In this month’s storyletter, we sit down with Mala Nagarajan, Senior HR Consultant at Vega Mala Nagarajan and Richael Faithful, a southern Black trans-radical lawyer, organization strategist, and traditional folk healer. During our conversation, they illuminated what donors need to know to fund more equitably, why it’s necessary to get HR right for social justice organizations, and how to shift our frames of thinking about the value of human labor.  

photo of protestor holding up a sign reading "history has its eyes on you"

Why begin at Human Resources? (and not, say, recruitment?) How do you see the connection between HR & equity? Reparations? 

MALA: People, after all, do the work of organizations and movements. So it feels natural to start at human resources management (HR). HR as I see it starts from understanding where an organization is in relation to other movement organizations. Understanding the organization’s context helps us hire the right people and make their tenure successful. Given that the median employee tenures are short, it behooves us to invest in our people as an investment into the movement, rather than only for the benefit of our organization. Movement folks are in community with each other, and former staff are the best ambassadors for recruiting new staff and donors, advocating for our mission beyond our organizational borders, and becoming our future leaders. In other words, supporting staff to succeed at our organizations and preparing them to succeed when they move on is how we win.

In terms of equity, HR can operationalize equity throughout the organization, at all stages of a worker’s life cycle. From the outset with position creation, we can make positions have manageable expectations and workloads, and at the end we can conduct exit interviews when someone leaves to examine turnover trends. We can make sure recruitment efforts are wide-reaching to garner more diverse candidates; we can make sure supervisors are trained early so that they are aware of their biases, use their power responsibly, and adhere to organizational and legal supervisory standards. We can connect new hires with people who share similar identities. We can make sure policies are based on employee input and administered in an equitable way. We can develop effective performance alignment processes that minimize the impact of biases; and we can ensure our compensation and benefits are equitable, not just equal. 

In terms of reparations, let me start by saying that any HR professional has a legal and ethical obligation to abide by the law, ensure employers comply with anti-discriminatory policies, and alert employers to potential risks of any practice it adopts. Second, when I talk about reparations, I’m talking about interpersonal reparations and community reparations (these concepts I learned about from Aaron Goggins and kuwa jasiri indomela respectively), not big-R Reparations, the kind owed by the government for its historic atrocities.

Third, according to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study, closing the income gap is the fastest way to close the racial and gender wealth gap. Employers have control over income. For organizations committed to racial, social, and economic justice, it follows that they will strive to center people most adversely impacted, disenfranchised, disinvested, and disadvantaged by the issues and conditions the organization is seeking to change. And the people centered should be paid for contributing that knowledge and experience to the organization, not be exploited to the organization’s advantage. 

Lastly, the social justice sector is not without its biases and inequities. Take for example: the disparate impact of ED hiring practices: as ED salary increases, you see a higher percentage of white men or white women hired for those positions, even though there are qualified Black and Brown people interested in advancing. Another example is the inequities of percentage-based benefits and matching benefits (COLAs, % merit pay, % retirement matches). Take COLAs: given an average 3% COLA over 15 years, a person starting at $50K will make close to $28K in salary increases, but a person starting at $100K will make almost $56K in salary increases—in other words, the income disparity widens over time. There’s a disparate impact on Black and Brown employees who disproportionately occupy lower-paid positions in an organization. Plus, because lower-paid employees don’t have disposable income to contribute to retirement, more of the organization’s retirement matches go to higher-paid staff. These kinds of policies actively increase the racial wealth gap. It’s incumbent on HR to identify inequitable policies and make repairs, not wait until the organization is taken to court.

RICHAEL: That was great, Mala. … I don’t feel super confident about waiting for reparative justice from corporations or any level of government. … I understand the limitations; this is one of the many, many critiques I had as a lawyer, of using mechanisms like the law and policy to force people to do that on a reasonable timeline and not without huge concessions … Again, to me, this is about values alignment. If you do racial justice work, your money has to follow. To me this is a matter of credibility. 

I don’t understand if we already acknowledge historical discrimination, if we understand that the income and wealth gaps are reinforced by and reified from each other, and if we just know all the other many dynamics that force particularly marginalized folks and people of color out of their jobs, into underemployed, to be overworked, who are underpaid – how can we not have correctives that actually speak to those realities? We still just default to the market rate, because that feels fair. It doesn’t square for me. At least we have that analysis. I understand the rationale for people who don’t have that analysis, but for those of us who claim to be in racial justice work, I really don’t know how we can be complacent. 

What are 1-2 learning edges for the racial justice field you are seeing in your work? How have you deepened or scaled up your approaches to respond to them, if at all? 

MALA: A learning edge for the field is really doing the hard work of embodying our racial justice values. There are so many assumptions and structural barriers that we don’t even realize are integrated into our practices.

One structural problem comes from most movement organizations being so small. I’m thinking a ton about how to build interventions that scale, not for its own sake but because some equitable HR interventions only work at scale.

For example, it’s hard to support career development within the walls of a small organization. It’s also a challenge for small organizations to offer employees the whole spectrum of benefits that they’d like to and that align with their values – from trans-supportive healthcare, to medical equipment discounts, to providing for alternative therapies.

To the extent that people of color are disproportionately represented in small organizations (and there are problematic historical and ongoing reasons for that), corrective action is a racial justice issue. So we need to take a wider lens and recognize that our organizations are interdependent, and have shared infrastructure that supports staff across organizations.

I really see HR as having a really strong movement role. If we had a progressive, values-aligned professional employer organization (PEO), maybe we could support the needs of a variety of workers, some of whom want to work short gigs, some of whom have limited capacity because they’re caregiving or dealing with non-existent national infrastructure. What if we had enough organizations to create a multiple employer group to support small organizations in living their values (e.g., offering some version of family medical leave, and career and professional development that operate across organizations)? What if we had enough organizations to offset the cost of organizational insurance for some of the more persistent barriers (such as insurance for abortion clinics and funds)? That kind of infrastructure could help keep a movement and ecosystem perspective when we’re addressing racial justice at individual, interpersonal, and organizational levels.

Another learning edge is to understand and address the friction areas that come up for people when they consider adopting interpersonal or community-based reparations models. As one of our clients says, “people get funny about their money.” The psychology of internalized racist superiority1 is complex. Studies that assess people’s actions based on the framing of privilege and discrimination show that groups are more likely to support repair when they are presented with their group privilege. But the opposite is true with individuals: individuals are more likely to get defensive in the face of their own privilege. It appears that people who have received an unearned benefit are more likely to give up that benefit when they personally know someone who has been directly harmed by the institutional or systemic policies from which they were privileged.

1An idea I learned at our REACH Grantee/colleagues Crossroads Antiracism Organization and Training peer learning session.

RICHAEL: I think similar to your learning edge around embodying our racial justice values is our relationship to money. And being honest about where we are rather than where we want to be. My experience so far is that even folks with the deepest racial justice commitments may not be willing to have their money affected. And to me that’s not a lack of conviction; I think it has to do with making sure that our political commitments actually match our emotional and relational capacities to actually see through these commitments. I think the assumption is if you believe strongly enough you will do the things you need to do. And I think that’s– especially from my own life and my professional conflict work–we know that’s not true. We can have a lot of aspirations and beliefs and values are not matched up by our skills..

So I think I’m appreciating how delicate money stuff is, and how challenging it can be to bridge our gaps.

What actions or strategies for embracing or advancing racial justice, if any, are you seeing amongst the organizations that you are providing support to/working with?

RICHAEL: …To me, part of level-setting is trying to generate some sense of shared language. What do we mean by equity, what do we mean by fairness? And we’re actually starting there with that organization in our conversations. To really get granular about it, … we are seeing if we’re even having the same conversation at all and understand[ing] how the pieces are impacted based one’s positionality, one’s experience,not to mention, one’s expectations. And I think that also gives us a sense of people’s politicization around this. Everyone’s saying ‘equity’ these days, but what does that actually mean? 

MALA: Pay equity and repair are critical, but pay equity is not a substitute for bad or poor labor practices. For the most part, I see leaders trying to live into their values as they articulate, recognize, and value all the work that staff are doing. I see leadership teams reckoning with their assumptions being tested; reshaping the way they think of leadership, management, and supervision; and recognizing how important it is for the leadership team to embody an employer philosophy that reflects the values the organization is trying to live into.

I see radical staff wrestling with their assumptions that everyone should get paid the same, but recognizing that some pay differentiation is warranted.

I see staff trying, with great difficulty, to have conversations about their relative class privilege and marginalization, even though there’s not an expectation in our workplaces to actually talk about that. That conversation is deliberately discouraged, which then allows for a veneer of everyone being “basically” of the same social class; i.e., deliberately hides the extent of the racial and gender income gap and wealth gap even within movement organizations. I see staff trying to shatter that rule and hold painful conversations to actually make visible historical and ongoing disparities within organizations.

All of us need to get skilled up and practice, as Richael mentioned before.

Bonus question: What do you want philanthropy and donors to takeaway or know in order to better participate in, or extend this conversation? 

MALA: Organizations need funding not only to support their executive leadership, but to train all their staff in strong, people-centered leadership, management, and supervision. They need unrestricted funding to work with more manageable workloads, with slack to be able to innovate, fail, and learn. They need money to not only engage in racial equity work, but also the additional resources it takes to deal with the painful microaggressions and messy conflicts that arise, and the healing and repairing work necessary in its wake. One organization’s equity team, for example, wanted to make small “r” reparations to former Black staff who, as result of being harmed by white leadership, left the organization right before or during their racial equity work. 

And to be honest, we need philanthropic organizations to examine their own racial bias. We need them to increase their funding to BIPOC-led organizations, with more general operating grants, more all-staff leadership support, and with more consideration and collaboration (and less competition and co-optation).

We need larger philanthropic organizations to recognize the harm they cause when they suddenly stop or pull their funding to nonprofits, especially to BIPOC organizations and the intermediaries funding BIPOC organizations. The structural privileges that continue to allow the top 1% to privatize their money away from public goods and public infrastructure has decimated our communities, our educational institutions, and our collective infrastructure; how will they repair the harm and reinvest the money back into the communities that have suffered as a result of how they have benefited?