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Pulling Us Into The Room: All The Steps I Took To Become A Board Member

Access is key to Black women shattering the glass ceiling.

As Told To

As Told To is a recurring segment on xoNecole where real women are given a platform to tell their stories in first-person narrative as told to a writer.

This is Melissa's story, as told to Charmin Michelle.

As we navigate today's racial pandemic and the symbolic gestures shared by public and private businesses and organizations, it is extremely important to move from symbolism to reality. Representation whether it's external through the vendors and services utilized, or internal through hiring, seniority and board service is a pivotal first step in inclusiveness and equity.

Over the last five years, I have served as a board member and Chair of the Board of Directors for a NYC-based organization enhancing the opportunities for children, families and social workers in the foster system, Fostering Change for Children. In 2020, I added to my passion for service by being invited and then appointed to the board of the National Job Corps Association.

In both cases, I am the only Black woman currently serving.

I knew this would be a factor, as oftentimes it is in corporate, but over time it occurred to me, that we just aren't aware of how to join a board—or it's simply something that we don't have those conversations about enough. I recently came across an article on xoNecole titled, "10 Black Women Pulling Up To The C-Suite On The Boards Of Fortune 500 Companies", and I knew I needed to share what I knew in the sector about this topic. So many of us could bring our voices to the table, for palpable change and contributions to building a more equitable society. Each one, teach one, right?

So, ladies, here's everything I know, detailed and outlined, to take that new leap in your career. I hope to see you all in the boardroom!

How To Get Started

Before we dive into this, let's answer this question: why do you want to be a board member?

Well, becoming a board member is an opportunity to exercise your passions, skills and knowledge outside of your everyday 9-5; sort of on an internal, progressive level. And the process may seem daunting if you don't know where to start.

Because I personally find deep and personal fulfillment in knowing that my decision-making and experiences are directly impacting the communities that reflect both me and my family, I decided to actually become active in researching the best ways to break into this sector.

I joined the United Way's BoardServe program, which provided me with a three-hour orientation on the inner workings of nonprofit boards, whether learning or presenting their fiduciary/monetary legal guidelines, or something as seemingly simple as taking minutes during a convening. I then completed a profile which identified my strengths (communications, branding, social impact) and interests (children, family, the arts). Following my profile creation, my data was shared with a number of organizations searching to onboard new members and then the "dating" process began.

It's important to remember that your time is valuable and your true commitment will be amplified by how connected you are to the particular cause. I engaged in approximately four meet-and-greet sessions over coffee with nonprofit CEOs who pitched me on their organization, their board member requirements and why they believed that I would be a great fit. There were some fantastic meetings, but some orgs either didn't speak to the heart of my interests, had time commitments that didn't fit my availability, or needed to do a bit more work internally before I felt comfortable lending my expertise and/or criticism to their environment.

And that's OK. We have to find what is a good fit for us.

You can search for board member training programs in your local community or identify your areas of interest. For example, when I search for organizations based in Memphis for the arts, it leads me to: https://www.artsmemphis.org/organizations. From there, I would research the Head of Advancement/Philanthropy or CEO, depending on the size and staff structure of the organization to express my interest.

Commitment Requirements

Monetary

Typical board commitments at a minimum is to give (donation) or get (solicitation through fundraising in your personal and professional networks) a financial gift. Not all organizations require board member financial obligations, but this is one of the first questions that you should ask before acting upon interest. Be certain that you can fulfill the financial commitment which can range from the low hundreds into tens of thousands of dollars depending on the board.

Time Commitment

Your next inquiry should be on the time commitment expected. Typically boards meet on a quarterly basis for 2-4 hours with breakout committees meeting in between. Based on my personal interests, I volunteer my time on the committees for events and communications which often consist of an additional two hours of phone calls each month and the work in executing our various events or deliverables.

Serving Period

The length of board service is dependent on the specific organization with some boards voting yearly on their members and others going as long as five years or indefinitely for seats. On average, you should expect to recommit every two years or to have your board use that as a marker of time served to allow someone new to come onboard.

Board Service Benefits & Development

Becoming a board member has expanded my professional network. While also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and dedicating myself to a lifetime of service, I can now add my two board seats to my resume. Hiring managers will now view your commitment to service as a mark of responsibility, additional training, and professionalism.

Access is key to Black women shattering the glass ceiling.

By opening your circle's influence through board service and volunteerism, you can connect with additional and like-minded peers who can speak to your ability to get things done. That's what we are best at. It's up to us to validate our purpose. Nonprofit board service is a wonderful entry point into corporate board service, which in addition to opening your network, can also pay off in major dividends as board members are compensated for their time. Becoming a board member will align with your passion, connect with your community, and give you the very important opportunity to represent so many of us who've had muffled voices for generations; the voices of those who look like us.

Melissa C. Potter Monsanto is dedicated to standing at the forefront of impact, innovation, and social responsibility by using entertainment, media, partnerships and advocacy as a catalyst for social change. Follow her on Instagram at @melissacpotter to keep up with her journey or to ask more questions about starting your board journey.

Featured image courtesy of Melissa Monsanto

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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