Risk Chip: A Letter From the CEO

Date: October 7, 2020

Dear SCCLF Family and Friends,

The recent news of continued violence and injustice towards Black Americans makes me angry, sad, and frustrated. Like many of you, I keep thinking, “Violence against Black Americans is not okay. It has never been okay. It is still not okay. It will not be okay the next time it happens. When will it stop?”

It will stop when we begin reckoning with our past, our present and start acting to create the future that we want. This requires a commitment to questioning our assumptions and listening to the people who are most impacted by oppressive systems and policies. This is everyone’s responsibility, to know better and to do better. But it is especially important for white people in positions of power and influence to heed the call. In my role as the CEO of South Carolina Community Loan Fund, it is up to me to foster an organization that lives up to its mission of advancing equity, both through our programs and our internal practices with staff.

This year, SCCLF staff has devoted time in its monthly staff meetings to talk about race, racism, and the systemic oppression that creates the need for our work. In an effort to create an environment where we can have an open discussion, we use “risk chips” with each other. A risk chip is used when a person wants to say something vulnerable or challenging. The person says something like, “I’m going to use a risk chip here…” and then says what is on their mind. This risk chip puts people on notice that the conversation is about to get real. We use risk chips frequently in our discussions about race, and I am grateful that our staff is willing to play them. I play them, too, and I am about to play a big one with you here.

Embarking on intentional racial equity work in an organization requires a good deal of personal work, or as one of our staff called it, “soul work.” It is soul work not just to educate yourself on the systems of oppression upon which this country was built and that live on today but to turn that knowledge into action. This soul work requires not only challenging assumptions about the way the world works, it also requires challenging our perceptions of what our individual role is and has been in perpetuating white supremacy. It is sitting with the question of what your role will be in the future. Will you do the learning and unlearning that it takes to make change?

The soul work is lifelong. It is extremely uncomfortable, as it should be, but it is necessary. I am reckoning with the realization that while I might perceive myself as open, inclusive, and not racist, other people may not perceive or experience me that way. It’s deeply unsettling to realize that your actions, inactions, and interactions have likely harmed Black people, particularly when you have devoted your career to “serving others.” The work is turning that discomfort into different behavior, because my discomfort is irrelevant compared to the discomfort and even fear that my Black friends and colleagues tell me they experience on a daily basis.

I have found that anti-racist work cannot be done in a vacuum. I mentioned that SCCLF staff started having tough conversations about race. I am fortunate to work with a team that is willing to share their experiences. Our Black staff have generously shared their stories, their fears, their frustrations, their hopes and expectations with our team. Our white staff have shared their own stories and started to challenge their own and each other’s assumptions. These conversations have been uncomfortable, honest, sad, angering, revealing, and have challenged me in ways that I did not and could not have ever expected. They are amongst the most meaningful conversations I have ever had.

To further racial equity work at SCCLF and to hold myself accountable as its CEO, I am working to build a network outside of my organization of other non-profit leaders who are embarking upon racial equity work in their organizations. SCCLF was part of the Kresge FUEL program, and last year we completed our first talent review, through the lens of racial equity. We want every staff member to have a chance to grow and advance in our organization. I also attended the YWCA’s Racial Equity Institute, which I highly recommend for your staff and board. I am currently participating in the Racial Equity Lens Cohort, a program of Together SC, where white leaders are coming together to learn about how to prepare their organizations for racial equity work. Racial equity work has to be present on all levels: personally, amongst staff, leadership, and at the board level. It takes a commitment of time and energy, and there are multiple training and support opportunities out there.

Let me be clear: This isn’t about me. I am not writing this to hold myself or SCCLF as an example of having mastered practicing racial equity. The journey is just beginning, and our organization and I have plenty of work to do. I want to encourage you to start learning and start doing. I invite you to play a risk chip, with yourself or with someone else. Read something that makes you uncomfortable; listen to your Black colleagues. If you don’t have a Black colleague, ask yourself why. Think about how you can speak up and speak out. Donate to or partner with an organization led by a person of color.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes; we will not get this right the first time we try. Risk Chip: I still struggle to be okay with not being right the first time. What I am not okay with is inaction, because inaction is literally costing lives. We must be willing to fail forward, for the people we serve, for our Black friends, family, and colleagues, for each other, and for ourselves.

Violence against Black Americans is not okay. It has never been okay. It will not be okay the next time it happens. What will you do to dismantle the systems that allow it to continue?

With love and action,

Anna Lewin
Chief Executive Officer