How The Lenfest Institute is centering racial equity in our work

Every day at The Lenfest Institute, we work to ensure that all Philadelphia residents have equal access to the news and information they need to lead meaningful, engaged lives. That mission is especially apt as we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth. 

Juneteenth  —  also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day – commemorates the June 19, 1865 proclamation from a Union general in Galveston, Texas that all enslaved people in the state were finally free. The announcement came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and today it’s a reminder of how access to information – and by extension, freedom — has far too often been distributed unevenly. 

The Lenfest Institute recently expanded our work in Philadelphia and nationally with new grants and programs to ensure that journalists, entrepreneurs, and media professionals are able to support their communities with necessary news and information. 

But more work remains. 

Journalism must help us confront vestiges of the abhorrent legacy of slavery. Even now, 100 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre and one year after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the United States continues to wrestle with the full acknowledgment of and impact of racial inequality in this country. Journalism has played a pivotal role on both sides of this equation throughout our country’s history. News outlets have stoked the flames of hate and ignored the fight for civil rights. Conversely, we’ve seen the strength and impact of journalism in speaking truth to power and holding the nation to account on racial inequity through works such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project from The New York Times.

It’s not enough for journalism organizations and funders to interrogate our history — we need to recognize that equity begins at home. That’s why, in October 2020, The Lenfest Institute engaged with Frontline Solutions to embark on a journey to assess our own work and practices, our “Equity Footprint.” The Equity Footprint Framework was developed by Frontline Solutions, a Black-owned consulting firm, to help organizations comprehensively analyze how institutions advance equity.

In starting this process, our goal was not to contemplate but to act. Our engagement with Frontline Solutions was part of a deep, action-oriented examination of our funding priorities, how we collaborate with The Philadelphia Inquirer and other organizations, how we engage with our communities, and how we hold ourselves accountable for the change we all seek.  

The outcomes from this experience will guide our internal equity work and also influence our approach to grantmaking and partnerships in Philadelphia and nationally. We are transparently discussing the process today to share how this journey is impacting our work, and hopefully to help other organizations undertaking similar efforts. 

Frontline’s Equity Footprint toolkit is built around the institutional domains of diversity, equity, and inclusion and is based on three principles: 

  1. “Business as usual” in many non-profits is inherently inequitable. 
  2. Every non-profit has room to expand its Equity Footprint.
  3. Equity is good practice.

The primary deliverable from our engagement with Frontline Solutions, The Lenfest Institute Equity Footprint Roadmap, focused primarily on four aspects of the Equity Footprint Framework: operations, organizational culture, leadership and governance, and grantmaking.

Our process consisted of three primary components: 

  1. The project launch included a kick-off meeting where we established common language, clear expectations, and a review of the scope of work and timeline. 
  2. The Equity Footprint assessment which centered on information gathering and assessment of the Institute as an organization and our equity efforts. This study included an extensive document review, an anonymous self-assessment survey of the Institute team and Board of Managers, and interviews with Institute team members, strategic partners, Board members, and grantees. The Frontline team then shared the major findings pertaining to the Institute’s pursuit to enhance our equity-related policies, practices and culture with our Board and staff.
  3. This was followed by two equity visioning and design sessions — one with the Institute team, and one with the Institute Board—to workshop actionable steps that we can take to advance our Equity Footprint.

Based on this process, The Lenfest Institute established an Internal Equity Footprint Taskforce, comprised of members of the Institute team, at all levels of the organization, that will provide oversight and accountability in ensuring that the Equity Footprint Roadmap serves as a living document to guide our implementation of the recommendations. The Roadmap includes more than 40 recommendations — from short-term changes which can begin immediately to long-term processes — that fall under four categories: 

  1. The Operations Roadmap that will inform The Institute’s internal practices and policies, human resources, vendors and consultants. 
  2. The Organizational Culture Roadmap that will inform The Institute’s approach to staffing, norms, and underlying beliefs.
  3. The Leadership and Governance Roadmap that will inform how The Institute is governed and by whom.
  4. The Grantmaking Roadmap that will inform where, how, and to whom The Institute distributes its resources. 

The recommendations included in each of these domain roadmaps are not exhaustive and it is anticipated that we will add to the list as we continue to grow and evolve. We were also left with a number of questions to consider:

  • How does the Institute balance our equity-centered work and the values and priorities of external funders and partners?
  • How does the Institute design a process for transparent, inclusive decision making within a relatively flat structure? 
  • How can the Institute create purposeful and structured time to look introspectively and identify and address any potential issues  moving forward? 

We have already begun to put these sentiments into practice both internally and in our work with our partners. Last November, the Institute hosted BEYOND: Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism, a three-day virtual summit where we convened journalists, community members, managers, and news media executives in the Philadelphia area to engage in frank conversations on issues of equity in local news. Our goal was to begin to build a collective vision of the future of journalism in our region. Following the summit we shared Eight Lessons from Beyond: Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism which outlined the key themes and insights that emerged from our conversations. They ultimately informed our strategy for the expansion of our work in Philadelphia, including the upcoming launch of a new Entrepreneurship Initiative, in partnership with the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund to support BIPOC entrepreneurs, as well as our recent investment in community-focused journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer. This includes support for a Community News Desk, which will be a new team of journalists focused on amplifying diverse voices and strengthening relationships with underserved communities.  

This is just the start for the Institute because, as an industry, journalism finds itself in a unique cultural moment.  Many communities are relying less on traditional media for their news, and with people of color expected to make up the majority of the United States’ population by 2045, news organizations must reach audiences who have been historically underrepresented by mainstream news coverage.  

We’re not alone. In 2019, the News Integrity Initiative at CUNY convened leaders from eight journalism funders to discuss how to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations, in their grantmaking, and across the broader sector. Out of that meeting, Frontline Solutions published a report that emphasized how funders have an opportunity to move both the fields of philanthropy and journalism forward by centering DEI within our institutions and grantmaking processes. By changing their approach, funders can support reporting with a truly community-centered approach that builds  long-term trust.

We’re under no illusions that this will be an easy, quick, or perfect process, but The Lenfest Institute is committed to doing our part to ensure that journalism is of service to all our communities. 

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