Musings on Our DEI Journey


In recent months many of you, our grantee partners, have been working hard to deepen your understanding of how racial injustice and systemic racism can show up in nonprofit work. You’ve been seeing these issues with new eyes, shaping new practices to try to catch them at their root and move forward on a better footing that will lead to more equitable results.

At GAR, we’re working to actively achieve this kind of awareness within our work as well.  We know we have many miles to go on this journey, which will likely be a lifelong quest to do better. We know that philanthropy is, on some level, synonymous with privilege and we are therefore entangled with these issues in complex ways. Yet we are not allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the depth, enormity, and complexity of systemic racism. We know we need to start somewhere and keep moving forward and, with a lot of help from one another and outside resources, that is what we are doing.

Because this type of learning is not linear, our learning reports will not be linear. Because these issues affect all of us on the GAR staff, you’ll hear from all of us. Because we each come to these topics with a different lived experience, our perspectives will reflect those lived experiences. Because this kind of learning should never end, we’ll just scratch the surface here and come back your way as our journey progresses.

Here are a few learning highlights from your GAR Foundation staff. We’d love to hear from you so that we can all travel this road together.

Things we’ve learned about how to have hard conversations about race: 

  • It was Albert Einstein who famously observed that “no problem can be solved in the same consciousness that created it.” In the context of systemic racism, we might tweak that a bit. It feels more like the problem of systemic racism cannot be solved when we are steeped in the conditions that allow it to thrive and it is as invisible to us as is the water to a fish swimming through it. Accordingly, we are being intentional about creating different conditions for our conversations about racial justice. We cordon off dedicated time. We’ve retained a fantastic firm called ThirdSpace Action Lab to guide us, challenge us, and get us outside of our normal patterns of thinking. We operate under special ground rules in these conversations. All of these moves help us “change the consciousness” so that we can see things we have been missing.  From Christine Mayer 
  • Related to the intentional changing of conditions, every learning session with ThirdSpace starts with a “liberated space agreement” and a “soul check.” The liberated space agreement is a set of agreed-upon rules that helps us to stay focused on the topic of systemic racism, stay curious and respectful of one another, and step up or step back based on the conversation dynamics. After we agree to the liberated space terms, staff does a soul check exercise to help us tap into our creative mindsets, develop trust through sharing our emotional states, and get us out of potentially hierarchical workplace thinking. Both the liberated space agreement and the soul check are simple yet effective ways to shift us from our routine thought processes and to help create intentional discussion. From Rob Lehr
  • The liberated space agreement also reminds us that we need to “get more proximate to the problem” of systemic racism. As a foundation, it can be all too easy to be far removed from the problems systemic racism creates in our community. We need to get up close and personal with those problems if we are going to understand them and figure out better ways to counteract them with our work. From Christine Mayer 
  • In the service of getting proximate to systemic racism, we have created a Community Voice Committee. We have engaged seven Black community members – representing vastly different areas of expertise, life experiences, ages, and neighborhood affiliations – to meet with us regularly throughout the year to provide their perspectives on Akron. We ask them what’s working well in their lives in Akron, what isn’t, what’s missing altogether. We also seek their feedback on GAR’s work. Do our grants actually help meet community needs, where and how can we be more effective? This group is only one tactic to improve our work and get more proximate to issues, but it’s an important one. Through it, we are incorporating the feedback of people who have better intel than we do into our strategies and decision-making. We think this is crucial to advancing equity and inclusion in philanthropy.  From Jessica Cherok
  • Another tenet of the “liberated space agreement” that guides our conversations on race is that we must assume our colleagues’ unconditional positive intent. We may say the wrong things, we may need to help each other understand the impact of our words, but with this assumption firmly in place, we are empowered to have harder conversations and to get to better answers and understandings as a group. From Christine Mayer 
  • We obviously want to address racial equity in our grantmaking work, as grantmaking is the core work of the Foundation. And yet patterns of inequity aren’t limited to decisions about who gets grants. We are also examining the ways in which systemic racism can appear in our dealings with one another in the workplace, and in our interactions with others in the community. With the help of ThirdSpace, we are learning more about white supremacy culture and how it shows up in our work. There is a lot to digest on this topic. In order to engage with the ideas more deeply and figure out how they can apply to our world, we are discussing a different topic weekly from this worksheet and looking at norms through an individual and organizational lens. Once we’ve discussed the norms, we spend some time talking about alternative approaches and how we can best support one another in making shifts in our habitual thinking. We are learning healthier and more balanced approaches to our day-to-day challenges. In the months to come, we hope to implement both small and large modifications to our work culture and decision-making process. We will continue to update you on what we learn about work culture and what we are doing to improve.  From Rob Lehr
  • From the worksheet referenced above, while we can still be great at what we do, we need to let go of perfectionism. By focusing our attention solely on negatives and “shortcomings”, we miss the opportunity to appreciate the positives. It hurts us more than it helps us!  From Lisa Yates
  • Change moves at the speed of trust. We need to build trusting relationships that rest on authenticity in order to move forward together as a community. From Lisa Yates
  • As funders, we often fall into the trap of framing things as problems to be solved. When we do this, we can miss the humanity, aspirations, and promise of our fellow citizens. We also run the risk of equating people with the problems and unfair systems that surround them. Through asset framing, we define people by their aspirations and contributions before noting the challenges they face. We invest in them for the continued benefit they bring to society. From Christine Mayer 
  • Let’s ditch the idea of a return to “normal” in our educational systems. We’ve learned how inequitable our education systems really are, and that’s not a “normal” that we want for our students. Covid laid bare the inequitable outcomes for our children. In fact, the past year+ has confirmed all the other data we’ve gathered (but may have ignored) about assessment and teacher-centered instruction. Rather, we’re learning more and more about how we need to implement equity strategies right now. Let’s not just focus on “learning recovery,” but focus real and deliberate attention on opportunity gaps; focus on student-centered, personalized learning. We’re learning firsthand about how our grant dollars could make more impact in supporting new instructional and systems strategies that directly affect those most adversely affected by our education system. There’s so much more to do. From Kirstin Toth 
  • As a Black person who often navigates predominately white spaces, there are many times when I am left questioning my own reality. I often wonder if I’m sensing something correctly or why, at times, I feel stifled or that I don’t quite fit in. The work that the Foundation has been doing with Third Space has often validated my experiences and given me the language to label exactly what I’ve felt and how it is most often rooted in a white supremacist culture. This has grounded me in the fact that this culture was not built for people like me to thrive in, but like a rose growing in concrete, many of us have made a way for ourselves. Despite this, we need to rebuild a better tomorrow.  From Bronlynn Thurman
  • Over the course of these last few years, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time reading everything from James Baldwin’s essays and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. This intentional study has helped give me context for how we’ve gotten here and has helped provide the understanding and historical data behind my own lived experiences. This work is not easy and far from quick. In order to transform this system, we have to understand it and how far it’s rooted.  From Bronlynn Thurman