The Difference Makers: Concrete Steps Toward More Equitable Workplaces

Spotlight on School’s Out Washington

The Difference Makers series highlights PayNorthwest clients who are going above and beyond in creating diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces. Consider applying the ideas highlighted here to your own organization!

For over 30 years, School’s Out Washington’s (SOWA) mission has been to support quality expanded learning programs for Washington’s children and youth and to work to ensure equitable access to high-quality, expanded learning programs in all Washington communities – especially for low-income youth and youth of color. Importantly, SOWA’s work is centered on racial equity and cultural responsiveness to enhance and transform learning.

Our team at PayNorthwest, which has worked with SOWA for over 7 years, knew that SOWA’s work was grounded in racial equity and so we were curious to learn how that grounding translated into their own organization and workforce practices.

I had the opportunity to speak with Elizabeth Whitford, CEO of School’s Out Washington, about how racial equity work has been approached within in her organization. It came as no surprise to learn that SOWA’s effort to address structural racism in its own organization is not new and in fact has been a nearly ten-year journey. “But in no way should this be viewed as us having it all figured out. We are constantly learning, gaining awareness of unintended consequences and our own blind spots,” emphasizes Elizabeth. SOWA’s journey is one that is marked with humility and a willingness to admit mistakes and to learn.

Early efforts at addressing structural racism at SOWA focused on caucusing staff people of color and creating affinity groups for white allies. The focus was on learning and support, though SOWA has currently paused these as it works towards greater coordination of the caucuses and its overall racial equity workplan. In addition, an annual DEI internal assessment, now using a tool from Promise 54, was done to better understand the sense of belonging and inclusion among the staff. In addition, a racial equity committee that cuts across various levels in the organization creates an annual workplan and looks at ways to advance equity within the organization. These efforts are ongoing but still considered “under construction.”

While the above efforts are ongoing and continually evolving, perhaps the most impactful work that SOWA is doing to transform its organization are in its core HR processes – compensation, hiring, and staff advancement and development. “This is core to our work in addressing racial equity within our organization,” says Whitford.
First, in regards to compensation, an equity analysis was done to look specifically at pay by race. This analysis has allowed the organization to check for structural bias in its compensation, make necessary adjustments as needed, and report annually to staff on pay equity metrics. Second, pathways to promotion were also examined. They worked to remove barriers and qualifications that stood in the way of advancement and that have roots in structural racism (eg educational degrees, etc) that aren’t actually predictors of leadership potential. On the other hand, having racial equity work in a person’s background were added as an explicit qualification for advancement into a leadership position.

For recruitment and hiring, job descriptions were reviewed and revised, again removing requirements that had racist structures embedded in them to make sure that SOWA was attracting and identifying the best possible candidates from the widest possible pool of applicants.

As a side note, these three components of HR – compensation, hiring, and development – align exactly with the Equity Toolkit the PayNorthwest is developing on behalf of its clients who wish to work with this lens within its cloud-based Human Capital Management system. While this Equity Toolkit is still under development, it is validating to hear from a client that has long worked on racial equity that these three components are critical to its efforts. And a good reminder that we need to stay in communication with our clients about their goals and objectives as well as our intentions. Together we feel like we can all go much farther in our racial equity goals and make our community and organizations better places for everyone.

“We have racial equity goals that are important to us,” points out Elizabeth. It is clear in speaking to her, and in working with School’s Out Washington for many years that they are sincere about this effort and worthy of a spotlight so that others can be inspired by their actions.