In June 2020, when staff members at the organization I lead — the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) — asked me to designate Juneteenth as an office holiday, I said no. As a Black woman committed to advancing racial justice, this decision raised eyebrows and questions. I was six months into my tenure as the brand new Executive Director of one of the largest legal aid organizations in California. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s lives had just started to matter to white people. At the time, I viewed the racial justice discourse with a mix of hope and cynicism.
I told our staff that organizations like ours that are entrenched in eradicating the legacy of slavery had to do better than take performative steps. Juneteenth is a time for a celebration, but it is also time for reflection on Black history — I felt strongly that we could not take the predictable route without being clear on the intentionality behind the choice.
EBCLC was not the only organization contemplating closing for Juneteenth. Large organizations like Nike, Twitter, and the NFL proclaimed that the moment required this type of action. It struck me as ironic that predominantly non-Black organizations were electing to give their predominantly non-Black staff the day off on a holiday honoring Black people’s unpaid labor. Many organizations proudly made Juneteenth announcements with no interrogation as to whether their Black essential workers could take the day off, or even work from home.
It has now been three years since media organizations referred to the massive multiracial street protests, corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion pledges, and shifting consumer patterns as “America’s Racial Reckoning.” In that time, too few organizations have taken any meaningful action beyond closing their office for Juneteenth 2020. From my experience leading an organization committed to advancing racial equity, here are five key lessons for actionable impact:
EBCLC provides direct legal services to clients in areas including eviction, occupational segregation, and small business counseling. Our client work informs our state and local policy advocacy and our clinical legal curriculum. In 2020, we reviewed our internal client demographic data and learned that Black and Latinx women make up the largest constituency of our clients. As we analyzed this information, we also followed national news regarding the role of women of color in pandemic essential work, elections, family health, and movement organizing. With this in mind, we launched our Women of Color Centered Platform with the belief that if we can end disparities women of color face because of race and gender, all communities benefit.
With this platform, which demands immediate release of all incarcerated youth, relief and freedom for undocumented workers, students, and community members, and cancellation of student debt, we publicly stated our values. And in doing so we invited internal and external stakeholders to hold us accountable. We realized that for too long, we described the communities we represent with terms that stripped them of their agency, such as “vulnerable,” “disenfranchised,” and “low income.” Meanwhile, everyday our work showed us that Black and Latinx communities have disparate outcomes because they are “system intended” and “historically excluded.” Inequity experienced by women of color in pay, healthcare, housing, debt and so many other social indicators are not natural or random. They are a direct result of a system designed to extract from them. To change that, we needed to name that directly. Our commitment to narrative change and making the legal system work for women of color required that we make sure organizational language did not undermine their power.
2. An organization-wide strategic screening lays the foundation for a bold policy agenda.
EBCLC has a 35-year history of successfully partnering with grassroots organizations, coalitions and local and state legislators. We have hard-earned credibility. The 2020 Racial Justice Reckoning demanded that we interrogate how we use this power. To this end, we created an internal strategy screen — a set of questions to be used when vetting our work to ensure a proposed policy is mission-aligned and to ensure racial justice permeated our advocacy.
This practice enabled us to communicate, and — in many cases — educate our partners on our implementation of racial justice practice. Every coalition letter, endorsement or legislation sponsorship requires staff members to answer ten questions, including: “What other organizations have signed on to this letter? Are they Women of Color Led? Are they Black led? Are the membership bases of those organizations BIPOC?” and “How will this legislation/policy/or letter impact EBCLC’s primarily women of color clients?” We are honored to collaborate with peers who welcomed this shift and have been open to making changes to proposals in order to achieve EBCLC’s endorsement.
Our strategy screen was critical to key policy wins, including maintaining the longest and strongest eviction moratorium in the country, and advancing economic empowerment for women of color caregivers. It also motivated our decision to host a women of color-centered vaccine clinic where we administered 100 percent of vaccine doses for “hard to reach” populations during the height of the Omicron wave.
3. Equitable leadership structures should be prioritized at all organization levels.
With our 2021 platform, EBCLC proclaimed our goal to take an asset-based approach to women of color, and to recognize their leadership in institution and system transformation. While we had a strong sense of who our clients were, we still needed to learn about our Board and staff. In 2020, we established a mandatory annual demographic survey for staff and our Board of Directors. While EBCLC has a proud history of women of color executive directors, our Board had never had a woman as Board Chair. After our first demographic study, our Board and staff conducted a review of our governance practices through an equity lens. We used the results to realign with our bylaws, and the Board created an environment to elect a Black woman chair — a first in both race and gender.
Moreover, we recognized that leadership takes place at all levels of the organization. We began asking all job applicants — from attorneys to administrative staff to fundraisers — about their commitment to racial justice. We aim for law students in our clinical programs to be future judges, politicians, and nonprofit leaders, so it’s imperative we foster and grow their understanding of racial and gender justice from this nascent moment in their careers. During their time with us, we focus on engaging them on how their lived and professional experience will advance EBCLC’s women of color centered vision.
4. Partner with staff to examine and strengthen organizational compensation policies.
While many organizations were resistant to unionization, EBCLC proudly finalized our first collective bargaining agreement amidst an ongoing national discourse on valuing the dignity of workers. The annual demographic survey helped us learn about inequities in job classifications and salary scales and informed our approach to setting fair wages. In our agreement, we prioritized a robust compensation package, which included a $50,000 salary floor, a 25 percent increase for entry level staff. One of our team members went viral for tweeting about her $14,000 raise and attributed it to the power of unions. This collective victory was also a direct result of values alignment between management and staff — it may sound trite, but there is tremendous value in practicing what you preach and a marked lack of actually doing so in the nonprofit space. After we had laid a strong foundation for data- and values-informed compensation structures, we then hired the organization’s first chief people and culture officer. With this addition, we ensured that the responsibility to create and implement equitable workplace protocol will start at the executive level.
5. To advance racial equity, you must attract and build new partnerships.
On Juneteenth 2020, instead of merely designating a holiday, I provided all EBCLC staff members administrative leave for the purpose of “reflecting on Black Liberation in a meaningful, substantive way.” For many staff, this meant participating in the Movement for Black Lives planned work stoppage at the Port of Oakland. It still amounts to a day off, but our staff knew the reasoning behind it was thoughtful and not lip service.
In 2021, following President Biden’s designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, our organization also adopted it. In addition, we hosted a conversation on Black women’s leadership. On Juneteenth 2022, as a result of a new partnership with Indeed.com, we distributed free laptops and hotspots to our formerly incarcerated clients. This year, in partnership with the Berkeley Juneteenth festival, EBCLC hosted its first Juneteenth Block Party — providing free legal advice, know your rights workshops, and community programming centered on Black Freedom. We also held a conversation with the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, which recently launched its Endeavor Fund to close the racial and gender wealth gap and selected us as a partner in this critical work. All of these partnerships — representative of corporate, community, and philanthropy — underscore that the 2020 Racial Reckoning was a call to action and not just a moment in time.
Because we value sustainability over symbolic gestures, EBCLC’s racial justice practice has progressed the organization: we infused racial equity within policy advocacy and human resources, we found strength in being accountable to our public commitments, and set up structures to ensure we move forward, not backward, in the necessary effort to dismantle the policing and carceral systems that impose disproportionate harm to communities of color. We are looking ahead to the looming presidential election and prepared to continue to fight with authenticity and expertise. In 2023, all organizations should reckon with their Juneteenth 2020 statements and actions. By evolving our goals and publicly accounting for progress — and setbacks —we can all do the work of building a country that finally works for all.
Zoe Polk is executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center.