Peer-to-Peer Affinity Group Supports Westchester Businesses

Peer-to-Peer Affinity Group participants. Left to right: Jayselle Trancoso, Jason Thomas, Juanita Pope, Jury Martinez, Esther McCarthy, Tiffany Ellington. Photo courtesy of NPW. Photo courtesy of NPW

Nonprofit Westchester’s Peer-to-Peer Affinity Group supports local BIPOC business leaders in the 914.

As one of the county’s most active business membership groups, Nonprofit Westchester (NPW) has long been committed to advancing racial equity throughout Westchester County. But the need seemed to increase in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a glaring light on racial disparities in healthcare, workforce, and education and brought about an increase in public documentation of brutality against people of color. When the board members of NPW noticed a stark lack of racial equity within the nonprofit sector, they made it a point to act.

“Our member organizations noticed that racial equity needed to be advanced in order to do the work we do and serve the people we serve,” explains NPW executive director Jan Fisher. “For our organization, the original sin in this country that impacts all systems is racism, so we had to examine our own systems and see what we needed to do better.”

The organization took a close look at the work they’d done over the years, held a series of discussions with Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) leaders in the nonprofit space, and put its findings into a detailed report, titled Taking Action: Charting an Anti-Racist Path Forward in Westchester’s Nonprofit Sector. Following the release of the report in April 2022, they developed a course of action to effect change. One of the top priorities on the list: providing a space to support BIPOC nonprofit personnel to come together and become leaders in the sector.

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That’s how the organization’s Peer-to-Peer Affinity Group for nonprofit personnel of color came to be. The affinity group — which is the first of its kind in the region — was created to support BIPOC individuals working in the nonprofit sector, regardless of their job titles or levels of experience. The group is championed by three local leaders — Lucria Ortiz, Dr. Alexandria Connally, and Michelle Nicholas — and each brings a special skillset and passion to the group. Together, they work to provide a safe and supportive space for individuals to share their experiences, discuss challenges, and most importantly, develop solutions.

Currently, the group meets every other month, and meetings draw 40 to 80 participants. The gatherings are designed to give everyone in attendance the opportunity to feel connection, build trust, and share their perspectives. The group’s organizers first facilitate a safe and supportive environment through ice breakers and other social interaction. Then, members break out into small groups to share personal experiences related to a specific topic of the day. After the breakout sessions, they regroup for further discussion and collaboration on how to navigate around the barriers they regularly face.

Ortiz, who is president and CEO of the Yonkers Family YMCA and chairperson of the Peer-to-Peer group, echoes the importance of creating such a space. “Too often in the nonprofit world, our leaders are in spaces where there isn’t a lot of representation. Navigating spaces like that can present a lot of challenges,” she explains. There’s also an enormous value in bringing together the thought leadership of people of color. “There are a lot of great thought leaders and subject matter experts in the room at each meeting,” Ortiz adds. “Providing this space where everyone can collaborate and exchange ideas helps them to advance their leadership but also advance our sector overall.”

It’s no surprise that there is much to be discussed at group meetings. Discussion topics are developed based on the needs and interests of the group. While industry hot topics surrounding diversity and inclusion are brought to the table, much of the discussion planning happens naturally.

Michelle Nicholas
Photo by Ken Gabielsen

“Every single time I go to Peer-to-Peer and someone comes to me and says ‘This has been so helpful,’ ‘Thank you,’ or ‘This has helped me to be free,’ it’s amazing.”
—Michelle Nicholas, Senior Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer and Director of Community Development for PCSB Bank

“Often, we’ll be focusing on a specific topic, and that will unearth another topic, so we may center the discussion for the following meeting around that topic. We like to pull organically from the group as things arise,” Ortiz notes. To date, they’ve covered workplace bias, microaggressions, systemic racism, racial trauma, colorism, imposter syndrome, and racial anxiety.

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Dr. Connally, an educator who is also CEO of her own racial equity consulting group, known as Culturally Responsive Environments and Disciplines (CREAD), helps give members a greater overall understanding. “It’s great to have Dr. Connally because she can provide people with the tools and education to really identify what they’re experiencing at work. It’s important for people to be able to name something,” Ortiz emphasizes.

After their feelings and experiences are properly identified, they move forward to solutions. In fact, solutions are a big part of the takeaway for group members. It’s important to leaders that the group creates a space where people don’t just vent, but also walk away with some potential next steps. Connally stresses the importance of helping members to not only be solution-oriented but also own the solutions. “Often, we’re not talking about how other people outside the group can move differently; the discussion revolves around how we as people of color can dismantle systemic racism within our own communities,” she notes.

The affinity group has had a significant impact on the individuals who participate. Many members have reported feeling more connected and supported in their work and have gained valuable insights and skills from their peers. The group has also had a broader impact on the nonprofit sector in Westchester. By providing a space for BIPOC individuals to connect and support each other, the group is helping to build a more inclusive and equitable sector.

The group’s leaders have successfully created more than just a safe space — it’s a healing space. It’s a space where people of color can look forward to going, as echoed in the feedback they receive on a regular basis.

“Providing this space where everyone can collaborate and exchange ideas helps them to advance their leadership but also advance our sector overall.”
—Lucria Ortiz, President and CEO of the Yonkers Family YMCA and Chairperson of the Peer-to-Peer group

Peer-to-Peer Affinity Group participantsLeft to right: Jayselle Trancoso, Jason Thomas, Juanita Pope, Jury Martinez, Esther McCarthy, Tiffany Ellington
Peer-to-Peer Affinity Group participants. Left to right: Jayselle Trancoso, Jason Thomas, Juanita Pope, Jury Martinez, Esther McCarthy, Tiffany Ellington. Photo courtesy of NPW.

“A member once shared with me that this is the only place where they can go and talk about race without having to be fearful or careful of what they say. They can be vulnerable, cry, and heal here,” Connally explains.

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For Nicholas, senior vice president, chief diversity officer, and director of Community Development for PCSB Bank, who serves as chairperson of Nonprofit Westchester’s Racial Equity Committee, meetings feel “like magic” nearly every time. “Every single time I go to Peer-to-Peer and someone comes to me and says ‘This has been so helpful,’ ‘Thank you,’ or ‘This has helped me to be free,’ it’s amazing,” she shares. “And it helps me to be free too. Every time I’m sitting in a session, we’re learning things. Even as a leader, I’m learning. It’s just so impactful to be in a space like this.”

Looking to the future, there’s so much more the group wants to accomplish. Understandably, expansion is part of the plan. There are many other nonprofit organizations whose members haven’t yet had the benefit of participating. The growth of the group would enable it to splinter off into more specific groups — something Ortiz hopes to be able to do at some point. If the multicultural group drew a larger number of members, it could potentially allow them to get even more intimate sharing their specific experiences as members of the Black, Asian, or Latinx community, for instance.

The affinity group also hopes to have an effect that stretches beyond members that attend meetings — what Nicholas calls the “ripple effect.” Being part of the group equips people to go back to their organizations and talk about what their needs are. But those organizations still need to be receptive for it to work.

“I want to ensure that when members take their knowledge back, they have the space to share. That’s the impact I hope to have and where I think we can do further work,” Nicholas emphasizes. For her, change can’t happen from the top down or the bottom up; it requires everyone doing this work collectively. “We continuously ask that non-POC leaders offer that space and opportunity for the BIPOC community, because it just can’t happen if the leaders aren’t on board.”

NPW is leading the county in doing this type of work. The membership organization is setting a model that other industries can and should follow. From the beginning, NPW board members were excited to do the work, and this affinity group is just one way that shows they’re committed to continuing the work well into the future.

Related: 6 Activists & Advocates Working to Spark Change in Westchester

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