C.Marie Taylor with Montgomery County first responders during the April 2020 Leadership Montgomery Core Class Session

Like many in our community and around the world, Mission Partners and Leadership Montgomery made the decision to postpone our annual Spring Convening, The Business Case for Race Equity. The rescheduled event will now take place on October 6th at AMP by Strathmore. To keep this important conversation going between now and October, Mission Partners will share a monthly racial equity blog featuring interviews with business leaders and community members embedded in this work. 

Here’s the first blog in our series featuring an interview between Carrie Fox and  C. Marie Taylor, President and CEO of Leadership Montgomery. 

Q1. Hi C. Marie. Just a few weeks ago, the topic of race equity was pressing on the minds of many major corporations and foundations across the U.S.  But here we are now during a global public health crisis, where no community and no company is immune to the challenges of COVID19. Companies have shifted their efforts to the crisis of now: Keeping their doors open, doing the best they can to keep their employees on payroll, and protecting their customers and clients from COVID19.

At a time like this, when the world is wrapped up in surviving COVID19, why can’t we afford to let down our guard on issues of race equity?  What happens if businesses only think about the health of their bottom line over the health of their workforce?

Thanks, Carrie.  As you’re talking about keeping businesses open, if you think about the frontline workers who are doing that work, they are usually people of color. If you don’t think about race equity, soon you won’t have the staff to keep businesses open. All of this affects what is happening with the economy. It starts from the one person that is giving you the Uber Eats all the way up to Marriott closing its doors. It’s an entire system we have to think about. 

You can’t stop thinking about how all this plays out to the bottom line because when we rebound, who is going to buy your product? There could also be opportunities to change how you’re doing your work but you’re missing those key voices at the table. If you’re not thinking through an equity lens and have the frontline worker standing next to the person that has all the shares — and saying well here’s how we could do business differently — you’re missing all that opportunity by putting it to the side. 

Q2. Related, what kinds of questions should employers and business leaders be asking themselves now, and what outcomes should they be working towards?

They should be asking who is on the frontline, how are we protecting those on the frontline and what systems do we have in place if, God forbid, they get sick. We can’t keep our business going if they don’t have healthcare or access to public transportation. Many frontline workers have to take public transportation, which is almost at a halt. Am I paying them a wage where they can afford to drive to work or have a car? As we’re taking a pause you have to think about transportation, housing, healthcare, even your marketing – you have to look at it through an equity lens because you’re missing an opportunity to learn how to show up after this crisis ends. It would be amazing if business owners could think about, “Well if I was back on that frontline, is this how I wanted to be served as the employee?” If you take off your president hat and look through an equity lens and think I am Bob who is working at Safeway next to Susie with no protection and really back healthcare, is that how I want to be treated? So here is your chance to pause and put yourself back in that position through an equity lens. 


Q3. I know the Kellogg Report, The Business Case for Racial Equity made a big impression on you, and you saw quite a bit of applicability to our community here in Montgomery County. Tell me more about what resonated with you about that report, and why it’s so important to be driving messages of race equity home in Montgomery County.

There are a bunch of things that spoke to me, but one of the big things is how the inequities in healthcare show up and cause a huge burden on the rest of the system. That is completely timely right now. If you think about the three big pillars of the Kellogg report, they talk about housing, education, and healthcare and the gaps in these areas – those are all showing up right now. To tie this back to the economy, if we have the opportunity to do some drastic changes around those inequities now, then perhaps for the next crisis, if there is one,  the economy will be better equipped to not need so many bailouts because there is more equity across the system. Now I don’t need as much, because you gave me more. If you think about these trillion dollar bills that are passing, those resources were there all along but if we had spread it out a little differently and thought through an equity lens, perhaps we wouldn’t need so many of the bailouts that are happening. It will be interesting to see how the bailouts trickle across and down. 


Q4. Montgomery County made history not too long ago with its racial equity bill, but there has been a lot of skepticism in the community about if that will amount to much in terms of real change.  What does having that racial equity bill in place mean to you, and what does success need to look like as a result of the bill?

What success looks like to me is hope for the future and being pragmatic about it. We have leaps and bounds to go. In terms of where we are as a county, it goes back to that point I was making before. We have $5.5 billion in this county in terms of resources. And it’s not until we got to this crisis mode that we start thinking about distributing those resources differently. If we had done that through an equity lens 20 years ago we would have figured out all the pockets of need — or areas kids need laptops to drill down to one specific thing — and they would have already had them. Now you’re scrambling to get them, when we knew all along there are kids that don’t have access to food, laptops, internet, healthcare, eyeglass and now we’re running around trying to figure it out. From this point forward, here’s our opportunity to make a change. Are they going to have voices at the table who are completely affected so they can think about how they do the work? Are they going to talk to parents who don’t have internet, who don’t have laptops, who don’t have cars to get to the food that’s being distributed and figure out how to have a different system so it’s not as hard to get this work done. 

Q5. You work with hundreds of leaders every year, across all sectors. What are some of the themes you hear year after year in LM classes about issues of race? Where do you see progress being made, and where do you think progress needs to happen faster among our region’s leadership?

The number thing I hear is “I didn’t know.” And that speaks volumes to what information has been given to us as children, as adults, or what information we seek — I’m speaking particularly around race, racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And particularly these are typically non-people of color who are saying I didn’t know this or I didn’t know that. And then my question is why didn’t they know that; I know all of these things. So what are we doing to help them figure that out?

The thing that gives me a little bit of hope and where I see some change now is there is more willingness to talk about it. People are saying I didn’t know and I’m willing to talk further. And then after there needs to be collaboration, dedication and investment to action. It’s one thing to say I don’t know race is a social construct, but what are you going to do to learn more about that? Or what are you going to do to take it back to your office, educate yourself more, educate your staff and show up a little bit differently. That’s what I would love to see. I see it individually with some companies and I stay hopeful. 

Q6. When it comes to race in the workplace, it seems that we’re often talking around the issues, but very often companies don’t feel equipped to take on the issue. Talking from the perspective of an employer and organizational leader, how have you faced this within Leadership Montgomery, and what guidance or tools would you offer to those who are working to build equitable and inclusive organizations?

We’ve developed an entire body of work called Leadership in Action, it can take organizations from having a two hour conversation about race to a two day conversation about race. We are trying to meet people where they are at the “I don’t know” statement to really investing and changing their organizational culture. We started this work within. We looked at our staffing, business values, core statement and worked with Mission Partners on strategic messaging and planning. So we started internally to figure out what work we needed to do on equity before we took it externally, and from there have been able to launch this work based on the lessons we learned and what we hear are Leadership Montgomery’s core strengths and the community needs. 

Q7. What needs to go into a race equity plan before you put it into the world?

The first thing is that there has to be internal commitment to seeing the work through. There has to be atual dollars and investment, group buy-in from everyone in the organization and you have to have someone from the outside come in and help you. They can take a critical lens to see where there is buy-in or push back to help marry the two. And I think by having someone like Mission Partners or Leadership Montgomery help them figure out that work, they can as a collective body show up differently. This work is sticky, hard, people don’t get it, and there are moments of vulnerability that leaders don’t want to talk about. But on the other side you get a beautiful work product that can help you show up differently and by having an external person or organization they can help you wade through that and really map it out so you don’t feel stuck. For us, we tackled it head on and we brought it outside people to help with this intneral work. 

Q8. We can say culture is formed anywhere, but inside an organizational culture start at the top. It is the tone that we set, the actions we take, and how we talk and engage that others will follow. As we think more about this time of pause, how can leaders show up as it relates to equity and set a culture of vulnerability and inclusion?

As we’re home and trying to figure this work out, it would be great for leaders to start with their gratitude. I’m grateful for great healthcare, that I can work at home, and that I can talk to you through the internet and computer. If I take that gratitude and then unpack it and say who doesn’t have these things? Who can’t work from home? Who doesn’t have access to the internet? Who doesn’t have great healthcare? And then say what is my role in helping in that as a leader? Let’s talk about the internet. I have the internet and I know other people don’t. One thing I can do practically is send information about how you can get access to free internet. I’m on a board and lending them our account so they can continue to conduct meetings. One practical thing you can do in terms of equity — the easy thing right now — work from a place of gratitude, figure out the things that you have and who doesn’t have that. In your business and personal goals, what are the one or two things you can start to tackle? 

Well, it is hard to sum up such a full conversation but the three lessons I have learned talking with you, C. Marie:

  • To start and lead with gratitude
  • To be willing to face what you don’t know and do something about it
  • To use this pause as a place from which to grow

I really appreciated our time together, and the practicality of your insights- especially in this moment of time.  Thanks for all you do, C. Marie.

Thank you, that was an excellent summary!

For additional resources visit: The Meyer Foundation, The Kellogg Foundation, Mission Partners, Leadership Montgomery

By Elena Hilton

One of my favorite movies of the past few years is Arrival, which stars Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who’s recruited to figure out how to communicate with aliens that have landed on Earth. I’m not one for sci-fi stories, but as a writer, I love how the movie centers on the role that language and communication play in expressing who we are, how we think, and how we view the world. Words are more than just letters strung together. They shape our ideas, how we process information, and how we form judgments. And they are among the most powerful tools we have.

During my first month at Mission Partners, I took part in Mission Forward’s Race and Identity Training. I learned so much valuable information during that one-day session, but the activities around equitable and inclusive language stood out to me most. Prior to the training, I thought I had the tools to incorporate equity into my work, but it’s less about knowing everything, and more about continuing to learn and question the systems as I know them. In the workshop, we addressed our own identities, where we hold power and privilege, and where we are often pushed to the margins. My identity as a white woman in the United States allows me certain unearned privileges because of my race, while my gender means I must navigate the effects of sexist cultural values and policies. 

To that end, I wanted to share some tips I took away from our Race and Identity training, and continue to use in my day-to-day work at Mission Partners. Hopefully they will spark some a-ha moments for you, too:

  • Labels don’t apply to everyone.

Our brains are constantly searching for ways to categorize information through labeling, but certain words and phrases that might be embraced by some, could be shunned by others. When thinking about how to describe individuals and communities, it’s important to remember there are no “one-size-fits-all” labels. As a white woman, the most important thing I can do is ask, listen, and research, because my identity means there are many community experiences I don’t know firsthand. When discussing communities, I make a concerted effort to determine how those communities refer to themselves. When discussing individuals within communities, I’ve found the best course of action is to ask what terms they’re comfortable with, listen, and adapt to people’s preferences.

  • Think twice about the word “empower.”

“Empower” seems like a bold, positive word, doesn’t it? I definitely thought so, but during Mission Forward’s Race and Identity training, I learned to think about it from a different perspective. When we say an organization or a movement is empowering people, what we’re really saying is that those individuals don’t have power or agency on their own and require help from outside forces. Of course, that’s not true. Instead of using the word empower, consider using “support,” “offering tools,” or “working together to achieve a goal.”

  • Say what you mean.

Racially-coded language is embedded in so much of our day-to-day communications, you might not even realize how certain words have contributed to bias and discrimination. When writing, take a step back and think about what your words imply, paying careful attention to common phrases. One of the most commonly used terms when talking about young people who live in under-resourced communities is “at-risk.” Ask yourself, at-risk of what? Living in a certain area doesn’t make you a risk. A young person living in an under-resourced community shouldn’t feel like they are to blame for the institutionalized barriers impacting their life. 

Don’t be afraid to call out systems of oppression. A word that gets avoided a lot is racism, especially in reference to statements made by people in positions of power. If something is racist, say it’s racist. Don’t say it’s “racially charged” or “inappropriate.” In fact, many news outlets, such as NPR, have explained their decision to label some of President Trump’s tweets racist. By explicitly calling out racist tropes, NPR listeners who weren’t familiar with the history of the phrase “go back where you came from” had an opportunity to learn. So, let’s call racism what it is so we can work to address it by offering solutions on how we can move towards combating it.

If you, like me, are always searching for ways to make your communications materials more thoughtful and inclusive, I’d encourage you to check out this resource that’s been enlightening for me: SumOfUs.org’s Progressive Style Guide.

  • When in doubt, use statistics.

Data is your friendwhen used correctly. Words alone pose a challenge in crafting a complete, accurate narrative. “Aggregating” data by lumping groups together usually is not the right course of action, as it can erase identities. For instance, think twice before saying you have statistics on “Hispanic women.” Categories like this are typically far too overarching and likely can’t fully depict the individual cultures and backgrounds that fall within them. Disaggregated data ensures that people in communities are not viewed as a monolith. 

To offer some ideas, data points and research could be used to dispel the myth that the racial wealth gap is the result of individual actions. Or you could use data to show how racism causes higher Black maternal mortality rates and many other health-related problems. Just keep in mind that research, like language, can hold biases based on how its compiled, so do your due diligence to ensure the statistics and data at hand aren’t worsening or ignoring existing disparities. 

  •  Use people-first language.

The simple way you place a word to either be an adjective or a noun can make all the difference in how your audience thinks about the person you’re describing. Instead of saying “homeless person,” reframe your syntax to say a person experiencing homelessness. Instead of “foster child,” say child in foster care. People are so much more than their situations and environments. 

  • Continue learning.

What I am learning here at Mission Partners is using equitable and inclusive language doesn’t happen without effort. It requires an intentional commitment to continually learning about intersectionality and applying that knowledge on a daily basis. Above all else, know that communication has the power to shape our thinking and our culture at large. When you mindfully choose inclusive and equitable language, you’re helping to encourage a more inclusive and equitable world. 

Interested in learning more about how you can bring equity and inclusion to the forefront of your work? Reach out to us for a cup of coffee, or join us at Mission Forward’s next Race and Identity Training on December 11. 

Two people of different races and genders sitting in front of their laptops

By Becky George

It has long been known that there are quite a few gaps to fill in the arena of diversity, equity and inclusion. Often, well-intentioned organizations try to tackle this work in some capacity but, in reality, may not have the resources or people-power to make it as effective as possible.  

At Mission Partners, we have committed to boldly speaking equity and working towards a more just world. We lead with racial equity and steer away from diversity-only conversations. Internally, we model how one might address this in their own workplace and want to share learnings and pitfalls. We have years of experience helping organizations develop their own equity action plans to meet and exceed their goals on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Our Mission Forward® Race + Identity workshop is an important first step that provides guidance on effective practices and the latest language around diversity, equity and inclusion. Our two-pronged approach addresses both institutionalized racism and oppression as well as the interpersonal racism and oppression. We understand the importance of recognizing how these two levels of oppression cannot be solved without addressing the other. Unfortunately, we have seen this happen repeatedly which prevents progress from occurring. 

Here are some of the ways we’ve seen organizations miss the mark on equity work: 

  1. Hiring a “Diversity Officer” – Without full buy-in from all of senior leadership, staff members who are hired for this type of position may not be set up for success. Goals and deliverables set for this person will likely not be met due to an organization’s competing priorities.
  2. Letting work crises push equity work off the table – In times of crisis, it is easy to let things fall by the wayside to focus on what must happen to end the crisis. However, if equity-based work is not at the center of crisis strategy then the communities who need the support most will likely not be prioritized well.  
  3.  Relying on people of color to own all the “diversity” work – Although it is important for people of color to be key stakeholders and leaders in the work, it is a pitfall when they are the only stakeholders in the work. It is the duty of everyone within the organization to take ownership of the work to move into progress. 
  4. Continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done – If organizations do not take the time to examine their policies, practices and procedures, they risk replication of ongoing inequitable standards. 

The concept at the center of our Race + Identity workshops is to build a culture of empathy as well as develop shared language on racism. We use the time to brainstorm and learn what has and has not worked within organizations to create the next steps on how to implement more actionable equity plans in the workplace. 

| At Mission Forward®, we create transformational trainings that model what is possible in the world. We believe that the future will be inclusive and just. 

Each month, we bring together six thoughtful participants who are ready to tackle racial equity in their workplace and give them practical tools to do the work. As with all of our other workshops, we take a person-first approach in centering equity and justice. Soon, we will be debuting our executive-level Race + Identity workshop for C-Suite leaders and other senior leadership members. Contact us at connect@mission.partners to hear more. 

Our workshops are adaptable and relevant. No matter the industry or the discipline, whether you work on issues of healthcare or housing, to authentically center equity, there must be a willingness to talk about race and center anti-racism in all of our work.

To learn more about Mission Partners’ upcoming Race + Identity Workshops, and to reserve your seat, visit MissionForward.us

by Carrie Fox

What happens when you put a mechanical engineer squarely in the center of a university’s department of obstetrics and gynecology? No, this is not the start of a joke.

In fact, it’s at the center of one of the most fascinating research projects aimed at making childbirth safer.

Dr. Joy-Sarah Vink runs the pre-term birth prevention center at Columbia University Medical Center.  As she said earlier this week on NPR, “rare diseases are being cured in this day and age, but we don’t know what triggers full term labor…when it comes to pregnancy, basic research stalled decades ago.” Most of our research about pregnancy comes from research performed in the 1940s.

But, as other parts of the medical field have evolved, it’s those gaps in knowledge that become issues of life and death.

So, Dr. Vink teamed up with an unlikely ally in Kristin Myers, a mechanics and design teacher who got her start in the automotive industry studying how rubber works under high heat. Together, they’re advancing a powerful new research study to understand what leads to the loss of a pregnancy right on the cusp of viability.

I found this story by NPR’s Alison Kodjak especially fascinating because it’s a perfect reminder that some of our most complicated problems are at the root of some of our most basic and shared experiences. 

But, that’s often where the opportunity lies.

There’s great beauty and power in bringing together unlikely allies in the pursuit of problem solving. It’s an approach I’ve championed since the very beginning of my career, working with the team at The X PRIZE Foundation—an organization that at its heart challenges how we take on some of the world’s grandest challenges.

The reality is that when most of us have a problem to solve, we zero in, take it apart, and focus on that one problem until we have it solved—or think we have it solved. But what if we’re thinking wrong about how to find the right answer?

Putting problems at the center of our thoughts shuts down our creative abilities, but when we start by thinking about the solution, visioneering our desired ending, as my colleagues at the X Prize used to say, we have a far greater success rate of developing that much desired breakthrough idea.

That concept is at the center of our Equity+Design Thinking Days at Mission Partners. Each quarter, we welcome up to 8 people in our Bethesda office to bring on their stickiest social impact or communications challenges for a day of guided Design Thinking exercises designed to provide fresh perspective to the problem.

Design Thinking is a human-oriented problem-solving technique that involves exploring and reframing complex challenges to generate fresh, new solutions. The process was first described by the late Nobel Prize Laureate Herbert A. Simon in his 1969 book Sciences of the Artificial, in which he outlined the core concept that designers have to first empathize with the people whose issues they are trying to address. Design thinkers, vs. traditional problem solvers place human needs at the core of their final product.

Since that time, Design Thinking has seeped its way into nearly every field and every industry. The human-centered approach has helped product engineers get in front of consumer needs and has turned social impact entrepreneurs into booming enterprises.

Given the emphasis we place on Design Thinking, in all of our work with social impact organizations, we decided to turn the process into a public workshop experience, embedding equity-building into the process as well.  Now, our quarterly Equity+Design Thinking Days help social impact professionals work in real time with a small group of unlikely peers to take on their challenges in an out-of-the-box, and most importantly out-of-their-office environment experience.

Through teamwork and project-based learning, participants are given fresh opportunities to see their challenges from a completely different perspective, and therefore gain fresh ideas on how to go about the solution.

No matter the industry or the discipline, whether you work on issues of healthcare or housing, to meaningfully take on the issues that lie ahead, there must be a willingness to go after problems in new ways, and to put people at the center of the solution. Most importantly, there must be a desire to take on the seemingly unsolvable. For when you do, you can experience solutions in powerful new ways.

So, bring on the unsolvable.  We’ve got just the day for you.

To learn more about Mission Partners’ upcoming Equity + Design Thinking Days, and to reserve your seat, visit MissionForward.us



“You can observe a lot by watching.”

Yogi Berra was right.  You can, in fact, observe a lot by watching. The baseball great, who would have turned 93 this weekend, had his fair share of Yogi-isms, but this one has always been my favorite.

Yogi Berra was one of baseball’s greatest catchers, one of the Yankees’ greatest players, and one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. He didn’t set out to be a communications icon, but the little delights of his catchphrases have lived on far beyond the baseball diamond.

I was thinking of this particular phrase recently, while hosting a workshop for a group of communications professionals who wished to examine how their stories were sticking with various audiences. Early on, I could sense that the group was confident about their individual approaches: they were doing what they needed to do in order to inform the content they were producing.

Everything seemed in good working order until I asked a few additional questions about how often members of the group listened to their readers, how they curated story ideas and how they collected feedback.  It wasn’t long before the group realized that they could all stand to do a bit more listening, and a lot more observing. Not necessarily of others, but of their own individual practices.

Observation is so much more than just watching, or listening–it’s a much deeper mental process. Observation allows us to understand information in new ways; it helps us see what’s possible, what’s feasible, and what’s avoidable. And while it is one of the most critical aspects of storytelling, it’s not always employed effectively.

Think about it: How much time do you spend observing your work, and what do you do with the information you collect? If you’re developing content for your organization, who are you calling on for interviews, and who might you be leaving out? How often are you inviting in feedback from your community, and how are they informing what you write about?  How does that investment of time in observation compare to the time you spend formulating ideas, opinions, or content?

Observing is hard, I get it. There’s so much to be done, in so little time, often with so few resources, that we must just keep pressing forward.  Press the story forward, press the campaign forward, press the strategy forward. Observe as best as you can along the way.

But, what if you’re missing something crucial in how you’re presenting information, or packaging stories?  What might more regular observation uncover?

Later this week, I’ll sit down with Ed Yong of The Atlantic to talk about one very important observation he made about his own work, and what he has since done as a result of that observation. We’ll be joined by the founder of StoryCollider, Liz Neeley, who is pushing the envelope in how science stories are told, and how they can be told more simply, and authentically.  They’ve both mastered the art of observation, and I’m thrilled that they plan to share some of their well-honed tips with us.

Our daily lives are busy, and our task lists endless. The notion of observing our own storytelling practices doesn’t always seem feasible.  But, to get to the heart of your best stories, consider Yogi Berra’s words. You may be surprised by what you might uncover.

Mission Forward

Want to learn more about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling? Join us for our upcoming 2018 Mission Forward Spring Reception on Wednesday, May 16, at Mission Partners’ Bethesda office. Learn more and register by clicking here.

By Carrie Fox

“When You Know Better, You Do Better.” 

Maya Angelou

Tucked inside the March 13 edition of our What We’re Reading newsletter, we shared a story written by Atlantic journalist and science writer Ed Yong, who spent two years trying to fix the gender imbalance in his stories.  Inspired by his colleague Adrienne LaFrance, who conducted a similar assessment across all Atlantic journalism, he found that only 24 percent of his last 23 articles quoted sources that were women. And of those stories, 35 percent featured no female voices at all.

“I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.”

Yong’s heartbreakingly honest revelation, and several others like it, spurred my desire to dig in on ways that writers, marketers, and communications directors can build equity and break bias in their storytelling. Major news organizations from NPR to National Geographic have started looking inward to reduce their long-held biases in reporting, but that same fervor to address implicit bias in storytelling simply isn’t showing up from communications directors, marketing directors, and content producers of non-media organizations—even though it should.

What Ed’s story, and others like it, reinforced to me was that as writers, we inherently believe that we’re telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it is there.

If you were to assess the stories on your own website, in your most recent annual report, or across your most recent marketing campaign, how much bias would you uncover? What if the stories you’ve been telling are actually limiting your ability to communicate with your most important audiences? What if, in elevating your organization’s “best” stories, you are unintentionally leaving out some of the most vital voices from your organization’s narrative?

Biases exist in all of us, simply based on our own lived experiences. But anyone can learn to break biases in storytelling, with the right tools and perspective. 

Here are a few tips we’ve started implementing to help our clients write with an equity lens, inspired in part by the findings of Ed Yong and other journalists:

1.  When you focus on who your stories are about, and who benefits from them, you’re more likely to be inclusive in your storytelling.

Bias-free language does not discriminate, but instead includes all readers in a fair and friendly manner. Here are a couple quick ways to test if bias is showing up in your writing:

  • Review your writing for the appropriate use of pronouns to ensure neutrality when referring to a person’s gender identity. For instance, “each manager must report his numbers at the end of the month” presents a bias, as compared to “each manager must report their numbers at the end of the month.” (For a deeper dive on the use of gender-neutral pronouns including the use of non-binary pronouns, check out this New York Times article by Raillan Brooks.)
  • Replace gender-biased terms such as salesman or chairman with bias-free terms, such as salesperson or chairperson.
  • Focus on people, not their conditions or current state, i.e. person-first language. We all experience different moments in our lives, but one need not be defined by those moments. There’s an important difference between describing a homeless person and a person experiencing homelessness, or a foster youth vs. a young person living in foster care.

2. The most important and influential voices in your organization are not always the most expected. 

For years, organizations have been pressed to present their impact via stories, often elevating one or two of the best examples of impact. This small set of success stories is rarely representative of the whole, and may be reinforcing your organization’s own biases by portraying what your organization believes is a picture of success vs. what your community might believe to be success.

  • Assess your own unconscious attitudes and associations to better inform your storytelling. One of the most effective (and free) tools for testing your own unconscious bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created and maintained by Project Implicit, a consortium made up of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.
  • Make content accessible. Beyond examining who is showing up in photos, and which voices are being elevated, have you considered translating your materials so they can be equally accessible within your community, or developing a closed-captioned version of your impact video? Do you offer an option for multiple languages on your website? Take the time to ensure that everyone in your community can access and understand the messages you’re sending.

3. Check your work with a fresh set of eyes, and never discount the importance of community feedback.

Before publishing your next article, annual report or issue brief, test it with people outside of the organization to see if the language you’re using resonates with them. Ask what changes they’d make to change or strengthen the story to make it more inclusive. Then, ask yourself:

  • Are the pronouns she, he and them used close to an equal number of times?
  • Are the pronouns she, he, them, or racial and ethnic role models, used to reference non-stereotyped roles?
  • Is any language about people written as people-first as in, for example, “people with diabetes”?
  • Have labels or conditions been used inappropriately as nouns to describe a group, e.g. “D.C.’s homeless population”?
  • Do you know, or do you need to ask, which term is preferred for a national origin, race, or gender identification for a specific audience?

What we know, just as Ed found in his process, is that it often takes an outside perspective to help discover an unconscious bias. And then, as Maya Angelou so beautifully said, when you know better, you can do better.

Want to learn more about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling? Join us for our upcoming 2018 Mission Forward Spring Reception on Wednesday, May 16, at Mission Partners’ Bethesda office. Learn more and register here.

By Carrie Fox

Simple messages can have a lasting impact.

In the summer of 2016, Carolyn and I attended the Social Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. It was, as it always is, a gathering of powerhouse social entrepreneurs, community leaders, and change agents all committed to developing and advancing impactful social partnerships. The two-day Summit was rich with inspiration and real, face-to-face, no-phone-required connections.

But, the most inspired moment for me came during the opening session. That’s when photographer Robert Fogarty introduced me to his powerful project, #DearWorld.

Since its inception, #DearWorld has traveled the globe, capturing stories of love and loss from Boston marathon bombing survivors to the people of South Sudan. They’ve visited Syrian refugees in the second largest refugee camp in the world. They’ve traveled to Joplin, Missouri, where 160  residents died in a tornado; and Brooklyn, New York, where a 6-alarm fire destroyed 111 homes during Hurricane Sandy. Their most recent series, covered 40 victims’ families, first responders and survivors of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.

Fogarty, who started the project in 2010, originally as a project called Dear New Orleans, has a simple request for each of his photo subjects:

  1. Reflect on your personal story, whatever it may be
  2. Write a message on your skin that symbolizes your personal story
  3. Share your portrait with family, friends and colleagues

The one “rule” he says, is that whatever message or phrase you choose, there must be a real story behind it.  He asks people to share one message to someone, or something that they care about.

Through the project, Fogarty has collected thousands of photos: portraits of children living in refugee camps (“I want the life I had to come back”) to survivors of the Boston Marathon (“Still Standing, Still Beautiful”). He’s collected stories from first generation college students (“I’m going to college”), to first-time moms (“Precious Life”) to cancer survivors (“C is for Courage”) and formerly homeless individuals (“You believed in me”).

The compelling project is storytelling in a very real, raw and vulnerable form. It’s a challenge to capture your life, your philosophy, your story in 7 words — typically — or less, writing it on your hands, face or body in black Sharpie. As Fogarty said from the stage, “We all have stories to share, and they deserve to be heard.” This is his way of amplifying them.

The project made me think a lot about what my words would be. How would I define what matters most to me, and what message I’d want to share with the world? Maybe it should be a simple “Kindness Matters”, or a channeling of my favorite Keb Mo song, “There’s More Than One Way Home.” Maybe it should be about my daughters, or my approach to work, or my mom.

And then it hit me.

In communications, we often get wrapped up in getting every word right, so much that the power of the story can get lost in the process. Fogarty’s project is a good reminder that effective messages are often the ones that come from the heart. Overthink the message and you can lose it.  If you’re true to the process of storytelling, you’ll naturally know where to go in telling your story — what has impacted you, inspired you, saddened you, or angered you. That’s where you start.

So, without any more thought, I’d say:

Change Starts with Me.

Click here to watch Robert Fogarty describe #DearWorld in his own words, and see some of his most compelling portraits.

Think about the last big problem you needed to solve.

If you’re like most, you likely laid out the facts in front of you, asked yourself a series of questions tied to the problem, and used your analytical skills to determine the best solution.

But, what if you weren’t asking yourself the right set of questions before you decided on an answer?

In recent months, the Mission Partners’ team has been advising a university, a hospital system, and a nonprofit training institute through some of their most pressing problems. In each situation, the organization had set out to build service offerings that would further benefit the community. But, we quickly found that each group’s approach to solving the problem was out of sync with its mission. Instead of thinking about what their communities needed most—and then exploring how they could best fill that need—they were looking at their problems solely through the lens of what they, as organizations, needed most.

When it comes to solving big problems, if we start with what we need and then look for someone else to help us get there, we’ve got a much slimmer chance of making meaningful progress than when we start with what others need and then create a solution that works for all sides.

Albert Einstein said, “if I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” In fact, defining the problem by asking why you are addressing it is far more important than the actual solution. And, to effectively define any problem, you must spend time thinking about it from perspectives other than your own.

Think about it: How many times have you had the “perfect solution” to a problem, until you put it to practice and realized the solution either couldn’t be implemented or addressed the wrong problem? I suspect if you went back and analyzed why any solution failed, it was because you hadn’t adequately thought about the problem through the lens of your end user.

At Mission Partners, we go through exercises of problem solving with our clients every day. Here is one question we attempted to answer in 2013, when working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

Question: Why do we need a better path for young people aging out of foster care?

Answer: Because every day, young people are aging out of care on their 18th birthday without the skills, support systems, or sense of self that is required for them to be successful in life.

Question: Why don’t we focus on providing those skills before they age out of care?

Answer: Because most young people—in foster care or otherwise—aren’t ready to be self-sufficient adults by their 18th birthday. They need to get beyond their 18th birthday to be fully equipped with the skills needed for success.

This last answer raised a deeper question: Were we solving for re-imagining the foster care system as it was, or re-imagining how the foster care system should work—with far more supports beyond a young person’s 18th birthday than previously expected?

By asking ourselves why until we reached the root cause of the problem, we were able to build the Success Beyond 18 campaign strategy with much deeper staying power. (The campaign is now heralded in child welfare circles as a key driver in the passage of Public Law 113-183 – The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act.)  And far beyond  this one campaign, it’s a process we know works. Our beloved “But Why” exercise is drawn from the famous Five Whys problem-solving technique developed at Toyota and employed in Six Sigma.

“Design in Everything We Do”

Spending time defining the problem, with the end user’s needs in mind before your own, and with focus on the longer-term issues rather than the near-term issues, is also the basis for the design thinking process.

Design thinking is grounded in the idea that there is design in everything we do, and in everything we touch. We love design thinking because it leads with empathy. Through a series of exploratory steps, it allows groups to challenge assumptions and examine root problems through the lens of the end user. While the process is often a multi-month exploration, the basics of design thinking can also be applied to every day problem solving.

Here are three tips to put you into a design thinking mindset.

Interested in learning more about the design thinking process? Click here to attend one of our upcoming Design Thinking Days at Mission Partners.

  1. Step 1. Clear your mind. Start with a blank sheet of white paper. Think about one person who represents your ideal end user. The kind of person for whom you or your organization exists to serve. Draw them. Then, challenge yourself to think about what matters most to them: their life priorities, their biggest challenges, their road blocks, and their aspirations. Where are they trying to go? Why are they unable to get there? Document all you can on that piece of paper.
  1. Step 2. Explore your problem from a new perspective. Reflect on your drawing, share it with your team, and compare what you uncovered against the problem you believe needs solving. How does that sheet of paper change how you think about the problem? And if you were to put that person at the center of your strategy, what else might change?


  1. Step 3. Ask why. And then ask it again. To get to the heart of the problem that really needs solving, don’t just ask yourself “why?”once. As we outlined above, ask yourself “why?” multiple times, and with each answer you write down, you’ll get closer to the root of the problem.

Once you’ve uncovered the why, you have a much better chance of defining how to solve a problem–and that’s where so much of the magic happens.

Learn more and try design thinking for yourself at one of our upcoming Design Thinking Days, to be hosted in our soon-to-be-unveiled Innovation Lab.  Click here to receive an invitation, including an exclusive discount offer to our 2018 workshops.