Redoubling Our Commitment to Racial and Economic Equity

Published aug. 26, 2020

At JFF, our mission is—and always has been—driving economic advancement for underserved communities. And promoting equity is—and always has been—at the core of our work. But over the past few months, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans, we have been reexamining our role in the movement for racial justice. And we have found that, while we always seek to expand opportunities for Black Americans through our work, this moment calls for a renewed commitment to and focus on racial equity.

Therefore, we are taking action to more directly address how our nation’s postsecondary education and training systems can create the conditions to help members of our most vulnerable populations advance economically—with special attention to Black learners and workers. And I’m thrilled to announce that JFF Vice President Michael Collins, a longtime leader in our organization and the postsecondary field, will lead this effort.

This work is even more urgent in the face of a global pandemic that has had outsize health and economic impacts on people of color. Responding to the COVID-19 crisis without an intentional focus on racial equity would be woefully insufficient, to say the least, preventing us from moving toward an equitable recovery and a more just society.

Dismantling injustice will require the actions of many, many people and organizations taking steps to make change.

To start, we need to set goals that are commensurate with the size of the problem. No longer can we settle for incremental changes that fail to put a dent in the systemic inequities that have persisted for generations. We must think big and hold ourselves accountable for having a meaningful and lasting impact—as individuals, organizations, and as a sector and wider society. We don’t want to have this same conversation in a decade or two, lamenting how we wish we had aimed higher and pushed harder.

This will require all of us to act. As Jim Shelton of Blue Meridian Partners aptly stated at JFF Horizons in June, systemic injustice does not emerge from one action by a bad person, but from the choices and actions of thousands of individuals over time. Dismantling injustice will likewise require the actions of many, many people and organizations taking steps to make change.

Acknowledging the terrible racism and oppression in our country and making a statement against it is the first step, the beginning of a journey toward building a more equitable, inclusive, and just future. But this moment calls for more than rhetoric. We can’t say “Black Lives Matter” in one breath and continue the same old practices that perpetuate legacies of racial inequity in the next. We need to align our resources—namely, our talent, time, and money—with our values.

I’ve been reflecting on my own values and my own career—from the time I spent at the U.S. Department of Labor to my tenure as CEO at JFF. I’ve found myself asking, where could I have pushed harder for greater equity and inclusivity in our work and in our world, or taken swifter action to change policies and practices that adversely impacted people of color? How could I have used the organization and teams I’ve led to fight more effectively for justice—for racial justice, social justice, and economic justice?

We need the right leaders to spearhead this work. The nonprofit sector has long been dominated by white voices, and we must recognize that white individuals—myself included—cannot truly understand the experiences of Black and brown Americans, though we can commit to listening and learning. In order to best serve communities of color, we need inclusive and racially diverse leadership.

At JFF, Michael has been a relentless collaborator with a successful record leading strategic partnerships with nationally recognized nonprofit organizations on the leading edge of postsecondary reform, including Achieving the Dream, The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, and the Community College Research Center. He’s a sought-after public speaker about issues of race, education, policy, and economic mobility. Michael started his career as an English teacher in San Antonio and later served as assistant commissioner for participation and success at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

In his new role at JFF, Michael will lead development and implementation of a new framework and strategy to promote inclusive economic advancement for populations that have historically struggled in our economy, with special attention to Black learners and workers. Leveraging resources and expertise in practice, research, and policy from across JFF’s program units and JFFLabs, the framework and strategy will update the mobility narrative so that it more precisely reflects the skills and credentials workers will need to succeed in today’s labor market and prepare for the future of work. The framework and strategy will serve as the foundation of a robust organization-wide JFF effort to influence the practices of educational institutions, workforce organizations, intermediaries, associations, states, systems, and philanthropy.

Michael is the right leader to drive such important work during this crucial time. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks.

JFF Horizons Scale Plenary: "States Responding at Scale" with Michael Collins