“I hope you are still willing to serve.” I got a call from the mayor’s office at Louisville Metro the day after our transit CEO was fired amidst sexual harassment allegations in early 2020.
I had agreed to join the Transit Agency of River City (TARC) Board to help make greatly-needed improvements in the organization. Now with the disruption in leadership, the need for change would play out in an even more challenging context.
Of course, I joined, but found myself uncomfortable walking into my first public Board meeting in TARC’s offices where the white people seemed to be sitting at the head table and the people of color in the audience. It was a stark contrast. It felt wrong to sit down at the table and I only did so when I saw the pre-eminent African American business owner and respected member of many boards sitting with her name tag next to my empty seat.
I had a lot to learn about transit, and about public board meetings, but there was no question in my mind that if any organization should have diverse, representative Board leadership to guide it into a new future, it was TARC.
I hadn’t defined it as such at the time, but right then I knew we needed a new table.
What is a new table?
A “new table” refers to the idea that the prior decision-making body is disbanded, and a new, explicitly diverse and representative group is convened to proceed to operate with decision-making authority.
The reconstitution changes the power structure so that diverse voices are seen and heard and centered in decision-making process.
This contrasts with the model where diverse members are added one by one to the existing leadership table. Sometimes referred to as “checking the box” initiatives and “tokenism” for the sake of board diversity, research is beginning to show that the old model is not working.
Why do we need a new table?
Who sits on these boards in a city can seem like a small thing, especially in Louisville where there are more than 100 boards and commissions. How much can one or two board members really matter?
A lot. A new table brings representative power-sharing, creativity and relevance in a changing marketplace. The diversity of voices and experiences changes the agenda, as I’ve written before.
Having representation of the populace and the population served is key to responding not just to the need for improvement but to the changing demands and expectations of the marketplace. A transit system that is only used by people who have no alternative will not survive in the future. A transit system used by choice will survive, and thrive.
Who can create a new table?
The process starts with one or two leaders who seek to make the change, but goes no further until a diverse, representative group is formed. It’s explicit power-sharing.
In the case of TARC, intentional recruiting over a period of a year led to a board that was 50% White and 50% African American. Importantly, a big part of the change process was not reapproving people whose terms had long expired, creating new openings. The impact of the TARC board composition changes is just now being felt in the quality of the discussions, ideas and feedback as the new board is finding its way as a group.
Creating a new table is inevitably an imperfect process, though, because there is always subjectivity as to who should be “in the room.” For instance, in the TARC board changes, we got better diversity but not adequate representation of the ridership. An adhoc nominating group is meeting now to seek to address those issues, to further improve the decision-making group.
How do we get there?
Intentionally. It is up to each of us to stop and reconstitute our decision-making bodies intentionally. Do you have a group that needs a redo? Please tell us your story and we’ll share more ideas on how to approach this in the coming weeks.