Opinion: How the development sector can truly diversify its pool of talent

A collaboration workshop for Hispanic-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities. Photo by: Oak Ridge National Laboratory / CC BY

It is widely recognized that the development and humanitarian sector struggles to attract racially diverse talent. Many organizations recruit from the same schools and networks that lack significant racial and ethnic diversity, overlooking a pool of highly skilled, diverse talent thriving in the U.S. at historically black colleges and universities, commonly referred to as HBCUs.

In conversations with industry professionals, it is often surprising how few are familiar with these institutions, including those who work specifically on diversity and inclusion. But these schools have historical importance in both American history and global affairs, with stories that are not often told.

A pivotal role

HBCUs have been pivotal in creating educational opportunities for people of African descent both in the U.S. and abroad, including notable and transformative leaders: the first prime minister and president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah; Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria; Ambassador Ruth Davis; former USAID acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham; and Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few.

Education for slaves was often illegal and practically nonexistent in the U.S. before the Civil War, and while education was not outlawed for freed blacks, many were prevented from attaining public education. Only a few individuals, such as Frederick Douglass, attained higher education; the vast majority faced great personal danger in studying while others were remarkably self-taught. Despite racist anti-literacy laws in the South, HBCUs were originally started in church basements, homes, and old schoolhouses.

The first HBCUs, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and Lincoln University, opened more than 150 years ago; today, there are over 100 HBCUs across the country, boasting a consolidated population of nearly 300,000 students. Presently, HBCUs enroll roughly 15% of degree-seeking black undergraduates and 20% of first-generation college students who are black, and they graduate roughly 25% of all U.S. black graduates — despite comprising just 3% of U.S. colleges and universities.

These institutions have made continuous strides to promote racial diversity. In addition to educating the largest percentage of black and African diaspora students in the U.S., HBCUs have increased their enrollment of Latino, Asian, and white students to roughly 20% of the student population, on average, making them the most racially diverse institutions in the country. Not only are HBCUs racially and ethnically diverse, but they provide access to higher education for low-income communities.

Create opportunities to diversify the development sector

A 2017 study revealed that HBCUs provide access to higher education to students who would likely be denied at non-HBCUs. About half of HBCUs have a freshmen class in which three-quarters of students come from low-income backgrounds, whereas only 1% of non-HBCUs have that many.

Bringing the life experiences of low-income, marginalized communities in the U.S. to partner with similar communities overseas is transformational and can help empower people who have overcome financial hardship to co-create solutions to end poverty — human-centered design at its finest.

So, could the development sector better invest and cultivate diverse talent pipelines through partnerships with these institutions?

To increase access to the field, organizations should create opportunities that address the critical barriers of exposure, access, knowledge, resources, and inclusion.

Here are three starting points for addressing these barriers:

1. Design HBCU pathway programs. Start with internships. Retool your internship program to develop a specific track for HBCU students by partnering with HBCU career services and study abroad offices. Contact career services and tap into your employees, board members, and other networks to foster relationships. Also consider:

  • Resources and allowances. Allocate resources for payment and living stipends, transportation, and housing, as many diverse students are unable to participate in unpaid internships.

  • Degree programs and majors offered at HBCUs. Not many have programs in international affairs or development, and the graduate programs are mainly concentrated in the medical, education, and science fields. Mapping majors to the types of jobs and subsectors will help target talent.

  • Engagement. Participate in and host events on campus. Attend conferences, career fairs, and other events to meet students and increase awareness.

2. Modernize job descriptions. Rethink job requirements. Job descriptions have a major impact on diversifying recruitment. Junior home office positions often require a master’s degree in international affairs and two years of international experience, with the Peace Corps preferred. Diverse applicants possess the skills, determination, and enthusiasm needed to perform but lack experience overseas. Develop realistic job descriptions based on functions. Financial barriers constrain low- and middle-income students from participating in international experiences. Making this a preferred requirement for entry-level positions excludes many diverse and capable applicants.

3. Give opportunities a face-lift. Humanitarian assistance and development are often associated with mission or charity work. They are often pervaded by the idea that only the wealthy can afford to do this work or that “you will be poor to serve the poor.” Understanding the socioeconomic backgrounds of many communities of color is vital. Host more engagement events with HBCUs, primary education institutions, local governments, and community-based organizations to raise awareness of the industry and change the narrative of its work from poverty to prosperity. This can be a team effort and undertaken within the various industry associations.

To attract HBCU students — and diverse talent in general — organizations will need to promote and model a culture of equity and inclusion. The lack of diversity is not the root problem; it is an outcome of inequity and exclusion. Following the end of Black History Month, let’s continue to model equity and inclusion to fulfill the legacy of civil rights leaders who sacrificed for our freedom.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • DeJuana Coleman

    DeJuana Coleman is a graduate of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, where she majored in cellular and molecular biology. She is currently completing a Master of Science in clinical and translational research with a concentration in health services and community engagement at Georgetown University. She aspires to become a physician and clinical researcher to provide medical care and address health disparities within marginalized communities.
  • Jamila White

    Jamila is the senior Africa representative for Mercy Corps. Mercy Corps is a global team of humanitarians who partner with communities, corporations, and governments to transform lives around the world by alleviating suffering, poverty, and oppression to help people build secure, productive, and just communities. Jamila helps drive implementation of Mercy Corps Africa’s strategy and co-chairs Mercy Corps' Washington, D.C.-based affinity group for people of color.