Jehan Benton-Clark, Senior Director of Advancing Equity and Justice
Taryn Fort, Senior Director of Communications and Influence
Kelci Price, Senior Director of Learning and Evaluation
The Colorado Health Foundation
At The Colorado Health Foundation, we are relentlessly committed to advancing health equity and believe it exists when there are no avoidable, unfair or systemically-caused differences in health status. To live into this, we have implemented principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into our vision and cornerstones, and our daily operations.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving equity, we are learning that all our staff must use situational analysis to ensure decisions, tools, and methods address the issues and contexts in which we work. For example, foundation staff often think about the intentional and unintentional assumptions, beliefs and behaviors we individually exhibit about race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, socioeconomic status and religious beliefs. We strive to be mindful of how systemic biases manifest at an organizational level through collective decision-making, practices, policies, and cultural norms.
We are paying attention to practices that occur among institutions and systems that exclude and harm members of groups based on one or more of their identities. As we have worked to center equity, we have shifted to a network- and systems-thinking mindset, requiring critical thinking to understand the complex and changing contexts in which we operate, and the impact of our mental models on our ability to understand and apply information to our work. Using information from the external environment and an understanding of our own biases cultivates stronger discernment.
While we are not experts, we can offer a glimpse of what some of this experimentation looks like in practice in our grantmaking, evaluation, and communications functions.
In Practice: Grantmaking
Holding space for reflection and honest conversation is a daily exercise in which we prioritize exploration of our world views, biases, and experiences. This has led to an increased comfort among staff to call each other in—not out—and be better stewards of our funding.
This reflection also helps us consider whose perspectives we deem credible and move beyond fumbles such as associating value to grant applications simply because they are well written. These practices, paired with looking at the mix of our community investments and engagements from a 30,0000-foot view, are transforming where, how, and with whom we allocate resources.
We have found that it is critical to be clear about who is being centered, what that means for our grantmaking approach, and how we are holding ourselves accountable to those we exist to serve. We routinely identify who we are working on behalf of and in partnership with, and who we are potentially leaving out, and acknowledge the voices of those we serve should be elevated and included in the work. As a statewide organization, we hear many perspectives and must make tough choices around which of those drive our decision-making.
In Practice: Evaluation
Being more equitable in our approach to evaluation is not about implementing a checklist. Rather, the shift has come as we have learned to question our thinking about evaluation, and it has revealed ways in which we are serving equity or upholding systems of oppression.
Engaging in evaluation more aligned with equity starts with recognizing the limits of our understanding, and unlearning how we usually do things so we can make different choices. We are asking ourselves questions like:
- Who is getting to make choices about this evaluation? Who is making meaning and drawing conclusions about the data? Whose perspectives are prioritized or missing?
- How do our methods for gathering, making sense of, and using information align with equity (or not)?
- What is the focus of the evaluation? Why are we answering this set of questions and choosing this particular methodology?
- What are the consequences if we approach the work this way? How does it advance or undermine equity? Does it reinforce dynamics of inequity that keep oppressive structures and practices in place?
This discernment helps us become sensitized to the effect our choices have on how equity shows up in the process and impact of our work. It has changed how we evaluate—centering voices with lived experience, involving stakeholders in evaluation design and sense-making, and sharing resources so others can own parts of the evaluation and get their own questions answered. It has changed who we partner with—we have revised our request for qualifications (RFQs) and how we find external evaluation partners. It has changed how we understand—we are listening to all voices, being explicit about whose opinions to prioritize given our mission, and ensuring that we do not obscure perspectives or narratives through our processes or analyses.
In Practice: Communications
Based on the idea that social sector communicators have a moral imperative to ensure our work does not perpetuate inequities we seek to address, we are developing an equitable communications approach that goes beyond metrics of reach and instead creates a sense of value and belonging for, and with, our audiences.
This intention requires us to significantly re-imagine how to plan, budget for, and execute communications. We have had to unlearn what we have been taught and redefine what success looks like. Some of our key drivers are:
- Listen and learn, then lead: From public opinion research, listening labs, and regional media scans, to message testing, pre-event surveys of registrants, and advisory committees, listening—and learning from this—is our number one job.
- Be a conversational and disruptive voice: By communicating with emotion, being community-informed and culturally-appropriate, and being strategic yet unapologetic in the way we enter controversy, we honor authentic human experience and communicate belonging.
- Consider power in our voice and the experiences we create: We are mindful of the power we have and put it to good use (take public stands) while getting comfortable with relinquishing control (co-create with audiences and provide platforms for voices other than our own).
- Be audience-first, not brand-first: We strive to understand who we serve and what they need to prioritize relevant content that’s both affirming (person-first, non-binary, bias-free, avoids othering and tokenism) and accessible (user-experience-minded, use of closed captioning, translation, interpretation and transcreation).
Operationalizing DEI Begins with Situational Analysis
These examples are merely pieces of our experimentation, yet they represent the expansion of our understanding about the critical role situational analysis plays in our efforts to weave DEI principles into our work. It is ultimately shifting how we think—not just what we do—and allows us to better seek equitable impacts in the communities we exist to serve.
This journey has been hard and messy, yet necessary. We still have a lot to learn—and unlearn.