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Finding Our People: A Communications Institute Rooted in Racial Equity and Emotional Intelligence

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Photo of the blog author, Emily KatzBy Emily Katz, Vice President of Public Affairs, Northern California Grantmakers

When I joined NCG three and a half years ago, our communications was staffed by a competent and personable team of one. The woman who held the job had a knack for discerning what people wanted and delivering just that thing. This made everyone happy. Most of the time. Inevitably, though, it did not always make her happy. Because what people wanted didn’t always match what she herself thought was best. Expressing disagreement, it turned out, was her kryptonite.

To support her growth, I asked her to find a professional development program where she could master the finer arts of workplace conflict. The first year, she came back empty-handed and we devised a plan to broaden her search.

Another year went by and, when nothing turned up, I took over the search myself. I’d been certain that somewhere, someone had created a training to help mid-career nonprofit professionals apply emotional intelligence to strategic communications and the pursuit of racial equity.

From this fruitless search an idea began to form. Why couldn’t we devise our own training: a program that would weave together strategic communications and racial equity with emotional intelligence? We realized early on, to perform well in strategic communications, mid-career professionals would need to operate using cultural competence to advance racial equity with emotional intelligence.

At about that time, serendipity brought communications training enthusiast Robert Bray into my office, and we hatched a plan. We interviewed a dozen racially diverse mid-career communications professionals as well as many of their bosses to hear about their priorities and pain-points.

Their chief concern was a feeling of isolation in their own organization and in the broader non-profit scene, as reflected by one applicant, “I have not found my peer cohort yet. Bay Area philanthropy can feel closed and siloed.” Communications departments are smaller than their program-focused counterparts. Many mid-career professionals reported difficulty asserting their communications expertise in the face of the deep content prowess wielded by program-peers.

Many also hit a wall when it came to persuading program staff on the best way to reach the people with a stake in their particular program areas.

Diversity, equity and inclusion factored high as both a value and source of conflict, especially for staff of color, in organizational culture and communications. “As a minority woman, I want to be who I am and bring my full self to work at our foundation,” said one staffer.

“How do I blend my authentic self into a workplace that looks very different from me?” reflected another.

Today, looking back on the six-month cohort, it’s clear the combination of emotional intelligence, strategic communications and racial equity made this diverse cohort of learners feel whole, heard, and deeply connected to each other.

Two sessions on emotional intelligence mapped the neuro-science of anger and drew from real-life experiences to practice getting ‘above the line’ when an emotional surge makes it hard to see other options for responding to strong feelings.

Two session on strategic communications provided hands-on experience developing goals and preparing for crises. A session devoted to racial equity traced the arc of a sophisticated communications strategy countering oppositional messages challenging affirmative action policies. The anti-affirmative action campaign had borrowed from affirmative action words and images making it hard to distinguish.

A final session on storytelling wrapped it all together with a structural analysis of the elements of story, learning to break down power in the opposition’s narrative. Best of all, the lesson came in the form of a fairytale making it easy to remember and intuitive to apply.

The faculty’s diverse lived experience, identity, and skill-sets reflected deep connection to the three elements. Each of the six modules focused on one of the elements—communications, equity, emotional intelligence—and thoughtfully incorporated the others. For example, the session on crisis communications explored professional development challenges for people in mid-career roles who aren’t in leadership positions and don’t have decision-making authority to execute a plan. It further teased out the complexity of managing a crisis dealing with the mistreatment of a racial or gender identity with which the communication professional identifies.

Participants consistently gave the session the highest available ranking in their evaluations and encouraged NCG and its faculty to offer the session in future years.

“I really appreciated the cohort and how well the team integrated racial equity with more hard skills related to communications. I was very skeptical going in, having attending many 'equity' or 'DEI' events intending to be inclusive but just checking the boxes.

“I would definitely keep the faculty as is, or to folks with similar blends of humor, hard skills, and lived experience,” said one participant.

NCG is gearing up for another round in 2020, hoping to forge further connections by breaking the feeling of isolation experienced by so many communications staff, and building a strong pool of emotionally intelligent, equity-focused talent for the social sector.