Organizations that seek to live the values of racial justice and equity often describe their journeys as a transformation. They know they’ve arrived when the opportunity for every individual to learn, grow, and thrive in American society is no longer predicated on race or ethnicity.

For more than a decade, Lumina Foundation has advanced the cause of racial equity. Our journey has been neither linear nor smooth. Yet, today, it’s clear we must accelerate our speed and sharpen our intensity.

In 2010, the first of Lumina’s reports on the share of working-age adults with a college education, A Stronger Nation, focused on differences in educational attainment by race and ethnicity at the state and national levels. These disparities were significant—and they still are. While shining a light on this injustice was important, we recognized we had to focus much more on reducing—and eliminating—the stark differences rather than just report on them.

The foundation’s strategic plan from 2013-16 laid out a detailed vision and approach for increasing educational attainment beyond high school to 60 percent by 2025. We highlighted explicitly how our work would be driven by an “equity imperative.” Lumina’s grantmaking and efforts to build public will for change became increasingly focused on racial fairness concerns. One example was a requirement that Lumina staff members describe how proposed projects or grants would contribute to improvements in educational attainment among people who are Black, Hispanic, and Native American.

Since then, the foundation has put in place a series of successive plans, strategies, and initiatives. During the past several years, we’ve launched an effort to advance Hispanic student success, worked with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, to develop and learn from models of success, and boosted education among students of color in what we call Talent, Innovation, and Equity, or TIE, states.

More recently, a workgroup of staff from across the foundation has strengthened what I call the foundation’s Equity and Justice Intelligence, or EJQ for short, by developing cross-foundation approaches for defining and addressing diversity, inclusion, and equity in all of our work. Much as efforts to improve people’s Emotional Intelligence (sometimes called Emotional Quotient, or EQ) is an ongoing process, Lumina’s efforts to enhance its EJQ are nonstop.

This work has been especially important to building the competencies of everyone at Lumina when it comes to how we can help bring about racial equity. On top of regular training and staff-led forums, we have provided space for our colleagues to reflect on their experiences with race and injustice. The release of a powerful and still-growing collection of staff reflections has been one result.

Also, such efforts have led to more specific plans for advancing equity objectives across every department. We have made strides in asking—and, in some instances, answering—questions about how to make change happen, such as through our strategic communications, our research, and our grant support for educating policymakers and shifting the approaches of organizations or institutions.

Within the past few years, we have been dismayed and emboldened by explicit acts of racial hatred and intolerance, including the 2017 Charlottesville violence and the very recent death of George Floyd at the hands of those in Minneapolis sworn to protect and serve. We’ve made grants explicitly focused on the aftermath of Charlottesville through a fund for racial justice and equity, endorsed by Lumina’s Board of Directors. And, recently, we announced grants to philanthropy-serving organizations that place racial equity at their core.

These and other investments have been important expressions of our commitment. Yet, all of us at Lumina know they are not nearly enough. The journey to develop our EJQ must press on.

At the start of 2020, Lumina published its Commitment to Racial Equity, a further reflection. This commitment makes clear that Lumina, as a national foundation focused exclusively on making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all, believes that achieving fair and just outcomes for people of color must be the mission of everyone involved with higher learning.

This commitment lays out several measurable objectives. These include:

  • Prioritizing efforts that address the origins of inequality and inequity;
  • Building competence among Lumina’s board members, senior leadership, and staff members to authentically and collaboratively engage communities of color;
  • Embedding a commitment to racial equity and its foundation of diversity and inclusion in Lumina’s recruitment and hiring practices, contracting and grantmaking, and investment practices;
  • Promoting the capacity of Lumina’s contractors and grantees to pursue racial equity, diversity, and inclusion; and,
  • Fostering and supporting efforts to promote racial diversity, inclusion, and equity within philanthropy.

Through these specific commitments, adopted in January, we can measure our progress and shortcomings. We’ve increased our staff-level and senior leadership efforts to make more explicit our actions to advance equity and justice, and we will be working to do so with our board later this summer. We’ve developed new policies and enhanced priorities for diversity and inclusion in our recruitment and hiring practices, and we have updated our contracting and investment priorities.

Even so, we have not done nearly enough this year to work directly with contractors and grantees to help them pursue their own diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts. And our efforts to advance the cause of racial equity in philanthropy will require more leadership and investment than what we have yet offered.

There are many more ways we can build our EJQ, and we are learning from our peers in philanthropy and in the nonprofit sphere.

Since arriving at Lumina in 2008, I have been on my own equity journey. In my prior role as founding president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., I worked on an array of race-conscious public policy strategies in states, at the federal level, and with governments in southern Africa. I also worked closely with HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other minority-serving institutions to improve student success, train and support future college presidents, and increase public policy awareness of the essential role of these institutions within and beyond higher education.

Yet, that work offered only a fraction of the understanding I needed to effectively lead equity-focused efforts at Lumina. What I’ve learned over the past decade-plus of advancing my own EJQ at Lumina is that neither good intentions nor public policy strategies alone can address the pernicious level of systemic racism that exists in the United States.

Our work must tackle racial justice and equity at every level as we seek to create a better-educated country while strengthening individuals and society. In short, I’ve come to recognize that I must accept my share of responsibility as a white man for the historic wrongs our nation seems unable to right. And as the leader of an organization dedicated to achieving just results for every student, I must be willing to embrace and learn from my discomfort—and be open about what I do not know.

In the coming weeks, Lumina will announce further work and investments to strenuously combat racism and bend the arc of our collective journey toward justice. These grants will include near-term investments to strengthen national and Indianapolis-area organizations addressing the nation’s sordid, unresolved racism—and a longer-term effort, tied to our next strategic plan for 2021-25, that formalizes this commitment on a multi-year timeframe that makes us accountable.

We will not shrink from our part in developing our EJQ to meet the moment. We pledge to help guide the growing national movement that’s working to bring about fairness and justice for people who’ve faced obstacles to their progress for too, too long.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. He also is author of HUMAN WORK IN THE AGE OF SMART MACHINES, which will be published in October.

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