The following is a conversation between Dr. Michael McAfee, President and CEO of PolicyLink, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. It works to help restructure democracy in the economy to benefit everyone, lift up work done by communities of color, and to put people first by making the scale and duration of relief match the scale and duration of the need. And here to discuss this work and their vision for the future, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Dr. Michael McAfee, the president and CEO of PolicyLink.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Michael!
Michael: Thank you for having me.
What makes us different is that when we do our work, it is actually guided by that voice, wisdom and experience of local leaders. Our tagline is “Lifting Up What Works,” and there is rarely a policy solution that we create that isn’t born out of people in community, everyday leaders who are improving community all the time.
Denver: Share with listeners a little bit more about the mission of the organization and the history of how it came to be.
Michael: PolicyLink was one of the leaders in founding this notion of equity, that is front and center in our national conversation, more than 22 years ago.
And PolicyLink was founded because of two things. First, it was a natural extension of the civil rights movement. Conferring rights on people didn’t necessarily mean that they had full access to those rights still. And so, PolicyLink’s desire and aspiration was that we would actually create a world that was just and fair for everyone, one in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential.
And so, we’re a think tank – a thinking-and-doing organization based in Oakland, California. And what makes us different is that when we do our work, it is actually guided by that voice, wisdom and experience of local leaders. Our tagline is “Lifting Up What Works,” and there is rarely a policy solution that we create that isn’t born out of people in community, everyday leaders, who are improving community all the time. And so that’s what makes us special.
Denver: That does make you special. I think people are beginning to catch on that the frontline people who are in those communities have a whole different take and a whole different way of solving these problems, which can be more effective.
Let me ask you about structural racism… because when conditions have been in place for such a long time, people can become unaware of them. It’s more like background noise. They don’t even see them. But give us some examples of how racism is baked into the system, into the society.
Michael: Well, racism is baked in from the founding. Think about it. Our founding documents are amazing, wonderful documents, but they didn’t consider me human when those documents were created. And it’s really important for us to get this, that we never stop to ask ourselves: If you design a nation to be exclusive, what does it take to really unbake that, get it out of the system? It just doesn’t go away because you just naturally keep evolving.
And while America has made tremendous strides – tremendous strides… If you think about it in the 1970s, only a few miles from where I live, I couldn’t even buy a home. My parents couldn’t even buy a home. So a home that in Berkeley, California that was around $150,000. These are mansions. Today, they’re worth $4.5 million plus.
And so, when you think about racism, it was race-based policy was designed into the fabric of the nation. It determined where I lived. It determined where I got educated. It determined what type of jobs my parents could have. It’s still that way quite frankly. We’ve just seen recently, major banks getting their hand slapped for redlining – meaning they’re not making loans to people who live in certain neighborhoods. We see police departments that overpolice poor neighborhoods to generate revenue for the municipality because they know those folks don’t have lawyers who can defend themselves against that type of behavior.
And so, while we have made progress, this nation still suffers from a hierarchy of human value. And I’ll give you last two really good examples of that hierarchy of human value. Think about our unemployment insurance system. When people lose their job, you would think America would have a system that was designed to support folks. But we see people as criminals and lazy and shiftless if they need unemployment insurance.
And if you read some of the news reports around the Florida system as an example, you’ll see they designed it to not work. They designed it to not work because of that Black welfare queen racist trope. While it’s not real, it has great currency. So think about using taxpayer dollars to design a system to not work, and then you’re in a pandemic. Who would have thought that middle-class white folks and Asians and all sorts of people would need that system, and it does not work.
And lastly, what I would say is: Think about a nation that in a pandemic asks those same people we call heroes to stay home, and we argue for over 15 months whether they deserve $300 or $1,400. You see, that’s racism baked into a system that says, “I don’t value these people enough to be responsive to their needs.”
Denver: It also, I think, speaks to the fact that many people need to look to see it. I’ll give you an example from my own experience: my daughter went to business school. And to get into business school, what you need to do is you need to visit the campus because it shows that you really have an interest in the school. And never do they take into consideration that some families can afford for their kids to visit the campus if it’s a thousand miles away, and others can’t. So, it’s so much there in things that we just kind of take for granted, and really you have to think about it.
Well, let me talk a little bit of one of your challenges here. And I had Dr. Robert Livingston on the show recently. He’s from Harvard Kennedy School, and he’s written a wonderful book called The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations.
And Michael, he cited a study that indicated that white people now believe there’s more racism against white people than there is against Black people. What do you think of that? How do you address that? How do you combat that?
Michael: It’s actually not surprising. In a nation where whiteness is center and whiteness is dominant, and you haven’t taught history truthfully. And you’ve designed a nation, like I said, that hierarchy of human value, it actually does include white people. They just never saw themselves in it.
Think about it. One in three people in this nation are economically insecure. That’s over 100 million. Over 40 million of those people are white. And so, they simply are mad at the wrong people. This nation is designed to be oppressive. They don’t have jobs because Black people are taking them or Mexicans are coming over here. We outsourced jobs in the ’80s and ’90s. We said, “We wanted the free market hand of capitalism to rule the day.” Well, that’s what happened.
And so, if you’d never thought a world was not designed for you and you finally discover that it is – of course, it’s unsettling. And when you’re raised off of a diet that those people over there are the cause of all the problems in the world, it’s easy to go to that excuse rather than saying, “Wow. This is actually the nation that my grandparents and grandparent’s parents created.” And we’ve never stopped to ask that question.
I was in Cincinnati once, and I said to a group of people. I said, “I’ll give you some times, some of the racist things that people say. You tell Black folks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and take their lazy Black asses and get jobs and get educated. Well now, the most educated group is Black women in America.”
Denver: So there.
Michael: And so, if you stayed in Peoria, Illinois or Decatur or Rantoul, or West Point, Mississippi, you can’t compete now with folks in the cities because you didn’t take your own advice. And that’s what you see happening in this nation, which is a nation that was never designed for poor white folks now are falling further behind, and this is the insidious impact of racism in America.
In the ’70s, my parents gave away public education the same way white America gave away public education. But they did it for different reasons. White America didn’t want to be educated next to me. My parents just wanted me to get a good education because they saw what was happening to public education. So, they sent me to private school. But the reason that all happened was because of racism.
So now today, in a city like Oakland or San Francisco, all these middle-class folks, especially white folks who have these great jobs at Facebook and Google and all these places, they can’t afford the cities. They can’t afford the cities because they can’t afford their rent or mortgage and private school. And so, you see you struggle to make ends meet because a world that was designed to harm me now harms you. It’s like a virus that jumps hosts.
Denver: No doubt about it. We’re finding about this with the pandemic. You can’t contain it. Can’t contain it. It is going to metastasize and people who you never thought… everybody’s going to get caught. It’s a current is what it really is. And that’s what I’ve always looked at in racism. It’s just a current. So, you can’t just be passive in a current because you’re going to end up in the same place where bigots are going to end up. It will take you longer to get there, but you’ve got to go against the tide, and that’s a little bit of what’s going on.
So, let’s talk a little bit about these rules of the game, because that’s essentially what you’re talking about. You’re talking about the rituals. You’re talking about the institutions You’re talking about the laws. You’re talking about the regulations. What do you believe we need to do to address all that, to fix all that? That’s a big job.
Michael: Well, I think we’ve been fixing it, and I think we’ve been making progress. And this is a tough time in the nation, but it’s actually one of the most hopeful times that I’ve ever seen. We’ve never had such a beautiful multiracial group of people who are saying: I want justice and fairness for this nation, for everyone. It’s a first.
Second, you’ve never had all three sectors come into racial equity with the verve that they’re coming to it. Government, corporations, civil society – all talking about justice and fairness. And so, our job now has to see this work not as charity work but design work. The white middle class was built off of public policy. It wasn’t built off of charity.
And if we could get back to saying: what are the policies that would lift that hundred million up into the middle-class and beyond, America could be really great for the first time for everyone.
But see, we know what to do, but the political will isn’t there because of this issue, this wicked problem of race. And you see now, we’ve built the white middle class and then we pulled up the ladders. And now, when you look at Raj Chetty’s data, it basically says that those who believe in the American Dream are dreaming. Where you’re born is pretty much where you’re going to stay, no matter what color your skin.
Denver: And more than most other countries, surprisingly.
Michael: Exactly. And so, our nation has to get back to wanting to design an economy and a democracy that is just and fair. Think about what we’re doing with our democracy as an example of the design challenge.
You’ve been complaining that you wanted people to vote for years – they’re voting. It just happened to be Black and Brown now. And what is the response when you see this last election, and they win Georgia? Your response is to try to design more than 300 bills that make it hard for me to vote and make it illegal for me to give my grandmother water if she’s standing in the line for eight hours.
Think about that. That’s not charity. That is the design of structural racism right in front of your face. And the tragedy is folks haven’t really pushed back on it. Now, this is what really makes me angry is people will say, “Well, I wish those people wouldn’t tear up property. I wish they wouldn’t riot.” Well, where are those good folks saying: we’re not going to let this stand?
So, you can’t keep oppressing people like this in such blatant ways and then expect no response back. And this is like a perfect example right now where we don’t even have to go back 400 years. We can just go to right now, and we see.
Denver: Go back 40 days.
Michael: That’s right. Think about an entire political party, for the most part, having said, “I will bring down this democracy before I let Black and Brown people have this nation.” That’s really where we’re at right now. They’d rather bring down our democracy than let us be a part of this nation as full participants. And well-meaning people, while they may not be racists, they are not uncomfortable enough to be in the streets saying, “This is not going to stand for our democracy.” I served in the military for eight years, and I don’t understand how you can wrap yourself in the damn flag and then tolerate this behavior.
The Racial Equity Governing Agenda is born out of the beautiful invitation from our founding. This democracy is an experiment. It is always going to need perfecting, and we all should step into that invitation.
Denver: I think the poison beyond their race hating is winning at all costs.
Michael: Winning at all costs.
Denver: This is what politics has become. They don’t care what color you are or whatever. There’s nothing race about that. Just “I will do anything it takes to win.” And it is a sickness, and you see it, I think, a little bit on both sides. Winning in politics is so preeminent to what’s good for the people and what’s good for the country. And this is their strategy right now, and it’s unbelievable.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you’re doing because I love that multi-prong approach. So talk about government a little bit. And I know that you’re holding people accountable, and I like that a lot. And one of your initiatives is the Racial Equity Governing Agenda. Tell us about that.
Michael: The Racial Equity Governing Agenda is born out of the beautiful invitation from our founding. This democracy is an experiment. It is always going to need perfecting, and we all should step into that invitation.
And the thing that we’re talking about today is really the struggle of our nation. We’ve never designed a nation for what we’re trying to be. Our governing institutions weren’t designed for a multiracial democracy. They were designed for white people.
And so, what would it look like for us to govern with the racial equity consciousness, to live into the aspiration of the all in our founding documents? That’s what the Racial Equity Governing Agenda is about. Can we see that hundred million plus? And can we really design a world for all of them to be prosperous and be better off?
And so, what you see us beginning to do is, just like Grover Norquist was effective at saying “No new taxes, no new taxes,” we want to be able to say, “Govern for all, govern for all, govern for all” …and begin to have a nation that, a government that transforms itself to see the humanity of everyone and begins to enact policies that lift them up.
Denver: Michael, do you think we need new founding documents?
Michael: Yes, I do believe we need new founding documents. We need new customs, and we need new rituals that include the all.
See, this is the tension in our nation right now. If you’re privileged, you don’t have to see what other people don’t… are struggling with, including myself. And so, our founding documents weren’t designed to– if I tell you they’re not designed to see the humanity of the all, and you’re still behaving using those documents in oppressive ways, absolutely our nation needs to be remade in a beautiful way. Our institutions need to be remade. Our customs, our laws, and our regulations.
Think about it. You found a nation on race-based policy. You start correcting that. But the people who you oppressed for more than 400 years are still way behind when it comes to wealth and things. And now you see how white supremacy works and even the opposite. Now, they say, “Well, you know what? We can’t target public policy to any races now because we don’t want to be racist.”
And so, you can never catch up. Now, you can’t even tend to the problem because now you create a set of laws that says “Now, that would be problematic.” So, once again, you’ve pulled up the ladder. And you use race-based policy to build a white middle class and beyond, and now the very laws are being used against us.
So, you’re right. The opportunity and the work for our generation is to begin to ask: What would a healthy police department look like that didn’t have a hostile disposition towards some communities? What would a healthy unemployment insurance system look like that didn’t think that people who had less means, or simply got laid off or something, who are just criminals and thieves out to make a quick buck and will be lazy in work forever, never want to work again?
Your question about remaking the nation is what the Racial Equity Governing Agenda is about. It is saying we are as wise as our founding fathers, and they are calling us to create a better nation. That was the invitation, and we should step into it.
Denver: Two analogs come to mind. Sometimes I… my brother builds houses, and every once in a while, he goes in there to refurbish the house. And I’ll talk to him on the phone and he’ll say, “You know what? It’d be easier just to knock this freaking thing down than to try to fix it up.” You know what I mean? Because you really do want to fix it up. You don’t want to knock it down, but you sometimes get to the point where it’s easier…
And the other analog that comes to mind, Michael, is I talk to a lot of nonprofit organizations, and I ask them every once in a while. I said, “With your mission, if you were going to start this organization today, would it look like the organization that you have right now?” And invariably, they say, “Well, no!” You know what I mean? And you want to say to them, “Well, maybe you’ve got to think about some of these legacy systems and start all over because all these legacy organizations…they’re not designed for this world.”
And often what you do is that when you don’t do that, you nibble around the edges. You never really get to the core of it. You just do a couple of showy things around the edges. Like we got an IT director, we got somebody doing something, but you’re not becoming a tech non-profit.
Well, let’s move on to business. And I think they have some culpability in this. You have the 2021 CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity. Tell us about that and how you’re trying to hold business accountable.
Michael: Well, the first thing we’re doing with all of these sectors, in our equity manifesto, the first line says “It begins by joining.” And we really do believe that. You’re not going to get a lot done just waging war with folks and calling people out all the time. We want to call people in.
The CEO Blueprint is another example. It’s a response to CEOs saying, “Hey, we hear you. We see that racial equity is important to us. Now, we want to do something about it.” And we wanted to give them a North Star to know how to come to that work and do the best work possible and not have to guess at it.
And so, we’re creating a set of corporate standards that says, “If you want to be an equitable corporation in America, this is the standard.” And this standard will be as substantive as the lead standard is when you think about building standards. And so that’s what we’re working to do.
Denver: I want to become a platinum. That’s what I want to be.
Michael: That’s right. And the thing about corporate America that is so interesting right now is whether they know it or not, they are on the leading edge of the equity movement. And they’re on the leading edge of the equity movement because they possess a skill that is needed now more than ever.
They know how to bend the laws and the regulations of this land to their will. And we need them to now bend the laws and regulations to the will of justice and fairness, to making sure that that hundred million is better off. And that’s what they’re starting to come to.
And so, yes, people can be in the streets and yes, civil society is important, but the folks who have the power and the influence are corporate America. And that’s why we’re joining with them because of that unique skill set.
Denver: Well, I’m a nonprofit guy, so I say this with a bit of chagrin. Corporations can do things at scale that our sector can’t do. They can do things, and they can do them internationally as well. You know what I mean? They are set up to do that.
What do you think about some of those DEI initiatives? Because everybody’s talking about it. What seems to be working, and where do you think that a lot of these diversity, equity, and inclusion or belonging initiatives are missing the mark?
Michael: I honestly don’t think you need diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. I think you need to have the consciousness, and you need to lead on the work. See, CEOs already know how to lead, and they know how to do things when they want to do it.
Denver: They can get things done, right?
Michael: Right. They don’t need special initiatives when they want to make decisions. So the moment you start telling me that you’re operating counter to how you normally operate, I’m like, “Oh, there’s something problematic.” And that therein becomes the problem. DEI efforts are usually so far away from leadership that people know that they’re really not serious, they’re performative. They’re performative.
A CEO can change the hiring standards if they want to… overnight. Don’t even need an initiative to do that. A CEO can change wages if they want to… don’t need an initiative to do that. A CEO is already authorized to create the workplace of the future, a workplace that is just and fair. So, the moment you tell me that you’re outsourcing your own agency to people who don’t have power, you’ve just told me that this was bullshit.
What I would say to people is “Save your money.” The things that I am seeing that are really working are corporations who are doing what I said – they’re deciding they’re going to have a diverse board, and they’re making it happen. Folks who are saying, “I’m going to have a diverse leadership team,” they’ve set targets, and they’re evolving into that. Folks who have said, “My workers are going to be treated a certain way,” and they’re making it happen.
What I’m excited about is while there is a lot of performative stuff happening out there, I’m seeing business leaders come to this work in ways that you’d be quite impressed with. Like JP Morgan Chase with their Black Pathways, explicitly calling out. “We’re going to create places for folks who have often not found the way into banking. We’re going to create a path for them to do that.”
Prudential – paying attention to the needs of that hundred million and saying, “We’re going to create portable benefits products since we know folks are bouncing around from job to job a lot.” And the best way to move into the middle-class is your benefits structure. That keeps us from falling off the cliff. Well, they listened, and they’ve created that. Ben and Jerry’s taking on Qualified Immunity, for God’s sake.
Denver: Yes. They’re something, aren’t they? They’ve always been leading the parade.
Michael: That’s right. And so, it’s an exciting time because corporations are moving beyond the fluff and doing substantive work.
Denver: I read something the other day, Michael, about diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And the point of it was that they sometimes make companies complacent because they think they’ve done something.
So, when they’ve gone with the blind resume test of the white name and the Asian or Black name or whatever, whether you’ve done DEI and you’re one of those certified, or you haven’t, the numbers were exactly the same. So, there you go.
Let’s now turn and talk about my sector, your sector, too, I guess, which is the philanthropic sector. And boy, a lot of talk about ways to improve it and to transform it. But I have found, Michael, what’s always the case is that there are issues that are never or at least rarely discussed. What is the conversation that is not taking place in philanthropy that you would like to see occurring?
Michael: A conversation that’s not taking place that I would like to see occur is the ability for investors and those of us doing the work to be in a room and to be able to talk about capital and strategy at the same time.
And the reason why that’s so important is we’re doing some capital analysis right now with Bridgespan. And just think about this for a moment – on the low end $11 billion. On the high end $70 billion. That’s how much money was supposedly gone, invested into racial equity initiative in 2020. Now, if you were to take out a piece of paper and I said, “Write down your top 10 all-star racial equity organizations,” and then ask yourself – do those organizations have an endowment? Are they financially strong to kind of get the impact that I want? The answer would be no.
So how do you spend either $11 billion or $70 billion, and your major institutions are still not strong enough for the fight that’s ahead of them? See, this is the difference between charity and liberating work. And we’ve grown up now as a movement where we can get in a room and now start saying: If we want to win on voting, what does it take and how do we have to organize ourselves? And how do we capitalize that? If we want to win on housing, what does it take? How do we have to organize ourselves? And let’s pay for it.
And so that conversation around capital and strategy, money and mission – that’s the aligned conversation that we can have instead of talking about individuals, grant programs, and how do I get that money as a grant?
Denver: Yes, you have to look at the whole system and how do we get it done. And also with everything you’re talking about, you always simplify things. It’s not that complicated. It’s pretty much – if I can define success, this is the straight line to success, and all the rest of it is nothing but noise.
Michael: You’re right. And Denver, that’s the last thing that I would say. You nailed it. I want us to get comfortable sitting still until we’re really committed to doing the work. The work ain’t changing just because we want to come up with all sorts of fancy ways to avoid it but stay busy. And sometimes the best thing for us to do is to sit our asses down and be still until we’re really committed to getting the results that we want. Save the money till we’re ready.
Sometimes we got to just own it and then just say, “You know what? We’re not ready to do that for whatever reason. So, let’s be good stewards of the resources and save them until we are.”
And the beauty is we can be comfortable slowing down. Folks who are struggling know how to survive, we’ve asked them to survive on their own anyway. So, if we’re not going to get it right, we’re not doing them any favors. If we’re not going to really relieve their pain, what we’re doing doesn’t matter to them.
Denver: I think it’s a societal sickness we have about trying to show that we’re doing stuff. And it takes a lot of confidence to be able to say, let’s pause. Let’s all slow down here for a minute… because you’ve got to go slow to go fast. But we’re all like “We did this, we did this, we did this.”
I think this is a problem with nonprofit organizations at large. They’re always trying to show their donors that next quarter, how many people we fed or whatever. It’s like – no, no, no. You’ve got to start looking at this over three- or five years. You’ve got to invest in things that might not be good for your annual report or your board, but you’re going to actually solve the issue and not make somebody happy in 90 days. We got that Wall Street sickness of trying to get immediate returns, and we do things that really have very ephemeral value to them.
Michael: And the beauty is we can be comfortable slowing down. Folks who are struggling know how to survive. We’ve asked them to survive on their own anyway. So, if we’re not going to get it right, we’re not doing them any favors. If we’re not going to really relieve their pain, what we’re doing doesn’t matter to them.
And our job is to be street smart about answering the question: If I was suffering from a lack of resources, would the stuff that I’m doing really matter to me and my family? See, that’s the standard I use because I have never met a homeless person that’s going to eat all of PolicyLink’s reports or be housed by them. So, it has to be more than that. It’ll keep us busy, and it’ll give us a great lifestyle, but that’s not the work.
And so, we all now are in a moment where our job is to push ourselves to be results-based leaders at the highest level of our God-given abilities,
Denver: Almost like waking up every morning and saying, “What’s the one thing that I can do today and forget all the others?” Because all the others are just filling out a “to-do list,” and I did this, I did this. Do one thing, and get done what has value.
What have you found, Michael, to be some of the unique challenges as a leader and a person of color that your white counterparts don’t have to encounter?
Michael: I would say the first is getting people comfortable with your intellectual currency. People are used to experts being white, quite frankly. And so, it’s hard sometimes for folks to see you and see your brilliance. But there are moments where you break through. I’ve broken through that a little bit, but I know what it felt like when people wouldn’t listen, and so I still feel that.
People not wanting to see your organization and capitalize it for what it needs to do the work. It’s like you have $30 million worth of work and people want to give you $500,000. And so, getting people to stop seeing our organizations like a $5 organization but worthy of big money. Again, that’s an area where PolicyLink is blessed. We’ve broken through that.
Denver: And also if I may add, unrestricted money.
Michael: Unrestricted money. That’s right.
Denver: I did have Jeff Bradach and Cheryl Dorsey on the show, and they said that they looked at those Echoing Green fellows, and the preponderance of unrestricted money the white fellows got compared to the Black fellows was dramatically different.
So you trusted the white guys, what to do with it. The Black fellows are like, “Well, this is what you have to do.” That’s a big, big difference.
Michael: That’s a big difference. And what I can say over the last year, and hopefully it will continue, is I saw funders start behaving in these new ways. I’ve seen them listen to us, believe in our vision, and invest in it and not have all these other extraneous strings. And so, when we talk about this nation and the awakening, I’m seeing so many good signs of it happening.
I can tell you so many stories of white men and women. I’ve seen them transform themselves and their organizations for the better. I can tell you stories of Black men who are discovering new ways of getting out of that toxic masculinity that many of us as men in America have grown up being socialized with. This is an awakening moment for anybody who says, “You know what? I can be a better human.”
And in that moment, I’m seeing people in philanthropy take that on and change philanthropy. I’m seeing it happen in business, in government, et cetera. It’s just an exciting time to be in this work.
Denver: You’re pretty optimistic that grantmaking and the way nonprofits are going to operate as a result of what’s happened over the past year is really going to be significant. I do get a sense that it’s going to last, last longer than a lot of other things. Sometimes we have these incandescent CNN moments, and we move on. I don’t see this as one of those.
Michael: Here’s what I know. The reality is this. I’m confident because I know that hundred million. I know poor people. I know my people. Black people know how to survive. We’ve had to. It’s in our DNA. Black people have always been hopeful for this nation. That doesn’t get diminished, no matter how hard you shit on us.
And I’m hopeful because I see us deciding to participate in this democracy just like others who want a different world. And I don’t begrudge them. That’s the beauty of a democracy. If you don’t want to work for it, you don’t deserve to have it. And this is our moment, and never before, I see people saying: Charity is important, it’s insufficient, and we’re going to do charity plus now.
Denver: Charity is just a little tool in the tool kit. It ain’t the answer, and you need all the tools working.
I speak to a lot of CEOs on the program and they have told me, Michael, that they’ve had to make more tough decisions in the last year than in the previous 10 years combined. So I’d be curious: What has been the most difficult decision that you have had to make during this multifaceted crisis? And how do you go about making those really tough decisions?
Michael: I would say… I’m pausing because in this moment, my toughest decisions were really how to care for my staff.
Denver: That’s an important one.
Michael: Our mission is true. And so tragically, whenever there’s a calamity, we do our best work. And so, that was never in question. But the hardest decisions for me were figuring out: How do we break out of– like you said– organizational cultural artifacts that don’t serve us well anymore?
Like, I want my staff not to have to just live in Oakland and San Francisco because I know it’s hard for them to afford it. So, if they want to move to Sacramento or whatever, how do I support that? The hardest thing was figuring out how to create greater flexibility, how to care for them in a pandemic.
Like we got PPP money, and we gave it all to staff in bonuses. Every penny of it. And that was the way to say: you’ve got family members and things that you’re caring for, and we’re good financially right now. So, how can we help you?
I didn’t consider it a tough time. It was a liberating time because we were able to step more forcefully into doing the work we’ve always wanted to do. And it gave me a chance three years into this leadership role to totally begin to reset the culture of the organization. Because once you got slammed into working from home, everything was on the table.
And so that ability to say: How do we model what an equitable corporation looks like? How do we walk the walk and talk the talk? That’s been the toughest thing to really be able to put that into practice.
If you can’t manifest love for each other and see the humanity in each other, I think you’re useless as a leader going forward.
Denver: That’s really interesting because sometimes you look in the mirror, too, and you’re looking at what you’re preaching out there and you’re saying, “You know? There’s a little work at home here to be done.”
How do you think it’s changed you as a leader? And how do you think this whole thing is going to inform your leadership in the years ahead?
Michael: It made me more confident in being able to manifest love and to not see that as soft.
Denver: Oh, wow! Part of that masculine toxicity.
Michael: If you can’t manifest love for each other and see the humanity in each other, I think you’re useless as a leader going forward.
For me, I’m more in my power. I was raised in the Midwest, and I grew up with my dad fishing and hunting and watching white farmers let us hunt on their land during the day, and they’d have a beer with my dad in the evening. And I always knew they probably thought some kind of way about us, some of them, but there was some camaraderie there in that exchange.
The thing that is fun for me right now is I don’t suffer from the burden of being raised to hate white people. I can fully love because that’s how I was raised. So when I’m talking about white folks or Asians or Latin folks… and to sit in that gift of saying – that is a superpower…. that I can actually see people’s humanity and want to actually change it for everyone.
Man, we need to own that. Because too many people… you’re right. They suffer under the burden of “Well, I can’t say Black people, or I can’t act like I care about their needs.” I don’t come to this work with any of those burdens. And so, for me, stepping more forcefully into the gift of not having that burden and just having the burden, the right one as it should be, which is to get results at scale — it’s a very freeing moment for me.
Denver: Absolutely. You walk lightly. You’re not carrying all that baggage that most of the people are carrying.
I really like what you said about love because what I’ve seen sometimes is that you need to care about your people more than they care about themselves… and more than you care about what they do for the organization. Because I’ve always found, Michael, if you show the care to them first, they will care so much about the organization that you will be paid back dozens of times over. And that is really a great lesson from a leader.
Let me close with this, and it has to do with change. You are trying to create some profound change both in your organization, in yourself, and in the society and the community. Change is really hard. What is your theory of change?
Michael: My theory of change starts with something that Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder of PolicyLink said. She said, “Sometimes, Michael, you have to have a vision that is well beyond people’s ability to comprehend. And then your job is to create a space that allows them to live into it.”
And so, when I talk about that Racial Equity Governing Agenda, I know that that’s not where the nation is at today. But now our job is to create the spaces where people begin to live into that idea, in that aspiration. So that’s the first thing.
The second is, out of my naive notions of change in America, and I’m still revolutionary, but practical. And so for me, the question is: Am I setting the change journey up right? And are we doing the work that is right for our moment so that future generations can then accelerate?
So that’s how I see change, which is, I know it ain’t going to happen all right now so I can let my shoulders come down. Let my heart rate come down. And I can ask myself the question that is most important: Are we doing the work that is worthy of our existence in this moment? And are we methodical about how we’re setting that arc of change, like around this Racial Equity Governing Agenda for future generations, to be able to take it up and accelerate it?
And then lastly, you thinking about that popular ecology literature and organizational development — can I ride the wave of those environmental jolts that will allow me to take big leaps forward? And so right now, we are in one of those big leaps forward moments where we got an environmental jolt. Equity is front and center, and we can ride this wave. It ain’t going to last long, but while it lasts, let’s exploit it.
Denver: Absolutely. And then we’ll solidify, and we’ll wait for the next wave. Well, I have always found the best leaders are thinking 25 years out. And if more leaders would think about the organization 25 years hence, to where we want to go, it would change everything. It really would.
Tell us about the PolicyLink website, the information people can find on it, including that new newsletter of yours, Equity Blueprint, and how people can help support this work, if they’re so inclined.
Michael: Perfect. Our website, it is a beautiful resource if you want to know things about equity and what are practical solutions. Everything there is free. Take what you will.
And so that website is designed to be a resource to get people into the practical ways in which they can take on the issue of equity and get real results in their communities. That’s what it’s designed for. The Equity Blueprint is going to be a practical way that we start actually breaking things down for folks to say: If you’re working on housing, here’s a blueprint of what’s possible, etc.
And then lastly, people can donate on our website if they would like, but even more important, what I would say to people is: Practice seeing those leaders in your community who are toiling unseen, doing some of the best work long before it’s popular and getting results, and fund them.
There are so many people in community doing amazing leading-edge work, whether it’s voting, privacy rights. Whatever issue, they’re there. We often don’t see them probably for 10 years, 15 years out before that issue becomes really popular. And then we run to them, just like we run to Stacey Abrams around voting when it was actually probably 10 or 15 other organizations in Georgia for years doing that work before Stacey, and they went unseen.
So that’s what I would say to people: walk around their communities and find those hidden gems who are ushering in a just and fair society for all of us every day.
Denver: Well, we’re living in a world of best practices, and there’s a whole other group of best practices that we don’t even know about that are going to lift up everybody.
Well, I want to thank you, Michael, so much for being here today. This was just a real pleasure.
Michael: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
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