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21 Apr 2017

Moving Toward Equity

By Scott Smith

About two years ago, we won a project that has really changed the way we look at business and how to operate in the world. We were brought on to redesign Meyer Memorial Trust’s brand identity and to design and code the front-end of their website. Meyer was going through a lot of changes at the time. The foundation was reaching the culmination of a strategic redesign that had started in 2007 but that had been put on hold because of the Great Recession.

Now, in 2015, they were putting four new grantmaking portfolios in place, and during this period of roiling change, we stepped in to help them articulate their brand strategy and public face. That meant getting to the heart of Meyer’s personality, delving deeply into their core purpose: a flourishing and equitable Oregon.

I have a confession to make: I hadn’t thought about equity at all. I lived in my little world, and although I value diversity and find the lack of it in Portland to be distressing, as a partner in a new business, we were focused on surviving. We didn’t think much beyond that.

A New Perspective

Before working with Meyer, I would have said that equity was the same as equality, or diversity. But I would have been wrong. We showed up at a time when Meyer was going through a strategic redesign of their program work into four portfolios, all driven by equity goals. Their leadership and staff did extensive equity training on race, gender, and LGBT issues. They wrangled with how a greater equity focus could have an impact on their investment strategy and how they conduct their operations. They took a hiatus from grantmaking to do this important work — a leap change in a direction they had been trending for years.

This is when we stepped in. We weren’t thinking much about an equity focus in our business, but we were thinking deeply about what we wanted to be in the world. We knew we wanted to grow and to work with clients whose values align with ours. That desire forced us to think about how we operate. While Meyer’s mission is not our own — we are, after all, a commercial endeavor — we were already starting to think about how we can use our work and sensibilities to build community, so we were mightily inspired by their bravery in struggling with difficult questions.

Just as with many others, the reality of the new political situation has gotten us digging deeper to think about how we can acknowledge our privilege and be part of positive change. So what does that mean for us?

It means thinking about how growth can align with positive change in our community. Especially in Portland, we see amazing things happening. The new XXcelerate Fund is dedicated to ensuring capital flow to women-owned businesses. The new Business for a Better Portland, founded to help raise money to tell the story of Vanport, aims to combine “the strength of business advocacy with the power of technology and grassroots social change. Rukaiyah Adams, Meyer’s chief investment officer and a strong voice for progressive housing policies in Portland, was recently named the chair of the Oregon Investment Council, a body with real power in our state. We see organizations like Built Oregon telling the story of great entrepreneurs here. Our goal is to become part of that story.

When we first started working for Meyer, we were three partners — two of us women, none of us people of color — with no employees. In the two years since, we have brought on two employees, both women, neither people of color. Although we consider ourselves allies of those who are likely to be targeted by forces of bigotry and hatred, we have not yet made great moves to increase diversity.

As we consider our own growth, I’ve been personally thinking a lot about a blog post by Crystal Jackson, Meyer’s director of human resources. She quotes Dr. john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute at U.C. Berkeley: “You may have diversity in your organization, but if you’re not working toward a common goal, you won’t achieve the desired results.”

As Crystal points out, even if a hire “reflects some form of diversity,...if your work culture doesn’t genuinely demonstrate a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, then both the organization and the new hire will be unhappy.”

We want to operate in our community to help make a difference, but we also want to run a business where we all work toward our common goal and we demonstrate a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

Working in the Direction of Our Values

So what does it mean to be more equitable? That’s something we are exploring. It means working with more organizations and companies that are moving in the same direction. One way we’re getting a head start is by becoming members of Business for A Better Portland, a new organization banding together progressive-minded businesses to help move our great city closer toward equity. It means paying close attention to the meanings of our words and actions. It means finding ways to make our industry and communities more inclusive and welcoming to all. We know that the more inclusive and welcoming we are, the more we will reduce (in our small way) the level of uncertainty and suffering that we see spreading elsewhere. We intend to get more involved and work in the direction of our values.

Related to this story: Read my partner Talie’s post about the anti-corporate movement in business.

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