Before I took on a program manager role at my AIDS services organization, I was an HIV and sexually transmitted infections tester for one of our department's programs. After eight months, I obtained a position for one the programs working with gay and bisexual men of color ages 18 to 29. Our manager left two months later in early 2018, so I filled in as the interim department manager for the whole department's five programs for a couple months, juggling meetings, staff, and my own shortcomings as a first-time manager.
I dealt with a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, all while trying to figure it all out without any prior management experience. Even though I had and continue to have an amazing support system in my organization who saw me in an upper management role, there was one barrier: I didn't have the required master's degree. This meant I couldn't become the program manager officially; I could just do all the work that came with it -- with no increase in compensation.
Because of this missing piece of paper, I was unable to receive a higher pay rate, and I was still in this confusing role of not knowing what I was really doing. This drew out the hiring process for a few months, which also grew frustration and resentment, until one day I was notified that I could be in the role and I would receive a considerate and competitive salary. To this day, I'm not sure what happened behind the scenes. But I know that someone believed in me, a 20-year-old person of color without a master's. Since that point, I have strived to remove barriers that keep people of color from promotions, especially degree requirements. While a degree is important in certain aspects, it doesn't tell the whole story. And I want the person's whole story.
The department I oversee has five programs working with low-income people, especially people who are using substances and experiencing homelessness. When I became the program manager, I attended countless trainings and workshops that showed me that many organizations hire individuals who come from a research background, steeped in privilege, rather than a background in personal lived experience. Most of these individuals are college-educated and white. But I wanted my team to be a reflection of the community we serve -- black, brown, and LGBTQ+ -- and I am determined to make the work we do as authentic as possible by hiring and promoting people who reflect the community we serve.
Being 23 and Latino, I didn't have much ground to stand on in my meetings with senior leadership, aside from a bachelor's degree and personal lived experience with the populations I work with. While I won't dive into my personal lived experiences, I think it's important to point out that my educational trajectory was a hard, uphill climb as the first person in my low-income family to go to college and complete a college education. This, coupled with attending a predominantly white school, led to many semesters of nearly dropping out, and plenty of stressful nights of teetering self-worth, counseling sessions -- you name it.
Education requirements create a barrier for individuals wanting to work in the fields they care about, specifically social services. It also creates barriers when said individuals aspire to take on more responsibility, but are unable to because a promotion requires a degree. While I am not advocating for removing all educational requirements, personal lived experience should be emphasized and, often times, supersede a degree when considering potential candidates. If this makes you believe people with less "qualifications" will get hired over you, please ask yourself what makes you so qualified for the position over someone with personal lived experience. Is it your unconscious bias telling you you're better because of the degree?
The idea of preferring a degree over a candidate with personal lived experience can cost relationships and buy-in for the community being served. For one, individuals without lived experience do not and will never understand a community the same way as someone who is a part of that community. Symptoms of white supremacy arise when organizations begin to model "We know better" behavior by going into communities with a set agenda of what the community needs.
This includes not having staff who belong to the community actively being at the decision-making table and keeping them from moving up in an organization because they still don't qualify for the positions that will move them forward in their careers. Why? Because of the unconscious biases that prevent people with hiring authority to fairly assess their skills, qualifications, and experiences. Many people of color face this reality in the workplace.
I understand that hiring one black or brown person will not fix it, as it's also tiring being the token person in the office where you're representing an entire community. It's much more than that. It's about advancing people of color to leadership roles and creating a pipeline of success where the community can follow. So, I do just that.
The first step I took as a first-time manager was to go through the policies and procedures in place to get a background understanding of how the organization is structured and how the organization upholds its policies and procedures (such as review time, updates, etc.). From there, if your organization has a policy and procedure (P&P) committee, find out if there is a way to join and contribute.
During this time, it's important to take notes and listen. Gain knowledge and insight into learning the system. Once I gained familiarity with what the general process was, I looked at my own department's job descriptions, past and present. I noticed that certain roles' requirements had changed over time. College degrees had replaced the value of experience. I contacted former managers and inquired about their own positions. I looked at similar roles across the organization and compared them. I noticed who was in salaried positions and who wasn't.
In one specific case, I tried removing the education requirement while keeping the pay similar to that of someone holding a bachelor's degree. As it stood, the position provided day-to-day supervision of the grant and its staff. The individual in this position had left the organization, and I realized that one staff member working in this grant had a lot of potential. I saw growth and leadership skills. But they had no bachelor's.
So, before I contacted my human resources team, I contacted the funding authority and asked what their education requirement was for this position. They informed me that they had no requirement and that it was up to the individual project director (me) to decide how to fill the position (a coordinator role, where they oversaw most of the administrative functions of the grant but didn't really oversee any staff). I got their blessing in writing. Getting everything documented is incredibly important, because it provides backup documentation when building a case.
From there, I wrote a small narrative and outlined the benefit of having this individual in the coordinator position without a bachelor's. It failed. I received pushback, from "We're reading oversight wrong," to reducing the pay of the position to levels that were unethical for the amount of work the position demanded.
But I pushed back, because I knew that the fight was worth it. I knew that giving up wasn't going to make things better. Respecting the bureaucratic nature of an organization that is over 30 years old is not easy, as I have neither the patience nor the grace. But I knew that this wasn't about me, it was about my staff and their amazing potential.
The entire process took at least four or five months. I asked myself, "I have an agency who's unwilling to look past a degree and find the potential in their candidates, I have an agency who said they'd negotiate salary but ended up going for the lowest amount without any discussion, and I have a staff member who is eager to get started, but being promised nothing at the same time.
So, where do I go from here?" Thinking, "Enough is enough," I did one last push, ready to leave my position if I didn't win, and pulled all of my documented exchanges with my human resources team, wrote a 10-page narrative, and asked one more time. I pointed out contradictions in policy, terms, and practices. I went out on a limb, knowing it might not go anywhere. And it worked. This made it to our CEO, because of the documentation and the unfairness we had experienced in knowing this staff member was beyond worth it.
My supervisor assisted in this process, and for that I am most thankful. When I heard back, the position was being changed from a coordinator to a supervisor -- which is great, because they can now oversee the people working under the grant, and the salary was going to remain incredibly similar to that of the last person that held this position.
I risked my reputation and possibly my job by making noise and getting loud: Something most people of color fear in organizations -- and this is a justified fear. But I wasn't going to stand by and let the processes get in the way of my staff's development and success in their career.
I did this because I understand that communities of color experience more roadblocks to educational attainment, and this shouldn't impede their success within organizations because their educational trajectory looks different from that of their white counterparts. And there is a reward in knowing that I am fighting the good fight. I'm making it better and easier for communities of color to join this leadership pipeline where their voices are heard and their skills, qualifications, and personal experience are taken seriously.
If you are a manager or director at an AIDS services organization and you feel the same way: Document everything and find a loophole. Question policies and practices, and work to rewrite the script, because we're not building community by keeping the status quo. We're not building capacity if we don't create these pipelines of success. Push, and then push harder.