October 22, 2014

Diversity and Community Engagement: Essential to Nonprofit Impact

To build a bridge to a safer and healthier tomorrow for our children, nonprofit organizations need to strive for staff diversity and community engagement.

Issues of race, class, and privilege are at peak levels in our nation. We recently witnessed a tragic situation unfold in Ferguson, MO, that sparked public outcry by communities of color for a swift and just resolution in the name of not only Mike Brown, but for Trayvon Martin and others, like Erika Andiola, who is fighting for the rights of immigrants. The crisis in Ferguson also put a floodlight on the importance of strong community relations, as Ferguson's majority black community and majority white police and government found little common ground to address the issue at hand. The situation highlights the need for all organizations who serve communities of color to stop and reflect on how best to serve them.

At Teach For America (TFA), we have learned important lessons about going into communities and not investing enough in ways to be part of them or to reflect them. In the early part of our 25 year existence, TFA teachers were perceived as a predominately white and affluent corps serving two years in low-income black or Latino communities.

Today, over 80 percent of students at more than 3,000 public schools partnering with TFA identify as African American or Latino, and more than 75 percent are eligible for the federal lunch program. We have evolved to understand the need for our teaching corps to become more diverse and reflective of the communities we serve. We also have a greater understanding of the importance for all of us in this work to operate more effectively across lines of difference.

This year we have our most diverse group of teachers ever entering high-need classrooms across the nation. Fifty percent of our teaching corps identify as people of color, compared with less than 20 percent of all teachers nationwide (according to the National Center for Education Statistics). This shift reflects research showing that teachers who share racial and socioeconomic backgrounds of their students can bring added academic and social benefits into the classroom.1

While having a diverse teacher corps is a significant step, we realize that the ways in which we engage with communities must change as well. TFA must aim to be partners with the communities we serve, strive for a shared vision and belief in the promise of our communities, and during times of need, lend them a helping hand. Fatimah Burnam-Watkins, our executive director in Newark, shared a recent example.

Despite a continuing, passionate public debate on the state of education reform in Newark, differences were put aside recently to work together on behalf of students. TFA-New Jersey joined other local organizations in playing a central role in coordinating first day of school kick-off activities. Education and community organizations, parents, students, and other community members in conjunction with Mayor Ras Baraka's office, and TFA corps members, staff, and alumni helped pack 6,000 backpacks with school supplies and deliver them to students across the city. This collaboration helped create a stronger connection between TFA and the children and families of the Newark community. The shared spirit and focus on Newark's children hopefully will open doors to future collaboration in pursuit of shared goals.

Getting better at diversity and working with our communities are ongoing efforts at TFA. We continually ask ourselves: How do we reflect the communities we serve? In what ways can we engage with the members of the communities in which we work? Are those community members included in our decision-making process? These are important questions to consider when building strong relationships. In fact, their answers are essential to increasing our impact.

Part two of this series on diversity will focus on how to best manage differences in race, class, and privilege within organizations.

Amanda Fernandez is vice president of Latino Community Partnerships at Teach For America (TFA). She is responsible for leading TFA's engagement with the Latino community. Prior to joining TFA, Amanda was a director at The Bridgespan Group, where she served as an organizational and talent consultant to youth and education clients in support of their strategic planning efforts. Follow her on Twitter: @AmanFernan24.

1 See Jason Irizarry and Morgaen Donaldson, "Teach for America: The Latinization of U.S. Schools and the Critical Shortage of Latina/o Teachers," American Educational Research Journal, vol. 49 no. 1 (Feb 2012): 155-194.
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