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Intermediaries Must Disrupt Institutional Racism From the Inside Out

April 20, 2023

At a Glance

We can shift larger systems toward more equitable outcomes by stepping up to name, address, and eliminate institutional racism internally and externally.

Nyema Mitchell Vice President
Clair Minson Founder and Principal Consultant, Sandra Grace LLC
Practices & Centers

The racial equity strand of the Building Equitable Pathways initiative has been following a learning arc examining the four levels of racism: individual (personal), interpersonal, institutional, and systemic. This blog post focuses on institutional racism and the role of intermediaries in addressing it within their organizations and among partners in a pathways ecosystem, and, through their leadership, modeling an approach for others in the field of education and workforce development to emulate.

What We Mean by ‘Institutional Racism’

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a disproportionate impact on people of color, prompted many education and workforce institutions to explicitly prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion at their organizations. Although many of them were motivated to start working with different partners or reexamine the goals of their programs, many didn’t recognize the ways in which they might be perpetuating the very conditions they aim to stop—and then change their internal policies and practices to address them. And in failing to do that, they may have perpetuated institutional racism within their own organizations.

Policies and practices are meant to provide clarity as to who employees of an organization are, what they do, and how they do it. They also have the very real power to either break down or cement norms that impact people differently and thereby create institutional racism. Though they may never explicitly mention racial groups, such policies and norms can create advantages or disadvantages that often benefit people who are white while harming people from groups classified as people of color.

Consider the following examples:

  • A job description that requires a college or advanced degree in a region where people of color have fewer college or advanced degrees than their white counterparts.
  • A training program policy that prohibits providing stipends to participants, regardless of regional trends for in economic insecurity among people of color.
  • A direct service organization that requires training focused on shifting or adjusting behavior under the guise of “professionalism.”

None of those examples mentions race, but they all can effectively function as institutionally racist policies in the following ways:

  • In the first instance, having firm degree requirements leads to a predictable disparity in racial employment access and attainment outcomes based solely on numbers; the criterion is not grounded in diverse outreach strategies and ignores the availability of otherwise qualified talent.
  • In the second example, the policy could very likely disproportionately affect students and learners of color who might be asked to choose between meeting the immediate financial needs of their families or participating in training programs that could help them attain jobs that pay higher wages.
  • In the third example, the program can perpetuate harmful assumptions that students/learners of color aren’t good enough and need to be taught how to “behave” in order to be employable. It doesn’t acknowledge the skills, experience, and expertise of the students/learners and instead serves to invalidate their humanity.

When we think of racist institutional practices by a school or a business, we most often think of overtly—and explicitly illegal—discriminatory language or actions. Yet in our Building Equitable Pathways community of practice, we’ve found that it’s important to define policies and practices that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color and advantages for white people as examples of institutional racism.

The Role of Intermediaries in Confronting Institutional Racism

Each member of the community of practice is on, and committed to, a journey to identify and shift both internal and external equity practices. Each of them, including Jobs for the Future (JFF), enters that conversation at a different level of the system and from a different vantage point. Regardless, the role of intermediary positions them between educational and workforce actors in a way that directly impacts systems and the equity experience of students and workers in their communities or regions.

We spoke with Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, vice president of Workforce and Regional Economies at JFF, to sharpen our collective understanding of the practical ways intermediaries (and individuals working in intermediary organizations) can name, address, and disrupt institutional racism. The following is a lightly edited transcript of her insights on addressing, naming, navigating, and disrupting institutional racism.

On Addressing Institutional Racism:

“Intermediaries should play a significant role because of their position of power, access, and ability to bring people together. However, just because they have a role, it doesn’t mean that they can or want to step into that role. If they choose to step into that role, they have to do it very thoughtfully and not immediately from a space of addressing institutional racism externally, but confronting it inside first and then using the lessons, the power, the change that they make inside to then be able to influence the world where they serve as an intermediary.”

On Naming Institutional Racism:

“I think the role that intermediaries can play isn’t just being truth tellers and exemplars. I think that the only way that intermediaries or any institutional player can address racism is to be willing to not just look at the effects of racism and how it shows up in people’s lives but at the causes and the complexities that institutions have in creating racist outcomes, and then being willing to ask questions and change their policies and practices. Playing a role is bigger than just addressing the impact of harm; it’s unpacking how the harm came to pass, the role they played in creating the conditions for it to happen, and making sure that the harm doesn’t continue. Organizations have a responsibility to adjust their programming practices in a way that honors rather than denies the humanity, skills, and experiences of their students/learners.”

Navigating racism should never be an organization’s end goal…. the goal should be removing the harm of systems of racism.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, Vice President, Workforce and Regional Economies, JFF

On Navigating Institutional Racism:

“I don’t think you navigate institutional racism. I think institutional racism is something that you actively work to dismantle or change. When you navigate something, you work around it rather than trying to figure out how to blow it up or abolish it. Navigating racism should never be an organization’s end goal. If you care about equity, it’s not about simply navigating as a means to an end. Ultimately, the goal should be removing the harm of systems of racism.”

You have to ask, ‘What role does my organization play in perpetuating and maintaining institutional racism?’

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, Vice President, Workforce and Regional Economies, JFF

On Disrupting Institutional Racism:

“You have to ask, ‘What role does my organization play in perpetuating and maintaining institutional racism?’ It’s a hard question for organizations to ask, because ultimately people and leaders have to ask, ‘Have we done the work on interpersonal levels of racism?’ This is most simply done by naming racism and white supremacy in conversations within the organization and with external partners. As a team, it requires honest discussions about the manifestations of racism individually: creating a culture where people can openly name the biases that they hold and how it has shown up in their work interpersonally; creating a culture where staff call each other in and out when team members are perpetuating harmful beliefs about each other and within the institution; and creating an institutional policy that is intolerant of racial microaggressions akin to the policies against sexual harassment.

“I believe in taking calculated risks. It’s about understanding what you’re trying to change and what your end goal is and then figuring out what the risks are—not being afraid of the risks but being aware of the risks. I ask a lot of questions and just try to understand the environment that I’m in and where the challenges might be and how to either overcome or work around them.”

Getting Started

Tameshia’s comment about taking calculated risks is important, especially since the personal and professional risks of speaking out against institutional racism can be greater for people of color than for their white peers. When confronting institutional racism and deciding how to act, start by asking yourself and your team questions like these:

  1. If we decide to confront organizational leadership about discriminatory practices, what will be the impact on the internal relationships and on our students/learners?

    – What happens if we remain silent? Will we be complicit in supporting discriminatory and racist behaviors?- Does speaking up align with our values, or does it go against our values?
  2. If I call this person out on their racial microaggression toward workers of color, what will be the impact?

    – Will it lead to changes in behavior, or will it end a relationship?- Is their comment part of a larger pattern of behavior? How might that impact how I or my organization handles this?
  3. If we decide to eliminate our partnership with a similarly situated organization in our ecosystem because of their performative rather than transformative commitment to racial equity, what will the implications be?

    – How will this be perceived by our partners?- How will this be perceived by our clients and community members?- What will it say about our organization’s commitment to racial equity?

Taking the time to question the dynamics at play is an important part of disrupting institutional racism and advancing change within an organization and with partners. It is also a first step: Naming something is not the same as changing it.

The Role We Collectively Play

Intermediary organizations are well positioned to support educational and career pathways that lead to greater economic equity. Their work intersects with those of other nonprofit organizations, school districts and postsecondary institutions, business leaders, other intermediaries, policy and advocacy partners, and a host of other actors in the broader education-to-workforce ecosystem. If intermediary organizations step up to name, address, and disrupt institutional racism internally and externally, they can continue to shift their larger systems toward more equitable outcomes. If intermediary organizations choose not to fully embrace that role, the road we trod becomes that much longer.