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Our Foundation’s Equity Journey: A Conversation with Saginaw Community Foundation

Saginaw Community Foundation shares their equity journey.

From the main stage at our 2019 Annual Conference, CMF President and CEO Kyle Caldwell asked the question “What does equity mean to Michigan philanthropy?” He invited the CMF community to explore the question together, a shared journey that’s continued and deepened over the last year. The engagement and conversations that unfolded at our annual gathering resonated with the Saginaw Community Foundation, helping to reaffirm and further ignite their own equity journey.

“Even prior to the CMF conference, my team had inquired about what the community foundation should do in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI),” Reneé Johnston, president and CEO of Saginaw Community Foundation and CMF trustee said. “I felt like we were doing it naturally, but I understood the need to make sure that it was definitely part of our culture.”

On the last day of the conference, CMF trustees facilitated a collaborative dialogue among attendees on our future strategic plan and focus on equity, which inspired Johnston to think further about equity in Saginaw.

“I took the handout from the conference and ran a similar exercise with my staff and board, asking them to list what they think our top priorities should be. Between staff and the board, DEI definitely rose to the top.”

The foundation’s board and staff further inspired Johnston to explore how equity can be at the center of their work.

“At the time, my incoming board chair continued having these generative discussions about where we needed to have an impact,” she said. “We decided that we needed to focus on how to get our population living in poverty out of poverty.”

These conversations led the foundation to focus on education, as its leaders believed that learning, with a particular focus on literacy, was the key to creating better economic opportunities for Saginaw County residents. Working with the president of Saginaw Intermediate School District who is a community foundation board member and the community foundation’s board chair, and led DEI programming at Saginaw Valley State University, the community foundation identified the need to address equity in education.

The community foundation deepened its internal equity work during this time as well. While staff and board members had different experiences and understandings of DEI, Johnston notes that they all saw a need to embrace it as a strategic priority. From there, foundation leadership scheduled unconscious bias training for staff while staff and board members completed DEI assessments and surveys to determine their next steps in engaging in equity.

Just as the community foundation was about to dive even more deeply into their DEI work, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan.

“We weren’t able to do the live training that we had planned,” Johnston said, “But we were able to complete it virtually. [The facilitators] took us through the seven different types of unconscious bias and then gave us some exercises we could do individually then share the results as a staff. This allowed everyone to understand and to be prepared for the next steps.”

The board chair was also approached by the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce, as well as the local economic development corporation with an interest in starting their own DEI journeys. The chair connected the chamber and economic development corporation with the foundation, which resulted in a community equity-focused book club. All three organizations are reading books focused on DEI and participating in activities to expand their understanding.

“This ties our DEI focus together with our commitment to education and literacy,” Johnston said. “Taking this DEI journey will help that focus become stronger.”

Over the weekend Johnston invited her board to participate in a virtual presentation with Ibram X. Kendi, New York Times bestselling author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” hosted by the Midland Center for the Arts. At the community foundation’s board meeting next week, they will continue the conversation on their book club and the virtual presentation.

Johnston said she has also encouraged her board to participate in CMF’s 48th Annual Conference, noting the strong alignment of their internal DEI journey with the conversations and in particular the main stage events in week 2 on unconscious bias and talking about race.

“We all need to embrace these conversations.”

As you consider how to further your own equity journey—personally or within your organization—we encourage you to join action-oriented conversations and deep learning with the CMF community of philanthropy at our 48th Annual Conference - Building Inclusive Environments: Together on the Journey – taking place Oct. 19-22 and Oct. 26-29. Together we will explore the facets of bold leadership through crisis and best practices in our field, centered in equity.

Want more?

During the Oct. 26th Annual Members Meeting at CMF’s 48th Annual Conference, the CMF Board of Trustees will share a new strategic vision for CMF. This new vision clearly defines the path forward for our community of philanthropy, with equity at the center of our work. Read more in the latest message from CMF President and CEO Kyle Caldwell.

Register for CMF’s 48th Annual Conference.

CMF continues to lift up the internal and external equity work of our members for shared learning. Share your organization’s equity story with us!