by Pamela Ross, vice president of opportunity, equity and inclusion at Central Indiana Community Foundation

Almost three years ago, Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) and its affiliates, The Indianapolis Foundation and Hamilton County Community Foundation, announced our new shared mission and a focused commitment to dismantling systemic racism. After spending generations committed to making the Central Indiana community stronger through philanthropy, we were faced with the realization and data-driven proof that our collective efforts were still leaving people and communities behind while others prospered. And it was clear that race still has a profound impact on the opportunity for someone to reach their full potential.

We committed to learning more, having hard conversations amongst our staff and leadership, and most importantly, developing authentic relationships with residents, listening to them — and activating what we heard. We made space to learn and encouraged our employees and board members to bring their whole selves into this work. As we’ve continued to learn more, we’ve invited others — community leaders, corporate leaders, not-for-profits, our fundholders — to join us on this journey towards equity. All with mixed success.

On our journey to be a leader in creating one of the most anti-racist communities in this nation, a few of our fundholders chose to take their philanthropy elsewhere. In conversations about race with our staff, there were times when we were challenged by the tone of voice used to share their perspective and experiences instead of listening to what was being shared.

There were times when our choice in language could have been chosen more wisely when addressing privilege and our country’s history of centering the White experience. In reflecting on those moments, we were faced with Abraham Maslow’s two options, “step forward into growth, or step back into safety.” We chose — and will continue to choose — the former. And in that choice, new funds and relationships came to fruition because of our commitment to equity and growth is not wavering.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers or have this journey figured out. We have to be intentional and authentic and willing to make mistakes — and learn from them. The process of becoming an anti-racist organization, community, and nation is ever evolving.

Centering and empowering the voices and experiences of people of color is crucial in equity work. Uplifting, trusting and valuing the lived experiences of the people most impacted by the systemic issues you’re trying to address cannot be a step you skip over. When so many companies are trying to improve in this space, too often, people of color are burdened with the expectation to draft anti-racism statements and inclusion strategies without adjustments to existing workloads or emotional support when they’re constantly reliving this trauma. This work must be an opportunity for those voices of color, not another obligation.

Anti-racism cannot be performative. If your allyship or pledge to equity is designed to primarily benefit you or your organization’s reputation, it is simply a distraction. Celebrating a new DEI hire across your social media but not giving that individual any true power or voice within the organization is not advocacy. Being a keyboard warrior by reposting a hashtag or sharing a crafted statement without acknowledging your own privilege and role in systemic issues does not lead to equality. This work must include actions and real change that may never get publicly recognized but you know it is important, nonetheless.

We, at CICF, have learned that the path towards equity is beyond challenging and continuously filled with nuance. There is no guidebook with proven solutions. It is not fast or transactional. But we must all unite in our commitment to struggle towards racial equity. The time for change must happen now.

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