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Research | Awake, Woke, Work

publication date: May 1, 2018
author/source: Equity in the Center

Achieving race equity — the condition where one’s racial identity has no influence on how one fares in society — is a fundamental element of social change across every issue area in the social sector. Yet the structural racism that endures in U.S. society, deeply rooted in our nation’s history and perpetuated through racist policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages, prevents us from attaining it.

The impact of structural racism is evident not only in societal outcomes, but in the very institutions that seek to positively impact them:

Race Outcomes Gap

People of colour fare worse than their white counterparts across every age and income level when it comes to societal outcomes. They experience significant disadvantages in

  • education,
  • economic stability,
  • health,
  • life expectancy, and
  • rates of incarceration.

Racial Leadership Gap

BoardSource’s Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices found that people of colour comprise 10% of CEOs, 10% of Board Chairs, and 16% of Board members. Compared to 40% of the working population, these figures indicate a large gap between race demographics of the working population and social sector leadership.

Building Movement Project’s recent report, Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, highlights that the racial leadership gap is not a pipeline problem, nor is it due to differences in education, skills, or interest; rather, it is a structural problem within the sector. The attainment of race equity requires us to examine all four levels on which racism operates (personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural), recognize our role in enduring inequities, and commit ourselves to change. As a sector, we must center race equity as a core goal of social impact in order to fulfill our organizational missions.


Equity in the Center believes that deep social impact is possible within the context of a Race Equity Culture — one that is focused on proactive counteraction of race inequities inside and outside of an organization. Building a Race Equity Culture is the foundational work when organizations seek to advance race equity; it creates the conditions that help us to adopt anti-racist mindsets and actions as individuals, and to center race equity in our life and in our work.

A Race Equity Culture is the antithesis of dominant culture, which promotes assimilation over integration and dismisses opportunities to create a more inclusive, equitable environment. The work of creating a Race Equity Culture requires an adaptive and transformational approach that impacts behaviors and mindsets as well as practices, programs, and processes.

The Race Equity Cycle

While each organization will follow its own path towards a Race Equity Culture, our research suggests that all organizations go through a cycle of change as they transform from a white dominant culture to a Race Equity Culture. These changes include increased representation; a stronger culture of inclusion; and the application of a race equity lens to how organizations and programs operate.

We have coined this process the Race Equity Cycle. This journey of change pushes organizations to become more committed, more knowledgeable, and more skilled in analyzing race, racism, and race equity, and in placing these issues at the forefront of organizational and operational strategy. Because each organization is comprised of different people, systems, and histories, individual organizations will enter the Race Equity Cycle at different stages and will approach their race equity work with varying levels of organizational readiness. And while the impact will look and feel different at each stage of the Race Equity Cycle, we believe that all three stages mutually reinforce each other.

At the AWAKE stage, organizations are focused on people and on building a workforce and boards comprised of individuals from different race backgrounds. The primary goal is representation, with efforts aimed at increasing the number of people of different race backgrounds.

At the WOKE stage, organizations are focused on culture and on creating an environment where everyone is comfortable sharing their experiences, and everyone is equipped to talk about race equity and inequities. The primary goal is inclusion and internal change in behaviors, policies, and practices.

At the WORK stage, organizations are focused on systems to improve race equity. The primary goal is integration of a race equity lens into all aspects of an organization. This involves internal and external systems change and regularly administering a race equity assessment to evaluate processes, programs, and operations.

The Role of Levers in Building a Race Equity Culture

Our research identified seven levers — strategic elements of an organization that, when leveraged, build momentum towards a Race Equity Culture within each stage and throughout the Race Equity Cycle:

  • SENIOR LEADERSHIP Individuals in a formal leadership role
  • MANAGEMENT Individuals who oversee operations of teams
  • BOARD OF DIRECTORS Governing body of an organization
  • COMMUNITY Populations served by the organization
  • LEARNING ENVIRONMENT Investment in staff capacity
  • DATA Metrics to drive improvements and focus
  • ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE Shared values, assumptions, and beliefs


There is no singular or ‘right’ way to engage in race equity work. Even if you don’t yet know the precise path your organization will take towards a Race Equity Culture, there are actionable steps to get started:

1. Establish a shared vocabulary. Ground your organization in shared meaning around race equity, structural racism, and other terms related to this work.

2. Identify race equity champions at the board and senior leadership levels. Select those who can set race equity priorities, communicate them broadly, drive accountability, and influence the speed and depth at which race equity is embedded in the organization.

3. Name race equity work as a strategic imperative for your organization. Define and communicate how race equity connects to your mission, vision, organizational values, and strategies.

4. Open a continuous dialogue about race equity work. Use research and learnings from other organizations to start the conversation with your team or individuals who are invested in your organizational cause.

5. Disaggregate data. Collect, disaggregate, and report relevant data to get a clear picture of inequities and outcomes gaps both internally and externally.


When your organization has fully committed to a Race Equity Culture, the associated values become part of its DNA. Organizations that demonstrate this commitment exhibit characteristics, including the following:

  • Leadership ranks hold a critical mass of people of color
  • Staff, stakeholders, and leaders are skilled at talking about race, racism, and their implications
  • Programs are culturally responsive and explicit about race, racism, and race equity
  • Communities are treated as stakeholders, leaders, and assets to the work
  • Evaluation efforts incorporate the disaggregation of data
  • Expenditures reflect organizational values and a commitment to race equity
  • Continuous improvement in race equity work is prioritized

Moving beyond special initiatives, task force groups, and check-the-box approaches into full integration of race equity in every aspect of its operations and programs is critical for organizations to fully realize a race equity culture.

Equity in the Center works to shift mindsets, practices, and systems within the social sector to increase racial equity. We envision a future where nonprofit and philanthropic organizations advance race equity internally while centering it in their work externally. The full publication of this research is  Awake, Woke, Work

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