For many organizations and businesses, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy begins with meetings. Committees are formed, ideas are shared, and dialogue is exchanged. Then what? DEI and anti-racist initiatives often reach a stalemate at this stage. Transforming ideas into action isn’t easy. But it’s necessary to make real change happen.

This Black History Month, United Way of Metro Chicago is sharing what we’re doing in the DEI space and how we’re living out our commitment to being an anti-racist organization, while holding ourselves accountable as we continue to learn and grow.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are integral to what we do,” said Tamiya Aurel, chief people and equity officer for United Way of Metro Chicago. “As a funder and a partner in the community, we are working together to find ways to heal, create solutions, and build a more equitable and just region.”

These solutions began with reshaping how we were structured internally. Three years ago, with new leadership came new opportunity. Led by Aurel and president and CEO Sean Garrett, United Way of Metro Chicago recommitted to advancing racial equity in everything we do, starting with internal processes and workplace culture. We revitalized the staff-led racial equity committee, comprised of a diverse group of employees from all teams and levels of seniority, complemented by a board-led racial equity committee to provide training and self-reflection, approve more equitable funding, and leverage their external partnerships.

“Equity has been a backdrop to our organization’s work for a long time, but the events of the last two years have led us to understand the importance of bringing it center stage,” said Linda Coberly, vice chairperson for the United Way of Metro Chicago board of directors and equity committee chair. “In every aspect of our work—including in Chicago’s neighborhoods, our communications, our employment practices, our funding decisions, our fundraising, and our conversations with civic and government institutions—we need to recognize and reckon with the legacy of racism and the role our institutions have played in perpetuating it. We are committed to working against racism and toward racial equity in everything we do. And we believe that United Way is in a unique position to make a difference.”

Acknowledging our role and responsibility in making a difference to dismantle decades of systemic racism, we hit the ground running. Our staff-led equity committee has hosted racial healing circles and internal educational events, including a screening and discussion of the Ava DuVernay documentary “13th.” We have also created our anti-racism statement and video highlighting our four main pillars of equity work and being transparent about internal and external progress.

“We want to be an employer that recruits and retains a diverse and talented staff, and by practicing that we are strengthening our base in so many ways,” said Jennifer Rusynyk, senior director of revenue analysis and data analytics for United Way of Metro Chicago and a racial equity team member. “This helps us become a healthier organization, providing an inclusive and welcoming work environment, which lets everyone do their best work in whatever role they hold and lets us put better resources out into the community.”

Our community partnerships are at the heart of United Way’s vision of building a stronger, more equitable Chicago region—which is why how we fund and partner with agencies is so vital. The impact of systemic racism on our neighborhoods has produced dramatic gaps in the health, wealth, and economic outcomes for many of our neighbors. We are committed to working alongside our community partners and following their leadership to advance economic opportunity, housing, education, justice, healthcare, and community resources.

In September 2021, we announced the grantees of our first cohort of the United Neighborhoods Equity Fund, which awards unrestricted funding and capacity building to small Black and Latinx-led nonprofits. The fund aims to address historical disinvestment and systemic racism that has made it more challenging for Black and Latinx-led organizations to connect to funders, build rapport, and secure and sustain support for culturally relevant strategies.

“By making our funding process more equitable, we are recognizing harm and disinvestments of the far and recent past and spending real dollars to support community leaders who may not have had access to funding and capacity-building resources any other way,” Rusynyk said.

Looking ahead, we will continue our education with staff and board members, with annual anti-bias training and an abbreviated, self-guided version of United Way of Illinois’ 21-week equity challenge for corporate partners, resource groups, staff, and more. This year, we will continue to learn from our mistakes, looking for ways to move past feel-good conversations and focus on the next steps of growth—leading to change.

“We have made great strides with what we are doing internally, our processes, and how we spend money and treat each other,” Aurel said. “Going forward, as a funder and partner in our community, we will focus on how we are going to use our influence and put some weight behind what we say, bringing others along to see why working against racism and toward equity is important.”

Join us in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion and building a stronger, more equitable Chicago region. Read our anti-racism statement and commitments here.