Achieving Racial Equity Is Integral to Sustainability

We are observing that sustainability and impact professionals are starting to address racial justice as a part of their work more consistently. Today, we hear from guest blogger Alice Korngold, author, thought leader and President & CEO of Korngold Consulting, who shares her perspectives on why racial equity is fundamental to achieving sustainability.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth—all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests (U.N.). The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been embraced by thousands of companies and nonprofit organizations. However, the SDGs will only be aspirational until we recognize that racial inequity and injustice will continue to thwart progress.

Racial equity is fundamental to achieving sustainability.

As we reckon with social, economic, and environmental challenges, we must acknowledge the pernicious legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and continued discrimination.

“A close examination of wealth in the U.S. finds evidence of staggering racial disparities. Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception. The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens. This history matters for contemporary inequality in part because its legacy is passed down generation-to-generation through unequal monetary inheritances which make up a great deal of current wealth.” (Brookings)

Additionally, as shown by the World Economic Forum, the economic legacy of COVID-19 has been calamitous for Black Americans, “further increasing the racial wealth divide.” (WEF) The imperative to achieve racial equity is not only a matter of decency, humanity, and justice but “eliminating the racial wealth gap would actually present a tremendous opportunity for the overall US economy.” (WEF)

Systemic barriers to access capital have limited the ability of people of color to build businesses, live in safe neighborhoods with good schools, and accumulate wealth. In 2010, approximately 40 percent of Black Americans lived in metropolitan areas of very high segregation, 50 percent in areas of high segregation, and only 10 percent in areas with moderate segregation (Moving Toward Integration: The Past and Future of Fair Housing). In spite of legislation, there has been continued discrimination based on race in approval of loans and the price charged for loans (Pew Research Center). Further evidence shows that Black homebuyers are more likely to be denied mortgages than other homebuyers (Lending Tree). The gap in denial rates causes reduced economic opportunity for many Black Americans and diminished opportunity to access jobs and to accumulate wealth.

There is an abundance of data, research, and studies that document racial inequity. “The persistent racial wealth gap in the United States is a burden on Black Americans as well as the overall economy.” (McKinsey) As Pamela Newkirk cautions, however, “revelations of stark inequality in recent decades have continually failed to spark the seismic shift that’s needed to fold diversity—to integrate justice—into the center of American life. They have, instead, triggered temporary fixes, public expressions of regret, and pledges that have failed to usher in enduring change.” (Diversity, Inc.)

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” —James Baldwin

We can study and learn about the social, economic, and environmental problems facing our communities and the world, including the fundamental issues of racial injustice and inequity. Yet, only when we “get proximate and close to the things we are passionate about changing,” can we truly see, feel, and understand the problems well enough to drive the necessary solutions. In his quest to right injustice, Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director and Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) urges us to “get close to the things that matter, get close to the places where there are inequality and suffering, get close to the spaces where people feel oppressed, burdened, and abused,” said Stevenson. “See what it does to your capacity to make a difference, see what it does to you.”

While most of us do not devote ourselves to causes in the way that Stevenson does, there is much for us to learn in how we live our lives and through service to our communities as volunteers and nonprofit board members. Getting proximate to things that matter is a valuable opportunity to bear witness and take action to improve the well-being of others and the world in which we live.

Through nonprofit board involvement, we have the opportunity to bear witness, tell the story, and take action. Nonprofit board service is the ultimate experience in ethics, accountability, and leadership.

Data from multi-year studies and our experience training and matching over a thousand business people to NGO and nonprofit boards for thirty years show us that board service can be transformational. In thousands of surveys and scores of interviews with business people who serve on nonprofit boards, they attest to the value of their board experiences in helping them to

  • See first-hand the imperative of a quality education, access to healthcare, workforce development, racial justice, racial equity, and environmental preservation to achieve a more prosperous and sustainable world.
  • Appreciate the perspectives of people from different backgrounds than their own, even to the extent that they change their behaviors back at work by forming more inclusive teams and committees, and hiring and promoting more inclusively.
  • See how their companies can drive innovative solutions to our most pressing problems. In ways, in fact, that grow value for their companies, while also improving communities where their employees and customers live and work.

“We cannot make good decisions from a distance,” says Stevenson, the author of The New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. “If you are not proximate, you cannot change the world.” Volunteering, nonprofit board service, and direct engagement with the people whose lives your company touches will make you a better leader, for your company, your community, and the world.

Alice Korngold is President & CEO of Korngold Consulting. She is the author of A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems…Where Governments Cannot (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses (Jossey-Bass, Wiley, 2005) and chapters in both editions of The Handbook of Board Governance (Wiley, 2016 and 2020). Follow her on Twitter @alicekorngold.

Continue to hear from thought leaders in this space by following our Racial Equity in Action series on the Presidian Blog, where we explore how, as sustainability and impact leaders, we can move the needle toward a more equitable and just society. Our series sits at the intersection of racial justice and social responsibility and features insights from the PGS community as well as external experts and thought leaders. Our goal is that through these shared insights we can better address racial inequity as a part of our day-to-day interactions and careers. If you’re looking to accelerate or shift your career, live your values, and lead with purpose, consider joining an upcoming cohort at PGS.