Building an Anti-racist, Anti-sexist Institution

By Stephen Heintz, President and CEO, and Mark Adiedo, Vice President for People and Culture/Chief Diversity Officer

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund started its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts with a staff working group in 2008, the year America elected its first Black president. Those efforts reached an inflection point more than a decade later as staff grappled with life under his successor, a president who openly endorsed racist policies and condoned sexual misconduct.

The RBF’s journey toward racial and gender equity is inseparable from the legacy of enslavement and persistent racism that began 400 years ago when white men first brought enslaved Africans to America in 1619. During the intervening centuries, there have been periods of hard-won progress achieved through a bloody civil war, amendments to the Constitution, legislation, judicial battles, community organizing, and the unrelenting foresight and leadership of Black Americans. But progress has too often been followed by stasis or even regression. Today, many of our institutions, including workplaces, continue to perpetuate white supremacist and patriarchal practices and structures.

For this reason, the RBF is committed to becoming an anti-racist and anti-sexist organization by taking proactive and inclusive steps to achieve gender and racial equity internally. This is not only a moral imperative but central to effectively realizing our mission of a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world.

Over the last 12 years, we have worked to become a more diverse organization. Today, women and people of color comprise 73 and 46 percent of staff, respectively. Nevertheless, we still have a considerable distance to go to realize our vision of a truly inclusive and equitable organization.

The RBF is not immune to racism and sexism. An institution-wide equity audit in 2020 revealed that, while more than 70 percent of our staff report feeling a sense of belonging at the RBF, more than half also report experiencing microaggressions or other forms of bias at work. The audit made visible realities that for too long have been invisible or overlooked in our predominantly white patriarchal culture. As a result, we are working to identify and undo the vestiges of white supremacy and patriarchy while honoring each person’s lived experiences. We are continually working to build a new organizational culture that promotes equity and inclusion, and intentionally centers the needs of colleagues, trustees, and partners who are people of color, women, and gender nonconforming.

As the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities became apparent and police and vigilante killings of Black Americans including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and many others sparked protests this spring, the RBF increased our grantmaking to support Black-led movements and organizations working to dismantle structural racism in America. We also prioritized internal learning and development efforts around bias, microaggression, and dominant culture to begin disrupting and dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy. We began meeting in race-based affinity groups to undertake focused and differentiated learning aimed at individual growth and institutional transformation. Staff have also had the opportunity to participate in one-on-one coaching on race and gender dynamics.

We are working to decentralize, share, and leverage power throughout the RBF to promote race and gender equity. In the process, we are prioritizing the creation of psychologically brave spaces that will allow for in-depth and transformative dialogue where we can interrogate and continue to dismantle white supremacy and patriarchal structures. We are refreshing our management and leadership approaches to align with the needs of a race- and gender-equitable workplace. Our board is learning alongside staff and focusing on building accountability structures for leadership efforts that are critical for this institutional transformation.

This is demanding and deeply personal work, and yet, it is not optional if we are to become an anti-racist and anti-sexist institution. We have shifted from seeing DEI efforts as additional work to seeing it as the paradigm that shapes how we work.

At our November board meeting, the RBF Board of Trustees approved a new statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that acknowledges our personal and institutional roles in the history of oppression that we are seeking to dismantle. It details the actions we must take to become an anti-racist, anti-sexist institution and to uphold equity across all aspects of the RBF and the Pocantico Center, including human resources, programs, grantmaking, investments, and operations.

The RBF’s journey is ongoing, and over the past twelve years, we have seen important progress. Nevertheless, we know that to realize our vision of becoming an anti-racist and anti-sexist institution where staff, trustees, and partners—particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, and gender nonconforming—feel a deeper sense of belonging, we have more work to do.