Board Cafe: Diversity for Organizations Based in Minority Communities

Board Cafe

Diversity for Organizations Based in Minority Communities

By Jan Masaoka

This issue we're joined by Adrian Tyler, whose successful career has led him to ascend the corporate ladder at Pacific Bell and whose civic career has led him to serve on many nonprofit boards, including boards of several African American organizations. Adrian gives us some "food for thought" on diversity issues. 

In previous issues of the Board Café (Dec. '97 and Jan. '98) we've addressed the issue of boards and diversity, including diversity in race/ethnicity, age, gender, areas of expertise, personal income, and other dimensions. We offered, for example, sample guidelines for boards to use in considering matters of diversity. One of the concerns related to diversity is the focus such a discussion takes on boards that are composed entirely, for example, of Latinos, or women, or people over 65, or lesbians, etc.

A few words about diversity in nonprofits: For nonprofits to best serve their constituencies, it is essential for them to know what their constituencies need and want. Having board members from those constituencies is an important way to do so. In addition, for nonprofits that employ staff, we have a commitment, just as any employer, to community building through our employment practices. At the same time, a commitment to diversity should be based on the specific situation, which is the organization's mission in the context of its environment. For some organizations, a multi-ethnic or other multi-cultural composition may not be best for furthering the mission.

I was a member of the board of a local YWCA during a series of discussions about whether to invite men onto the board. We ultimately decided we had a "mission-related" reason for maintaining our board as composed of all women: that such composition helped us further our mission of empowering women and girls (including as leaders of nonprofits!). I have made personal choices to join boards because they were all-Japanese American, as well as to join boards where I was the only/first person of color on the board.

Recently, I talked with Adrian Tyler, Associate Director in the Regulatory Department of Pacific Bell in San Francisco. Adrian is African American, and has served both on boards with wide diversity of members, and on several all-African American boards, including economic development organizations, a Black adoption organization, a Black chamber of commerce, and an African American holistic healing institute. Some of his thought-provoking comments:

"I get a little uncomfortable when someone asks me to be on a board [that is mostly white, seeking racial diversity] by saying, 'We need to have an African American on the board.' Because that question tells me they may have expectations about my experience, my skills, my networks, my access to resources, that may not be accurate. If you know ME, and you know what I can and can't do, and you're asking me to be on a board knowing that, then I feel more comfortable with the invitation.

"I understand the power of all-African American boards. I remember one board I joined [of an agency serving the African American community] where I walked into a high powered corporate board room and of the 18 African American board members, one was president of a college, one was a VP at a hospital, etc. . . . it was very empowering to find that level of community, and that was important to me as well as to the organization's mission. At the same time, here [in San Francisco] African Americans are a fairly small percentage, 8 - 10% of the total population, so it can be jarring to leave a work environment to go to a board meeting where everyone is African American, and then go out again into the general community. Often we can find the people we need within the African American community. But we need to have a plan for dealing with that wider market, that external environment, and one way (not the only way) is to have non-African Americans on boards that are based in African American communities. Here, too, prospective board members should be considered based on a broad set of needs (not just diversity).

"To me, first and foremost, I want a set of board members that brings together a broad set of skills, networks, and resources. Sometimes boards can be shortsighted by looking only at a person's skills, and not at everything that person is, while at other times boards look only at what the person 'is' and not the skills and abilities brought to the table. I can categorically say that a racially mixed board doesn't necessarily perform better or worse than one where everyone is African American, or Asian American, etc. We have to remember that peoples' networks aren't limited to what we might assume they are . . . life is fuller than that. I want to be sure we don't forego any opportunities to get the best available person who can make the commitment to fill an organization's needs."

Thank you, Adrian, for challenging us to think harder about this difficult-to-discuss issue.

Original publication date: 3/10/1999

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