By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer
A program to recruit and train minority leaders to serve on nonprofit boards was rolled out in an unusual meeting room on Wednesday night: a Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train.
Forty four community members — both African-Americans and Caucasians — were on the train to discuss developing and encouraging minority leadership in nonprofit board rooms and corporations.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation rented the train for three invite-only conversations as a follow-up to the Beacon Journal’s Leadership Series that examined the Akron area’s aging leadership, and who is waiting in the wings. A train of interns and young professionals rode the rails in August. The final train will be next Wednesday for a discussion about bringing more women into top leadership. Half the participants on the train ride will be men, organizers said.
Wednesday’s diversity train attendees were predominantly Leadership Akron graduates, some young professionals from Torchbearers and the former Project Blueprint, a program run from 2002 through 2013 by the United Way of Summit County to train minority leaders.
The retooled program is now a joint effort between the United Way and Leadership Akron, and will be called “Diversity on Board.” The pilot class of about 20 people will start in January and continue for a year. (Editor's note: the program start has been pushed back to March 2016)
Diversity in leadership and board rooms is an important conversation, said Bernett Williams, Akron Children’s Hospital vice president of external affairs. She led an initiative that started with Leadership Akron alumni to study why more minority leaders weren’t stepping up.
“Many of us sit on boards and the topic of diversity isn’t discussed; it’s not even an afterthought,” said Williams, who is also on the United Way’s board.
Williams said there have been some “small strides” made in the conversation about diversity, but “that doesn’t mean we’ve arrived.”
“When you are in board rooms, sometimes no matter what your ethnicity is, sometimes your role is to ask the question: ‘Where are the women? Where are the young people? Where are the ethnic minorities? Where are the folks from the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender] community?’ Continue to take part in this journey. Make this a candid conversation. In the spirit of respect, we need you to continue to talk about this,” Williams said.
Minority representation on Akron area nonprofit boards is lacking, according to a study released this spring by the GAR and Knight foundations and administered by BVU: The Center for Nonprofit Excellence.
The study found that whites make up 86 percent of all boards. Black board members compose 10 percent; Hispanics, .03 percent; Asians, 1 percent; multiracials, .03 percent; and unknown, 3 percent.
The boards of local arts organizations are 93 percent white, 6 percent black and have no Hispanics.
The study also found that boards were predominantly made up of people age 50 and older and a majority men. The study and leadership stories can be found at www.ohio.com/betty
Leadership Akron President Mark Scheffler said the program retooling was already in the works when the study came out, but “it added to the urgency of the issue in Akron.”
Among the train-goers were Democratic mayoral candidate Dan Horrigan and Republican mayoral candidate Eddie Sipplen.
Scheffler told the train: “The fact that we have two of our major mayoral candidates on the train means this is definitely an issue of great importance to our community. And there are many others who understand this issue is one of community-wide importance.”
The new revamped “Diversity on Board” program will have extras that Project Blueprint didn’t, including travel to different venues in Akron, community coaches or mentors and board shadowing.
During this week’s event, participants broke into small groups to discuss issues and report back to the train.
Decision makers must look different if there’s to be more diversity, said Kendra Preer, who runs Stark State College’s Upward Bound program.
Organizations need to expand their recruiting, she said.
“We have to shop differently,” she said. “Stop going to the same places or you’re going to get the same thing.”
People need a buddy system, or mentors, helping young professionals and women prepare to be on boards, said Ethel Vinson, manager of learning and performance at FedEx Custom Critical.
Minority board candidates also need to know how to find the right board to serve on, she said.
“We should be providing education and opportunity, not only how to be on boards, but how to interview boards. [People] should be looking for something that speaks to their passion,” said Vinson.
(Photos by Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal)