An Interview with Kerrien Suarez, Executive Director, Equity in the Center
To learn more about the series Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, click here.
Kerrien Suarez, Executive Director, Equity in the Center
Social media @klrs98 @equityinthectr @ProInspire
Tell me about your current role?
I lead Equity in the Center, an initiative of ProInspire, that focuses on developing tools and resources, and curating convenings, to help organizations build a Race Equity Culture. Our vision is for race equity to be achieved in society, and helping leaders and organizations build a Race Equity Culture is our strategy to make incremental progress toward it. (Kerrien Suarez pictured at right.)
We hold space and curate resources for nonprofit executives, philanthropic executives, and consultants focused on racial equity. Through our convenings and network, we provide access to tools and resources, and connections to peers also doing the work, creating a “container” where leaders and organizations can accelerate their work on racial equity.
We thought about what was missing in practice around racial equity, both as executives in organizations and external consultants. Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture outlines a framework for organizational culture so leaders can find their organization and identify a clear set of practices and advance race equity. Awake to Woke to Work is a playbook of sorts. I shy away from calling it a guide since there is no checklist or cookie cutter set of steps guaranteed to help you make progress on racial equity in your organization.
The framework does provide clear management and operational tactics, organized around seven “levers” of what we call the Race Equity Cycle, so leaders can easily get a sense of where they are on the spectrum of Awake to Woke to Work, and develop a clear understanding of what’s required to build a Race Equity Culture. Based on feedback from stakeholders, the publication is successful in achieving that.
What are some of your career highlights?
That’s an interesting question. I would say this role without question. My career has been building to the point where I can do the work I am doing. A few years ago, I quit a job – I’m sure we will return to this – and focusing on inclusion and equity in the social sector is what I wanted to do. But, I didn’t know if it was possible, or exactly how to go about doing it. Stepping outside of a full-time job for over year, I focused on supporting leaders of color through executive coaching and consulting engagements where all of my clients were people of color-led organizations. My work shifted to an equity focus that leveraged my consulting background. I could assimilate information from clients and figure out how to support leaders in their day to day work to shift individual and organizational practice toward equity.
My training in strategic planning and consulting aligns well with the theory of change for Equity in the Center. How do we support leaders and organizations, raise awareness of structural and institutional racism, and drive compound progress on equity across the sector? I don’t have to pretend that race doesn’t matter to how and why we work the way we do in the social sector, and that is a huge personal and professional victory. Many of us spend years of our career in white dominant settings pretending that race doesn’t matter when it is a crucial element of our lived experience in the workplace and broader society. I’m in a role where I can be my full self at work, and my full self and her lived experience as a professional with 20+ years’ experience in white dominant workplaces is a critical asset.
Pretending that race doesn’t matter makes me think of the weight of internalized oppression.
As people of color, we are socialized to go along to get along in white dominant spaces. There are certain things we are supposed to say or not say. We may be penalized for mentioning that race is at play and relevant. We are aware of real consequences, and it affects the choices you make. When I quit my job in the middle of a check in meeting, I had decided that I wasn’t going to feel oppressed any more in my job. All of the organizations we supported were in partnership with Black and brown communities, but all of the decision makers were white and couldn’t convey the relevance of race. I felt oppressed in my work.
I was in an education reform adjacent organization prior to being a consultant, and the degree of explicit and implicit racism tied to the dynamic I just described was atrocious. Charter management organizations and an entire network of supportive organizations all grew out of one organization’s “movement” 20 years ago. Missionaries came from outside of the community to fix Black and brown children. Everyone leading those organizations feels supremely satisfied with the lofty missions they have.
One of my favorite reads of 2018 is Decolonizing Wealth, where Edgar Villanueva brilliantly calls out philanthropy and the social sector for being one giant plantation driven by a colonial missionary model. He criticizes philanthropy as a sector, and not just foundations per se, but venture philanthropy and funders, on what he calls the loans to gift spectrum. The sector was designed to prop up colonization and perpetuate the social system that generated white donors’ wealth.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
I was initially stumped by this question, but think “Awake to Woke to Work” sums it up. I’ve collected skills that have been helpful in this particular role, but have also collected lived professional experiences, as well as just being a Black person in this country, that compounded and brought me where I am. I have a growing awareness of my own privilege and growing awareness of the level of internalized racism…how the choices that I make can dehumanize me since many of them stem from the belief that I have to do things a certain way to “win” and make money and be successful.
The game is rigged, and part of the rigging is the belief among people of color that, if we play by the white man’s rules, then we can win. It’s baked into assimilation: get an education, dress a certain way, make money, achieve the “American Dream.” Assimilating means you have to negate the skin you’re in through adopted behaviors and customs. I have lived and made white dominant choices all of my life and, over the years, have been moving from Awake to Woke to Work. I’m working to dismantle structural racism and how it shows up in our work (and in my own management practice). When I left the consulting job and became independent, I moved from Woke to Work with that transition.
When I became an independent consultant, my first contract was with Surge Institute, which is led by the phenomenal Carmita Semaan. It was Surge’s first cohort and my first coaching contract. Carmita’s leadership approach informed why I doubled down on equity and support for leaders of color. Baked into the fellowship curriculum and experience is Carmita’s leadership philosophy that the things we are socialized to believe make us weak (in order to not be threatening) limit our capacity to be great. You can fulfill your potential for greatness only when you lean into what defines you as a person, things which may be perceived as weaknesses, the things we are socialized to hide.
As people of color, we hide a lot about ourselves and our culture by virtue of assimilation. Carmita articulated for me that the amount of energy it takes to box yourself up will forever limit your ability to fulfill your potential as a leader. Only when leaning into and accepting the weaknesses or characteristics you perceive to make you “less than” can you fulfill your potential for greatness as an individual.
All of these experiences, microaggressions, discussions with friends over drinks, I can use to make things better and pour into work at Equity in the Center. I would credit Carmita with sparking the conscious Woke to Work shift in my life and work. As a woman of color in white settings, we are oppressed in our work, yet we oppress one another. We hurt one another using the tenets of white supremacy…that’s part of the evil genius of the white supremacist patriarchy. Those carrying the water are the people who are themselves oppressed.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I’d use the example of quitting my job. There were some logistical elements that didn’t work for my life at that point, but I quit in the middle of a check in once it was no longer tenable to be in an organization where we were explicitly talking about serving organizations whose clients were overwhelmingly Black and brown, yet we didn’t have Black and brown people well represented on our team. I felt complicit in holding up white supremacy.
Race was a non-issue; it was not discussed. The only time race was discussed was to say our clients’ stakeholders were disproportionately Black and brown. I needed to transition to something where I could explicitly talk about race and racism. There was no awareness of privilege or how ironic, let’s just say, it was for white people to stand in a room talking about how great it is to serve Black and brown people with the overwhelming whiteness of leadership. In the first conversation about race, I described myself as the whitest Black person they could find for the job.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
For 2018, Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. I want to talk and think about decolonizing the social sector. What Edgar has done is written a bold, brilliant book that does just that. He beautifully lays out for white people what colonization and decolonization are, and does so in a way that foundations on the loan to gift spectrum can understand and begin to grapple with. With Edgar, he is speaking specifically to his peers; he’s been in philanthropy for decades. He’s criticizing his own work and lifting up the sector as the oppressors of the people it purports to support.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
I was going to say when I quit in a check-in (Laughter). We are accustomed to thinking we have to deal with that trauma and oppression in a sector that brags about serving Black and brown communities, yet cannot acknowledge that race matters. I was complicit in oppressing other people of color by being part of this system. Those of us in these leadership roles are complicit in oppressing other people of color when we make decisions about funding, resource allocation and who is “qualified” for this or that based on white supremacist standards of education, culture and behavior.
This work is exhausting. What’s your approach to self-care? Where do you find joy and how do you restore yourself?
Emotional trauma and emotional burnout are real. I think for me, when I left that job and transitioned to consulting, it took me about 6-12 months to recharge. What I had done was take time off from working with and for white people to heal and focus especially on our people, and the challenges and strengths of this work. By the time I transitioned to Equity in the Center, I had built up the emotional reserve to lead these stressful conversations on race and racism in organizations. Over the past year, I’ve been managing lots of stressful conversations. I try to not work when I don’t have to. I lean away from 50+ hour work weeks, and make better choices about what needs to be done now or later. I need to be still. I’ve blocked time on my schedule so I am not working after certain hours, and spend time with family and friends.
Another thing is not explaining myself to white people and white women in particular. In this line of work, where I facilitate these conversations, time off counts. Women of color will say the thing to move the work and call it out; we are not compensated for that. It’s a struggle being in an organization where I am called upon to explain certain things when I am not there as a facilitator on issues of race. I set boundaries as part of my self-care work. A, B, C is an issue. I am not going to spend the next 45 minutes explaining your privilege to you. Google it. It’s profoundly draining for us. My current challenge is how to balance the energy it takes to have those conversations in my personal life or in my work life when I’m not the facilitator.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
I think it’s a constant journey. I think about what I learned from Carmita’s example: embracing the things you have struggled to hide and using them as your strengths. As long as you devote energy to policing yourself, you’re limiting your full potential. I have to acknowledge that quitting my job during a check in was due to economic privilege. Think about how can you unbox yourself and bring your full self to work. That’s my advice knowing there are challenges, barriers and economic realities – how can you mine lived experiences and strengths to help you fulfill your potential as a leader and speak truth in that context?
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
The social sector primarily serves Black and brown people and, notwithstanding white supremacy, the sector should be led by people of color. Full stop. If you look at some national organizations with women of color at the helm, change has been rapid (and rapid is a relative term.) An example of this is Demos’ racial equity transformation, which was directly tied to Heather McGhee as president. We need more Black women in leadership roles in the social sector and in the for-profit sector.
If white-led orgs that lead the field were led by people of color, then there would be a shift. Look at the Ford Foundation. Serving communities of color and being led by people of color are two different things. More Black women, specifically, and more people of color generally in the C-Suite in these organizations is critical. Which is not to say that we as people of color don’t often uphold white supremacy culture as leaders. We have work to do as well. But, broadly speaking, this is the biggest change I think needs to happen.
What advice do you have for the social sector to move from Awake to Woke to Work?
Read Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture and think about the four levels at which racism operates: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural. Think about race and racism and your role in each of those areas, your role in your organization, and your identity. Think about institutional change you can begin to make. Where do you sit relative to work on and understanding of the four levels, and what action can you take in your role? There are economic and political dimensions, so there is only so much you can do unless you’re the CEO, but begin from wherever you are. The publication itself has really great advice and specific tactics for individuals and organizations.
As women of color, though, even with great ideas, every move we make has to be calculated due to how our leadership will be perceived in light of implicit bias and stereotypes. Every white-collar Black woman I know has gotten performance reviews that say she’s too passionate, too direct… the leadership we put forward is not always well received. As you calculate what you can do inside an organization, there is the reality of where we are in this country to contend with.