We are beyond fortunate to work for Lumina Foundation, a private philanthropy committed to making people’s lives better by expanding learning beyond high school. Ours is a critical mission—one that we believe inspires hope and seeks to make real the promise of the American dream.

Our work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is shaped by, and influenced by, our nation’s sordid history of racism, which disenfranchises and harms communities of color.

Whatever the measure—educational attainment, life expectancy, family wealth, homeownership, unemployment, the likelihood of contracting COVID-19, or the probability of being detained, arrested, injured, or killed by police—systemic racism leads to unfair, even deadly, outcomes for Black and brown people.

These disparities have existed always. But since the pandemic began, these challenges have been amplified—and clarified—in ways that we haven’t experienced since the Civil Rights era.

Lumina, like many funders, has long been focused on racial justice and equity. Even so, our focus became more pressing as we struggled with the senseless killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others. In the wake of these deaths, we didn’t simply want to continue issuing statements of outrage. We wanted to transform our entire approach. This realization led us to adopt an equity-first lens for everything we do. Placing equity at the forefront is our commitment to make sure the pursuit of racial justice and equity are not just elements of our efforts to create a better-educated country, but that putting equity first is central to this mission.

How can it be that nearly half of whites have college degrees, certificates, certifications, and other quality credentials while educational attainment is sharply lower among adults who are Black (32 percent), Hispanic and Latino (26 percent), or Native American (25 percent)?

We should not settle for a nation of haves and have-nots.

We reject the idea that opportunities for good jobs, personal growth, and social mobility can be plentiful for some and scarce or unavailable for others based on skin color. And we have concluded that focusing on realizing a fair and just society isn’t just the right thing; it’s the smart thing. We have pledged to help dismantle barriers in higher education and training systems that created these unconscionable, pervasive gaps in educational outcomes by race and ethnicity.

Lumina’s equity-first approach now pervades the foundation’s work, from our grantmaking to investments, hiring, and promotion—even the board’s professional development.

We changed the way we award grants to include an “equity discussion” with every potential partner. These discussions are opportunities for us to share our journey, why we believe such an examination is important, and how our commitment to racial equity influences our work.  For example, we now collect data about how much of our funding supports organizations led by executives of color, and we encourage organizations to hire from racially and ethnically diverse candidate pools, as we do.

We devote substantial resources to our learning and building internal capacity to apply the equity-first approach constructively and thoughtfully.

We have made progress, but we still have a way to go. When people ask about Lumina’s equity journey, we share some of what we have learned:

  • Set conditions. To prioritize racial equity, put the fundamentals in place. For us, this meant defining what racial equity means in the context of our work and ensuring senior leaders embrace the approach. It involves setting expectations with staff and committing to transparency and accountability inside and outside of Lumina.
  • Hardwire the commitment. Putting equity first is not optional. Building collective “equity intelligence,” or EJQ, takes time, dedication, and resources. We are developing role-specific equity competencies that will become a part of reviewing job performance. As with staff meetings, employee participation in racial-equity masterclasses is expected. In addition, processes are in place to ensure grants and contracts aren’t awarded without reviewing partners’ racial and ethnic data and ensuring that takeaways from our discussions with them are recorded and shared.
  • Identify and address blind spots. We won’t always get it right, and there are times when we miss the mark. For example, when eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in Atlanta earlier this year, we more closely examined how we characterize Asian people. While Asians have the highest educational attainment rates of any racial group in the United States taken together, no group is a monolith. Several Asian subgroups also face long-standing barriers that have resulted in lower attainment. Had we helped perpetuate the myth of the “model minority?” We are reflecting on how we can tell a more nuanced story about this heterogeneous community’s experiences and outcomes in education and training after high school.
  • Don’t expect smooth progress. The steps we’ve taken to begin to view our work through an equity-first lens have not been steady or sequential. At times, we seemed to take two steps forward only to take three steps back. We’ve lost momentum. We’ve made missteps. We’ve misspoken. Within Lumina, we haven’t always agreed. Some colleagues fear we are moving too quickly; others feared we aren’t acting with enough urgency.

Our equity-first framework is not perfected. But it has given us a roadmap that we can adjust as we learn. Our journey has had its share of ebbs and flows, highs and lows. While we still have much to do to help society make racial justice and equity realities, we are grateful for steps taken that point us in a better direction.

Danette Howard is senior vice president and chief policy officer at Lumina and Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO.

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