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Supporting professionals of color in the community development field should be a top priority

April 19th, 2019 by Beyazmin Jimenez

MACDC President Joe Kriesberg and MassHousing’s Executive Director Chrystal Kornegay joined in a dialogue with students from the Institute for Nonprofit Practice to kick off a conversation on ways to increase the hiring, engagement, and retention of professionals of color in the community development and planning field. The conversation was prompted through a new partnership between the Institute for Nonprofit Practice and Santander Bank in which Santander underwrote 6 fully funded fellowships for community development professionals of color to attend the Institute for Nonprofit Practice’s Core Certificate program. The intensive year-long program equips leaders in the nonprofit sector with skills, knowledge, and networks they need to make strategic, mission-driven decisions.

The six Santander Fellows- Angie Liou, Executive Director of Asian CDC, Beyazmin Jimenez, Resident and Civic Engagement Manager at Madison Park Development Corp., Carlos Espinoza, Small Business Program Director at Jamaica Plain NDC, Katherine Martinez, Executive Director at Lena Park CDC, Dava Mallebranche, Program Representative at Metro Housing Boston, and Jason Boyd, Director of Community Organizing at Codman Square CDC- have embarked on a year-long program with the Institute and have dedicated time to exploring ways to better serve other professionals of color in the community development field.

Early on, the challenges identified by the cohort related to the need for more intentional hiring practices. Born out of the civil rights era, at a time when our federal government had begun to dramatically reduce its support of local jurisdictions, community development organizations emerged as a response to better serve the needs of residents around housing and civic engagement efforts. More than forty years later, the field of community development has expanded and grown into a large industry producing billions in revenue nationwide. With affordable housing development at its core, community development organizations have reached a crossroads here in Massachusetts where housing prices continue to skyrocket.

While many CDC’s continue to offer an array of services from small business support to homeownership counseling, real estate development remains the key source of revenue for most. Fellows identified that a key path to promotion and growth within CDC’s skewed towards real estate and project management roles, yet many of these opportunities are highly competitive and remain in the hands of mostly White candidates. In order to meet the needs and demands of our real estate development work, CDC’s need to engage in hiring practices that promote skill development opportunities for those looking to enter the field. Offering opportunities to local candidates with roots in their community, graduates from community colleges, and hiring residents with organizing backgrounds is much less common than before.

As the CDC field has grown, so has the hiring requirements for entering the field. It is not uncommon to see a job for a role at a CDC that requires a Master’s or Bachelor’s level of education mimicking the competitive skills level of the Greater Boston area and most of the state. Indeed, local universities have responded to the skills demand - Umass Boston just announced a new graduate program for Urban Planning and Community Development. Fellows feared that the shift for high-level skills would threaten CDC’s authenticity and proximity to the communities they serve. Many also questioned whether the demand for extended education relied more on risk aversion from CDC and Board leaders under pressure to hire the “right candidate”. All agreed on an emphasis on hiring practices that better reflected the commitment to diversity and inclusion.

An opportunity that may be open for exploration is developing partnerships with area universities and colleges to recruit graduates into the field of community development. CDC’s are encouraged to identify ways to tap into the vast amount of resources available at local colleges and find ways to engage candidates interested in beginning a career in community development. At the same time, there is value in finding space and resources for candidates with less traditional educational experiences who support the mission of our work and who hold ground in the communities where our work takes place. An emphasis on the "right candidate" may garner the same age-old results and limit the potential of those who are ready to take on the job but are seen as “less competitive” due to their different life experiences. Understanding racial and gender bias and how it manifests in our hiring practices is a necessary key component for board leaders and hiring managers in all our organizations.

The Fellows also expressed a need for intentional mentors and sponsors that would help identify professional opportunities and could make key introductions to enhance their leadership capacity. The need to support the advancement of professionals of color relies on establishing a known network of peers who can share experiences of workplace matters. Navigating the politics of an organization can be crucial to gaining access and having the necessary support from peers, managers, and other leaders can help professionals of color feel included and valued. The work does not end by simply hiring a person of color - intentional outreach, mentorship, and access to opportunity are key to ensuring professionals of color are viewed as a valuable resource to the organization. Executives, managers, and board members need to listen, share, and expand their privilege and social capital to better promote the ideas of people of color within their organizations. Recognizing the power dynamics that exist due to White privilege and class, we can recognize the need for more intentional focus on developing the professional pursuits of minority candidates. Finding time and dedicating organizational resources to ensuring the advancement of professionals of color should be a top priority for all CDC’s.

During our meeting with MACDC’s President and MassHousing’s Executive Director, the leaders expressed their own reflections on the future of the field. Joe Kriesberg shared his ability to navigate his career fresh out of law school and pondered on not seeing the value of keeping his network of colleagues as a source of support; he shared his admiration for the Fellows’ outlook in investing in their personal brand and developing their skills set to meet the demands of their work. A gem shared from Chrystal Kornegay relied on asking for what you want and need and not shying away from executive opportunities due to a perceived lack of experience. Indeed, Fellow Katherine Martinez shared her own career trajectory beginning as an executive assistant at her organization and rising to an executive director position. Kornegay expressed the imperative of understanding the business side of running a nonprofit; she urged the Fellows and their peers to seek professional development opportunities that cultivated these skills like financial courses and diving into the real estate business lines of the organization. Finally, the Fellows chatted about the needs of social settings that allowed for ideas to flow and establish camaraderie. Fellows envisioned growing their networks beyond the professional into a hub of creatives and rising leaders who could work together on larger issues across Greater Boston and beyond.

Our CDC’s are at a critical turning point as more long-standing leaders begin to transition out of leadership roles leaving a space and opportunity to rethink how we want our organizations to thrive into the future. Investing in professionals of color and promoting equity is a sure way to focus our attention on the changing landscape before us and will prepare our organizations for the challenges we still face.

For professionals of color in our field, we offer the following:

  • Get involved on the Board level - Boards of Directors have hiring power and determine key directions for nonprofit organizations. The skills gained as a board member can translate into job opportunities and the expansion of your professional network.
  • You are a leader now - Identify your personal skills and begin working on your personal brand. You do not need to wait to become an executive director to recognize your leadership potential. We all carry unique identities and lived experiences that are beneficial to the growth of our organizations.
  • Find your tribe - Establish a network of peers that can help support your professional growth and with whom you can share ideas. Your network does not need to only consist of high-level executives. Often, your peers can offer a blanket of support and encouragement to help you navigate your career.
  • Invest in your professional development - Training opportunities through the Mel King Institute course offerings and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice management programs can be beneficial in expanding your skill set and networks, and prepare you for the next level in your career.

Special Thank you to: Pat Kirby, Audrey Gillis, and Nate Bae Kupel at Institute for Nonprofit Practice, Joe Kriesberg and Shirronda Almeida at MACDC, Chrystal Kornegay at MassHousing, Santander Bank and all the Santander Fellows at Institute for Nonprofit Practice

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