Putting Equity at the Center of our Organizational Culture

Natural Investments as a firm has been on its own path of social justice since it began. It’s the core of our mission. And yet in the area of racial equity, we know there is much more that we can and want to accomplish.

Our natural focus is external, in that we are always looking for ways to help clients invest in systems change. But for the past few years, our firm’s rapid growth and circumstances in the bigger world have called on us to look inward—particularly when it comes to racial and gender equity.

When Tiffany Brown and Kate Poole, who work under the name Chordata Capital, joined the firm in 2019, they brought with them an intentional culture of practice around how they work, as well as a deep commitment to their mission of racial and economic justice. They were a catalyst for the rest of the firm to look at ourselves with fresh eyes, see how we might improve our internal culture, and expand the ways we help clients reflect their values of racial and economic justice through investing.

While Natural Investments is certainly a progressive practice, we still work within an industry where, according to the Certified Financial Planning Board, only 1.68% of CFPs are Black and 2.46% are Latinx. And this only speaks to the numbers. The culture of the industry was created by and is still dominated by white, patriarchal capitalism. Despite the progressive values our advisors share, we can’t help but be influenced by the broader culture of the industry. In the summer of 2020, as people marched night after night in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon, to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and scores of other people of color killed in recent years by police around the country, several advisors within our firm committed to deepening our learning by participating in The Adaway Group’s Whiteness at Work training.

Desiree Adaway, Ericka Hines, and Jessica Fish are well known for their work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). They’ve offered Whiteness at Work for a number of years, along with other trainings like Freedom School and consulting services for a range of businesses and organizations.

“Humble and ready to fumble.” Ericka Hines, Equity In The Center

Whiteness at Work is a program with four one-hour training modules that provide education, dynamic activities, and resources to deepen learning and growth in the areas of diversity, racial equity, and inclusion (DEI). The content lays out a conceptual foundation and a common language for key DEI themes, including characteristics of social identities, characteristics of white dominant culture, the cumulative harm of microaggressions, types of power, intent vs. impact, and varying forms of racism.

From the start, the training created a space for each of us to take imperfect actions, by which we could learn and grow. Desiree’s rallying cry of “Let’s get free, y’all” energized and reinforced our sense of purpose during a year when many of us were feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic and its economic and social consequences, ongoing police brutality against people of color, and tumultuous presidential campaign.

After each training module, we gathered for debriefing sessions, which were personally meaningful for many of us because they shed light on areas where we need to bring more focus and growth, like our internal communications. We learned that some of our processes that worked well when we were a smaller firm are less effective now that we’ve grown. The training showed us how important it is to be intentional about how we create an organizational culture that is truly reflective of our values of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

One of the most striking elements of the training was the trajectory of awareness, which began with a personal focus and then guided us in exploring the various forms of privilege and power that each of us may hold (individually and within the group). We were then introduced to the “Awake to Woke to Work” model, a framework for building a race equity culture developed by a DEI company called Equity in the Center. We were drawn to the goal of race equity as defined by the center: “the condition where one’s race identity has no influence on how one fares in society.”

My takeaways were many, but key highlights from the experience were:

  1. Forming deeper bonds with my colleagues as we shared this powerful and vulnerable experience together;
  2. Gaining an awareness that we each bring our own ‘backpack’ of assumptions, work experiences, and cultural/social experiences to the firm;
  3. Learning that my experience of our firm’s culture has been based on unspoken assumptions about what is valued within an investment firm—and that capitalism, patriarchy, and racism define the default culture unless we proactively are working to create a different culture;
  4. Learning about Dr. Barbara J. Love’s “Liberatory Consciousness Model”—foundational to The Adaway Group’s approach and teaching—which has four stages of movement toward liberatory consciousness: awareness, analysis, action, accountability-allyship. As we learned about the model, many of us in the training gained new insight when considering how important it is to spend time developing awareness of the issue(s) and then an analysis of the problems and solutions before jumping into action. This framing was helpful for those of us at the firm who, because of our social justice activist reflexes and the pace of current work and life in general, might not otherwise take time to develop awareness and analysis before jumping into action.

As of January 2021, six Natural Investments partners and 11 additional advisors have undertaken the Whiteness at Work training and participated in debrief sessions with our colleagues. We gained a valuable new understanding and agreed that we wanted to work with Ericka Hines’ DEI consulting firm, Every Level Leadership, to support us as we move forward on the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion goals we created together at our annual retreat in October 2020. We started working with Ericka and Every Level Leadership in March.

All of this was grounded by the training experience provided in the Whiteness at Work training, which we highly recommend for companies and nonprofits alike seeking to build a strong foundation for a workplace that is not only diverse, but equitable and inclusive. Our own work will continue, as DEI transformation must be an ongoing effort, and we are grateful for the support of our experienced colleagues for skillfully guiding us forward.

If you would like to learn more about Whiteness at Work:

Whiteness at Work (projected to be offered again Summer 2021)

The Adaway Group

Ericka Hines, Principal, Every Level Leadership and Founder of Black Womxn Thriving

Equity in the Center and the Awake to Woke to Work model: Building a Race Equity Culture


Graphic: The Race Equity Cycle by Equity in the Center

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