Moving Beyond
Diversity to Inclusion

Case Study: College Track

Download PDF

Photos Provided by College Track

Who they are

For foundational context, please be sure to review our Landing Page

After working with College Track over the past few years, we invited the organization to participate in this case study because we wanted the field to see an example of what getting to diversity has looked like for a large — and growing! — leading education organization. Today, CEO Elissa Salas is at the helm as College Track navigates the challenges of moving beyond diversity to inclusion and equity while they scale up nationally. Here’s what we heard.

Mission

College Track is a comprehensive college completion program that empowers students from underserved communities to graduate from college.” Starting in 9th grade, College Track’s 10-year commitment to each student in their program is to “remove the academic, financial, and social-emotional barriers that prevent low-income and first-generation students from earning a four-year degree.”

Vision

“We are working toward a world where our students reach beyond the limits of what we knew was possible. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding the full potential of what our college graduates can achieve.”

History

Before Laurene Powell Jobs was a philanthropist, she was a grad student who was invited, with her classmate Carlos Watson, to present at a 12th-grade college prep class at Carlmont High School in East Palo Alto. The pair found that many students they spoke with were hoping to be the first in their families to attend college, but few had met the minimum requirements to be eligible. After that visit, Jobs, Watson, and Carlmont Principal Debbra Lindo joined to imagine what a comprehensive college access program could look like. Their priority was starting earlier in high school to help put students “on track" for a bachelor’s degree.

College Track was born in 1997.

1997


Founded in 1997 in East Palo Alto at Carlmont High School


2002

Oakland, CA





2007


San Francisco, CA

2008

New Orleans, LA



2011


Aurora, CO

2012

Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, CA


2014


Sacramento, CA

2015

Watts, Los Angeles, CA


2016


Denver, CO

2018

Prince Georges County, MD


2019


DC (Ward 8)

2020

To open in South Los Angeles, at the invitation of Leonard Hill Trust, Crenshaw HS and Dorsey HS for a total of 12 sites


Show More

Approach

College Track engages a “holistic program model” that “ensures that students have the skills, resources, and mindsets they need to be competitive college applicants, thrive on a four-year campus, and experience professional success post-graduation.”

Graphics provided by College Track

Where they're
coming from

In over 20 years at College Track, Marshall Lott has served in multiple roles — from being the very first hire to holding operations roles to most recently serving as Senior Regional Partnerships Director. Marshall reflects on his first role — College Track’s founding Executive Director — and tells us about the organization’s diverse roots: “[The founders] hired [me], an African American middle-class person to take the concept from paper and...make it a reality. It started with the Black and Latino community.”

From the beginning, College Track has strived to be a racially diverse organization that implicitly holds representation as a core — though, at times, unspoken — priority. Representation, leaders and staff believe, connects deeply to the team’s long-standing value around authenticity. Marshall emphasizes the organization’s intentions to truly reflect local communities:

“We have tried to make sure that individuals [who] are leading the sites live near or live in the community. Someone [who] looks like them helps to an extent...it’s about how people connect to individuals based on care [and] concern, and it’s about their potential.”

—Marshall Lott

Elissa Salas, College Track’s current CEO, expands:

“[The] most important thing is that we have always had people of color in leadership except [for] four years [in our history].... The founders have always been very committed to authenticity and [staff] having a similar experience and identity to the people we serve.”

—Elissa Salas

In the earliest days, relatively small teams who represented local communities grew close-knit organically through intense work and a shared commitment to College Track’s mission. The East Palo Alto, CA, and Oakland, CA, teams each spent four years building cultures of connection before the San Francisco, CA, and New Orleans, LA,teams launched in consecutive years. With relationships to community and to one another informally embedded, College Track grew at a relatively slow pace, expanding to four sites in its first 13 years.

Beginning in 2011, however, College Track grew more aggressively, more than doubling in size by expanding to an additional five sites in the next seven years. The organization that once felt small, intimate, and local was getting consistently more dispersed and complex. The team had expanded from a few California sites and one Louisiana site to multiple regions spanning California, Colorado, Louisiana, and Maryland. To accommodate the growth, the organization added new layers of leadership and new reporting structures. The original commitment to diversity, ingrained organically at the College Track of 1997, was being increasingly stretched at the larger, more complex organization of 2017.

Twenty years after the organization’s founding, as College Track’s leadership and board worked to tackle the organizational, structural, and relational demands of expansion, they also maintained a driving interest in diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI). The organization began codifying some of the informal cultural norms that had once evolved organically, in the interest of ensuring a sustainable, values-aligned growth model. To collect baseline data in 2017, the 102-person staff responded to Promise54’s DEI Staff Experience Survey and found affirmation of the culture of diversity they’d successfully fostered. College Track’s organizational profile aligned with the Advanced quadrant, with mid- to high indices across diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Since then, College Track has continued an intensive growth trajectory, bringing the organization to 140 full-time staff across 11 sites today. While College Track has successfully maintained staff diversity as they’ve grown, the additional size and complexity has exacerbated challenges around national-regional connection, communications, decision-making, management, and culture. Meanwhile, College Track’s continued focus on codifying and leaning into DEI beliefs has heightened staff awareness of any gaps between their expectations and lived realities.

In 2018, the challenge of balancing organizational growth and maintaining inclusion and equity surfaced plainly in the new DEI Staff Experience Survey results, as the organization shifted from Advanced to Diversified.

Meanwhile, critical feedback from staff intensified:

“The retreat gave us something to look at in reaction to the survey… but it wasn’t an action plan. There wasn’t a conversation about who is taking on this work.”

—Ahmed Naguib
“...everyone is anticipating, wondering what’s happening next? And we haven’t done anything in quite some time. People are asking…‘What is this all for? Is it just an acronym or an initiative to make people feel good about staying here? Is this just to attract talent?’”

—Marshall Lott
“Who is owning [the DEI work]? How is it going to move forward? What roles are folks playing?”

—Anonymous Staff Member
“...people have assumptions and people are unclear about what [the DEI] goals are on all levels. We only have a certain number of people [who] are in this conversation. We need to get aligned on what this conversation is.”

—Anonymous Staff Member

So where does College Track go from here, and what are the main lessons they’ve learned through this period of growth and change?

What they're learning

We found the following central themes in our conversations with College Track, each of which illustrates real-world successes as well as opportunities to build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizational culture:

  1. Sustaining Diversity Requires Intentionality...and Codification
  2. Broadening Narrow Definitions of Excellence
  3. Communicating and Making Decisions Effectively at Scale
  4. Developing a Shared Understanding of DEI

Sustaining Diversity Requires Intentionality...and Codification

College Track is a racially diverse organization. The organization’s CEO, Elissa Salas, is Latina, and the executive team, board, and staff are all far more racially diverse than sector benchmarks for diversity:

Staff clearly note the diversity of their team:

This noteworthy diversity has been an intentional — albeit informal — process. Since its founding, College Track has consistently prioritized hiring people of color — particularly staff who represent the students the organization serves. Although there was no written policy or systematic effort, this hiring priority had a clear impact on staff composition over the years.

“All of this happened organically, I think in part because we are people of color-led, and our board has put such an emphasis on making sure that the leadership team is diverse.”

—Elissa Salas
“Even though we don’t have specific goals, the fact that it’s on leaders’ minds that diversity is important means a lot.”

—Anonymous Staff Member

While College Track has fostered diversity informally by relying on organizational values and staff networks, leadership notes that continued diversity may not sustain on its own: 

“As we continue to grow and scale and replicate, I personally felt like it was important that we begin to institutionalize some of these practices and even ask the question ‘What is beyond diversity?’”

—Elissa Salas

Staff shared the concern that as College Track continues to intensify its pace of growth, the organization increasingly risks defaulting to efficiency in hiring over slowing down to ensure that pools and hires are representative of the students the organization serves. The team’s 2018 Staff Experience Survey results echoed the theme that while College Track has yielded diverse candidates thus far without a codified structure to sustain diverse recruiting, increased pace of growth could undermine this pattern.

In agreement with staff, leadership has named a commitment to systematically maintain diversity. Elissa has created organizational structures for DEI work previously and intends to continue this priority.

As a start, College Track adjusted its formal recruiting strategy to focus on individuals with a background in similar nonprofit or direct service work, graduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and graduates from Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). Rather than relying solely on the social networks of existing leadership and staff, College Track began to codify recruitment pipelines to ensure a sustainable pool of racially diverse candidates. Chief Finance and Operating Officer Julia Chih understands, though, that this is only a start:

“We are strong on diversity….I want it to be so ingrained in the culture that no matter who the leader is, [diversity] remains a part of the DNA of this organization and it will always be true.”

—Julia Chih

In parallel to building systematically diverse recruitment efforts, College Track leadership and staff are also beginning the work of broadening the organization’s very definition of diversity. While College Track is racially diverse, the team is increasingly cognizant of representation along other intersecting dimensions of identity. On its surface, College Track is ahead of peer organizations across multiple demographics:

However, leadership realizes that such representation doesn’t exist across all levels of the organization. Notably, the leadership and executive teams currently comprise straight-identified and cisgender individuals only.

All in all, College Track remains ahead of the curve on diversity and is actively working to codify practices to sustain that diversity while broadening how they define diversity overall.

Broadening Narrow Definitions of Excellence

“One of the biggest surprises for me was the fact that we could be so diverse...yet there are still many folks in the organization who feel like we are not as inclusive as we can be.”

—Elissa Salas

Despite College Track’s high level of diversity, staff survey results reveal lingering challenges in advancing a shared experience of inclusion and equity. As the organization has expanded to different geographies, contexts, and communities, one of the major barriers to inclusion that leadership and staff describe is leading through narrow standards of excellence and implicit expectations at College Track.

“Another growth area is the dominant leadership style here — I know that I contribute to that…. A lot of us on [the National Leadership Team] are ‘Type-A’ people — we are outspoken, comfortable with engaging in argumentative communications…. How much of that is who we are and how much of that is part of white-dominant culture in terms of decision-making and authority?”

—Anonymous Staff Member

College Track staff share the same observation of implied and narrow expectations around communication style. Staff describe that individuals who are most comfortable communicating in extroverted and highly structured ways have the greatest chance of being seen, heard, and valued. This translates, in turn, to some feeling excluded if they don’t conform.

“There’s a profile of who ‘fits’ here.... If you aren’t that personality, there’s a lot of pressure for people to be more vocal… It’s rooted in the ‘type of people’ we want here (...young, extroverted, Type-A).”

—Anonymous Staff Member
“If your communication style doesn’t align with [leadership’s], the way you’re perceived can be difficult.... I am just trying to...call out things that we can improve [because I’m] coming from a place of love for the work that we do. This creates the perception that I am super negative: ‘She’s always complaining.’ This is a white-dominant culture work style.”

—Anonymous Staff Member

Some staff described how “fit,” narrowly defined in terms like academic affiliation or communication style, influences hiring and performance management calibration conversations and elevates some over others.

These implicit ways of operating and narrow definitions of excellence impact experiences of inclusion and equity at College Track for Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ staff in particular. Significant disparities show up among white, Black, and Latinx staff members’ perceptions of inclusion:

And while internal data around equity in relation to compensation and career advancement show little to no actual gaps by identity, Black and Latinx staff still perceive inequity at higher rates: 

Further, staff members who identify as LGBTQ+ note an opportunity to improve their experience around inclusion and equity. One staff member shares, “I have advised trans folks not to work here. We are not ready to support trans and nonbinary folks.” Other staff members spoke about the importance of gender-inclusive language — moving past “hey guys” when addressing a group, for example.

At College Track’s annual staff-wide Town Hall in 2018, Elissa called out a difference she found particularly striking — that LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ staff were experiencing or witnessing bias at very disparate levels:

Elissa acknowledges that to create a more inclusive and equitable culture at College Track, the organization needs to reconcile that being led by people of color doesn’t prevent staff’s perception of these narrow standards of excellence and implicit expectations.

Elissa and Julia are actively grappling with the intersection of their own identities as women of color and the challenges of leading DEI work at a large, complex organization:

“As people of color, what we do in this space is more scrutinized. It feels like we are held to different standards — that we should have all the right answers because we are people of color...it feels like we can’t make mistakes because everyone is watching.”

—Julia Chih

As College Track continues on their DEI journey, leadership grapples with intentionally broadening and making explicit their definitions and expectations so that staff across all demographics experience belonging and fairness. For example, College Track has been deeply immersed in partnership with Promise54 to:

    • Articulate the skills and behavioral indicators they believe to be most predictive of success, map those competencies to roles, and integrate this framework across the organization in areas from job descriptions to performance development and evaluation;
    • Support cohorts of approximately 25 leaders at a time through an internal management capacity-building training program to build common language and skills on a range of topics, including effective communications, decision-making, feedback, systems thinking, and change management; and
    • Engage a cross-section of staff in an intentional process to interrogate and refine job profiles for some of the roles deemed most crucial to the organization’s success, clarifying the ways in which expectations are articulated and challenging traditional expectations about prerequisite credentials that have not been linked, in actuality, to success over time.

Communicating and Making Decisions Effectively at Scale

As College Track has expanded, the organization has struggled to maintain transparent, two-way communication among leadership, staff, national, and regional subgroups of the team. Long-standing tools for gathering feedback from a smaller team are no longer serving the larger organization well:

“We have a staff engagement survey...and we do monitor staff perception and we use that data to drive strategy. The former administration had started that when we were small and we were only 35 employees...[but now] it’s really hard when you get this broad data set and you don’t know how to intervene.”

—Elissa Salas

Leadership describes the challenge of adjusting to the new normal. “The shift for me has been having to accept that we’re getting to a point where I can’t walk into a site and know every person,” reflects Julia. She acknowledges that communication on a larger team “needs more structure and process,” which leadership has struggled to provide historically. Elissa describes the team’s ongoing struggle to “wrestle with the limits of technology and figure out how to make communications...feel much more reciprocal [and two-way] versus things [being] communicated out.” Even with the best intentions to include staff in organization-wide decisions, efforts have fallen short, leading to confusion and frustration among staff.

Alongside communication, decision-making has proven a challenge. Leadership intention has been to push decision-making out to those closest to the students and families being served, and Elissa describes her belief in “the deliberate principle that decisions and relationship should be held [at levels] closer to the work.” However, that conviction hasn’t consistently translated to staff’s experience. Instead, staff reflect on the hope that “decision-making power was redistributed to the sites as opposed to only at [the] national [level]. We are closest to the students, and we know the students and communities.”

Staff express a desire for open and structured opportunities for input into decision-making, craving clarity about how and when feedback is incorporated as well as the rationale for certain decisions. For example, while leadership was thoughtful and deliberate in developing organizational strategy for creating new regional structures as College Track’s geographic reach expanded, staff describe a lack of stakeholder engagement in that process:

“It was really smart thinking on what to do, but it was just planted on people. There wasn’t really a lot of change management. We were really thoughtful on expansion, but not necessarily on implementation and communication around what we were doing and why along the way.”

—Anonymous Staff Member

Staff Experience Survey results indicate that staff of color feel the communication challenges with leadership most acutely:

Moreover, these communication gaps surface as an influential factor on staff’s intent to stay at the organization:

College Track leadership is very much aware of these challenges and in response has been intentionally working to address them. Leadership has leveraged several mechanisms to increase internal communication and decision-making clarity, including: 

    • Lifting up priorities from sites and regions in the annual planning process;
    • Engaging Regional EDs and Site Directors in biannual organization-wide business planning and strategy meetings;
    • Engaging Site Directors and the VP of Programs in collaborative discussions on programmatic priorities and continual improvement;
    • Bringing the full, cross-site team together annually to connect and communicate at an all-staff retreat;
    • Inviting all staff to inform decision-making at annual town halls;
    • Assembling cross-functional, voluntary working groups to address ad hoc challenges (e.g., part-time staffing, salesforce implementation, and ongoing DEI support); and
    • Continuing to administer the Promise54 DEI Staff Experience Survey to better understand the team’s experiences and perceptions.

As the organization works to enhance communications and decision-making, staff desire a greater sense of openness and vulnerability from leadership in the process.

“Generally, it feels like [leadership] has to be convinced on things, no matter what it is. There’s a lot of either/or thinking...where it feels like my truth and experience here can’t be different from [leadership’s].”

—Anonymous Staff Member

Leadership describes the tension between their earnest efforts and staff’s experience of wanting more vulnerability as a clear intent versus impact gap:

“This is what I mean by missed intentions — we feel like the DEI work is so important that we made a deliberate decision to focus on DEI in our fall town halls and at our annual December all-staff retreat. Our intention was really to have more of an open dialogue...but what was experienced by staff was that leadership was absolving ourselves of responsibility. We were trying to create a more inclusive space and collectively own the DEI work, yet I totally understand how someone might have experienced it [differently].... We know we don’t have a perfect process, so we are trying to not come with all the answers and show some vulnerability, but it wasn’t perceived that way. And this is a learning for us. This work is so hard!”


—Julia Chih

Developing a Shared Understanding of DEI

As College Track works to accommodate their larger scale by improving communication, decision-making transparency, and engagement, they are also beginning to create organizational alignment on what the words diversity, inclusion, and equity mean in their context. In the spring and summer of 2018, College Track formed a cross-functional working group comprising staff members of various levels and roles to help the organization draft their DEI beliefs statement. Headed by a senior leader nominated by Elissa and facilitated by Promise54, the working group reflected on their Promise54 DEI Staff Experience Survey results, surfaced key values and language related to DEI at College Track, pressure-tested the draft statement with a variety of stakeholders on the team, then revised.

Graphic provided by College Track

Drafting their beliefs statement was a critical step for College Track. Even so, the words alone haven’t guaranteed a shared understanding of DEI concepts among a dispersed staff, or clarity on College Track’s implementation plan moving forward. Two roadblocks have emerged: the impact of communication challenges on aligned understanding across the growing team, and a need to specify definitions for diversity, inclusion, and equity beyond the beliefs statement. 

“We use the term ‘equity’ to refer to everything being the same. That’s not equity.... Internal equity doesn’t mean everything being the same. Salaries for sites, performance measures — things are not all the same at every site. We need to get this cleared up as an org. They’re using equity incorrectly, and that is frustrating.”

—Anonymous Staff Member

Staff’s differing perspectives on, and understanding of, equity at College Track also show up in the Promise54 Staff Experience Survey. Staff indicate varied levels of agreement with the statement that College Track has an explicit commitment to equity, with discrepancies along lines of race and ethnicity in particular.

Developing common definitions of diversity, inclusion, and equity is a clear next step for College Track, particularly as the number of staff — and perspectives, experiences, and viewpoints — grows. College Track is committed to increasing alignment on such key terms.

“I am glad we are in a place where we can have this conversation.... [College Track] and certainly I have a value around [equity] and we just have to figure out how to do it.... We all want it to be equitable, but one person’s definition of equity might be different than others’.... This is the work, and it’s challenging, and we’re invested in it.”

—Julia Chih

 Thus far, College Track has:

    • Engaged the cross-functional DEI working group to create a draft set of definitions for the terms diversity, inclusion, and equity;
    • Shared these draft definitions across the staff and collected input;
    • Scheduled time to engage the DEI working group to incorporate the feedback and grapple with outstanding questions in relation to each definition;
    • Created plans to share final definitions across the staff; and
    • Begun to think about how to design staff training to facilitate a shared understanding of what these concepts look like in action.

Where they're headed

College Track’s journey continues — their work hasn’t stopped, even as the context has shifted with organizational growth. At College Track’s August all-staff meeting, CEO Elissa Salas rolled out updates on the scope of the organization’s DEI plan. The organization has explicitly committed to three priorities for ongoing DEI work.

Graphic provided by College Track

Leadership recognizes the magnitude of the task ahead and is committed to the ongoing, iterative journey:

“I think all this speaks to not just how hard the work is, but how much opportunity there is for College Track to match intentions with impact in terms of internal communication. We have more to learn and we need to try to do things differently to get different results...we have to try things, and take risks, and maybe we’ll get there.”

—Julia Chih

“I’m thinking about what is the thing we are actually trying to achieve and how do we know that we have actually reached it? And I am not quite sure in this work that there is ever a point at which we are done.”
—Elissa Salas