When talking about Just Communities of Arkansas’ work in 2020, Donald Wood, the nonprofit’s executive director and senior facilitator knows it's complicated.
"My response always tries to communicate this strange combination of hope mixed with heartache.
“The former refers to the fact that we've had a significant increase in requests for JCA's services over the past eight months compared to before the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. So many more organizations and communities are, at the very least, now giving us a chance to work with them on building their capacity to advance equity and inclusion. But at the same time, we have hope.”
For Wood, even having the chance to facilitate these “extremely difficult, messy but necessary conversations about co-creating racial equity throughout Arkansas” is progress.
This year has given JCA the opportunity to work with both a larger number and greater diversity of individuals and organizations. Wood believes the increase in conversations will foster a statewide dialog leading to meaningful, sustainable structural change necessary to effectively dismantling racism.
Who is JCA?
JCA builds bridges of shared understanding and respect between people who make up the community while advancing diversity, challenging assumptions and promoting respect. It uses educational programs, advocacy and consulting services to provide the groundwork for transformative shifts in thought and behavior.
The organization works with government agencies, academia, media, businesses, community advocates, philanthropists, congregations and others to train youth and adults to understand one another in order to create positive and sustainable change. The goal is for this change to work its way through the individuals and institutions and on to systemic levels.
According to JCA, open dialogue is a crucial step toward breaking down barriers and honest, forthright conversation is the cornerstone of a just democratic society. Its programs are designed to break down stereotypes and promote understanding and respect among all people.
For an organization that is built on interpersonal communication, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt an interesting hand.
“Like almost everyone not in an essential service role that requires in-person contact, we are nearly 100% virtual,” Wood says. “That was a uniquely challenging transition for us since our work of building individuals' and organizations' capacity to manage culture change is undoubtedly optimized when being together in-person.
“It's still not optimal to be virtual, but JCA has an emergent service philosophy since we work in the complex, messy realm of culture change. We intentionally strive to succeed on the edge of chaos and be adaptive; so pandemic or not, we are still meeting people where they are, but just doing it in a way that we are still learning how to make the most of it.”
Coupled with the demand for social change in the U.S., JCA has pivoted, created anew and reimagined much of the work it does.
“In relation to the extraordinary social change in our country, there seems to us to have been – at least relative to our past experiences – a meaningful shift in either people's recognition of systemic racism or their sincere desire to dismantle it,” Wood says. “It's hard to argue there hasn't been some level of seismic change in our country's collective discussion about racism, white supremacy and racial equity, so in the midst of that cultural shift, the balance of JCA's services have been altered.”
Before the spring of 2020, most requests to JCA were focused on raising awareness about social issues and for help in advancing or celebrating diversity. However, according to Wood, more and more individuals, groups and organizations are now looking to understand how to be systemic agents of change.
Authentically addressing systemic oppression and building truly inclusive, equitable cultures is what the JCA sees as the way forward for organizations and entities looking to improve the future for their communities. Most are requesting JCA’s services that build anti-racism capacity versus just checking the “diversity box,” according to Wood.
Amber Booth-McCoy, CEO and founder of The Diversity Booth, recently partnered with JCA as a senior facilitator and lead strategy consultant.
“With all due respect to Soirée, there is just not enough space here to capture the sheer cultural change force that is Amber Booth-McCoy,” Wood says.
“She’s been a critically important equity and inclusion change agent in our community – particularly for UAMS and the city’s Racial & Cultural Diversity Commissions – for years now … [JCA] will be eternally grateful for the tremendous level of expertise, energy and professionalism she has brought to our team.”
Wood and Booth-McCoy connected several months before May 2020, but it was George Floyd’s murder that led to a more robust partnership between TDB and JCA.
“In addition to teaching me so much about how to advance diversity and equity, Amber is serving as a lead strategist for JCA’s consulting services which includes things like strategic planning and cultural assessments," Wood says. "She’s also one of our senior facilitators, which means she works closely with me and our other facilitators in the design, implementation and evaluation of our education and training programs."
Because of the partnership, JCA has been able to enhance several established programs like the inclusive leadership development experiences and have created new, culturally-responsive services such as virtual healing spaces to help communities within organizations share, listen and process together their lived experiences in the time of COVID-19 and racial unrest.
Self-described as “a little bit of hip-hop, a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll with the passion of Malcom X and the poise of Michelle O.,” Booth-McCoy specializes in diversity, working toward inclusion and ever fighting for equity.
“I love diversity, equity and inclusion because it reminds me to take up space and make room for others,” she says.
“TDB possesses an immense passion to affect society at large by concentrating on the areas of business, education and community. We bring a breadth of eclectic and effective skills, characteristics and abilities,” Booth-McCoy says. “Combining these attributes with collaborative brainstorming allows the development of diverse, equitable and inclusive solutions tailored for our client’s needs.
“[TDB’s work is important] because we work to dismantle systems of oppression. It’s important because until society works for the most vulnerable of us, it truly works for none of us.”
Booth-McCoy views her role at JCA with Wood – who she describes as “often a light in dark spaces” who “amplifies voices of the underserved or overlooked” and is “a co-conspirator for justice and inclusion” – as “co-facilitating, co-creating and co-sustaining inclusive spaces with an organization that has been doing the work longer than I’ve been alive.”
Styling: MALINA TABOR | Hair/makeup: LORI WENGER | Clothes & jewelry: DILLARD'S
Catalyst for Culture Shift
Since 1964, JCA has celebrated diversity while promoting equity and inclusion throughout the state. And though its methods have adapted over the years to remain relevant and effective, Woods says the vision remains the same, "that Arkansas will be the nation’s most inclusive, equitable and upwardly mobile place for all who live, work or play here."
Personally, he sees JCA emerging as the state’s leading connector and catalyst for collective social change.
“I believe because of our rich history, our diverse network of partners and our guiding strategic model of facilitating systemic change toward collective liberations, JCA is well positioned and ready to expedite the process of co-creating sustainable paths both within communities and between communities,” Wood says.
JCA hopes to lead Arkansas toward a place where all of its people are treated fairly, justly and are free from oppressive restrictions imposed on them simply because of one’s way of life, background, culture or identity.
“[The future] looks steady and promising," Booth-McCoy says. "There’s a special impetus on leaders to understand, promote and embed diversity in the fabric of their organizations and institutions. So, there’s work to be done and cultures to shift. I suspect we will be as busy as we want for as long as we’d like. Donald always reminds clients or colleagues that we’d like to be out of a job, and that’s one day our goal.”
How to create meaningful change in your community:
Amber Booth-McCoy: “Diversity, equity and inclusion aren't just ideas for business and organizations. It's the job of everyone. We need all the many hands, voices and lenses necessary to shape a better tomorrow.”
Donald Wood: “JCA is here to support each and every member of our community do their part in dismantling racism through reckoning with the truth and healing together through reconciliation. JCA won't stop or even relent in these efforts until all Black people in our country can go to school in safety, walk the streets in safety, play in parks in safety, birdwatch in safety, shop in safety, go to restaurants in safety, pray in safety and do all of the other things white people in our society can do every day without the fear that their lives and their freedom will be taken from them.
“Whether it's contracting through your company or making a personally meaningful donation, JCA is only able to reach so many people using financial support. A small fraction of organizations can afford culture change facilitation services which means far too many Arkansans are not being afforded the opportunity of the high level of expertise and experience we bring to our mission.”
For more information or to support, visit arkansasjustcommunities.org.
There are many customizable workshops offered by JCA that are designed to address the three core levels of systems change using Bobbie Harro’s Cycle of Liberation model: intra-personal, interpersonal and institutional. JCA initially recommends focusing on intra-personal and interpersonal levels to build a foundation to support sustainable institutional culture change.
These programs focus on empathy and respect to build bridges between diverse individuals and groups in the organization’s community. To co-create understanding and truth, JCA believes respect and open, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable conversations are by-products that create space for the entire community and center those who are typically disenfranchised or marginalized.
Offered programs include:
• The Look of Success: Co-Creating a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Workplace
• Implicit Bias and Inclusive Leadership
• Introduction to Race/Ethnicity and its Impact on Social Systems
• Understanding Inclusion: Identity, Intersectionality, Implicit Bias, Intentionality and the Ism’s
• T.H.A.T. Space: Individual commitment to collective well-being through Truth, Healing And Transformation