Smart Investment Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I)

The VCF Board recently met to discuss DE&I in the Valley and what can get in the way of that.

In early September of last year, the Valley Community Foundation Board began a journey to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) during a retreat held both virtually and outdoors. 2020 Board Chair Donald Smith, Jr. described the gathering as just the first step in a long and difficult conversation. “VCF is committed to moving the conversation forward and incorporating DE&I principles into the foundation’s work in the community.”

Board Member and Governance Chair Jen Magri said, “We took the first step at the retreat and, as a Board, committed to expanding diversity because VCF serves a diverse community. Those demographics continue to evolve over time and we need to make sure that, as a Board, we represent our community effectively.”

Kenya Rutland, Principal and Chief Enthusiasm Officer with KJR Consulting, facilitated the group discussion. “When people come to the Valley, they want to feel they belong here and that what they bring with them matters to the community. The truth is, we live in a world where some have more influence and impact than others and that’s rooted in a long history. The VCF Board had a meaningful dialogue around the question, ‘If we are going to achieve that sense of belonging, what gets in the way?’”

Convening at Holy Ghost Park in Shelton, members of the VCF Board, Board Advisory Council, and Staff gathered outdoors and socially distanced to participate in this retreat. Several attendees also participated via Zoom. This represents a single step in a long journey for those close to VCF to establish a meaningful dialogue about race and evaluate how the Foundation can best serve all those who make up our community.

Rutland approached the group by making everyone feel comfortable as they formed a baseline discussion. “We wanted to create a starting point,” he said. “You can’t talk about equity in America without talking about race because that drives so much. We have to recognize that even when we’re not talking or consciously thinking about race, it is driving decisions and perhaps in a way that is not effective.”

He explained his intent to avoid the trap of speaking in circles. “Our goal was to get to the real problem and identify what needs to change to really make an impact. Until we call out the discrepancies, we won’t move the needle.”

“It’s hard for people to talk about racism because, for many of us, that’s a bad word and we consider ourselves to be good people,” Rutland continued. “For the Board, we considered how we could call that out: our towns are becoming more diverse. How do we make everyone feel included, share the power, and create a space where there is equity and people feel they can make a difference?”

Rutland described recent events such as the pandemic meeting an economic crisis and social movement as a perfect storm forming to highlight a broken social contract.

“Now we’re looking to mend the social contract and change how we view others,” Rutland added. “Laws have an impact on systemic racism but, as we agree there is a social contract, we’re asking what our role is. The Board was willing to learn and engage in a serious discussion, to understand how the rules aren’t the same for everyone. When we understand the concepts and the impact of race and racism, the Board can focus on how to move the needle in the Valley. People can feel a sense of dignity and respect, living a full life here without hiding or assimilating.”

Magri pointed out that ensuring everyone has a voice at the table translates to reassurance that philanthropic dollars are directed efficiently. “VCF has partnerships and the community index to guide our strategic plan but there are still underrepresented people and communities. We need to do a better job of outreach so they know what’s available and we understand how to interact with them to provide opportunities and funding. The Board can serve as a facilitator to make sure those conversations happen.”

Characterizing the work as a journey more so than a sprint or even a marathon, Magri feels the Board will evolve over time so long as members are willing to listen and learn with an open mind. “VCF’s former Governance Chair James ‘Jim’ Hodge was instrumental in getting this work started.” Although Jim passed away in July of 2020, his legacy has had a significant influence in the Board’s DE&I work. “He inspired me to do this retreat, asking for an interactive experience that would help the Board understand history. He said, ‘Until people understand history and diversity, equity, and inclusion, they can’t know where they are going,” Magri said.

Magri noted that race has been making the headlines but the issue is all-encompassing. “We have to make sure we don’t forget that DE&I includes any marginalized group. We can’t overlook people who face challenges because they are disabled or because of their sexual orientation,” she said.

Chris Grizzle, a new VCF Board Member, attended the retreat via Zoom. “I served in the military for 28 years and have participated in many, many DE&I sessions. This was absolutely amazing and the best I’ve ever attended because there was no preaching.”

As part of the retreat, VCF Board Members learn that a sense of belonging is the natural consequence of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

He thought the videos and factual information presented were thought-provoking. “Not a lot of the audience members were aware of what’s happened to African Americans in the past. Eyes were opened as they learned, yes, that really happened. The presentation made it easy to find more information and I think people did their own research after the retreat.”

Smith noted that issues such as racism will be given attention as the Valley becomes increasingly more diverse. “DE&I issues are becoming more apparent and some of us have experience in this area,” he said. “Others are coming from a different viewpoint. As we plan future conversations, it’s critical that we know where each of us is coming from and have a common understanding. Kenya did a great job with a delicate subject, laying the groundwork and providing us with history which, frankly, isn’t taught in school.”

Magri sees her role as helping to ensure a successful first step. “I’m filling in where Jim left off to make sure the work continues. DE&I was certainly his passion and he was extremely excited about the prospects of the Board learning. Jim and I had great conversations and talked about topics such as the barriers against kids achieving success and where to start working on those barriers to make a difference. We agreed there has to be a multi-pronged approach.”

Smith agreed. “We know we have a lot more work to do. This initial conversation was just setting the table. More discussions will include community conversations as we shed light on this very important topic.”

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Legacy Matters; read the full newsletter here.