Racial Equity & Community Leadership: A Conversation with Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler

A recent study by Forbes Magazine found that professional teams that include the opinions and experiences of people of color (POC) make better business decisions up to 87% of the time. In fact, the simple concept of inclusive decision making can bring about faster change—and contribute directly to an organization’s bottom line.

Although many of our current systems are well-intentioned, often individuals don’t understand the inherent bias surrounding the way they think and operate. I’ve observed this, first hand, as a black woman living and working in predominately white spaces—often being seen as the spokesperson for all black people. I’ve further been tokenized for my personal stories of hardship and discrimination to legitimize a cause or pull at the heartstrings of donors. Yet, professionals of color contribute a unique perspective, having prevailed in systems where structural and institutionalized racism still exists.

We have a rich history of overcoming adversity—and these experiences, alone, are incredibly valuable to any important endeavor. They’re not only essential to the success of a company, they play a vital role in the health of a community. And for that reason, I wanted to take a closer look at racial equity and how to successfully navigate it as a leader within a community.

So, I was excited to meet Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler, a keynote speaker at Downtown Colorado Inc.’s 2019 In the Game Conference. I quickly recognized her unmatched expertise on the subject of equitable community planning, and that understanding her story would not only benefit my own professional growth, but anyone looking to successfully navigate racial equity within their field.

From becoming the first black female Executive Director of the Office of Human Resources for the City and County of Denver to starting two of her own organizations—The Equity Project and The HR Shop—Dr. Tyler’s story is an inspiration for business owners and community leaders of all types.

After the 2016 presidential election, Dr. Tyler sought to create a company where the sole objective was to deliver equitable solutions and services to all people, in all systems. And she did just that. She established The Equity Project by creating data analytics and sharing effective solutions around how to create equity-based systems. She also launched The HR Shop to provide the best-in-class HR practices for small to medium size businesses and nonprofits that may not have their own Human Resources department.

I sat down with Dr. Tyler in the heart of Denver’s vibrant RiNo Art District, in her contemporary-style office at TAXI—a former Yellow Cab depot that is now a mixed-use work-live development. We talked about her experiences in HR, the importance of mentorship, what it means to be an effective leader, and how to successfully navigate equity work within an inequitable system.

Sierra Jeter: What do you think is holding us back from creating more equitable communities? Is it the system? Individuals? Or both? 

Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler: My oldest daughter says that “Your generation just needs to die off.” That’s her answer, [because, as she says,] “when ya’ll die, everything will be fine and then we’ll never have to talk about these issues again.” And I said that is not the answer.

SJ: You could say the same thing about two generations ago—but things are still a mess.

NMT: Exactly—and they’re still a mess because it’s the system.

The people are only doing what the system is designed to do. We keep picking at each other— but we’re not picking these systems apart. How is the system built? And what is it delivering? And why is it delivering it like that?

I also think that a part of that conversation is, “What should my generation be doing for you? And what should your generation be doing for me?” And we aren’t talking about that.

I wanted to do systems work—which is why I believe in equity work—because it’s about systems.

SJ: With that in mind, how do you think community leaders should go about equity work in our current systems?

NMT: Well, systematic issues don’t just go away overnight—they are chipped away at over time.

And after a while you chip a lot, and it’s going to destabilize the system—and that’s when it will topple. And we’ve chipped away at a lot of things in history that I can’t even name, but we just have to have more intentionality around “we gotta chip away at this” and be relentless about it.

I know you’re still learning. What is that for you? What are the things that you need support on that just doesn’t exist in our current systems?

SJ: I think for me, mentorship is really important. I can have an idea of where I want to go with my passions, but it is always changing. So, surrounding myself with people who are positive and healthy, and also very supportive, is really important. And I didn’t always value that.

NMT: I appreciate you saying this. I had this dream, and it was really weird because I was dreaming about mentorship. And I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of cool if we had a system that had these built-in mentors in it that young women could leverage easily.

Like, you don’t have to go on a hunting expedition to find a mentor, but there’s this whole system that already exists that you could choose from. That was in my dream—that I was creating it. So, my focus now is, what machinery do we need to create? Instead of these singular things, what system do we need to create?

SJ: So that they can be sustained for other people—

NMT: Yes, yeah, so instead of hunting down mentors, what if we create the mentorship machine—so you could get to it. And they could get to you and we wouldn’t have to struggle connecting people, especially in a place like this where we are so spread out.

SJ: Exactly, it goes back to how our communities are designed.

NMT: Yes, yes.

SJ: What was something that you felt like you really needed when you first started your career?

NMT: I actually needed somebody to tell me that I was not doing the best job at something.

I think when I was coming up in leadership, I was such an anomaly because there weren’t any black people in any system I was in. I probably made a lot of mistakes that people never told me about.

SJ: People weren’t keeping it real with you?

NMT: No. Because I think everybody at that time was scared of “you’re going to say it’s discrimination” so I don’t know if I got affective feedback along the way, but I heard all the kudos.

So, I would say to you, what I missed is some authenticity. And the reason I know I didn’t get the feedback, is because as I have matured in my leadership journey I got smart enough to know that I wasn’t good at certain things. So, I feel like I missed that. And nobody really likes a whole lot of feedback, especially if it’s negative, but I realize now how important it is.

SJ: With 30+ years experience as a leader in your field, what experiences or advice would you have for aspiring leaders or other people working in community development?

NMT: I do believe it is important for you to never lose your soul.

I can tell you that after 30 years, there will be times where someone or something will ask you to compromise who you are to advance an agenda. I’ve done that a million times in my career, where it wasn’t exactly what I stood for—it didn’t even feel good—but I needed to tow the company line. Now, 34 years later I look back and I think I never needed to compromise my soul and what I believed in to get the job done. So that’s a piece of advice that I always say. If it doesn’t feel good or if it feels like you’re losing who you are in it—it’s not the right thing.

The second thing that I’ve learned is, there comes a point in your leadership when you have to stop thinking about yourself. So much of leadership is wrapped around you—you’re thinking about “my trajectory,” “my salary,” how you’re going to get promoted. There are some pieces of it that are just self-centered—it’s built like that. But there’s a point at which you have to say, “there’s something about this that’s bigger than me,” and you have to name what that is.

Probably when I was in my 30’s, I started thinking about how to advance other people, and how powerful I would become if I were good at advancing other people—instead of just advancing me. That’s how I shifted my leadership thinking because my entire agenda was around “how can I get Sierra elevated or how can I put Sierra over there.” It was almost a chess game, but it didn’t involve me. I stayed at the same position on the chess board. I was the queen, and I wanted to move everybody else to powerful positions and it made a big difference in how leadership worked for me.

I found that I was less stressed and less beholden to other systems, because my whole agenda was about other people—and I still feel like that. I still feel like my job is to make sure you are where you need to be, and then when you rise, I go too.

SJ: When you’re helping other people, you’re—maybe not directly—helping yourself, too.

NMT: Right, exactly—so that’s important. Being in HR for so long, I got a chance to see so many disparities in compensation. I mean big disparities between women and men and people of color—big disparities in pay. And I studied it for a long time to see what was behind it. And what I learned about it is that, 9 times out of 10, it was the negotiation strategy that women and people of color have as compared to men. Men go in and ask for exactly what they want to get paid. Women and people of color don’t.

Which means, you are always going to be lower than everybody else because you started out lower than everybody else. That’s what the system created. So, to negotiate is mandatory.

Don’t ever put yourself in a deficit position. We have to learn how to explain to people what our value is and why it’s worth that amount. So, part of the wealth gap—some of it’s the system and some of it is knowing how to work the system. We have to do that. We have to learn that.

SJ: Like you said, some of it is systematic and some of it is us. With your experiences in mind, how have you navigated that burden with grace and confidence without getting burnt out?

NMT: Well, I think you said it beautifully and you’ve already figured half of it out—that some of it is the system and some of it isn’t. The most liberating thing that ever happened to me in my career was when I said out loud, “This system wasn’t made for me.” My blackness was never in the plan, in the design, in the construction of this system that I’m sitting in. If I made it through, I made it through against all odds because it wasn’t built for me.

You have to do that self-talk. And for every accomplishment that you have, remember how you weren’t supposed to even be there. And look at what you just did—even if it’s that little. And then you’re in there on the backs of someone who came before you, that went through absolute hell, that pushed the door open for us. And the more you just keep using that as the anchor for what you’re doing, the easier the path that comes. That’s how I made it 34 years through all kinds of organizations that weren’t meant for me to be there. None of them were—not one.

That’s why when you read my bio and it says “she’s the first this, and the first this, and the first this”—none of them were meant for me to be there. And even when I got there, they weren’t meant for me to be there. But you make it meant for you to be there—and we have to start celebrating what that represents.

It’s like taking a fish, and taking it out of the water and saying, “You thrive out there on the side walk,” and they do. You’re not even supposed to be alive. You’re supposed to be in water. But you’re on the sidewalk and you’re still moving around. That’s kind of like what it’s like to be black in the world. And we still keep on moving without the water.

And then one day you might end up like I have—I’m in water now. That’s what I have created for me. Water. So, I can move in a space that was built for me because I built it. But I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I not been a fish on the sidewalk.

• • •

Dr. Tyler is nationally recognized for her equity work, but her road to success was challenging and burdensome to navigate. She reminds us that if we want to design more inclusive systems, we have to learn how to work the system and create our own.

I encourage readers to share your own leadership stories as a way to raise greater awareness. To both my white colleagues and, especially for my resilient colleagues of color who continue to push forth despite the difficulties, stay forthright, stay truthful, and support each other.

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  • Leadership