Season 5 | Episode 2

“You cannot grow as a nonprofit and be at your best unless you have differences at the table. So, that means sometimes you've got to shut your mouth and listen. Sometimes you have to elevate other voices that are not yours. But we cannot get to where we claim to want to be, if we stay a monolith--if we stay focused on just one thing. We have to know that there are so many voices that deserve to be there, and we gotta be quiet and listen to them, even when we don't agree.”

Matt talks to Dawn L. Brown, CEO of the EmpowHER Institute, an organization that empowers girls and young women in marginalized communities by giving them the skills necessary through education, training, and mentorship to become confident, college, and career-ready.

The pair focus on being an executive director; how to get there, what it takes when you do, and how to know when it’s time to step away. Dawn talks about the mentors who inspired her and also breaks down DEI, defining what each component really means and how to actually implement systemic change, not just use the popular term. And Matt reveals the secret to getting more of those little bottles of booze on the airplane.


Matt: We get a lot of questions about equity and inclusion, and I think really one of the most important things personally when I was an executive director, what was really important for me was training my staff, including my staff, sharing them how budget worked really working with them in terms of where they wanted to go and how to get them up and grow them in the organization or help them go to another job.

And so, when we're looking at DEI and we're really looking at that equity piece,  what does equity mean for you running your nonprofit? 

Dawn: Yeah, so let me first of all tell you that this is my jam right here. I'm a social justice girl  I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff.

That is my background. That's literally 25 years. So I come from a different perspective on this work. Because I'm looking at it from like, this is literally what I do, right? And so, to be very honest, I don't even like the whole idea of D. E. I. Because it feels, it has become this checklist.

That people seem to need to check off and they're not really looking at the justice component of it. And I'm more justice-centric. And so if you can't get to the justice-centric component, then yes, including DEI is important. And so I'm gonna give you sort of the levels of it and what equity means.

Diversity is just about who's in the room. That's it. Right. And so you could have a diverse group, but they may not be equitable and they may not be inclusive. And honestly, you're not serving anyone. You're probably doing more harm than good by having a diverse group in the room.

Right. Equity is different than equality and people get this wrong so much. I literally just had Someone say to me, it would be inequitable if I refunded you for the service that you were unhappy about. And I said, no,  it would be unequal, but it's actually equitable. And here's why now figure it out.

Right. Then I got my money, but  I refunded, but I had to educate them first. Right. So, and I literally had to break down that equality. It's simply about making sure that everyone has the same right and equality has not served us. And so, when we talk about separate but equal, that was actually equality, everybody got to go to school.

Right? But when you walked in those schools, it looked different, right? And that's the difference between equality and equity. Equity is about making sure that people have what they need in order to be successful. And so that may not be equal all the time.  Because it has not been equal. The world has not been equal.

And so we can now come in and be like, okay, we just wanted to all be, you know, equal for everyone. So if I give this person a raise, I gotta give that person a raise. And if I do this and I got... That's not how it works. That's not what equity is about. It is about looking at and identifying what is needed.

Right, but each individual in order to be successful in order to level the playing field, and you can't level the playing field. If you're trying to give everyone the same thing, then those who have will always have more right. And so you that is very important. And then when we talk about inclusion, inclusion is really where it's at, right?

So, inclusion is about making sure  not that you just have different people in the room, but are their voices included in the decisions that are being made? Are there voices included in how you are serving the language that you use and the approaches that you take? Right.  That's what that means.

And for me, I don't even focus on equity. I focus on justice. Right. So I'm justice-centric, right. Which is the next level that's literally breaking down barriers. And so, you know, I think that for me, it's extremely important and we can't do it by just bringing women to the table. We can't do it by just bringing people of color to the table because the table wasn't designed for us. 

So, when we talk about equity, we're talking about redesigning a table. We're talking about redesigning it completely so that it is for us. We can't say we're just going to bring you know, LGBTQIA plus two,  people to the table. We're not going to just, that already exists. It wasn't designed for them.

It wasn't designed for a transgender person. Right. We got to redesign the table completely. , and you can't keep giving people janky chairs at the table. You know, I mean, I'm really big about that. Yeah. Come on to the table and we're going to get you a janky old chair that's wobbling the whole time.

 And then you, we're going to give you a throne, right? But everybody got a chair at the table, right? Like that's not what it's about. So, you know, and it's not about giving everybody the janky chair, it's about making sure that everybody has the throne, right?  And so I think that one of the things that's important for organizations to think about.  Is one, how are you serving your team? And then how are you serving your community? And are you doing that differently? Right. When it comes to the people at the table, one of the things I hate to hear is when people say these kids, those kids that we serve these, and I'm like, so you are separated from that.

Right. And, your team hears that. And I hear that a lot from, to be honest, white men use that term a lot and a lot of white women use it. And I'm like but I hear it more from white men and I'm like Your team hears that. They hear you saying these and those, and that's what they hear when you say, when you're talking about them, right?

So one is listening to your language, making sure that you're honoring everything from pronouns to the races and the cultures that are there. Don't tell Spanish people to speak English because you don't understand. Maybe it wasn't for you to be a part of that conversation. Shut up. Move on. Like, you know what I mean?

Embrace that. And it really is about making sure that  You have to look at who is at the top, who is making decisions, and who's included when you're serving communities. And when you're, whoever that community is, and is that community a part of the decision making? For me, having young people a part of the decision-making is extremely important.

We are a youth-led organization. It's one of the things I shifted as an organization. When I came in. And so that for me is why this is so important because you cannot grow as a nonprofit and be at your best unless you have differences at the table. And it's okay. It is very scary. It's nerve wracking.

So that means sometimes you got to shut your mouth and listen.  Sometimes you have to elevate other voices that are not yours. That is important to this work. But we cannot get to where we claim to want to be. And everyone's vision is about making something better. We can't do that if we stay a monolith.

If we stay focused on just one thing. We have to know that there are so many voices that deserve to be there. And we gotta be quiet and listen to them.  Even when we don't agree. 


In this episode, Dawn mentions hiring women of color to design her gowns and shoes each year for the EmpowHER gala. This year, she chose Glaudi by Johana Hernandez for her dress and professional shoe artist, Jhericoco for her custom kicks!


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