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How to Have Real Conversations About Race Within Purpose-Driven Organizations

SOCAP Global January 31, 2022

From SOCAP21: Southern Bancorp Focuses on Ties to Purpose and Community in Launching Discussions

As mission-driven organizations increasingly focus on external efforts to address racism and inequality, they often are reluctant to ask tough questions about race within their own organizations. 

What does it take to raise these questions and advance discussions? This SOCAP21 session on having real conversations about race within organizations featured the board chairs and C-suite leaders of Southern Bancorp, a leading CDFI operating in the Southern U.S. They shared real-world examples that show how moving beyond their comfort zones has helped the organization create impact internally as well as within its communities. 

Because conversations about race often aren’t easy, many leaders aren’t sure how or when to start them. Southern Bancorp CEO Darrin Williams points to the organization’s purpose — to create economic opportunities for everyone — and the history of slavery in the region it serves as important reasons why it was important to start the internal conversations. 

“Our inclusivity really means respecting everyone’s opinion,” he said. “You can’t be afraid of pushback, and you can’t wait for the perfect moment to start. It will never come.”

Williams began discussing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Southern Bancorp with Glen Jones, Chair of the Board, Southern Bancorp, Inc., around 2015, after he started in the CEO role. Jones said they both prioritized diversity work but wanted Williams to have more time as CEO to build trust among the team and prepare its culture for the conversation. 

They started the discussions at the top. 

“We spent time among the board talking about diversity and why it’s important,” Jones said. “If you skip the why, the hesitancy will always be there. And if there’s hesitancy after you’ve articulated the why, then you’ve articulated the wrong why.”

With guidance from the board and outside consultants, Jones said, they were able to determine how to coalesce around the topic in a way that also advances its mission of building communities and changing lives. 

Among the members of the board is Donna Gambrell, President and CEO, Appalachian Community Capital, who noted that diversity, equity, and inclusion work is incorporated in the organization’s strategic plan. 

“Every quarter we walk through that plan as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion. That made the board more comfortable to talk about it and ask questions,” she said. “This doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen easily. It’s an educational process.” 

Over time, she said, board members grew more comfortable with discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion and gained an understanding of the need for changes in policies and practices, including more flexible loan policies. 

“When you talk about race you really have to be authentic,” she said. “There is no right answer … there’s just a long history that we have to unpack.”

The most important thing, she said, is to begin — and prioritize — conversations within an organization. And once the conversations about race and DEI have begun, more people will grow more comfortable with asking questions and collaborating for change. 

John Olaimey, President and CEO, Southern Bancorp, said it’s important to continue the progress of DEI discussions and take a broad look at how race affects the company and the people in the communities it serves.

“The more that I have learned, the more I realize that the work starts yesterday,” he said. “We didn’t get here in a day and we’re not going to get out of here in a day. I’m questioning things; I’m questioning the ways we’re doing things.”

Andrea Parnell, Chief People Officer, Southern Bancorp, emphasized that DEI is a strategy, rather than an initiative, that is a crucial part of the company’s mission and future success.

“We have an opportunity to unite our employees, and a lot of the hesitancy you see comes from a fear of dividing the organization,” she said. “One thing we can all get behind is we want this organization to be as impactful, as successful as we can be. To show how DEI plays a role in that is a cause for uniting the organization instead of dividing it.”

Watch How to Have Real Conversations About Race Within Purpose-Driven Organizations


Donna Gambrell, Board of Directors, Southern Bancorp Inc.; President and CEO, Appalachian Community Capital

Glen Jones, Chair of the Board, Southern Bancorp Inc.

John Olaimey, President and CEO, Southern Bancorp 

Andrea Parnell, Chief People Officer, Southern Bancorp

Darrin Williams, CEO, Southern Bancorp Inc.


Laurie Spengler, CEO, Courageous Capital Advisors, LLC

Equity and Inclusion / Racial Equity
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