Opinion: Demonstrating leadership for racial equality in development

A health worker using OpenMRS, a digital medical records system launched through Chemonics’ USAID-funded Rwanda Family Health Project. Photo by: Chemonics

It’s clear that the United States, along with countries around the world, is reckoning with systems of racial inequality. Chemonics and many other organizations in and outside of the development community are examining and taking action to uproot racism in their headquarters, through their processes, and in the communities in which we live and work across the globe.

As an African-American woman and as a member of Chemonics’ senior leadership team, I feel compelled to reflect deeply and act thoughtfully to shepherd change. With four decades of development work experience in West Africa, I’ve lived and raised my children on both sides of the Atlantic. I understand that the distinct racial challenges that the U.S. faces don’t always look the same or fully resonate with our colleagues and partners in other parts of the globe.

Yet, despite sociocultural differences, I’m reminded of one lesson that applies to diversity, inclusion, and equality efforts regardless of the sector or the geographical location, and one that is particularly fitting for the development community: Cultural differences should be celebrated as an asset to strengthen our work and make our outcomes more equitable, far-reaching, and sustainable. This idea isn’t new. However, in times of change and conflict, it can be easy to forget — but it’s definitely worth remembering.

Diverse teams bring together people with a broader range of skills and innovative ideas to address the complex challenges we face at the project level. And we need more people who look like the people we serve. For example, who in the U.S. has encountered the kinds of challenges we work on in development more than the Black community, Indigenous populations, people of color, and other marginalized groups? Too often, members of these populations face barriers to economic growth, legal and social justice, quality health services, and social inclusion — or their communities bear the brunt of environmental degradation, neglected infrastructure, and inaccessible municipal services.

Cultural differences should be celebrated as an asset to strengthen our work and make our outcomes more equitable, far-reaching, and sustainable.

These life experiences — along with the skills, education, talent, and expertise our BIPOC colleagues also bring — can help our organizations identify and address problems that others might miss. This idea applies to those who sit in our headquarters offices and those we engage in communities around the world. Understanding that each of us brings valuable, enriching perspectives and experiences will allow us to respectfully meet all people as cultural equals, rather than simply as supervisees or “beneficiaries.”

This kind of cultural insight is essential to good development work. For example, the rule of law is a straightforward concept, but establishing the rule of law in post-conflict countries such as Bosnia or Rwanda requires navigating the distinct historical and cultural context in each country. In Bosnia, it’s important to understand the history of the six Balkan states that became republics within Yugoslavia, their multiethnic and religious mix, and desire for independence.

In Rwanda, understanding the underlying cause of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and their ability to overcome its legacy requires us to learn about colonialism’s historical and ongoing impact and the commonalities of culture, tradition, and language.

Watch: Anti-racism in hiring — putting policies into practice

In this online event, experts from the sector discuss why some employers are still lagging behind when it comes to tackling racism in the workplace and share initial steps they should take.

While practitioners could gain this knowledge, we know that hiring, listening to, and partnering with those who have actually lived and breathed the cultures and regions with these experiences and legacies will offer a deeper and more nuanced understanding for doing development work thoughtfully, effectively, and equitably.

Of course, creating an environment that welcomes cultural difference and fosters diversity and inclusion, or D&I, requires strong, thoughtful leadership. In my experience, leaders who want to bring positive change to the development sector should focus on four fundamental goals:

1. Bringing new voices into the discussion

Often, the voices needed most aren’t genuinely heard, including younger voices within an organization, or in the case of development, voices from the communities we serve. It is particularly important for senior leaders to hear from a broader spectrum of people within the organization.

Too often, the higher you go, the less you know about the true perspective of your employees. Be open and willing to learn from anyone.

At Chemonics, the various segments of our D&I work have representatives from leadership, including myself, as well as colleagues from multiple departments and position levels across the company.

These voices ensure our diversity work is informed, remains relevant, and meets the needs of our colleagues. But new voices also means reaching outside of our company and even our sector to make progress in the communities in which we live and work.

While we already have partnerships with institutions such as Howard University and Gallaudet University, we aspire to continue that effort in other meaningful ways. Partnering with and supporting voices that have been immersed in racial justice work longer and more deeply than your organization may strengthen your learning and give your efforts more reach.

2. Creating a safe space for belonging

If employees feel stifled, discounted, and unable to be their authentic selves, they won’t contribute their valuable perspectives. BIPOC employees — particularly those who aren’t in positions of power in the organization — may often suffer in silence. Meanwhile, others may feel under attack, which could make them less likely to examine their own attitudes and behavior, or the need for change.

Addressing the need for change should never be about blame, shame, or guilt; those feelings often distract from the real work of restoring common humanity and moving toward greater equality.

At Chemonics, we have established coffee circles, town halls, and listening sessions for our colleagues to share experiences and raise concerns, including spaces in which our Black colleagues could connect safely and supportively with one another in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police and renewed national attention to police brutality.

Earlier this summer, our CEO Jamey Butcher launched the Standing Committee for Racial Equality, which collaborates with our existing Diversity and Inclusion Council to center the experiences of the Black community — as well as Indigenous persons and people of color — to identify actionable, sustainable approaches to improving staff care, increasing engagement and learning, tackling systemic and institutional barriers, and supporting community outreach and activism within the communities in which we live and work.

As a part of this work, we conducted “strategy labs” in which colleagues responded to the standing committee’s recommendations and draft work plan for strengthening racial inclusivity and equality in our company and communities.

3. Encouraging difficult dialogues

Creating safe spaces for expression does not mean avoiding conflict. Confronting racism, unconscious bias, and injustice is never easy. It’s a natural source of friction, discomfort, and tension.

Discussing it honestly and openly can be emotionally draining. That's OK. People need time to dissect the issues, reflect on their interactions with colleagues, and find a way forward.

This includes leadership. Good leaders have a thick skin. Part of being a leader is accepting feedback, learning from others, and using that learning to grow and change when necessary.

4. Demonstrating consistency through action

Building a corporate culture of D&I takes time. CitiBank, for instance, has pledged $1 billion to decrease the racial wealth gap in the U.S. and has stated a commitment to D&I by strengthening its company policies.

Similarly, Chemonics is making a $10 million commitment to D&I efforts over the next three years. These ambitious commitments — like all fundamental and sustainable change — cannot occur overnight. It starts with establishing clear goals and a timeline for action — in our case, an initial three-year focus, knowing our overall D&I journey will be longer.

Then, we must stick to that commitment and consistently update staff regularly on progress. Part of this step involves managing expectations among your colleagues — whether in the headquarters or in project offices — which is extremely important. Build trust by communicating clearly and often to staff, even if you have only taken small steps or have hit roadblocks.

People often choose a career in development because they want to make the world a better place. A diverse and inclusive corporate culture serves that sense of purpose by allowing people to apply their gifts and talents toward a common mission.

Creating that culture is hard work, but, like the work we do in countries around the world, it's worth the effort.

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

About the author

  • Victoria Cooper

    Victoria Cooper is currently the senior vice president of Chemonics’ East and Southern Africa regional business unit. Cooper is a proven public policy and administration expert with more than 30 years of experience designing and managing complex development projects in Africa for USAID, DFID, and the World Bank.