other areas.

What we’ve found is that many sector leaders often feel unique in their position in the organization. They feel both the pull from their staff and the push back from their boards. We designed this Forum to give these leaders a mix of individual-goal setting exercises, intimate group discussions, and engagement with renowned speakers.

To that end, we ensured they heard from others who have had to work through these same issues, such as Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and a leader in the Obama Foundation, and Sarah Jones, award-winning playwright and performer. Ms. Jarrett offered insights from her extensive experience addressing issues of racial equity, and Ms. Jones presented characters from her thought-provoking piece on philanthropy, The Foundation.

DC: What did you hear from the leaders after the meeting? What were the takeaways?

KH: There was gratitude from the attendees for the discussion and hope that we could continue the reflections and engagement moving forward. We summarized what happened during the Forum with the following core themes:

  1. Personal Commitment: For most participants, their commitment to racial equity was deeply connected to their personal values.
  2. Commonalities Around Trust and Power: Conversation was deep around how to build trust by understanding the power differential between CEOs and the various audiences with whom they work.
  3. Relationship Building and Culture: The group considered how their own cultural norms emerge from lived experiences, and how that might create conditions of in-ness, out-ness, one-up-ness, or one-down-ness in foundation relationships.
  4. Mapping the Power of Relationships and Identity: Participants examined their trusted relationships and the implications of ‘sameness’ or diversity in the people they rely on most.
  5. Calibrating How Leaders See and Address Race: Attendees explored how their leadership is expressed with a racial equity lens, and when they need to be visible on this issue for their staff.

One attendee said, “I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did…. This broader group is so valuable as there is only one person in our organization with our job.”

Another reflected, “Our racial equity lens approach should be discovery, and that is a joyful thing. A racial equity lens should allow us to see one another and that discovery should be joyful. There is so much anger and divisiveness surrounding race in our country. How can we turn this into a joyful thing? How do we show within the institution that we control what we would like to see in our nation as a whole?”

DC: What is next for these leaders and this body of work?

KH: We are thrilled to continue this work. Our immediate next step will be building on lessons learned from this first convening to organize two or three in-person sessions in 2019. The next one will be March 28-29 in Washington, DC and is an opportunity for presidents and CEOs who were unable to attend the inaugural meeting. Thereafter, a session will be held in the Southeast U.S. on June 3-4, when participants will have an opportunity to examine racial inequities from a historical perspective.  Additionally, several presidents will be writing and blogging on a range of racial equity internal leadership issues over the months ahead.

We are also partnering with you at Independent Sector, a national platform that brings together leaders from foundations, nonprofits, and corporate giving programs, to expand the reach of these conversations and continue the program into year two and beyond. We are excited to bring this cohort of leaders together again, with other changemakers, at Upswell Chicago this November, before exploring the long-term strategy.

DC: Independent Sector is all-in on ensuring we have a productive partnership throughout 2019 and at Upswell Chicago. Thank you for your leadership and courage in having these difficult but necessary conversations.

KH: Thank you, Dan, for your leadership and partnership.


To learn more about the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity, visit www.presidentsforumrep.com.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Society, Leadership Development, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Upswell