There’s a lovely expression that many of us in the Black community use when we want to repair strained relationships with each other; it’s an expression that always moves me when I hear it. Whether the cause of the disagreement is related to something we’ve done (or not done), or something we’ve said (or neglected to say), we approach the person we’ve offended and ask for forgiveness with this request:
“Please charge it to my head and not to my heart."
The intent of this appeal is to ask the other person to forgive us for an unintentional misstep that caused them pain or harm, and to “charge it to” (or “blame it on”) on an error that was out of character, a lapse that was due to our “heads” but doesn’t represent our true “hearts.” At its core, “charge it to my head and not to my heart" is a request for an extension of grace (often from a spouse or significant other, or perhaps a sibling, or a close friend) so that the relationship can move past a challenging obstacle and continue to develop and grow.
But outside of these close, personal interactions, I’ve also found that the “charge it to my head and not to my heart” approach has been a critical resource for me in a very different, unrelated context: in nonprofit boardrooms. Specifically, as a Black man serving on predominantly white nonprofit boards that have undertaken racial equity journeys, my ability to extend grace to my white board colleagues – to “charge it to their heads and not to their hearts” -- has been an essential tool in my efforts to help boards become more intentional about recognizing the connection between racial inequity and their missions. I’d like to share one example of what I mean.
Approximately four years ago, I joined the board of a shelter for homeless individuals and families; at that time, there was only one other person of color on the board (which had about 15 members in total). Approximately five months into my board term, the chairman of the Governance Committee scheduled a conversation with me to ask for my reflections on the board recruitment process I had experienced and my initial perceptions of the board’s monthly board meetings (a practice, please note, that we at BoardSource strongly encourage all boards to adopt as they welcome all new board members, and especially new board members of color). In my conversation with the Governance Chair, I shared that I had enjoyed the recruitment process but had one concern about the way we conducted our board meetings: we always spent a considerable amount of time discussing our finances and programs (practices to which I certainly had no objection), but in the five board meetings I had attended up to that point we had never engaged in an explicit board conversation about race and how it shows up in our work, even though approximately 80% of the homeless clients we served were Black.
To his credit, the Governance Chair (who was a white man) said that he appreciated my feedback and he added the topic of racial equity as a discussion item for our next board meeting. I felt a greater sense of anticipation about the upcoming meeting than the previous meetings because I thought we would begin to have a conversation about racial equity and its relationship to our mission, vision, and strategic objectives. But when the racial equity agenda item came up at the meeting, the conversation (which had been robust up to this point) came to a grinding halt; it quickly became apparent that I was one of the only board members who wanted to engage on the topic. And then, a white board member (let’s call her “Sara”) made a statement that, to me, was rather demoralizing and, frankly, stunning:
“I don’t see a connection between racial inequity and homelessness.”
I was dumbfounded by Sara’s comment, largely due to my extensive experience on this issue. Before joining the board of the shelter, I had spent a considerable portion of my career at Fannie Mae developing housing programs to increase access to affordable housing opportunities for people of color – some of whom, like the families in the shelter on whose board I now sat, had been homeless (or nearly homeless) at some point in their lives. On several occasions during my Fannie Mae career, I witnessed Black and Latinx families receiving the keys to their first homes through programs we had developed in partnership with other financial institutions and counseling agencies. I saw that for these families, achieving homeownership (or obtaining safe, decent, affordable rental housing) was no small feat -- it was a significant point of pride that symbolized their success in overcoming the racial disparities that continue to plague our education, employment, financial, and criminal justice systems, to name a few. I didn’t expect everyone on the shelter’s board to feel as connected to this issue as I did, but nonetheless, Sara’s statement seemed unfathomable to me – even more so because I sensed that several other white board members in the room shared the sentiments she had expressed.
I assessed the situation in that moment and came to this realization: Sara (and the other white board members who were reluctant to speak on the topic) were not being intentionally dismissive of or insensitive to the plight of the Black families and individuals that comprised the majority of the shelter’s client base. The real issue was that Sara and the other white board members genuinely did not recognize the relationship between racial inequity and homelessness. They weren’t fully aware of the contributing societal factors (i.e., predatory lending; the racial wealth gap; employment discrimination) that led to higher local and national levels of homelessness among people of color. They didn't understand (and were not personally impacted by) the larger “ecosystem” in which the board and the organization operated – an ecosystem that included the impact of the public policy environment; the organization’s role relative to the roles of other stakeholder organizations that also shared their vision of eradicating homelessness; and the most urgent needs of the community the shelter served.
At the next board meeting I tried to address some of these issues by delivering a short presentation to the board on the connection between racial inequity and homelessness. I shared an overview of our country's shameful adoption of "redlining" in the past and the ongoing negative impact of redlining on people of color. I highlighted past and present examples of illegal, predatory practices that some financial institutions continue to employ to take advantage of lower-income people of color who are often less informed about our finance and housing systems. The presentation didn’t immediately motivate the board to become more intentional in its racial equity work, but it helped the board to begin to see the connection between race and homelessness. Over time, board members began to become more open to racial equity conversations and express interest in deepening their knowledge. The board shared articles and research materials with each other that focused on racial inequity and homelessness, and eventually the board committed itself to more intentional work to develop a deeper understanding of the racialized dynamics of homelessness.
The board still has more work to do on its racial equity journey, but it has made significant strides over the past four years. The board has participated in formal racial equity training; grown from having two board members of color in 2017 to seven in 2021; and built racial equity objectives into its current three-year strategic plan. The board’s deeper commitment to racial equity work is reflected in the strategic plan in several ways, including: incorporating a goal of continuous learning for board and staff; establishing an intentional emphasis on applying racial equity as a guiding principle for its decision making and strategy development; and implementing racial equity metrics and benchmarks to hold the board accountable to this work. I feel confident that everyone on the board now understands the connection between racial inequity and homelessness – an understanding which will allow the board to develop strategies and action plans which will more directly and effectively address the needs and priorities of the people the board serves.
There were several reasons why I thought it was important to extend grace to my white board colleagues after Sara’s comment about not seeing the connection between racial inequity and homelessness. One reason is that I truly believed that this was an issue of the “heads,” not the “hearts,” of my white board colleagues. They didn’t have the range of knowledge or tools to engage in the racial equity-focused dialogue that I had hoped to have when I joined the board. The extension of grace allowed the board members to grow and develop their knowledge of the systemic issues that impact people of color who are experiencing homelessness – and to leverage their enhanced knowledge of these issues to inform board discussions regarding strategic decisions, priorities, and action plans.
As I reflect on the transformation of the board’s composition, focus, and strategic thinking over this four year period, I feel certain that my decision to extend grace was the best decision for me (because I was passionate about the mission and did not want to walk away from the board), for my fellow individual board members, for the board as an entity, and – most importantly – for the people the board serves. The decision to begin to establish racial equity as a guiding principle in our work was not only a moral imperative (not only the “right thing to do”) – it has also positioned the board to be a better, more impactful board for the people it serves.
I hope that this story can serve as a "case study" highlighting the roles that every board member can play in the process of a board’s evolution into becoming more focused on racial equity.
Specifically, I recommend new board members of color ask themselves the following questions as their boards undertake their racial equity journeys:
- Are you willing to share candid feedback regarding your experience of the board and its cultures, norms, and practices in an effort to help the board be as inclusive as possible, particularly if it has historically been a white-led or even an all-white board?
- When you have an opportunity to share your unique viewpoint and help the board apply an equity lens to its work, will you speak up?
- Are you willing to resist the temptation to walk away from a board that seems to be misaligned with your perspective and instead put "purpose first" by helping the board deepen its understanding about how race and racism are showing up in the work that it does?
- Are you willing to be persistent in the work to help the board build a stronger, more sophisticated analysis of race in the organization, even if it is difficult?
- Are you willing to engage with your board colleagues for whom a race-based analysis may feel challenging or even threatening, even if they don’t bring the spirit of humility embedded into the concept of “charging it to the head and not to the heart”?
I ask white board members to ask themselves the following questions:
- Are you well-informed about the systemic issues that impact your clients or stakeholders of color? If not, what will you do to cultivate your own knowledge and understanding so that you can govern responsibly?
- Are you ready and willing to make changes to the way that your board operates to become more diverse, inclusive, and equity-focused (i.e., participate in racial equity training; become more intentional in recruiting for board demographic diversity; welcome differing points of view into boardroom deliberations)?
- Are you willing to acknowledge that your previous approach to your mission, work, and the communities you serve may have overlooked a race-based analysis in ways that were problematic or damaging?
- Are you ready and willing to listen to the perspectives of board members of color? And - if you make missteps – are you willing to ask people of color on your board to "charge it to your head and not to your heart?"
I believe one reason why racial equity work is so challenging is that it demands skills and qualities from us that often seem to conflict with each other. This work requires a delicate balance of patience combined with urgency, strength mixed with vulnerability, and grace blended with accountability. These challenges become even more daunting when we consider that we, as board members and individuals, are at different stages of our racial equity journeys and the evolution of our thinking about this work. In those moments when it may be tempting to walk away, I urge nonprofit board members – and all of us – to re-dedicate ourselves to the advancement of the public good, with an emphasis on serving those individuals that have been disproportionately impacted by not being born into privilege. And I urge us all to remember that to fulfill our vision of a racially equitable society, we will have to apply our full selves – our heads and our hearts – to make it so.
Additional Tools & Resources:
- Taking Action on Board Diversity: Five Questions to Get You Started (BoardSource)
- Redlining Was Banned 50 Years Ago. It's Still Hurting Minorities Today. (Washington Post)
- America's Opportunity Gaps: By the Numbers (U.S. Chamber of Commerce)
More from BoardSource:
- The Healing Potential of the Nonprofit Sector (January 2021)
- Facing the Challenge of Racial Inequity -- or Avoiding It (October 2020)
- The Value of Lived Experience (August 2020)
- A Moment to Change (June 2020)
- Now That We Know Better (June 2020)
- Reflections on Trust and Its Relationship to Racial Inequity on Nonprofit Boards (May 2020)
- BoardSource's Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity: For Ourselves and the Social Sector (March 2017)