May 31, 2018

This article was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Like their counterparts nationwide, people of color who work in the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh may aspire to leadership roles, but most encounter racial barriers in their efforts to get to the top of their organizations.

That was the consensus of speakers and audience members at a Wednesday seminar, “Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” that  focused on the results of a national survey by the Building Movement Project of New York.

Among the factors that hold back minorities from advancing in nonprofit careers, the 2016 survey found, were a lack of mentors who are also minorities, boards of directors that are predominantly white and perceptions that minorities may not be able to successfully perform fundraising duties.

Fewer than 20 percent of all nonprofits are led by people of color “and the numbers aren’t changing,” said Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the Building Movement Project.

About 60 local nonprofit professionals attended the event held at the Highmark Auditorium, Downtown. The audience included members of Highmark’s B-Net, a black networking and resource group at the health care nonprofit.

One black nonprofit leader said afterwards that the discussion needs to continue because in Pittsburgh, “segregation is rampant.”

Members of different races may mix at the workplace, “But after 9-5, we kind of split and we don’t get to know each other,” said Mark Lewis, president and chief executive officer of the Poise Foundation, which funds programs to support Pittsburgh’s black community.

The lack of an integrated community results in many “perceptions and biases” that prevent a real change in power at nonprofits and other organizations, he said.

“We’re at the stage where there’s a lot of discussion and will, but not a place where we’re seeing actions take place. I don’t know what will get us there.”

Christine Haas, executive director of the Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health, is white but attended the seminar because she’s seeking ways to diversify the health care workforce.

“I definitely see the need for more people of color — not only in leadership positions,” she said.

Of 4,300 respondents to the Race to Lead survey, 58 percent were white and 42 percent were people of color including blacks, Asian-Americans and Latinos.

About half of the minorities who responded said they aspired to leadership roles compared with 40 percent of the whites.

But 35 percent of those minorities said race was a factor in their advancement.

“The problem is not that people aren’t ready. The problems are systemic,” Mr. Thomas-Breitfeld said.

Fred Brown, who is black and formerly headed the nonprofit Homewood Children’s Village and other organizations, in January became president and executive director of the Forbes Funds, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Foundation that assists nonprofits with management and technical issues.

“My board took a risk on me,” Mr. Brown said. “I’m not a usual suspect and most systems are not ready for me. I can’t come in and not be prepared.”

He said blacks in Pittsburgh were hit hard by the collapse of the steel industry in the late 1970s because they had few professional options.

“Now the city is at a precipice and we have to be committed to transformational change,” Mr. Brown said. “But without mentors and people to support and advocate [for blacks], it’s almost impossible to ascend.”

The event was presented by Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that provides consulting and programming for nonprofits that assists disadvantaged communities.

It was part of PACE’s 50th anniversary celebration, “Capacity Building for Social Change,” which also included a workshop Tuesday with Carlow University’s Social Justice Institutes.

Highmark partnered with PACE and funders also included the Opportunity Fund and City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle.

PACE was founded in 1968 in the wake of the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. to support small nonprofits in underserved neighborhoods.