Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Breaking down the barriers around racial equity

A new initiative developed by United Way of RI, to be launched on Juneteenth, challenges businesses change the way they conduct themselves

Photo by Richard Asinof

Nancy Wolanski, Director of the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact at United Way of Rhode Island.

By Nancy Wolanski
Posted 6/17/24
On Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in 1865 in the U.S., United Way of Rhode Island is launching the “2024 Equity Challenge,” an ambitious seven-day learning curriculum for individuals and businesses focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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The hostility that some politicians bring to discussions around diversity, equity, and inclusion reflects an intolerance too often promoted in social media and on talk radio. Standing up to bullies on the airwaves and to demagogues at community forums require the courage to stand up and say no. News reporters and editors in particular have a special responsibility to call out such intolerant behavior and racial distortion when they occur.
All change begins on the inside. We have to be able to change ourselves and acknowledge our own frailties and mistakes before we can tackle the world around us. The first step is often to listen to what is being said, rather than talk at people. A second step is to ask questions, rather than make declarations. A third step, if you can get that far, is simply to ask: what better questions can I ask?

PROVIDENCE – One of the things most admirable about the nonprofit sector in Rhode Island is its compassion-action dynamic.

So many charitable organizations have been created when caring individuals identify an equity issue in their community – and then take the initiative to address it.

  •    They see children of color attending under-resourced schools, resulting in lower academic outcomes, so they create an after-school or mentoring program.
  •    They see people who have been incarcerated being turned away from employment opportunities, so they create a workforce program and offer expungement services.
  •    And, they see low-income communities face higher rates asthma because of air pollution, so they create an environmental education program to monitor air quality in affected neighborhoods and promote the adoption of alternative energy sources.

But the compassion-action dynamic can be thwarted when there are not enough available resources. And, all too frequently, there are not resources available for nonprofits to do the internal capacity-building work they need.

Although many organizations can recognize issues of equity in their communities and raise funds to address them, rarely is there funding available for nonprofits who recognize equity issues internally and want to address them.

This holds true also for those with a strong commitment to equity and who want to strengthen their staff’s understanding and skills.

In the 2023 Rhode Island Nonprofit Survey, only 12 percent of responding nonprofits had received funding for new Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion [JEDI] programming; and only 8 percent received grant funding to support existing internal or external JEDI work. Translated, 70 percent of respondents had not offered JEDI training for their boards, while half had not provided JEDI training to their staff.

Introducing the 2024 Equity Challenge    
On Juneteenth, United Way will launch its 2024 Equity Challenge, providing a valuable opportunity for nonprofits and businesses alike to offer a shared JEDI training without having to find additional funding.

The seven-day curated journey is designed for individuals and teams at various stages of their JEDI journey, supporting the learning of these valuable principles and enhancing their understanding of equity-related topics.

The “Equity Challenge” asks for just a half-hour of your time per day. Beginning June 19 and running through June 28, participants will be prompted with daily learning activities via email, with options to read, watch, or listen as a means to learn about that day’s topic. The flexibility of the challenge not only allows participants to self-pace, but it also caters to different learning preferences.

In addition, this year’s challenge features three in-person “pop-up experiences” for more interactive and community-based learning opportunities.

  •    The first, a panel discussion exploring the topic of “justice,” will take place at United Way [50 Valley St., Providence] on Juneteenth beginning at 9 a.m.

It will be moderated by Kevin Matta, who is senior director of people and culture for United Way of Rhode Island, and one of the Ocean State’s leading champions of diversity and equity in the workplace. Matta understands the impact this work has on nearly every facet of our lives, both personally and professionally.

“Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has moved beyond buzzwords and toward action-oriented results,” Matta said. “Our community neighbors, customers, colleagues and future employees have all gained awareness around these principles and there’s no question it actively informs how they engage in business and with their talents,” he continued said. “The benefits to participating in this learning journey are so far-reaching, not only for individuals and employers, but for our state as a whole.”

A badge for equity and inclusion    
For nonprofits who may not have budgets for professional development, the 2024 Equity Challenge can provide DEI training for an entire team at no cost. This has the power to inspire meaningful conversations while demonstrating individual and organizational commitment to equity. And, once you complete the challenge, you’ll be able to highlight your dedication to the values that foster a culture of belonging.

Individuals who complete the Equity Challenge will be eligible to receive a certificate of completion, while organizations with a participation rate of 85 percent of its employees will receive a special badge demonstrating their competency and commitment to equity. The equity badges are designed so that they can be displayed proudly on websites, social media, and in email signatures.

“We realize that a gap exists in building awareness and gaining perspective that stems from people not knowing where to begin or where to go for an experience that truly enhances understanding of equity-related topics,” Matta said. “So we’re making that easy for everyone.”

Breaking down barriers    
This point of making it “easy” is especially important, according to a finding from our most recent nonprofit survey. Time and again, respondents cited “cost” as a barrier to offering JEDI training to their staff and board. In fact, one organization added this comment to their survey: “We have invested $75,000 in this work and have only scratched the surface.”

United Way of Rhode Island has doubled down on its commitment to building racial equity and creating opportunities for all Rhode Islanders with the launch of its LIVE UNITED 2025 Strategic Plan. And, they continue to be at the forefront of this important work through leading by example and by changing the rules of accessibility for others.

At meetings of the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact, we talk often about the ways in which our state would fully thrive with a strengthened nonprofit sector. We believe that the learning and broadened perspective that can be gained through participating in the 2024 Equity Challenge are a step toward that goal, and we encourage each and every one of you to take advantage. Because, together, we can accomplish much more than any of us could on our own.

Nancy Wolanski is the director of the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact at United Way of Rhode Island.

You can register to participate in the 2024 Equity Challenge by visiting, or by emailing Kevin Matta at

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