"Let's Talk About Race," My Boss Said to Me

August 23, 2017

By Paola Peacock Friedrich


Countless years in this brown skin, over 100 stamps in my passport, study sessions with Cornel West, and I was wary of this invitation. In the fall of 2016, I was asked to lead the first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team at AchieveMission. I said, no. As one of two people of color in our small firm and not yet a member of the leadership team, I was worried that somehow this invitation was at odds with my professional goals. I wanted to lead our consulting practice in a few years, multilingual and brown as I am. I wanted to continue to learn our talent management and leadership development practice. I wanted to be seen as a leader in strategic thinking, in partner engagement, in client impact, and in adult learning. I was worried that I might be tokenized and that I would not have the informal authority to influence the initiative in a deep and meaningful way. So, I said no.


When I think back to one of my greatest leadership failures, I think of this moment when my boss said to me, “Let’s talk about race…will you lead?” In essence, though not exactly, I had said, “no thank you.” My response tormented me. It was completely in conflict with my values and existence. I could already see that what I was disguising as perseverance and focus was actually born from stubbornness, righteousness, and fatigue.


Today, in the wake of vibrant expressions of violence, anger, and hate, I am again haunted by my initial wariness. My hesitation did not come from a tension between my personal values and our work contributing to diversity, equity and inclusion; it came from self-doubt. I wrestle on a daily basis with my identity as a mother, a Latina, and a leader in US K-12 education. My mother was one semester short of earning her college degree in Psychology at the UNAM in Mexico City when she and my father came to the United States in 1974. Both of my parents devoted their every waking moment to my education and that of my two sisters. They chose a magnet school for me in San Diego where I delved into a French immersion program in first grade. The forty-five-minute bus ride each way and the richness of learning that I experienced with Madame Bell that year absolutely set the course for my life.

Now, as mother of two young boys, I often struggle to feel adequate in my devotion to their lives and education. I began my Doctoral studies at Harvard with Diego at 11-months old, and gave birth to my second son, Francisco, just as I began my residency year and Doctoral Capstone. The demand on me as a leader, a learner, and a mother is something that I had not anticipated. I was raised to believe that I would and could contribute meaningful work, be a leader in my field, and have a family if I so chose. These elements of my identity were never at odds with each other until I began to truly transform and grow as a leader. I searched for female role models who had done this before. What I found was that, anecdotally, many phenomenal leaders of color did not have children while their white counterparts did. I am often torn between knowing how to uphold the overwhelming devotion to my family that my parents continue to model together with the desire to delve deeply into a demanding career and learning.



In August 2016, I returned to work and said, “ok, let’s talk about race at AchieveMission.” I was not sure where to begin. I knew my own experience of how race intersects with poverty, education and health through my family, community, and travels across the world. But how should we hold race here, at AchieveMission, both as a team and with our clients? In true AchieveMission fashion, I did not do this alone. We formed a phenomenal team of reflective and courageous people, committed to building a learning relationship with one another where we could explore race. We started with our ultimate area of expertise: ourselves. Our conversations were by no means easy. They did, however, lay a foundation for us to support and probe each other. Then, we began to craft a practice where we would hold a conversation that isolated race after every client facilitation. The first time we did this, we smiled nervously. We did not know how to begin, and we remembered Glenn E. Singleton’s principles for Courageous Conversations about Race, namely: speak from your personal experience, isolate race, and agree to the fact that you may feel unresolved at the end of the conversation. After a few rounds we gained comfort exploring how race showed up in the room, in our own minds, and in our interactions with others.  And we began to find a flow.


Today, I hold my initial hesitation and self-doubt in check with the help of others. I see my roles as mother, learner, and leader more aligned than ever, and I try to allow the dimensions of my identity (and the tensions they bring) to fuel my motivation and devotion to bringing about true equity for our families and communities.


Today, if you said to me, “let’s talk about race…right here, right now,” I would respond, “claro que si.”

We Don't Need Another Wake-up Call

We all mourn and grieve this week for the loss of life in Charlottesville.

And this feels insufficient to the needs of this situation and the larger context of normalized bigotry and discrimination in this country. I decry the feckless and inauthentic response of this President to violent white nationalists (i know no other kind honestly) marching publicly and with the implicit permission of a system of white supremacy.  As Heather Hayer reminded us and would be doing right now if she were alive, if we are not outraged, we are not paying attention.  Of course, she wasn’t the first person to say that, nor was she the first to die in this line of fire, and this was not the first of these incidents. She knew that.  It was why she marched.  I know that too. I (choose to) turn away sometimes – and I know that this society allows me to. I also know that to be black in this country is not to be able to ever turn away.

Eight months ago, on December 4, 2016, I posted this on Facebook,  “We chased the Klan out of Danville va and Pelham NYC on Saturday. Cowards. They drove through a town 35 miles away, a “car” parade. A New York Times reporter said he found their “exalted cyclops” hiding out in a Days Inn.  We shut shit down – and built of love and community and strong legs and minds, this is only the beginning.” With a car load of friends from DC, I had gone to show the KKK that they weren’t going to be able to take over this small town, to intimidate its black residents (this way anyway), to have my feet move on what deepest fears about the emerging realities of this administration’s rhetoric and oppressive action.  We left that one day high from the experience of making a difference. It feels sort of naive now.  As if we could chase this out, expel it, move it out of our mainstream white dominant frame.   We didn’t and couldn’t.   The reality is, this too is America.

In the middle of the last century, one of our nation’s great prophets, James Baldwin, wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”  For those of us who experience the world as white, in which group I include myself, we need to hold this rage alongside people of color, not to have it shouldered only by those who experience the discrimination, and systematic oppression day in and day out. I know that to be black in this country is to experience an America where you have to work twice as hard to get half as much.  I recognize that I can’t even begin to understand.  And I can’t stop trying, stop learning and stop showing up. We have a role.

Let’s also look at “leadership” in this case, or the lack of it.  The most senior formal authorities have advanced laws and policies that empower hatred and bigotry.  The conditions that encouraged this past weekend’s organized public march are undeniably real with deep roots in our country’s past. They yield a toxic harvest today. The truth is that white supremacy is also a present threat to our organizations and our communities.


For more on how to see and confront our participation in a white supremacist system, read too this post and links from my friend, sector colleague and AchieveMission board member Monisha Kapila —



We don’t need another wake-up call to keep doing our work, exposing and confronting prejudice and unchecked authority in all its forms.

But the explicit personal race hatred on display in Charlottesville and, lets be honest, this White House, can complicate addressing the sources of systemic inequities including unconscious bias, institutional racism, oppression, white fragility and opportunity gaps in our own organizations.   It can be tempting to let ourselves off the hook because we are saturated with images of people doing much, much worse.


We can’t let up, not now, doing the daily work – having the conversations, looking to where we even put up barriers that prevent equity and inclusion (through mindset and practice), and taking them down – over and over and over again.

We can imagine and move into a different future, dismantling the mindsets and systems that stoke and implicitly condone or allow systemic oppression in all of our communities across the country.  Together, we can.


– Mikaela Seligman, Principal

Statement on Charlottesville

We express our deepest sadness for the violence and loss of life in Charlottesville, VA and strongly repudiate the message of hate, bigotry, racism and intolerance expressed by the perpetrators. It is critical that we work to build communities that ensure equity and justice for all. We join many others in visibly standing up for equality and inclusivity, consistent with our values and vision of a just and equitable world.

– The AchieveMission Team


Click here to read a more in-depth perspective from one of our leaders.

Getting Real - The First Step

I am a big consumer of podcasts.  I love their range and where they can take me in sixty-odd minutes during a long run or a car ride.  I can look underneath the political (un)reality, through the highly attuned café chat of three brilliant youngish economists in Vox’s The Weeds; in This American Life I can get glimpses into the stories of America, as we are and aspire to be.


I have listened to This American Life for many years, before the App Store and the whole world of podcasts exploded.  And, a few weeks ago, I was reminded of why I keep coming back.  In one story, a young girl in a talent show practically flails herself to joyful exhaustion in an interpretive dance to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”  The correspondent, Hana Joffe Walt, describes the girl’s performance not as “good” in the classic sense, but as “super confident” and, yes, “real.”  “The audience lost it,” Joffe Walt says.  “It was her.  The stage gave her a place to perform something that she is interested in, something that she really is, something that is true.”  She was all in.  It got real.


We often see our kids get real in ways we long to as grown-ups.  They ask the questions they want answers to, push into new situations with curiosity and raw fear, and cry when they are sad.  And then, at a certain age, that changes…. they begin to imagine what they think others see.  Real becomes dangerous.


Ok, now for the talent and leadership connection if you didn’t see it coming….

In our workplaces, our own obsession with performance and managing the situation to its rightful outcome can disconnect us from our deepest longings and reasons for doing the work we do.  We begin to believe that getting real is too dangerous.  It doesn’t get us promoted. It looks bad.


This is what the work of leadership and talent is really about—creating the conditions that allow everyone to show up, and then keep showing up over and over and over again.  It is why I care so deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion, why our team is consumed with creating workplaces that advance crucial missions through the fullness and diverse perspectives and experiences of their teams.  It is why the term “performance management” is a bit of an oxymoron—it is so much less about managing performance than about amplifying it, about knowing that people, in all of their flaws and unrefined interpretive dances, are the ones we have been looking for.


– Mikaela Seligman, Principal

AchieveMission Featured in Independent Sector Quarterly Article


See this recent ISQ article examining our collaboration with six high impact nonprofits!

“….Beginning in early 2015, these six organizations engaged with AchieveMission in a six-month human capital management (HCM) consulting and training program to help establish the culture, structure and processes necessary to implement their strategies and drive social change….” 

Click here to read more

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Congratulations to our friends at the Rhode Island Foundation

Congratulations to our friends at the Rhode Island Foundation on their 100th year! We are proud to be part of their story. Learn more in the case study “Change Management for a Changing Environment”.

Spring Newsletter: Collaborations that Strengthen Nonprofit Leadership

AchieveMission’s Spring Newsletter brings to life the experience of nonprofit CEOs engaged in a Kresge Foundation – AchieveMission collaboration focused on human capital managment and leadership development. We also share resources, job postings, and news related to nonprofit leadership and talent development.

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Four Strategies for Staying on the Path to Scale

Strategy, capital, and people are essential to scaling an organization’s work and impact, but they’re not sufficient—to transform those crucial resources into the desired results, nonprofit leaders need to redesign their organizations too.

In a September 2015 Stanford Social Innovation Review article we addressed the human side of scaling. Now, some thoughts on the fourth leg of the stool: how to design a scale-ready organization, in “Four Strategies for Staying on the Path to Scale.” We welcome your feedback!.

Succeeding with Succession

Everyone agrees that succession planning is one of the CEO’s and board’s most critical responsibilities; in fact, a recent article published by The Bridgespan Group highlighted it as by far the No. 1 organizational concern for US nonprofits. Yet all the studies suggest that nonprofits and their boards grossly neglect this all-important task. What is the disconnect?

We’ve seen that many nonprofit leaders avoid succession planning because of the anxiety and painful misunderstandings they fear it will create. And, this high emotional charge rests, in turn, on prevalent misunderstandings about succession planning.

The key to succession planning success is to acknowledge the anxieties and reframe understandings of succession planning. Our newest thought piece Succeeding with Succession, recently published by Bridgespan, offers insights from our work to help nonprofit leaders understand and tackle these obstacles–and to create a positive, productive environment for moving succession planning forward, and producing a palpably stronger organization.