By Darla Pires DeGrace, Director of National Diversity Recruitment and Strategic Partnerships
There I am, cornrow wearing (before it was trendy), front tooth missing, snotty nose kindergartner from the Lincoln Way housing development--a nice way of saying the “projects.” I was raised by a single parent, grew up in public housing exposed to gun violence and drugs, and relied on public assistance and food stamps. I was who we now serve and that’s why I choose to work at City Year.
In fact, Joshua Dickerson’s poem “Cause I Ain’t Got a Pencil” could have easily been written about a couple of the kids in my housing development. But this first generation kid made honor roll from kindergarten through graduate school (most of the time) because my mom didn’t play. She urged my brother and me to exceed her beyond achieving a GED. In addition, we were lucky enough to have caring educators who took the time to understand the backgrounds of the students they served, while never allowing us to make excuses.
When I entered 3rd grade, I had little exposure to professional men of color. And then my school district hired Mr. Ronald E. Walker, a tall dark African American man who commanded respect. He was the new black principal who didn’t take any mess. He was firm, fair and forgiving, but most importantly he cared about all of us and pushed us to succeed.
As I transitioned from student to professional, my personal journey helped me to realize that my passion lies with helping others realize their own potential. Throughout my career, I’ve helped higher education institutions meet their revenue targets, but more importantly I’ve played a role in helping students meet their educational and career goals.
I am now afforded the opportunity to serve an organization like City Year whose mission aligns with my personal beliefs that “education has the power to help every child reach his or her potential.” This is what I’m passionate about and driven to do. The work is not easy. It challenges me and my colleagues to unpack the definition and true meaning of diversity; to go beyond race and gender and to consider age, ability, education, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and more. But it’s not enough for an organization to “achieve” diversity, it also needs to practice inclusivity and work on becoming culturally proficient.
What does it even mean to be culturally competent?
I’m no expert on the matter, but I’m learning from mentors like Mr. Walker (who remains committed to urban education as the founder of Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color) that becoming culturally competent is a journey and in order to move up on the cultural competency continuum, one must raise their own self-awareness, be curious and engage authentically with people who are different from themselves in an effort to deepen our understanding and connections with each other. Every organization that serves a specific population (i.e. high poverty communities) should aspire to become culturally proficient to best serve that target demographic.
To follow up on my own learning and development in this area and to consider how we may be able to extend the reach of this knowledge, Mr. Walker connected me with Kikanza Nuri-Robins, a renowned expert and author on diversity and inclusion; she provides some sound guidance and amazing insights in this interview.
It is my hope that City Year will continue to invest in diversity and inclusion to help both staff and AmeriCorps members become comfortable with the uncomfortable, to model our Inclusivity core value, and better understand the students and communities in which we serve. I’m excited to work for and ‘on’ an organization that is committed to this journey.
In addition to her role at City Year, Darla continues to support diverse students and minority business professionals through her volunteer work on the board of the National Black MBA Association. As President of the Boston Chapter, she has the opportunity to be part of a national organization, leading a local Chapter that has impacted the lives of so many youth and business professionals of color across Massachusetts.