WHY I AM NOT A CULTURE FIT (AND WHY I AM OK WITH THAT)
Chapter Leadership Brief 04.07.2023
By Jonah Nigh
Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Engagement
The New School
“Oh! You were the diversity hire!”
“Do you speak Mandarin?” (Spoiler alert: I do not. I am Korean and Japanese and adopted by a Russian Jew and a Texan.)
“Just so you know, I am not homophobic.”
“He’s exotic.” (Last spoiler alert: I grew up in Minnesota. It was not exotic.)
Not to get into a Misery Olympics with my fellow fundraisers out there, but I could go on and yes, these are pulled from real life moments throughout my 18 years in the business. And this is why the word “inclusion” does not give me the warm-fuzzies. Let me explain.
A couple of months ago I was on a panel at CASE presented by Aspen Leadership Group, where I was asked, “What does inclusion mean to you?” I appreciated the question because this word–along with belonging, diversity, and equity–has been thrown around casually in the last few years. In fact, *82% of higher education institutions released statements after George Floyd’s murder, but 70% of statements with action items did not include measures of success, rendering them equivalent to a weak New Year’s resolution akin to “I will lose weight...some year.”
This is why I don’t trust DEI statements or organizations that are enthralled with their status quo; I trust actions. I want to see values, not hear or read about them on a website’s very bold and very hyperlinked diversity page.
Every institution has to decide what these words mean as they relate to their specific context and, to go a step further, I believe every person in a leadership role has the responsibility to decide what these words mean on a personal level, recognize their positionality, and actively operationalize them. This will require standing in your personal principles, thinking critically, and making hard decisions daily.
At The New School, diversity is a fact, equity is a choice, inclusion is an action, and belonging is a result. As a rare leader of color in our field, I think a lot about the fact that **83% of frontliners are white. I see inclusivity not as a warm and fuzzy come-one-come-all idea but through a more assertive lens–as an imperative to make a pathway for people of color. By pathway I do not just mean a seat at the table; I mean a voice, budget, and position of power. (Not incidentally, diversity in the driver’s seat attracts more diverse candidates for those who continue to blame the fake adversary known as “Weak Candidate Pool”).
I am as guilty of the field’s learned helplessness as anyone. When I was in my 20’s, I was once at a meeting of about 100 fundraisers. There was one other Asian person, and she and I clung together fast and assured ourselves the field would be more diverse in half a generation. Now in my 40’s, we have data to prove it isn’t.
But the good news is that we also have data and strategies to take this on, should we choose to avail ourselves of them. We know all too well what the barriers are: JDs that discourage out-of-industry talent, referrals from known networks, bias while screening resumes, microaggressions from hiring committees, racist workplaces, lack of career advancement, among other issues that are in plain sight. Do we have the grit to take these roadblocks on, or will we continue to be satisfied with Instagram-deep efforts?
I am hoping this is the beginning of a conversation that I can have with those of you who are as determined as I am to do this work. I can be reached directly at email@example.com, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. In the meantime, I want to thank all of you who have advanced a culture of equity, inclusion, and social justice both at work and in your communities.
*Source: University of Redlands announcement; “What has higher education promised on anti-racism in 2020 and is it enough?” EAB; Advancement Forum Interviews and Analysis.
**Source: Data USA; Advancement forum interviews and analysis.