Reflecting on the successes and setbacks defining our organization’s JEDI work
By Sarah Jackson, Executive Director, Vital Communities
For those of you who know me, you are aware that sharing my feelings and struggles publicly does not come easily to me. I am embracing the challenge to do so because I believe that we have been shifting as an organization, and as we move through our newest turning point, I want to communicate – in the event that it’s helpful for other organizations in a similar place – a snapshot of where we’ve been, the hurdles we’ve faced, and our vision for the future. I also want to set the stage for this new section on our website, a space of accountability and progress tracking.
As I reflect upon my Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) journey at Vital Communities since stepping into the role of Executive Director, a whirlwind of emotions and experiences comes to mind: hope and despair, inspiration and overwhelm, learning and unlearning, relief and anxiety, progress and failures, listening and misunderstandings, joy and fear, relationships and losses, smiles and tears … all of which will continue, I realize, to characterize my journey as Executive Director, working with others to shape the organization.
Prior to my joining Vital Communities in October 2020, a uniquely charged time nationwide, the JEDI Committee shared a list of resources that they had curated for the staff and Board to absorb. I was excited by the variety of material on the list, and by the fact that the Committee was composed of both staff and Board members. I soon learned about how the organization had been grappling with challenges articulating and integrating JEDI, and I urged the Board to revise our Mission Statement to signal their commitment to a new way of working and showing up in the community. In early 2021, the Board agreed to consider this, and after multiple iterations with staff and Board members, we arrived at the following, adding the italicized text.
“Vital Communities engages Upper Valley people, organizations, and communities to create equitable solutions to our region’s challenges.
To fulfill this mission, we will:
• Identify, include, engage, and connect diverse groups in our community so that our goals and approach are informed by people of all ages, genders, races, cultures, faiths, abilities, educational backgrounds, professions, documentation status, income levels, sexual orientations, and geographic locations throughout the Upper Valley;
• Recognize and challenge systemic racism and all forms of discrimination in our organization and community;
• Incorporate justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in all our efforts.”
We referred to these directives as the “amplification” of our Mission Statement, and they were approved by the Board and staff in March 2021. An important milestone for the organization, the amplification set the stage for more changes in subsequent months and years, many of which are described on our JEDI webpage.
As time went on, however, cracks started to appear in our ability to uphold this amplification and demanded our attention. Staff expressed concerns that we weren’t fully “walking the talk.” Internally, for example, the question of unlimited sick leave for all staff emerged as a matter of equity, especially for those contending with chronic health conditions. Our JEDI Committee’s sense of agency was clouded by ambiguity about their role and by my handling of their recommendations, many of which were not adopted, or not prioritized, or not resolved satisfactorily. Looking externally at our projects, some staff voiced objections to our decision to proceed with the Upper Valley Equity Exchange project, pointing out that the project design was not “…informed by people of all …. races…” as promised in the amplification. Community feedback revealed concerns that we are not willing to reflect on our past actions and change, that we are overshadowing the work of smaller, grassroots organizations, that we have limited connections with BIPOC organizations, that we tend to work with “usual” partners, and that we’re not talking about including or representing ALL communities as we implement and communicate about our work.
In essence, we saw and felt the discordance between the amplification of our Mission Statement and our actual patterns of behavior. Its boldness portrayed an end state that – in fact – we have yet to achieve, implying that we are further along than we really are, and thus misrepresenting us. I struggled with acknowledging this, partly because we had worked so hard in early 2021 to change the Mission Statement, and partly because I really wanted us to be in a different place. Removing the amplification felt like a failure. At the same time, I knew that the staff was right in saying that it did not authentically communicate where we are in our JEDI work. We therefore decided to remove the amplification and instead focus on how we envision doing our work – a central theme of our strategic planning process this past year. This ultimately led to the creation of our JEDI principles to guide our work going forward:
- Hold ourselves accountable for our impact as we establish, strengthen, and heal community relationships.
- Advance systems, practices, and policies that are just, both internally and externally.
- Practice continual growth by slowing down, showing up with integrity, testing alternatives to the status quo, and listening to and trusting perspectives that challenge our own.
- Work collaboratively to foster inclusive and welcoming communities where all individuals have access to the resources and community support they need to live and thrive.
- Strive to act in close reciprocity with and respect for the land, climate, and natural ecosystems.
We still uphold the ideals articulated in that Mission Statement amplification over two years ago, but we need to acknowledge that we are on a journey, that progress isn’t linear, and that we have a long way to go. I feel the weight of this realization as the Executive Director, with the mandate to “ensure Vital Communities’ accountability to its diverse constituents” and “lead staff in the shared mission” of the organization. I still have so much to learn and change as I fulfill this role. This blog post is one small example of how stewarding a piece of our JEDI work impacted me. It has been hard, and it has been worth it. And I couldn’t have done it without the amazing staff and Board with whom I work.
With the launch of our new JEDI webpage, my colleagues and I aim to illuminate the work we are trying to do, including the successes and setbacks defining our path. We hope to inspire others navigating similar journeys, fostering an environment of shared growth and collective progress. We welcome your feedback.