How — and Why — Big Thought Is Championing Racial Equity at a Board Level

For more than 30 years, Big Thought has been guided by the same North Star: that all youth in marginalized communities will one day be equipped to imagine and create their own best lives and world. To help realize that goal, racial equity has been built into the organization’s framework; it’s embedded in Big Thought’s programming and has always been a driving factor in the decision-making process.  

 It’s also consistently been a priority for Big Thought’s Board of Directors. But in recent years — and in 2020, in particular — the board has taken steps to explicitly name racial equity in Big Thought’s strategic plan, cement it as part of the nonprofit’s vision and hold its members accountable.  

board trainingIn 2019, the strategic planning process gave the Big Thought board the chance to push on their racial equity goals.

“The board had already elected to make it one of our core threads, but the new strategic plan really accelerated that,” said Shaun Dowling, the Immediate Past Chair of the Board. “During our design sessions for that new plan, we agreed to lean into racial equity even further.”  

To begin the journey board members underwent a series of racial equity trainings. The sessions gave board members a chance to have open, honest discussions with one another, while also framing the history of systemic racism in the U.S. and emphasizing why racial equity is so important today.  

In the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that importance was underlined. And in response, Big Thought’s board established a Racial Equity Taskforce ring to further hold the board accountable. 

“The big thing from our perspective is, first and foremost, we want to make sure that we embed racial equity as a through-line throughout the board and throughout Big Thought as an organization,” said De’Edra Williams, the chair of the taskforce. “And then, if we can, let that disseminate out throughout the community.” 

To help Big Thought truly work toward racial equity, both now and in the future, the board has established key performance indicators and accountability metrics.

“I’ve been on diversity and inclusion and racial equity boards for 30 years,” Williams said. “And what I found was that we would all meet and there would be these moments of clarity, but there were no action items.” 

Creating specific goals is an essential part of ensuring changes are being made, and it’s something that Dowling, a financial planner, is plenty familiar with thanks to his day job. In fact, it was Big Thought’s ability to measure success that drew him to the organization in the first place.  

 “Big Thought isn’t just saying, ‘We’re going and doing all this good.’ We’re measuring and reporting on it, so we can see the statistical evidence of that,” Dowling said. “For us, setting goals and measuring progress feels like the natural progression if we’re going to make racial equity core to who we are. This is how we operate.”  

 Along with racial equity training, the board completed a 21-day racial equity challenge at the end of 2020, where members committed to taking action to deepen their understanding of racial equity once a day, like read a book or listen to a podcast about the topic. Going forward, the board will complete a similar activity once a month, and once a quarter they’ll connect with some sort of racial equity training.  

 The taskforce is also committed to ensuring racial equity is embedded across all board committees.

That might mean examining how the advocacy committee will address racial equity through marketing campaigns, or, in the case of the governance committee, examining areas in diversity in which the board can grow. “We’re working with the board governance committee to say, you know, there’s a certain percentage of your board that does not look like the community,” Williams said. “How can we help you with that?” 

 It’s all part of continued growth for both the board and Big Thought as a whole. And although steps have been taken to embrace racial equity, the work isn’t done and there’s still a lot of room — and the desire — to grow. Simply addressing racial equity in a strategic plan doesn’t equate to meaningful change.  

 Simply naming a committee racial equity is not where the power lies; what has power is making the board and the organization accountable,” said Williams. “And if you’re not holding the organization accountable and if you, as a board, are not looking inward to figure out how you can best serve the organization, you’re doing yourself a disservice and, more importantly, you’re doing the communities you serve a disservice.” 

 That’s why it’s essential to Big Thought and the board to continue championing racial equity and embracing that accountability in all areas. Taking these actions, now and in the future, are how the organization can best follow its North Star, closing the opportunity gap and giving youth an equal chance to realize the greatness within themselves. 

Big Thought Board Members are sharing their own stories and experiences with racism through our Truth vs Perceptions campaign.