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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Center of Child Welfare: Part III with Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell

A 21st Century Perspective on Cultural Relevance and Humility

The pervasive issue of racial disparity in child welfare has long presented troubling implications for children and families of color. The concept of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is essential in developing inclusive practices that work to dismantle historical and systemic racial biases in the sector. ASCI’s founder, president and CEO Dr. Sharon McDaniel engages in crucial conversations with industry thought leaders—read Part I with Kimm Campbell and Part II with Joyce James—to explore DEI in America’s child welfare system and highlight the transformational work these leaders do to address the same.

Installment III with Cheryl Hall-Russell, Ed.D, MA, MPA, president and Chief Cultural Consultant at BW3

Dr. Sharon McDaniel: So, [Kimm Campbell and Joyce James] spoke about the practice side of equity in terms of how to engage families and the necessity to involve community in the work. What I thought would be interesting with you, would be to look at organizational culture and behavior and what systems need to do, looking at that people management and organizational management strategy versus the people side and client side. Why don’t you begin by telling us who you are and what you do.

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell: So, for the last 25-plus years I have focused my work on the nonprofit sector. I’m a third-generation nonprofit leader and really started to dig into this work in several areas. When I started, I was focused on black infant mortality. We were having some serious issues in Indianapolis, where I’m originally from, and we were really looking at system change. What was going on with the systems, and why were they so inequitable that they were producing the kind of number we were experiencing? We weren’t paying a lot of attention to it until we made number-one and the nation started to look at us. 

So, that really began my nonprofit career as a program manager and trainer under a 93-member board that was made up of known city leaders, government officials, hospitals, etc. I was able to start off in the administrative side of nonprofit management, but I had already had the bug being a third-generation nonprofit leader in my family. I was already really committed to mission-based work. And so, I started there and kind of grew into leadership. I went back to graduate school to get a master’s in nonprofit management and philanthropy, because I knew this field was where I was going to stay. Most of my work has been in youth development, including juvenile-delinquent prevention. I was part of one organization that included shelters—both short- and long-term—that interfaced with the child welfare system, in the state of Indiana for four years. 

I have steadily been at the helm of a variety of nonprofit organizations, from statewide associations to small nonprofits. The work has always centered on working with families. Then, I got the call to come to Pittsburgh where, as you know, I continued that work on many levels. But what happened over that 25-year period has led me to where I am now. There was not a time that I was not facing the inequities of larger systems.

As I looked at how I wanted to support the sector, I went back and got my doctorate in administration and leadership. I really wanted to focus on how black people, in particular black women, navigate these systems, their leadership styles, and how those leadership styles impact the work that they do. I spent a lot of time on that and after getting that doctorate, I established my consulting firm, BW3, which is Black Women Wise Women—I emphasized Wise, not Strong Women. Look at the wisdom of black women and how we appear to the world and how we do our work based on our decision-making capacity. My consulting work focuses on the impact of culture. If an organization wants to include us in their system, what cultural nuances do African-Americans bring? We bring vast experiences and a cultural history that isn’t always appreciated or incorporated in the systems we work in. As organizations and corporations consider engaging in DEI initiatives of any type, I perform cultural assessments. It is an opportunity for them to look at how their agencies are functioning, if their culture is ready to adapt to a more diverse culture that will allow for full inclusion, and if not, what they need to do to get ready. 

And I also consult on a good deal of justice work, facilitating groups that are focused on the environment, economics and the black workforce. What I am engaged in really is the culmination of 25 years of immersion in the sector. This work allows me to uphold my own cultural values and facilitate conversations on how others can incorporate their own walks into the organizational model. 

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell with a group of Chatham University students following her presentation to their Women’s Leadership class.

SM: I can hear the energy in your description about the necessity of this work. Why is this work so important to you?

CHR: It’s important because we keep doing the same things the same way and getting the same results. We talk a lot about how the system is broken. It has been said and it’s true—it isn’t broken, it’s working the way it’s designed. I’m about working toward strategic interruptions. I am approaching my work as an interrupter of the status quo so these systems work better for all Americans. The idea that we may get closer to being fully included and receiving equitable treatment is what makes me passionate about it.

I wanted to do DEI work, but I wanted to bring a different aspect of it to the table. How do I bring my passion about these needed cultural changes into it? I couldn’t do it in one organization, but I thought if I created my own and began to work with those larger systems and organizations that I could start to have a larger impact. I wanted to offer an outside evaluation on an organization’s culture and suggest needed changes to make it equitable. You know, when we talk about culture we’re really talking about values and beliefs, and all of these underlying assumptions that are part of an organization or a system. They are expressed through how we communicate with each other … our daily interactions, physical structures, written materials—how we treat and respect one another. But we don’t really think about them when we go to work every day. 

So, when we start talking about inequities and why things aren’t working, people really just don’t think about how their organizations are functioning and are not functioning well on an everyday basis. What my work does is holds people still long enough to see that: This is how you are really existing in the world. This is how you are impacting people both internally and in your external products. This may be why you’re not approachable, or cannot maintain diverse staff. Let’s sit down and talk about what’s happening in your culture and what we can fix to improve the work.

I use my research background to really dig into the underbelly of organizations. 

SM: People, organizations and institutions will hire a Dr. Hall-Russell to, say, come in and do an assessment on what the latest trend is—particularly in the nonprofit or government sector—to hire a chief diversity officer in order for them to look at their diversity, equity and inclusion. And so, from your perspective, what is your reaction to this posture and what do you understand the effectiveness to be in terms of having a chief development or diversity officer in these organizations?

CHR: I’ve probably talked myself out of that particular job! I do get calls to either help somebody find a DEI professional or to even consult as the DEI head. And I recently wrote an article that really honed in on that. You know, if you’re on LinkedIn then you see all these titles—Senior VP of DEI, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Institutional Equity and Diversity Lead—these words and titles are just everywhere now, be it at universities, large nonprofits or in corporate America. But as I have done this research, what I am discovering is it has become a new title for Community Engagement officers. That used to be the place that corporations were comfortable placing black and brown people, limiting their real impact on corporate decision-making.

You know the story: “Let’s bring in this black or brown person to interact with the other black and brown people that we don’t want to interact with ourselves.” I’m finding that happens to DEI officers. They are now being assigned to help with the “black stuff,” support  the “brown stuff,” interact with the LGBTQ employees and communities. But this work isn’t necessarily making needed changes to how these operations do business. Of course, in some organizations they have had high levels of success, but I feel it is the exception, not the rule. That person is often thrust into these positions, they are expected to handle whatever crisis occurs, but they don’t often sit next to the CEO and leadership team and comfortably challenge the lack of full integration into a truly diverse culture. 

So, my suggestions to organizations focus on a couple things. First of all, DEI is not necessarily an HR thing. I’m often seeing those positions being pushed by HR or even under Human Resources. This is an organizational thing. This is your top leadership saying we really want to be different. We want to be more diverse. We want to be more equitable in how we are acquiring business or working with families, or integrating the ideas and strategies for a broad variety of stakeholders. If you don’t have that commitment at the top, not just in the HR department, then more than likely what you’re hiring is somebody that really is your defense against lawsuits and working with people that the core of the organization doesn’t want to work with.

And I know that sounds harsh, but I really believe that is what happens and it has probably been happening for a long time. I want to make people more thoughtful about DEI leadership positions before they post them. To get them to why they are adding on these positions and what they are willing to do to make them impactful. 

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell in her cap and gown.

SM: I don’t think that’s harsh at all. What I really appreciate about you and your research is that you get up-close and personal and talk to people as a qualitative researcher. 

So, if a person or an organization is really genuine about this approach but can’t afford a Chief Diversity Officer, or a Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell, what should they consider in terms of exploring what diversity, equity and inclusion would like in their institution? 

CHR: When it first comes up and you begin to talk about it, because everybody is talking about it right now—you know, “We don’t have a DEI initiative”—the  first question is: Why do you all want to do this? 

[Are you] doing this because this has now become something that is popular, or you’re now seeing the data and it says that if you have a diverse organization, that sales numbers are better? Understand who you are and why you’re doing this before you make the very first move toward adjusting hiring processes. You have to really get naked with who you are as an organization before you engage in it. This behavior can have long-term consequences.

If you want to move forward and do it well, have you thought about what those outcomes look like? Does this mean that you’re serving families in a better way, that you are more culturally sensitive? What do you want to see? Because a lot of times when I have these conversations, people toss the word salad around DEI, which changes frequently. If you can’t tell me that, I try to help you walk through that. But if you really can’t get there, then you are already in trouble because you don’t even know why you’re trying to engage in it.  

I’ve had those conversations, and I’ve turned down clients who refuse to have or really will not engage in the seriousness of the conversation, because I let them know right away, this is not marketing for me, it has real-life impact. I do this work because I know that it can change people’s lives, it can change families’  lives. I know the consequences of doing this poorly. Heck, I’ve lived those consequences when it’s not done well. I’ve been in corporate, when I was hired because I was smart and black, but you really didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. I know what that feels like.

So, I want to help organizations get past that surface type of DEI to really get to some of those inclusionary practices. And like I said, I’m all about interrupting those behaviors. I don’t come in swinging, I’m a coach. That’s the other part of my practice. And I use those coaching words and behaviors to try to get people to look at themselves and their organizations in a real clear way before they really try to take on DEI in any type of fashion.

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell with her beautiful grandchildren.

SM: I know we’ll talk a little bit later about identity shifting and visibility, so I’m glad you hit on that because you are smart, and black, and a woman, and so that intersectionality of who you are holds up in these spaces. So, in your research and when you work with your clients, what have you found to be some of the underlying assumptions people bring to the table when they’re developing, attending or maintaining a DEI program?

CHR: That it’s going to be easier than it actually is. You know, they’ve gone out and they’ve Googled DEI. They have pulled down the reports of the companies that have been doing it well. But when they have to actually figure out how it works for them, they realize it’s a lot harder than they thought it was going to be, and it means they’re going to have to make some changes. They want to add this as a program or initiative, but when I say it may change how they actually treat people internally, how they market externally, how they stand up in a room when things are going sideways and when they see them and have to speak to them, it can be intimidating.

I’ve literally had people who are having serious racial issues in their organizations and can’t even name them. They will call them anything else and I have to give them definitions. I have to say to them, this has not been a part of your ordinary language. This has not been a part of your business language. Can you tell me the difference between equality and equity? What does the practice of inclusion feel and look like? Why is assimilation not a good thing? They are often very surprised when we start to walk through the definitions. And then the real shock comes and they pause and think, “If we really commit to this, we’re going to have to change our culture, and do we really want to do that? What does that look like for our brand and who we are long-term?” So, it’s not an easy fit sometimes. It’s kind of a scary journey. So, I  have to judge, depending on the client, just how fast or slow I’m able to go depending on their ability to overcome fear and discomfort, which is very real.  

I sometimes have to share that, while I can do a great workshop, they may need a more in-depth understanding. I can expose an organization to new concepts, but they won’t necessarily lead to systemic changes. I can do an unconscious-biases training on Monday, and by Wednesday they are back to what they’ve always done.  

SM: I agree. DEI is not a program. It’s a practice. It’s a posture. It’s a being. It’s an ethos. It’s to be alive and well in an institutional culture and fabric. It’s absolutely essential that our readers hear what it is you’re actually saying about that. 

This goes into your researchwhich I found to be extraordinary as an African-American womanfor which I know you’re looking at the experiences of African-American women in leadership positions throughout the United States. What we understand through research is that there’s still only one percent or less than one percent of African-American, Native American and Latinx women in leadership positions, even in nonprofits. And so, although women make up the majority of the nonprofit workforce, they’re still the least represented as far as leading organizations. And that’s philanthropy. If you take it to corporate, there are no African-American women leading any Fortune 500 or 100 companies right now in 2020.  

So, can you talk to us more about your research and your recommendations on how to improve this pipeline issue? Because for more than two decades, philanthropy has talked about why they haven’t been able to get enough black and brown women into these positions. What are your thoughts about that? 

CHR:  I think there’s a couple of things happening. Number one, back in the day, I don’t think that it was visible. You didn’t have the internet. Television wasn’t looking at leaders. You weren’t seeing the problem coming across your screen … well, at least it wasn’t framed as a problem. We knew it was happening, but it was a little bit quieter then. We knew white men always dominate and always have, but I don’t know that we understood the intricacies of how those doors kept being blocked—the levels of oppression. At least, it wasn’t in our faces in terms of research and statistics the way it is now. 

Now you see high-profile black female leaders occasionally on television, you hear about #blackgirlmagic, and you hear things like, “This is the year of the black woman.” You start to think, “Wow, maybe this is our year.” It is almost the dream of post-racialism after Obama was elected. We would have liked to believe it, that we were holding considerably more top jobs, that the statistics were behind and we were gaining significant steam. We sometimes get a high-profile position, and I’m on LinkedIn, so I see “the first black woman to run this,” or “the first black woman to run that.” I love it when I see it coming across. But every time we gain one, we lose three. 

So, we just peaked at some levels of leadership, banging our heads on the concrete ceiling, no view of the top. And what makes this really ironic is that the same statistics also show that black women tend to be overly educated and overly experienced because those of us who want to reach this leadership level have been told from toddlers that we have to be more, we have to do more, we have to prove more. We’re constantly over-prepared for the leadership positions. So, when you hear about these pipeline issues, you have to look around and think, “What is the problem?” Because you and I both know these women. We work with them every day. You know there are hundreds and thousands of black women who have over-prepared to be ready in case that door opens, but what if the door simply isn’t opening?  

I have to cast a certain amount of doubt on corporations who claim to look high and low for black and brown female talent. They are hiding in plain sight. We see black women with these resumes that top white women or even white men, but the white talent will be in their second or third Fortune 500 leadership organization. So, we are still dealing with the age-old problem of racism. And the thing that has never happened in America is dealing with, from slavery on, how we systemically block out people with these talent levels. And we do it, we deny it, but we continue to do it. 

There was an interesting article that came out in the Pittsburgh Business Journal the other day that popped up on my LinkedIn. It was something like, the “Top 20 Executive Hires for 2019,” and they proudly listed all these names and there were about 19 white men. And even in this age when we’re talking about DEI, that business journal never questioned that there’s something wrong with the fact that these top 20 leadership positions opened up in Pittsburgh— and maybe I’m wrong … it could have been 17 white men and two white women, but there was definitely a single black female position—but they aren’t opening the doors. You’re getting us to HR, but when it comes to getting us in, we’re still going back to fit and looks, and “could we still be successful, or would people still want to do business with us if we’re run by a black woman?” 

There are organizations who are looking at their cultures and decision-making, and when they are really committed to understanding. They are disrupting their own patterns, and in those orgs you are starting to see black women start to bubble up. They’ve been more than ready and waiting in the wings for these opportunities. I talk a lot about that trust gap that happens. They see us. We’ve gone to the same schools, we’ve had decades of experience, but there’s still a trust gap when it comes to hiring black women. There’s still this discomfort that once that torch has been handed over, that we will continue to do business as it has to be done. That somehow, we have to be watched closely. You know, will we still be able to do it in the way that we’ve done it? You know, you may not do things the way that you have done it, but we may bring something to help you do it better. And that’s the challenge that a white majority culture has in trusting us to do it as well and sometimes even better. So, what does that look like? 

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell speaks during a women and poetry event at the Everyday Cafe in Homewood, Pa.

SM: Research shows that when black women are placed in positions where they’re the only one or one of few, the notion of tokenism comes in. What does your research suggest about that idea? 

CHR: Organizations will often get the two-for-one when you’re dealing with black women. You fulfill the female end of it, and you fulfill the black end. One organization that I worked with, which was very large, ended up hiring a couple of black folks in director positions. And when the organization was surveyed, many of them came back and said, “We’ve done this. We have diverse leadership. Isn’t this enough? You see we’ve got this black woman over here, this black man over here, are we not done?” An alarming number of respondents felt this way. In their minds, what they saw was, we’ve got a couple high-profile black people and that’s what DEI is—you crack the door just enough to allow them in.

So, a couple of things happen. One, that’s an awful mentality, but it also impacts that person you let in. Because you know that person comes in saying they’re highly qualified, highly experienced and ready to work, and then they get into a system and realize, “I came here for these reasons, but I may have been hired for other reasons. I may have been hired for how I look and how I now make the organization look in terms of its DEI efforts.” And they realize that full inclusion isn’t happening. And when I went to interview some of the African-American leaders, some of them definitely felt that when they first got there, like they were “that” hire.    

But it’s also stressful and can wear you down when you feel like you have to be the one to carry that culture on your back and be the one starting to meet these low expectations they have of black women. So, some of the women are amazingly strong, and a lot of them are at the top of their game, but as they talk about their journey from being the token hire to being fully included, it is not without a lot of scars, both emotional and physical scars that occurred, from their health to dealing with Imposter syndrome. Asking themselves, am I really that good? You know people coming in really strong with who they are, begin questioning if they’re really as strong as they thought they were. There could be some real emotional damage as you make your way through. But you can get there. 

I’m trying to be hopeful, as I’m seeing some more black women starting to get into positions that were unheard of even five years ago, because these women have already been through all that. They’ve had some of those token kinds of placements, and now they’re taking on really big organizations that have historically been run by white men. And they know when they go in, they’ve made it clear before they sign the contract, that this is not about just being a token hire. “You know why you got me. I’m doing nothing but bringing value and probably going to take this organization to a whole other level.” They’re very confident by the time they walk into one of these Fortune 500, Fortune 100 at this point, because we don’t have very many in the 500s anymore, but I think we’re taking it on differently. We’re no longer willing to be taken in as tokens on that level. And that’s what I’ve heard them say.  

SM: You were just alluding to the emotional attacks that happen in some of these institutions. The research suggests that people are being told, “You won’t assimilate, so you can’t work here.” What have you found in your work and research?

CHR: We are still using “fit” as a measure. As I talk to HR managers, they still are doing that. Diverse applicants get into the interview stage and they make it to the next level, then you hear the “fit” word. “Is she going to actually fit into the culture of this organization?” They’re not thinking, “Maybe my organization is kind of broken and maybe she shouldn’t. Maybe we should be changing the culture,” but that’s a whole other conversation. But when we begin to talk about those women who have gotten in—my interviews were across nonprofits, corporate, and academics—the words assimilation didn’t come up a lot. The most common words were isolation and loneliness. These women often talked about not having close peers they could trust and having to seek outside circles of support when these decisions had to be made. Again, that trust gap was a factor. They were OK as long as things were going well, but when they were struggling or there were big decisions that had to be made, this isolation and loneliness would appear because they were limited in having people to talk to.

There was also a lot of feedback on how it affected them physically. Some of them reported weight gain and high blood pressure, and even family issues. They struggled to leave the work at work because they were constantly being observed and afraid to make any kind of mistake. And some of that is cultural. I know for me and a lot of my friends, those of us who are over 50, we’ve been told we can’t make mistakes. You’ve done your homework, you’ve got the experience and the degrees, but do not let them see you cry or fail. Don’t let them see you make a mistake, make sure your strategies are flawless. So, we are given standards that white men aren’t necessarily given. We don’t get to strike out as much. And that has an effect on us both emotionally and physically, when you never feel like you can make a mistake. 

That will impact a career, because people will burn out. They’ll have this constant need to always be perfect when no one else has been made to feel that way, and it will cause some burnout and health issues. The well-being of black women at those top positions is often compromised. And that is something we need to talk about a little bit more, too. We may be gaining these positions, but sometimes we may be compromising our well-being when we do it. 

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell

SM: When we talk about compromising and being authentic in these spaces—you actually introduced me to this term, which I certainly have found now in my own research—what comes in is this notion of “identity shifting,” when we basically wear different faces because of the necessity to try to fit in. Talk to us about what you’ve seen in terms of identify shifting and why people do it. 

CHR: Again, the word that you used is “fit.” A lot of times we’ve been able to get through the process, get hired and even promoted. We have had to fit into that culture, and sometimes that means giving up our own cultural beliefs to function. So, I’m writing a book right now called Downshifting: Black Women on the Road to Authentic Leadership, and I was looking at some typical title covers, and one of them showed a black woman getting out of a car. About a third of her is left in the car while two thirds of her walks into her office. That’s shifting. That is her leaving her cultural leanings in the car, which are those things that may puzzle, offend or confuse dominant white culture. We do it in such a fluent manner that we don’t even notice it.

When you are a minority in a majority culture, your survival depends on your ability to not rock the boat. You can’t just blend in, but you can talk whatever talk is predominant and take on whatever values that system is espousing. So, what you’re losing is your authenticity … you’re sometimes losing your own creativity—those things that make you who you are and make you function at your highest levels. Sometimes that’s what you’re leaving in the car. And so, that shifting means leaving those pieces behind in order to fit into some organizational culture that expects you to behave just like they do. And I find that that is a huge mistake. I don’t judge people who are doing it because I realize that I’ve done it. I’ve had to do it. I have gotten very proficient at it. My kids used to talk about my business voice when I got on the phone—it was probably much more than that. In some organizations it’s simply survival.  

That survival technique may help you keep your job, but I think it can kill you internally. I think it starts to roll through over a long period of time in ways that I don’t know that you can recapture. Sometimes you can almost forget who you are in your own authentic voice, but when you rediscover that, I can’t think of anything stronger and more empowering. When I walk into a room now, I am Cheryl Hall, whatever room I’m in. I simply no longer feel that need to culturally shift, because ultimately it is not in my best interest. A lot of my coaching and a lot of my research is on how to do this, stay true to it, and how we teach others to be OK with that, because honestly, we aren’t moving.

“Look, I’m bringing in who I am. This is me. Let me introduce you. And this is who I’m probably going to be for the rest of the time that we work together. Let’s talk about those things you may not understand. But I don’t have time, or space, or energy to keep shifting into something that you want me to be, out of who I know myself to be.” I think we are full of greatness and potential when we stop doing that. So, yeah, I may be kind of outside the norm a bit and pushing that kind of authentic leadership. We talk about authenticity, but when you really have to deal with an authentic black woman in all her glory—from her bringing in her church stuff to bringing in her race stuff, her culture stuff, her business stuff, all these things that make us who we are—then we may not look how you expect us to look in that leadership role. I’m trying to get people to really understand that, both the women who need to be authentic and those they’re going to be working with who may not understand it at all.

SM: I think that’s incredible, Dr. Hall-Russell. I’m not sure if you know, but three statesCalifornia, New York and New Jerseyhave signed legislation called the CROWN Act, which is about black women and their hair. We’re talking about having to legislate that black women can come into work in these environments, as you said, in their glory and authenticity today. But you went against the grain many years ago and said, I’m going to wear my beautiful hair in my afro or my twists, or however I show up. What gave you the courage to do that when other women were not, because they wanted to fit in? What was it inside you that said, “I have to show up as Cheryl”? 

CHR: I think it was understanding the power of hair—stay with me—how I understood it inside and outside of black culture. Black folks often value the longer, straighter, heavier hair that was more part of the dominant culture. I value choice. If you want to be long and straight that’s great, if you want to be in an afro, curly and big, that is great. But we can get entrenched in hair politics stripping those choices away from us and judging one another to boot. And being the disrupter I’ve always been—and my mother and father can confirm this—I started struggling when I started to feel like I was being limited to one choice. I had that hair that grew and could be straightened halfway down my back. Folks admired that hair. And the culture around me said, yes, this is what it takes to be professional. This is what is expected by the majority culture. And I was like, uh, no. You don’t get to set expectations for my hair. It is a critical part of my culture, and I won’t adhere to that unspoken requirement. 

And I think what really cemented my going natural and staying natural was some of the discomfort of the people around me, even the fear for me, when I went natural. I had people taking me to lunch and talking to me and saying, “Sis, you’re a CEO. Do you really think you’re going to be able to maintain your position or is this the look you want to put out there? Don’t put the chemicals in your hair, but go ahead and flat iron it so people aren’t uncomfortable when you walk in.” And as I began to really dig into and look at what my authentic leadership was and what it meant to me, that compromise was something I was not willing to make. 

And the other piece of it was raising a daughter. As soon as she was old enough to articulate it, she began to talk about wanting her hair to look like mine. And her hair looking like mine meant straight and swinging. I didn’t want to put chemicals in her hair as a child and so I began to think, what am I teaching her about her own beauty standards? That something that personal and connected to her body must be rejected as not being acceptable? That was problematic, and I got really defiant about it. Probably only defiant for a minute there, because I was angry that I was being questioned about it. At that point, I didn’t even want to straighten my hair anymore, and then I had younger, black women leaders start to come to me and say, “Thank you for your hair.” And when that happened, they were saying things like, “Our mothers are telling us that once we graduate or look for higher positions, we won’t be able to get these jobs because we don’t want to perm our hair. You are an example of a woman who is confident in her look and we know you’re doing really well, and your hair doesn’t seem to be stopping you.” That sealed the deal. I truly care about these emerging leaders. And that’s why my crown remains how it is. Hair is not going to make you fit in any more than that black skin is or anything else. It’s not really the issue. It is pride in embracing culture, it is our attitude, our boldness that probably gets us in trouble [laughing].

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell

SM: But I think it’s relevant, because we have more white males running institutions in every sector and there’s this dynamic between black women and white men. That dynamic and how these women are seen is critically important. I think that you and others—and if you’re seeing commercials, you see more commercials with women wearing natural hair and newscasters wearing natural hair—are in this movement where African-American women and other women of color are coming in and saying, “I want to be authentically me, and I’m going to show up as whatever that looks like.” I really applaud your boldness around that.  

As we think about the fact that in 2020 and beyond, our society will become more diverse—even though in these nearly 250 years as a democratic republic, power and privilege still remain with white males in this country—if organizations recognize that they want to truly diversify their leadership teams and have their teams be more representative of their constituents, what would you suggest they do? 

CHR: When you make the decision that you want to have a more diverse team but decide it depends on what your current team looks like … Is that for you as women? Is that for you as black women, as different sexualities, broader skill sets, enhanced viewpoints? What do you know is absent from your culture? What you cannot do when you make that decision is cap these groups’ progress once they are in the organization. When you decide to do this, you have to look at it like you would any other white man that is coming into your organization, because they face the same growth and inclusion limitations. They don’t get, “OK, we’ve got four of those and we’re going to have them at this level of leadership.” 

You have to commit to—if that person is coming in, powerfully leading, doing the job you’ve hired them to do and ready to move into the next rank—allowing that to happen organically, like you would allow it for white men. If you’re not ready to do that, you really need to rethink your DEI initiatives, because you’re not doing this with the whole heart. You’re not really doing this as a change to your culture or your value systems. You’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

Be strategic about this. Your leadership team, your CEO, your whatever you call this—whether it’s for-profit, nonprofit, whomever your leader is—if they are not fully committed to this process and opening up to inclusion and understanding what this looks like and to researching and understanding their organization, it’s going to flop and revert. If DEI becomes a barely empowered division in your organization, you won’t see any measurable change. Sometimes that’s a choice. You really aren’t trying to change. But if you’re serious about this, you need measurable outcomes: something like, “In 2020 we’re going to launch this and by 2021 everybody is going to be on-board and committed to this in leadership.” And there must be ways to actually measure what you say you’re going to do. 

Diversity programs or initiatives without measurable outcomes to change are short-term HR exercises. Don’t assume that bringing in a black or brown person to help with your DEI initiatives is going to fix decades of your problems. You don’t hire black people in DEI positions and get systems change without the full-on cooperation of the whole organization. It is unfortunate, and unfair to those people placed in DEI leadership positions with unrealistic expectations. I’ve seen some high-profile people in those situations, especially in universities. When something goes wrong and you see this poor black or brown person trying to deal with the media, and the head of the university is saying, “Talk to them over there because they can tell you what we did, they can justify any behaviors.” Who wants to be stuck with that? If your CEO can’t walk up and say, “This is what happened and this is how we’re dealing with it,” and you have to get your DEI person to deal with it instead, then there’s a problem. You didn’t commit from the top. 

So, set up a system of accountability that starts at the very top of the organization. Also, learn the language and the potential impact. Understand what you’re getting yourself into. Get somebody you trust to walk you through it. Get someone who is going to be honest with you and that you’re going to listen to. And give yourself some time, because this is not an overnight issue to fix. 

SM: This conversation should inspire our readers to think about their own work, their sector, their equity issues and their DEI opportunities more holistically and in a different way. Is there anything else you would like to share from a national organizational context? 

CHR: Well, in doing nonprofit work and doing it in the communities that I’ve chosen to serve, which are usually black communities, there’s something else I have noticed. We get fresh-faced social-work graduates that come in to work and learn from us. They often come in with stereotyped beliefs that the challenges black and brown communities have are just because they’re black and brown communities, not that these circumstances are created by systemic racism. Sometimes I feel like they see these problems as cultural issues, that these are isolated to black communities, you know, this is how these people were raised in these particular neighborhoods. But they don’t take on that the larger systems of racism and other systems in America create these pockets that make it difficult for people to rise up. If they don’t gain a better understanding of what creates the challenges, then they are co-conspirators. 

Black and brown babies being born in the hospital right now at UPMC and Allegheny Health are coming here with the same potential as white babies. If you choose to work in child welfare and you work in communities where black and brown people are struggling, don’t think that they’re struggling because of who they are. They’re struggling because of those systems that continue to keep them at the bottom, those systems that habitually pay them less.

New reports came out recently in Pittsburgh that show white men in white-collar positions, and the number-one positions for black men are custodians and service workers. There is no shame in the work, but it does indicate that the choices are limited. If you decide to do this work, you should be willing to challenge and disrupt these systems and use your privilege to do so. I’m raising a child during a time when the nonprofit system and/or the philanthropic system looks no different than it did for my mother. So, I hope those people who are entering them now think about this and look at their own privilege to figure out how to be positively disruptive. 

Cheryl Hall-Russell, Ed.D, MA, MPA, is a consultant, writer and speaker. She is the president and Chief Cultural Consultant for BW3 (Black Women, Wise Women, LLC), a diversity, equity and inclusion firm that specializes in cultural audits, engages in research, provides training, supports program initiatives and facilitates social and economic justice collaboratives. Her research focus is on leadership and women of color as they tackle the challenging intersections of race and gender.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

One thought on “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Center of Child Welfare: Part III with Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell

  • Great article and Dr. Hall-Russell was very much on point. I took the “crown” stance many years ago and while it may have cost me a delay in promotion it kept me authentic and sane. The layers on the affects of systemic racial ignorance/indifference/misunderstanding is far greater than one could imagine. The broken homes, mortality rate and financial disparity are all variables in this dysphoria in the day in the life. Thank you Dr. Hall-Russell for shining a light.

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