Jakada Imani on Increasing Equity and Inclusion Without Affirmative Action
In this interview with Nonprofit Quarterly in July 2023, published shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action in college admissions programs, Jakada spoke with Isaiah Thompson about how he views the ruling as a hurdle, not a roadblock, and how businesses in California have found creative ways to increase equity and inclusion without affirmative action in the twenty years since the state banned it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NPQ: Let’s start with the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. What are you thinking about?
Jakada Imani: First, I have to say it is not lost on me that an institution that less than 170 years ago found that Black men have no rights that White men are bound to respect would turn around and find that you can’t use race to address the disparity caused by that. It is sad but predictable.
I think for those of us who actually care about equity, this is not a roadblock—it is a hurdle…where we have to think deeply about what are we actually trying to address and redress and then center that.
“Better solutions require us having a real deep discussion about the history, legacy, consequences of racial oppression.”
I am steeled in my resolve—but not looking to the Supreme Court at this time for a moral compass or how should we be dealing with the history of racial oppression in this country and its legacy, whether it’s achievement gaps, wealth disparities, longevity. The fact that the Supreme Court justices don’t want to look at that, that shouldn’t deter us.
[Affirmative action] was an imperfect solution to a very complex problem, that we…did not have alignment around being a problem. So, of course, it was imperfect.
I think that there are better solutions. But those better solutions require us having a real deep discussion about the history, legacy, [and] consequences of racial oppression.
NPQ: How do we get that conversation to happen?
JI: I think it’s happening now. The thing that people don’t often talk about with the rise of the radical right in this country is what they were responding to. They were responding to successful shifts in our social conditions.
You know, when Barack Obama, as great as he is and as much as we look back on him fondly when he ran for president the first time, Prop[osition] 8 was on the ballot to ban marriage equality in the state of California. And neither he nor Joe Biden took a position opposing it. They said, and I remember the quote because I got robocalls about it—they said, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
You now have Joe Biden flying the rainbow flag at the White House and having pride events, and talking about how he changed his mind. So, we [are] winning on our issues.
I remember being a young person and going to events in the nineties when folks were talking about reparations in Black organizing spaces, and I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. I’ve never heard of that. And that’s never going to happen.” It is now in live conversation in states, localities, [and] the federal government is studying it.
The rise of Black Lives Matter—you know, I grew up as an anti-police-violence activist organizing in the Bay Area in the late nineties and the early [2000s] around police brutality. And we could not get people to pay attention to the issue [even] in Black churches.
“If what your organization wants to do is increase equity and inclusion within your organization, you can do that.”
I’ll take you all the way back to Occupy Wall Street, where there was a live debate about the history and the power of the one percent and the legacy of enslavement; Standing Rock and Indigenous people standing up to take their land back. All these things were showing that there was a progressive agenda on the march, and the people who saw their power [and] grasp on society slipping away are fighting back. It’s contested space.
It’s not new in the United States. It is just that the pendulum is swinging and it’s a loose ball, to use a sports metaphor. And a loose ball, it looks bad when there’s a fumble and everybody’s scrapping for the ball. It looks bad, and it feels worse.
NPQ: There is a lot of concern out there that this Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, even though it seemed to apply only to higher education for now, will have an eroding effect on DEI initiatives and similar practices and policies beyond higher ed. What do you say to companies and organizations that are worried about their ability to recruit a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce?
JI: I’m from California. People forget that California banned affirmative action over 20 years ago. So, we’ve been living with this reality. And it has had a disparate impact. At the same time, localities and the state have leaned into being creative to think about what is the problem we’re trying to address.
If what your organization wants to do is increase equity and inclusion within your organization, you can do that. There’s nothing stopping you from doing that.
We have clients that are organized in Black communities and 90 percent of their staff are Black, and there is nothing on their website or anything in their hiring that says we only hire Black people. They have discovered how to frame roles, how to invite and reach out to people in a way where Black folks feel welcome.
There [are] some places where the commitment wasn’t really deep. They were doing it for show where they…got dinged [for not having] any women or people of color on their boards. And so they said, Okay, we’re going to do a DEI initiative. We’re going to hire a Black person or a Latin person to figure out our problem with race. You know, nine times out of ten, no matter how competent and capable that person was, that didn’t result in a lot of change. Because organizations have to answer the question, Why? Why are you trying to do this?
We often tell our clients…you have to get articulate about it [so] you can keep having the conversation once these folks are in the room.
You don’t need a quota, because the quota sometimes just means you scoop up people who aren’t people you’re looking for. Right now what we need is actually to look out into our community and ask, What is it we really need? How do we include more voices of more of our people? How do we reduce barriers to entry? And so organizations that get aligned on those things, that center those things, will be just fine.
NPQ: How do you advise those organizations that are genuinely committed to DEI but are struggling to implement that vision or achieve those goals?
JI: So, first we decenter this question of “diversity,” because it’s often the case that then people become “that diverse candidate.” Again, we start with…why is that something you’re trying to undertake? What is it you’re trying to achieve? What is this person or set of people going to add to your organization? Let’s get really clear about what the hopes are. And is that a thing a person can do? Because if you’re looking for somebody to come in here and fix your problem with race, that’s not something a Black person or a Latin person is going to do. You actually have to start that before folks get in the room.
Two, we get folks to be really clear on what set of experiences, skills, connections are you hiring for, and in what roles? And then how do you spot people or communities or networks where people might have those sets of what we call must-haves, and how do you get them to apply for your roles?
So now let’s look at what the applicant process is, and how do you get all the barriers, all the hurdles out, [or] as many of them as possible?
NPQ: There’s been a fair amount of reporting that DEI initiatives are flagging in some places, especially after a lot of promises were made in the wake of the racial reckoning of 2020. How do you make the case to hesitant organizations that DEI is, and still is, an important, worthwhile investment?
JI: I want to be honest. I don’t make the case. I’m not going to try to convince people. If you’re happy doing what you’ve always done and getting what you always got…good luck.
The dinosaurs didn’t go extinct. What happened is some of them became birds. The rest of them went extinct. And so if you want to be extinct, you know, we’ll collect your bones and I’ll make sure they’re in a good museum—or you can be an eagle.
“You’re going to hire anyway, and so you might as well hire better.”
If you can’t figure out how to actually be inclusive of talent and reach into new pools, how to solve really difficult problems that your organization hasn’t solved in the past, how to retain high-performing immigrants, queer folks or folks of color in your organization, you’re going to have this churn and you’re going to become irrelevant.
You’re going to hire anyway, and so you might as well hire better. You’re going to work to retain people anyway, so you might as well do it better.
This interview was originally published on Nonprofit Quarterly with the title, “Centering Inclusion after Affirmative Action: A Conversation with Jakada Imani” by Isaiah Thompson