Case study: how Lumina sharpened its focus on eradicating systemic racism
Racial Equity

Case study: how Lumina sharpened its focus on eradicating systemic racism

Lumina Foundation has worked to increase its commitment to racial equity, primarily by helping its staff understand systemic racism better, according to a newly-released case study by Grantmakers for Education.

“There were assumptions that because people believed and were committed to equity, they could ‘do it,’” Danette Howard, Lumina’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer told the GFE study’s authors.

“But commitment doesn’t equate to having the skills and competencies needed to embed and lead on equity…. If you have some understanding of systemic racism, or what leads to or sustains attainment gaps, or what will lead to narrowing of attainment gaps, that will help all of us make better decisions as we work with grantees.”

Howard’s comments were part of a case study on education grantmaking by Christina A. Russell and Lynn Jenkins, “The Equity Journey,” scheduled for presentation this week at the GFE annual conference in Washington, D.C.

Four years ago, Lumina sounded an alarm about the importance of equity in its 2013-16 strategic plan. The foundation noted that while the percentage of adults earning college degrees had increased by 2.5 percentage points in the previous five years, significant gaps in attainment by race and ethnicity persisted.

Young Asians had an attainment rate of 65.6 percent and whites, 44.9 percent, compared with much lower rates for young adults who were African-American (24.7 percent), Hispanic (17.9 percent), or American Indian (16.9 percent).

“The gaps in attainment have become unacceptable. Given that increasing higher education attainment is critical to a strong economy and a strong society, the fact that educational success is denied to so many in our nation can fairly and accurately be described as a crisis,” the Lumina strategic plan stated.

“Put bluntly, this is an intolerable situation. Not only will the nation fall short of the attainment levels it needs unless these gaps are closed, the fact that they exist must be rejected on moral grounds given the increasingly severe consequences of not obtaining a postsecondary credential. America’s democracy and its economy are ill-served by a system that fails to tap all of our talent.”

The foundation pledged to redouble its efforts to close the gaps and called on its partners to do the same. Specifically, Lumina said it would invest in strategies to:

  1. Work with local, state, and national officials, and in higher education systems and schools: “thousands of educators (including faculty and administrators), elected officials, community leaders, business leaders and other citizens must understand and accept as their own the need to increase attainment.”
  2. Help redesign postsecondary education with new models of student financial aid, higher ed business and finance models, and new postsecondary credits and credentials.

The foundation decided those steps weren’t enough without a greater equity awareness internally, however. Escalating racial tensions added a sense of urgency.

Strategy officer David Croom told the case study authors: “I’m a black male, and in 2013 and 2014, a lot of issues and conversations were swirling across the country around policing, around Black Lives Matter, around race.

“There were large and small conversations about students of color not feeling comfortable and about their points of view not being represented. There was a lot going on externally that motivated us to ask, are we truly addressing this in our work?”

At Lumina’s request, the foundation, its staff, and its messaging got a close look from Professor Estela Bensimon, director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the University of Southern California. Her team found that “Lumina’s staff needed a deeper understanding of and comfort level with racial equity, as well as more consistent language in talking about equity,” the case study found.

The foundation met with Bensimon’s team in a follow-up session, and CUE prepared a report on its findings, with recommendations.

“Our surveys and interviews yielded a common desire, particularly among program staff, for greater clarity around Lumina’s vision of equity and concrete tools staff could use to communicate that vision and incorporate it into their work,” the report said.

In June 2014, Lumina announced its new Equity Imperative as part of a book, “The Future of Affirmative Action,” co-funded with The Century Foundation. Putting its ideas into practice didn’t happen immediately, however.

“It took time to figure out what it really meant to embed equity into our work,” Croom said.

The foundation began offering learning opportunities for staff on race and equity and revised its recruiting practices for staff and board members to become more inclusive. New staff were advised about diversity and equity issues, and the employee handbook was updated with new language:

“Lumina’s Equity Imperative undergirds all of our work. The Equity Imperative is Lumina’s commitment to equity and excellence in higher education; it focuses us on closing attainment gaps for Native American, African-American, and Latino students. The evidence is indisputable: We cannot reach (the 2025 goal of 60 percent postsecondary attainment)—or reap the considerable national benefits stemming from that goal—unless significant progress is made to close these gaps…”

The foundation revised its grant application forms to declare an interest in groups committed to the ideas in the Equity Imperative. Ideal partners would show their commitment to racial and ethnic equity in their mission, language, whom they served, and in their own staff and leadership diversity.

At the state level, Lumina encouraged agencies to track more closely how specific groups of students were performing—African-Americans, for example—and then consider what additional services they needed to improve outcomes.

“To elevate the conversation past a group of believers, data are essential,” said Jimmy Clarke of Lumina grantee HCM Strategists. “And how you present the data matters.”

In 2016, as the foundation worked on its next strategic plan, Lumina decided to make equity a priority across the organization, not just among its strategy teams.

“Perceiving that Lumina’s leaders and staff needed more help to develop the competencies needed to talk openly about racial inequities and systemic barriers and embed an equity focus in their work, the executive team brought in external facilitators,” the case study said.

It was challenging work.

“Lumina wasn’t used to having these uncomfortable conversations,” Croom said. “We don’t talk politics or race, so creating spaces for these conversations is important. We need more time to be uncomfortable.”

In its next strategic plan, Lumina adjusted its 2025 goal, a commitment to raising attainment to 60 percent, to include eliminating attainment gaps among African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians. The foundation also updated its Equity Imperative.

As Lumina continued to focus on economic and social justice, it also looked for better ways to explain the work. Kevin Corcoran, strategy director for Lumina’s communications team, said it is a continuing effort.

“A lot of language we and our partners use is not the most inviting language. It reaches people who are already on board but not others who might be more open to arguments about fairness and economic justice,” he said.

“Equity and racial justice sound like zero-sum propositions to people who enjoy a certain amount of privilege now. So, the question is, what is the best way to talk about this to get people talking and challenging their views and assumptions?”

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