A Journey for Racial Equity to reach OUR North Star!

Zulma Zabala
Senior Fellow, Community and Racial Equity
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January 2, 2023
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In 2020, this country had to face itself in the image of a man of authority with his knee on a man’s neck who begged for release in order to breathe and live.The ultimate death of George Floyd became the visual that disrupted the notion that this country was past its racial disparities. Some of us, especially Black people, knew that the “Elephant in the middle of the room” had never left the room. Racism, in a most blatant visual, was right there, for ALL of us to SEE! People of diverse walks of life, race, culture and experiences took to the streets.  

A PBS poll revealed that at the time of the riots over George Floyd’s death, 62 percent of all Americans believed demonstrations were legitimate protests, while 28 percent said they believed the demonstrators acted unlawfully. Seventy-seven percent of Black people and 58 percent of white people in America believed demonstrations were legitimate. Wherever one stands on these opinions, it was and remains a fact that we have not yet created a country where we can ALL live in full confidence that racism no longer exists.

The journey at Community Solutions

Many organizations, businesses, and other institutions declared that they would pursue equality within their institutions. Right here in Cleveland we declared racism as a public health crisis and promised to tackle disparities that lead to poorer health outcomes for Black Americans. As the pandemic ensued and added additional fuel to disparities affecting Ohioans of color, a COVID-19 Minority Health Strike Force was set to develop urgent steps to lessen the impact of the virus on their lives.  

The Center for Community Solutions, already committed to addressing disparities by pointing out the gaps and challenges within the health and human services sector, ramped up its leadership to do more. For instance, the Community Solutions team launched a series of blogs addressing the topic of racism as a public health crisis. The goals was to educate the public and government leadership at all levels to make informed decisions that affect the lives of Ohioans. Organizational leadership, both board and staff, also noted that change had to occur internally. John Corlett, President and Executive Director at Community Solutions, said “on the eve of the organization’s 110th anniversary, we are more diverse than we have ever been in our history, and we can continue to do better. We can serve as an example for others.” As part of a monthly racial equity media club, the team began to read books and watch documentaries to expand their collective and individual knowledge about race, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

 On the eve of the organization’s 110th anniversary, we are more diverse than we have ever been in our history, and we can continue to do better. We can serve as an example for others.

“Doing better,” however required our team to go deeper into ourselves…fully, authentically, and courageously. An assessment created by some of the Black staff of the organization dared to ask the hard questions; asking about organizational culture, safety, policies, and structures. My position as Senior Fellow, Community and Racial Equity, is a new role in the organization, created in part to guide our effort to address findings from this assessment and address things that could disrupt equity.  

Affinity groups now exist to listen and share safely; we can collectively grow to see each other in our differences with the intent to honor them, and create a space for belonging. Gradient, a local expert in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging work, is helping us in the process, and have encouraged us to define our North Star for the journey.  

As we close out 2022, I wanted to share a glimpse into what we have experienced and learned thus far.

What is the difference: DEI vs. REI? Diversity vs. Anti-racism

During initial conversations with the team, a dialogue developed about the differences between DEI work and REI work. A DEI focus is important for organizations to implement because it aims to recruit a team with diverse attributes including race, gender, sexual orientation, personality type, etc. The health and human services sector can benefit from such a commitment, by ensuring an organization reflects the community it seeks to serve. An REI focus includes anti-racist practices and requires organizations to assess and address their own racial bias, organizational culture, and inherent biases in their operations.

 An REI focus includes anti-racist practices and requires organizations to assess and address their own racial bias, organizational culture, and inherent biases in their operations.

When a colleague raised concerns about addressing other inequities with other marginalized groups within an organization, I shared (and maintain) that there is value in simultaneously focusing on both. However, highlighting race and anti-racist practices are most critical when our country has yet to demonstrate it has fully addressed racial matters. We must listen to and learn from our Black and African American colleagues in order to more fully address racism. The documentary, Crip Camp, supports this stand. As part of our monthly media/reading group, we learned how a group of teens with disabilities helped build a movement for equality. The leadership in the film proved my point as they specifically noted how the civil rights movement not only served as inspiration, but it was responsible for helping their movement reach the level of success it eventually met.

Use HR, policies, and code of ethics as anti-racist tools in your organization

Policies and procedures should guide the work, organizational culture, and accountability for the best commitment to an organization’s mission. The operations of any organization fuel its success in meeting its mission. We hire, train, and develop teams that lead operations, and we hope to collectively and effectively create positive outcomes. Good HR leadership is also responsible for creating a safe space not just for sharing grievances but—most importantly—to test the validity and effectiveness of our policies and commitment to a safe environment.  

More organizations need to spend time devising a code of ethics. These are the values that can guide the culture which supports your team and then guides them on how to service and support clients and consumers.

 More organizations need to spend time devising a code of ethics.

After conversations with each Community Solutions staff member, I confirmed what the leadership already suspected: the need to do a detailed review and update of all policies. Some critical ones involved those pertaining to onboarding, pay equity, professional development, culture, and environment.  

Caveat: do not ignore the seemingly simple policies, like expense reimbursements. You would be surprised to learn how some of these can actually perpetuate classist behavior. Employers should also be mindful of the tools and equipment needed for doing the work. This is becoming increasingly important now when many organizations are supporting hybrid work.

Leadership tools to support internal RDEI work

Getting the work done is important, and why so many leaders focus on supervision of tasks to meet missions. But to “do better,” our REI journey is demonstrating that it is equally, if not most important, to support and nurture your team in the process. I can attest that your team will do as well as you prepare, and guide them. If you relate to them, to build with them you will also be open and ready to welcome their new ideas. Day-to-day work at Community Solutions, for instance, involves loads of research, data collection and activities that could seemingly feel and show up as individual work. However, if we are doing these tasks because the mission calls us to help an entire community, city, county, and state, then these are not individual tasks. Effective leaders are able to help teams connect the dots with one another in order, to meet desired outcomes. Good leaders recognize the value of their staff, and appreciate the differing work style as there are opportunities for innovation in differences!  

It is also especially critical to deeply examine all the support strategies you can offer your team, especially when doing Racial Equity work. Previously I wrote about the value of Trauma Informed Leadership, helpful in dealing with the realities of racial upheaval and the simultaneous concerns COVID brought into the work environment. Leaders can also employ emotional intelligence (EI) in their leadership styles. Emotional Intelligence focuses on the practice of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. In fact, I often dare leaders to show up as relational leaders, to be authentic and to create space that supports each individual team members’ authenticity. Yes, it is professional to do so, and yes, it can garner results.

Authentic discovery at an all-staff retreat

Our leadership team planned a retreat to review organizational outcomes, and set the path for what would come next in 2023. Because of the pandemic, the retreat also served as an opportunity to bring the team together in person, a rare experience over the past few years. Several team members, new to the organization, had an opportunity to get to know their teammates at a more personal level and learn more about our role in the community. We met valuable partners that work alongside us to meet our mission statewide. There was also time set aside for our DEI partners and myself to plan for dedicated activities to assess and contribute to our REI Journey.  

As aforementioned, the team was already committed to this work. We completed a self-assessment, launched a series focusing on race as a public health crisis, and set up monthly meetings to discuss documentaries and books on race, diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, some staff reported not fully understanding or believing that there were any real RDEI issues amongst the team. After all, now 40% of the staff is Black and at least one BIPOC member (Latina) is part of the leadership team. The work for the mission has been in progress and seemingly doing what it is supposed to do. We are all professionals deeply committed to leading our mission.  

What did we learn in that safe space, with caring facilitators, and knowledge of the importance of racial equity? We learned that we are far from perfect or even close to the image that some held about RDEI at Community Solutions. Sharing was authentic: there were tears, surprises, and great discomfort. People leaned into the safe space, sharing without fear or threat, their truth. A white team member shared that they now understand why the REI Journey is in fact so very important.  

Prior to the retreat our RDEI facilitator, Gradient, shared that at some point we would be setting the steps to take and implement our North Star. I do not think anyone could say that they were fully clear on what that meant. The retreat’s experience opened many eyes to SEE the value of identifying the path towards our North Star.

How do we stay on track?

During a recent dialogue debriefing about the retreat and goals for moving forward, the brilliant team of shared the following comments about the experience.  

“A common goal for all of us to address is racism; it has created a system ridden with privilege for some over others. It may be that some individuals, who have and can benefit from such privilege, can also dissociate from such systems to understand that racism is everyone’s enemy.”  

“It is not all theoretical. For some it is indeed personal, some people are the system in the way they show up, by perpetuating the very things we want to change as a team.”  

Class and privilege does show up in our spaces, and in our conversations meant to explore our own culture. We must improve our own lenses and even be willing to say, “I may be at fault for my behavior and there are things I need to address.”

 This work is hard, but we do hard work, we work in challenging times, and there are so many people depending on us.

John Corlett closed us out by stating: “Difficult conversations are important… some divisions have always been there… people felt safe enough to share them at our retreat, so that is a very good takeaway. This work is hard, but we do hard work, we work in challenging times, and there are so many people depending on us. If we can be stronger inside then we can be stronger outside and therefore be most effective for the communities we serve.” Ultimately, he claimed responsibility as our leader, to keep this work at the forefront of all we do as a team and of his commitment to support our collective journey.  

A difficult, challenging, yet refreshing experience so far indeed; especially courageous at a time when many would not commit. We have taken this journey not only for us, but also perhaps for others to model. Creating a sense and space for belonging takes collective commitment. I am confident that our team at Community Solutions will continue to face the charge, on behalf of good trouble for change and best practices for Racial Equity and Inclusion. We ultimately wish to create a sense of belonging for ALL. UBUNTU!


  1. There is no Other anymore: our community engagement and racial equity work – Community Solutions - Blog
  2. Minority health matters by Hope Lane-Gavin – Community Solutions - Blog
  3. Race Matters: America in Crisis, PBS News Hour Special – YouTube
  4. Cleveland City Council declares racism a public health crisis, launching community-wide effort to tackle inequities –
  5. Beyond the DE&I Acronym: What are Diversity Equity and Inclusion? YW Boston
  6. Seeking Diversity vs. Anti-Racism–What’s the difference? – National Juvenile Justice Network
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