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In Building Diverse and Equitable Nonprofits, Intent Isn’t Enough

November 10, 2017

In my role as Founder and Executive Director of ImpACT on Stage, I think a lot about representation: who is able to see versions of themselves portrayed in media and other positions of power, how they are portrayed, and why those kinds of people are chosen.

Working for an organization devoted to combatting bullying and interpersonal violence, and promoting inclusive communities through interactive performances and discussions, we at ImpACT have always been cognizant of the need to share stories that represented many different experiences. But when ImpACT was formally approved to be a 501(c)(3) a little over three years ago, our leadership and staff looked a lot like that of other nonprofit organizations; that is, we were mostly white, and mostly coming from positions of relative educational and economic privilege.

From day one, we recognized this as a major issue. When crafting programming, our mantra has always been “write what you know.” In that sense, it was imperative to bring to those conversations people from a variety of different backgrounds to share their stories. Moreover, our student actor/facilitators who actually performed in schools needed to be able to represent those students in the audience. Our theory of change hinged on our ability to form intimate connections with those students, and therefore promote their ability to advocate for themselves and their peers in conflict situations. How could we do that, however, if they were unable to find versions of themselves in our company?

This issue of representation goes beyond actors in nonprofit educational performances. Who sees and who gets to be seen is something cultural scholars have explored for decades. What they found, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that quite often those who are most marginalized in society are represented in its media the least, or when represented, are portrayed in ways that tokenize identities or play to stereotypes.  This “symbolic annihilation,” to borrow theorist George Gerbner’s term, works to perpetuate marginalization. Without positive examples of particular identities in certain roles or situations, people of that identity group may feel less able to break into those spaces, while those who hold power may feel emboldened to maintain it.

As a “by students, for students” organization run by individuals who grew up tuned into these sorts of conversations, we in the ImpACT leadership understood this and were especially wary of the dangers that can arise from borrowing, or “appropriating,” the lived experiences of individuals from marginalized backgrounds. Yet understanding is but the first, easier step; building an organization that is both diverse and equitable is much more difficult. And early on, we failed in that endeavor.

Sure, our recruitment materials included phrases like “candidates of underrepresented backgrounds are highly encouraged to apply.” Our applications asked for a candidate’s preferred gender pronouns. We even advertised positions on alternative channels to reach populations we couldn’t on traditional job boards or union casting sites. And yet we continued to attract talent who looked like us, and had experiences similar to ours. Little tangibly changed, and we felt compelled to settle for, “we tried!” and leave it at that.

The resolution to this problem came from somewhere we should have looked in the first place: the communities we were trying to reach themselves. Eschewing nonprofit consultants and self-help books about recruitment strategy, we spoke to community leaders directly about our desire to incorporate more voices into our programming and the issues we were facing in doing so. Through those conversations, we gained specific advice on how to achieve our diverse staffing goals. We were made aware of new and different channels on which we should be sharing our materials. We learned that requiring a traditional theatrical resume prohibited those who lacked technical skills from applying. And we reframed our perception of what relevant experience was with respect to the needs of our organization, focusing less on professional training and more on commitment to our mission and values.

Within months, we saw a marked difference. We no longer just talked the talk, but had invested time and resources into building the organization we needed to serve our community. It paid off. Today, the leadership, staff, and actors in ImpACT on Stage’s company represent more different backgrounds than they ever have been before.

Of course, we still have work to do. There are still identities and experiences not represented in our cast. But this sort of work is part of a never-ending process in which service organizations must engage.

Every student deserves to see their experience represented, with all its complexities and intricacies. We at ImpACT on Stage will continue the work of self-reflection and adaptation, until we’re able to do just that. Only then can we truly make an impact.  

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu