Teach for America - a nonprofit organization that facilitates teaching opportunities in low-income communities for recent college grads - has grown from a small organization since its launch in 1990 with just a few staff members to one that now employs 1,700 people in 43 regions across the United States.

"Diversity is core to who we are, given that 90% of the children we teach are African American or Latino or Hispanic and are growing up in low-income communities," said Aimée Eubanks Davis, executive vice president, people, community and diversity with Teach for America, speaking in a session at the 2012 Great Place to Work conference in Atlanta.

But even though the children it teaches are primarily African American and Latino, employees at Teach for America have not always been as diverse. So, four years ago, the organization launched an aggressive campaign to increase diversity among the ranks of its staff.

Today, 36% of the staff members at Teach for America identify themselves as people of color and, over the past four years, the organization has seen a 270% increase in the number of diverse staff members. For the past two years, Teach for America has landed on Fortune magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work For list - an accomplishment Eubanks Davis said would not have happened had the organization not tackled diversity head-on.

She outlined five strategies Teach for America used to increase employee diversity: Start at the top, be unapologetic, leave no gaps, make gumbo, and communicate clearly. "I think these can be applicable to any organization," she said.


1. Start at the top

Teach for America was founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, a senior at Princeton, who had the vision to create a teaching corps that would send recent college graduates to teach for two years in the nation's neediest urban and rural public schools. When the organization decided to tackle diversity, employees really questioned whether or not Kopp - now the CEO - was committed to the issue, said Eubanks Davis.

"One thing we realized was going to be important for us on this front was to actually bring forth a diversity statement," she recalled. The statement was written by Kopp herself and reads, in part, "We seek to be diverse because we aspire to serve as a model of the fairness and equality of opportunity we envision for our nation."

"When she wrote that line about five years ago, I don't think I fully understood the higher bar we were holding ourselves to as an organization," said Eubanks Davis. "And now that I really understand the higher bar, it still keeps me up at night. This is a very hard thing to attain for any organization, even one like ours that has a very clear connection to why we want to be diverse."


2. Be unapologetic & 3. Leave no gaps

While the diversity statement was a good start, it didn't really home in on the organization's diversity priorities. It became very clear that it seemed to staff members that "if diversity was not a core value at Teach for America, then it still sort of had a side seat," said Eubanks Davis. So, the organization made diversity a core value.

"We are very specific in that we expect all staff members - all 1,700 of them - to live up to our core values," said Eubanks Davis. "We all - as leaders within the organization - are expected to really think about how we can ensure the perspective and credibility of people who share the background of our students are really brought forth."

Teach for America reached a point where it had lots of diversity at the upper management level. But Eubanks Davis noticed some startling gaps in the pipeline, particularly at the entry level. "I started to worry that, within a year or two, we would not have strong diversity at the senior levels because those [entry-level positions] were the pipeline to our promotions," she said.

She encouraged employers to ask themselves where the diversity is in their own organizations. "Is it only in one particular place?" she asked. "The moment we see a gap at Teach for America we need to make sure we're doing everything possible to ensure it does not continue to exist."

For a time, Teach for America set the ambitious goal of having 50% of its applicant pool be people of color or who shared the background of its students income-wise. "When Wendy told me this was something she wanted to do, I thought she was crazy," said Eubanks Davis. "We were growing very fast, and it was already very hard to get a diverse group of people in the door, and I just could not believe this was the bar we were holding ourselves to. But, honestly, it was critical to take that step."

And with only 6% of college graduates identifying as Latino and 5% identifying as African American, the goal of having half of its applicant pool be people of color was extremely hard to achieve. "In the end, it was one of the most important strategic decisions we ever made," she said. "You cannot be what you cannot see, and we have seen that be true at Teach for America. People do not believe it's a place they can envision growing a career over time if they cannot see other people who share their background."


4. Make a gumbo

Eubanks Davis compared the employee population at Teach for America to a gumbo - a complex dish with many layers of flavor - rather than a melting pot. "If we try to make people fit a profile, we're doing them and ourselves a disservice," she said. "It is so important for people to feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work."

To encourage employees to feel comfortable at work, the organization launched several staff resource groups, including faith-based, Latino and Hispanic, low-income background, working dads, united colors of Teach for America, new and expectant moms, and remote workers groups. Groups are led by staff members.

"Everybody does not need the same thing, but everybody needs something," said Eubanks Davis. "We realized it's important to honor exclusive spaces and also important to honor inclusivity."


5. Communicate clearly.

Teach for America also realized it was important to communicate deliberately, dynamically and differently, particularly when it comes to diversity. It ditched its monthly bulletin, which Eubanks Davis described as ineffective and a huge time suck. It launched an internal talk show, called "The Blank Show," that goes out to the various regions in which Teach for America has offices and has employees interview each other about the work they're doing.

"What I love about 'The Blank Show' is that it oozes diversity in all the ways we might hope," said Eubanks Davis. "It's become a dynamic tool for us that celebrates diversity."



Five steps to diversity

1. Start at the top.

2. Be unapologetic.

3. Leave no gaps.

4. Make a gumbo.

5. Communicate deliberately, dynamically and differently.

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