Wanted: Diversity, on screen and in the office

Shannon Tracey Headshot

The controversy around the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees has been hard to miss, especially given the Oscars’ airing during Black History Month. 

The criticisms of this year’s Academy Awards – and the film industry in general – are promising shows of how much the dialogue about racism is entering into all facets of public life. To me, this dialogue is much more inspiring than the Oscars themselves ever have been (exception: Sacheen Littlefeather).

One of the aspects of #OscarsSoWhite that I’ve been following is the discussion about how films and actors are chosen in Hollywood.  Last month, the Los Angeles Times wrote about how many are pointing to studio executives – themselves not such a diverse bunch – as the root of the problem, for failing to produce more diverse movies.

And this week, researchers at the University of Southern California released a study that documents exactly how disproportionately white film and television are when compared to the general U.S. population.  While people of color make up 40% of America, just 28.3% of speaking characters on the screen are non-white.

Upon winning the Emmy that made her the first black woman to win Outstanding Actress in a Drama, Viola Davis made this exact point in her acceptance speech: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

The point being: it’s especially hard to win an award if you don’t get the part to begin with. The same goes with getting a job.

Like many non-profits, TransForm faces a similar challenge in attracting and hiring a diverse staff.  Not only do we want to cultivate a staff that reflects the diversity of the Bay Area and California, we need to, in order to create change and effectively do our work. Yet systemic racism and other oppressions make it difficult for people from communities that have historically been marginalized to attain the education and experience that make for a competitive resume.

So what’s a non-profit – or a Hollywood studio – to do? Tackling this challenge takes a commitment to changing the very structure of how things get done. I’m proud that over the past decade, TransForm has devoted significant resources to creating internal personnel policies that reflect our commitment to equity and inclusion.

First, we’ve embedded our principles in our hiring process.  One of the most critical functions of our internal Equity and Inclusion (E&I) committee is to support hiring.  E&I members review every job posting before posting, and they sit on every single hiring committee.

They do this to make sure that at least one person in the room can focus on whether the candidate shares our commitment to social justice, just as other interviewers are evaluating job skills and experience.  They’re also there to ensure that the hiring team is “walking the talk” in the hiring process. This means being open to candidates from backgrounds different from their own, and ensuring that unconscious biases don’t get in the way of picking the right candidate.  Our goal: ensure that all candidates are evaluated fairly, regardless of their background and identity.

Second, we track how well we’re attracting applicants from diverse backgrounds. Anyone interested in a TransForm job must complete an anonymous demographic survey before they can apply.

Responses to individual questions are optional, but many people choose to report their ethnicity, sexual identity, gender, and level of education.  This gives us data on whether we’ve done a good job of getting the word out to diverse communities.  Our goal: understand how well we’re attracting a diverse pool of applicants, and monitor our progress over time.

Third, we piloted an internship program for young professionals of color to help individuals gain experience in our field and build the diversity of the urban planning and non-profit advocacy communities.  Our initial summer program brought in two exceptional interns, Mimi Tam and Henry Pan, who have gone on to hold government and community positions in urban planning.  We hope that we can again fund this program in the future.  Our goal: contribute to making our field more inclusive by cultivating future leaders of color.

Over time, we hope to continue casting amazing people of all stripes in our organization.  Yet unlike Hollywood, where casting happens after the script is already written, hiring happens earlier in the plot for us.  We have a lot more work to do to ensure the story has a happy ending - where all staff are able to thrive.  Retention and internal equity are also important to us, and we've by no means figured out how to break down all the barriers standing in the way of our goal of becoming a fair and inclusive organization.

So we'll keep working on all fronts, because we believe that the only true path to affordable, sustainable communities is one where all people are able to travel together.  And we need to stand together with other movements for justice, whose struggles are connected to our own.

Whether or not you choose to tune in to the Oscars on Sunday, we hope that the conversation around getting more people of diverse backgrounds into the credits, onto the podium, and into great careers, continues.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.