“Not again,” I typed with trembling hands in the notes app on my phone. For what felt like the 15th time that day, June 1, 2020, helicopters were flying low, blades chopping through the air so loudly I couldn’t think straight. I’d spent much of that day, like nearly every day last summer, alone in my apartment because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 1, I listened to hundreds of people march up and down 14th Street in Washington, D.C., demanding an end to police brutality and racial injustice. “What do we want?” “Justice!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” Followed by the roar of helicopters, like thunder.
Knowing that I could count on these demonstrators who were marching for justice day after day, rain or shine, made me immensely proud. It offered me a small comfort in a time that offered little. I could see myself reflected in their faces. Young, Black, and tired, but not alone in this fight. However, nestled next to it was a larger, deeper sense of anxiety and fear for the marchers’ safety. Would one of my young New America colleagues lose an eye to a rubber bullet or be pepper sprayed by overzealous cops? Would I wake up to news of more people brutalized by counterprotestors? My fear of inevitable violence against those demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others was constant. The helicopters were a hellish reminder that my fear was very real—that our government would respond to peaceful demonstrators as a threat to suppress by any means necessary.
As people poured onto the streets around the United States and world, companies, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and even Instagram influencers realized that racism—particularly anti-Black racism—was a real thing (finally). Many released statements affirming support, to varying degrees, for the Movement for Black Lives and pledged to "do better.” But as then-New America President and Chief Operating Officer Tyra A. Mariani—the only Black person on New America’s Leadership Team—wrote to staff soon after the murder of George Floyd, most organizations and institutions failed to “recognize and call out the ways in which [they] also uphold systemic inequalities and white supremacy within their own walls.” Tyra and New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter promised us that New America would be different and not stop at virtue signaling. While “[w]e create and support incredible work around access and equity at New America,” they wrote, we have fallen “short within our own (now virtual) hallways.” Equity, especially racial equity, could no longer live on the periphery and only sometimes in policy papers and action labs. We had to have a reckoning of ourselves and our work.
For many Black New Americans and other New Americans of color, Tyra and Anne-Marie’s charge left them feeling seen, and skeptical. Yes, let’s move forward and do better, but where was this when we were being confused for the only other BIPOC on our floor? Why have most of our public events featured white men almost exclusively? Where were the Black managers and program directors? Why are there no Black men in our policy programs? Why now and not then? These questions simmered beneath the surface for many BIPOC staff in town halls and community check-ins, but flowed freely between one another in a whisper network of texts, DMs, and knowing looks during Zoom meetings.
What made this moment different from others? Leadership followed words and platitudes with an explicit promise and timeline: our staff, work, and culture would “reflect the new America we’re trying to build” by 2023. To begin this work, a call was put out for volunteers to join the transformation working group (TWG) to inform the development of a roadmap to guide our equity journey, setting the intention of building a group that reflected the diversity within New America. The response from staff was overwhelming. So many New Americans volunteered that the working group leaders had to limit participants to 22 and promised that there would be many more opportunities for folks to be involved.
I did not feel the same enthusiasm and had no intention of participating in the working group. Like several of my BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) colleagues, I too was skeptical. And I was tired—tired of participating in and leading these conversations, and tired of being disappointed. But a conversation with working group co-lead Cecilia Muñoz reminded me that skepticism is healthy and necessary and that my anti-racism work and community building experience from my time at the William Winter Institute were assets I needed to bring to the table.
Over six weeks in July and August, the TWG conducted over 100 confidential in-depth staff interviews which revealed several truths about attitudes, experiences, and organizational culture. For me, the most compelling findings were the simplest:
- Progress and change will be challenging and the work will be uncomfortable.
- It’s imperative to uncover and address harms both past and present.
- We must establish a common understanding of terms like racial equity, racial competency, anti-racism, and diversity.
- We have to build a community of trust and learning.
As our expert consultant, Tamara Osivwemu, described in her equity transformation recommendations, we have to actively ensure that the implicit is explicit in our racial equity work and embrace the fact that this work will not be linear, but rather cyclical and iterative. For an organization made up of very smart people with perfectionist tendencies, pausing to recognize and fix inequitable practices does not come naturally, and our TWG sprint process was painful, messy, and productive.
While my skepticism remains healthy, I believe that New America is ready to get uncomfortable, put resources and support on the table, and run towards and not away from its own racial reckoning. The clearest example of our commitment to becoming a more inclusive and equitable organization is the recent hire of our new president and first-ever chief transformation officer, Paul E. Butler—a self-identified Black and Asian man with more than 20 years of experience doing and supporting equity-centered work. I believe so strongly in this journey that it’s now my job to make sure we’re living up to our highest, most equitable ideals not only our culture and policies, but also the policy work that we do.
Think tanks are not known for their diversity or ability to attract and retain BIPOC talent. As one of my white colleagues who has spent his career in the military asked in a moment of reflection, “Why don’t I have a diverse team and why am I not attracting one?” If we can continue to ask the hard questions, support our staff, and acknowledge and address complicity and inequity, we’ll move closer to that new America our policy and action work is building.