Interview with Nonet T. Sykes, The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Nonet T. Sykes from the The Annie E. Casey Foundation speaks to us about race equity as it relates to children, communities and how it contributes to society’s overall inequity. She also shares with us the success The Annie E. Casey Foundation has had with The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative which focuses on children in juvenile institutions.


Interview conducted in June 2014

Q. What role does equity and particular race equity play in your foundation?

A: The Race Equity and Inclusion portfolio that I lead is a relatively new body of work within the Foundation that is working to more closely align our goals for and approach to race equity to our Foundation’s overall strategies. Our overall objective in the Race Equity and Inclusion portfolio is that all children are able to reach their full potential in life regardless of their race, their ethnicity or their community of residence. The mission of the Foundation is to develop solutions to provide a brighter future for children, families and communities. We know the demographics of the nation are shifting rapidly. By 2018, the majority of children in the U.S. will be children of color. By 2030, the majority of the workforce will be people of color, and by 2050 the majority of people in the U.S. will be people of color. So for Casey to achieve this mission and be sure that disadvantaged children and families and communities are better off, we need to pay particular attention to race and the role it plays.

Q. What does the concept of equity and equality mean for your organization?

A: The concept of equity means that there is a systematic fair treatment of all people and all races and ethnic groups that results in equitable opportunities for everyone. For us, equity is a system of people being treated fairly and equally. We think about the systems reform work that the Casey Foundation has been involved with in juvenile justice and child welfare. For us, it means ensuring that systems are not unfairly or unequally locking up children of color disproportionate to their white counterparts, or disproportionately removing children of color from their homes and putting them in group homes or into foster families. We need a systematic fair treatment of everybody, and equitable opportunities to access resources that have the conditions necessary for any child to reach his full potential in life.

Q.What programs do you fund that promote equity and child rights and what criteria guide your selection?

A:We fund a lot of different research institutions, think tank organizations and policy advocacy organizations that can advocate on behalf of child rights, equity and system reform, as well as doing a lot of our own work. Casey supports systems to make the necessary changes within their own institutions that ultimately result in better outcomes for children and their families. My particular portfolio focuses on building the capacity of grantees, partners and stakeholders so we can increase the urgency and the public will around the notion of equity and equitable opportunities for everybody.

Q. And from your perspective what are the main causes of inequity that impact on children’s well-being?

A: Our perspective is that there are multiple barriers that prevent children and their families of color from equal access. They are barriers that have been in place for some time now, since slavery and the days of Jim Crow, and they continue to perpetuate themselves over time. Educational barriers, for example, include children going to schools that don’t have quality resources and quality teachers. Communities don’t have the resources they need because of property tax structures, or they lack transportation to jobs that would allow their families to earn a decent wage. So there are a number of barriers that we think prevent children and families from accessing the services they need.

Q. Why do these barriers exist?

A: That is a hard question. I think what we have been doing as a country is trying to treat the symptoms, not the root causes that underlie the symptoms. Until we use the data and disaggregate the data to show that black and brown people and other groups of people are being disproportionately affected by policies and legislation, we will continue to see the results and the  outcomes we see. We do need to figure out how to remove the barriers and address the underlying root causes. That means making sure that all neighborhoods have access to transportation to get to jobs, that they have grocery stores with fresh produce and that there is adequate lighting for children walking to and from schools, among many other things. It’s an ecosystem that needs to change.

Q. What evidence-based strategies of your organization have the greatest impact on addressing these inequities that children face?

A: I think it’s the role of everybody to help remove the barriers that we just mentioned. I think as a collective we must all think about how to gather and analyze the data to show that these disparities exist and how we then use that data to target our investments to people and communities that need the resources the most. There are some proven approaches we have seen that are effective. Some use the term “targeted universalism.” We want all kids to be doing better, but we need to target those resources to the children being left behind and those families that don’t have jobs. There are a lot of job training and workforce-development training programs that exist in communities, but if you look at the people accessing them they may be white or white males who have access to transportation to not only get to the job training, but to get to where the job is located. If a program looked at the data and said, “Wow, we are only getting white males but the need is among black males,” then maybe there is a marketing or recruitment strategy that needs to be addressed. So just looking at the data and re-thinking the strategy is a really great approach to help to improve the outcome.

Q. Do you have some best practices you could share with us?

A: The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) is a proven approach that has been in place and working for about 20 years. You can learn more about it on our website at About 250 different sites around the country have implemented JDAI, which focuses on reducing the use of juvenile detention overall as well as reducing the overrepresentation of kids of color in juvenile detention. We think that is a proven approach when you look at the data and you see the disproportionate minority confinement or even disproportionate minority contact, and then you look at that to make changes in the system.

Q. What so far have you seen as major challenges to address those matters of equity and inequity and how can those be resolved best in the future?

A: We have to amplify the fact that our nation’s demographics are shifting, that race does play a key role and that we need to pay more attention to it. We need to build the capacity for the Casey staff and external stakeholders and partners to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to have conversations about race and race equity, as well as to think differently about their strategies and investments so we can create equitable opportunities for all children.

I think for our organization, this is a fairly new approach. We have to make sure that everybody is on the same page and has the same understanding of our definition of equity and what we think it might take to apply this equity lens to our work. We are trying to build capacity to do that and to do that well. I think another challenge is also that once we all have a common knowledge and understanding about equity, we want to do some work on unconscious bias and implicit bias, the role they play and how it shows up in the work.

We came out with our new race equity framework last year, and in April, we released our first Race for Results report with new data showing how kids of color fare in reaching what we consider to be key milestones for success. But we are still working within the Foundation to learn what it is going to take from different staffers’ perspectives to see the change we want to see. We are just beginning to do that. We are trying to provide our staff with the tools and resources they need to apply an equity lens to all of their work.

Q. How has the landscape for funding evolved over the years with relation to funding and equity?

A: Again, our Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has always been focused on and funded system reform to reduce the overrepresentation of children of color in the juvenile justice system, and that has been ongoing for more than 20 years now. The development of the Race Matters Toolkit, also on our website, was an important initiative as well. We are doing something very similar in our child welfare work. I would say since we have implemented this new race equity and inclusion framework, two particular units in the Foundation are going about things differently. Their 2015 budgeting will likely look different, the partners they use will look different and the types of strategies and investments they make will look different because they are now using the equity lens in their work.





Please click here to view Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide.

Please click here to view Guidelines for Authentic Conversations About Race.

Please click here  to view Diversifying Grantees and Consultants for More Equitable Results.

Please click here to view Nonet’s interview with the Association of Black Foundation Executives.

Nonet Sykes is a Senior Associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy dedicated to developing solutions to build a brighter future for children, families and communities in the United States. Sykes leads the Foundation’s Race Equity and Inclusion Portfolio which invests resources to identify, implement, and promote the most effective strategies to improve access to opportunities and increase equitable outcomes for children, families, and communities of color. Previously, Sykes managed capacity building resources designed to strengthen neighborhoods and families and led an international learning strategy that contributed to the Foundation’s knowledge and experience related to using data to advocate for improvements in child well-being. Sykes joined the Foundation in November 2001 and has nearly 20 years experience working to improve outcomes for disadvantaged families and communities.

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