Organizational Change

Where Do You Live? The Importance of Listening to the Community

Guidance for Strategic Planning, Community Planning, and Change

As humans we often identify with where we live as a way to tell part of the story of who we are. So do you live in Richmond or RVA? Do you live in Northside or Southside? If you have a preference, where does that preference come from? What if your name had a negative connotation to it - informed by the feelings of others?  Below read three short stories on the importance of honoring the community voice in any kind of work. 

Listening to Youth: Changing The Name of a Program

In 2017, Richmond Peace Education Center launched the Gilpin Court Youth Peace Team. This innovative project took the amazing goodness of the Richmond Youth Peace Project and deployed it into a place based initiative to teach peer conflict resolution skills to teens living in and around Gilpin Court, one of Richmond's Public Housing Neighborhoods. Within the first few meetings the teens gathered objected to being called the Gilpin Court Youth Peace Team and renamed themselves the Jackson Ward Youth Peace Team. To them, their home was Jackson Ward.  RPEC made the shift, honoring the voice of the teen leaders. 

East End or Church Hill: Impact of Gentrification on Neighborhood Names

Earlier this year as part of a larger project for a nonprofit working in the East End we gathered neighbors, staff, board, and community partners together to explore the brand and words being used by this nonprofit. While we explored the brand of the nonprofit and began a list of words we liked and those we didn't like, the idea of where the organization did its work and the boundaries of that work came up. One of the neighbors said something along the lines of - "What image does everyone have when we say East End?" This launched into a great discussion on the boundaries of the East End and the negative connotation that it has in the city from other people. We explored why people who live in Church Hill might not identify with East End and how East End is most often improperly associated with low income and poverty, when in fact it encompasses many diverse neighborhoods. The organization ultimately decided to own the expansive definition of East End to describe their program location. 

Manchester or Blackwell: The Story of Historic Tax Designations and The Role of Neighborhood Voices

 Used with permission from Leaders of The New South - Council on Community Housing. For more information, please visit their Facebook page. 

Used with permission from Leaders of The New South - Council on Community Housing. For more information, please visit their Facebook page. 

Manchester is seeing a significant amount of investment from outside groups. There are restaurants and new housing being added regularly. To leverage this investment to its fullest, developers are seeking to take a current Historic Designation that is active in Manchester and expand it into parts of Swansboro and Blackwell. Over the last few days I have seen some significant pushing back from neighbors in those communities about the re-naming of the neighborhood without consultation. If you want to follow along, Leaders of The New South* has a series of Facebook posts that provide some historical context, official maps, and a platform for community voice. This is a great example of needing to include the community in any major change. I would expect more community unrest and pushback the longer they are excluded. If the developers involved in this project want to practice community engagement, they need to take a deep breath and listen. 

What Can We Learn

As we have read above, names matter. Community engagement, when done well looks more like listening than planning. Great community engagement leads to vibrant change and supportive communities - it involves everyone being heard and deciding their fate as a group. We are happy to help you think through best steps as you navigate change. 


* Leaders of the New South - Community Council for Housing describes themselves as: The Community Council on Housing leads the demand for the implementation and enforcement of fair housing policy for renters in disenfranchised communities.

HR MATTERS: Creating the Very Best Job Description to Shorten Your Hiring Process and Find the Ideal Candidate

hiring and job search consulting.png

In a previous job, I spent a lot of time hiring people - because of growth and turnover it felt like we were constantly hiring.  Since then I’ve consulted many people on hiring. As a result, I’ve written and read a lot of job descriptions and I gotta tell you, most of us could use some improvement in this area. If the goal is to have the best of the best apply for your jobs and have a relatively seamless interview process, you have to create a strong job description.

5 Tips to Writing The Very Best Job Description

Describe yourself and the workplace. Future applicants want to see how you describe yourself, you might not want to simply copy + paste your “about” section from your website. Anyone worth interviewing will do a search on the internet before they apply so use your job description as an opportunity to use your internal office voice to describe the impact you make with your work. 

What’s the job?  This is the nitty gritty of the job you are hiring for, be concise but don’t skimp here. What will this position be doing? Feel free to categorize and break down responsibilities. What are the non-obvious aspects of the job that would be important for an applicant to know, examples might include travel, atypical schedule, supervisory roles etc. Be realistic. No really, you are setting everyone up if the job is impossible to do.

In my experience this is where most job descriptions are the strongest. It’s important to paint a clear description so applicants are very clear what they are applying to do.

In order for this new hire to be successful what do they need to walk in the door with? Fair warning, this is where I’ve seen lots of applications fall short. I’m going to be upfront—unicorns don’t really exist and you can’t have it all. Be clear with yourself about what are absolute musts and what would be an added bonus and make it crystal clear on your description. If you are hiring for an administrative assistant, experience in Excel might be non-negotiable, great, make sure you make that clear in the post. On the flip side, if you can envision a scenario where you hire an applicant who has every single other thing on your list besides Excel, it’s not a requirement, it’s a desired qualification. It’s okay to have mostly desired qualifications.

A good rule of thumb is that if you read the required qualifications and start to feel incredible dread in your gut because finding the right person seems impossible, it probably is and you should either cut down your list or plan to hire an outside consultant to do your outreach and hiring.

Sell yourself. Why would I want to apply for your job? Do you offer great benefits? A fun workplace? Remote working? Free meals? A discount? Non-profits, I love you, but “working for a good cause” is not enough! You want the very best applicants to apply to work for you, be competitive in your description.  You are selling them as much as they need to sell you.

Be transparent about the process and salary up front. Save yourself time and energy and just tell people how much you plan to pay and how they need to apply. How many interviews have I sat through where I wasted my time and the applicant’s time because we were on totally different pages about salary? TOO MANY. Let’s be honest, we work for pay, why wouldn’t you be up front about that from the very beginning?

As you can tell, writing job descriptions takes time and requires review before you post them publicly. A thorough job description can serve as the base for a work plan once your new hire is onboarding which will save you time and ensure your new hire hits the ground running. It’s worth it to do the work upfront—it will save you time in the long run. I promise!

We’re experts at writing winning job descriptions at The Spark Mill and delight in helping our clients find the very best person to hire. Contact us for all your hiring needs.

*This blog post is the first in a series about hiring—look out for the next installment discussing how to put equitable hiring in practice. If you have a topic you want to hear about, let us know!




Being Black in White Spaces: Lessons for Nonprofit and Government Leaders

Breaking Down Racial Barriers: The Importance of Embracing Stories and Sharing Ownership in Predominantly White Spaces: 

The Second in a Series on Belonging

I was born in Harlem, NY and raised by a single mother in a working class household. We didn’t have a whole lot, but my mother loved my brother and me dearly and never hesitated to stress the importance of getting a good education - she saw this as a way to access more opportunities. She was right. My passion for learning and my mother’s relentless search for educational opportunities throughout NYC opened my world up in unimaginable ways, including allowing me to traverse class boundaries I don’t know I would’ve had the opportunity to do otherwise. At age 11, I was admitted into a top private school in New York for gifted, low income students of color. At age 14, I began high school at a Quaker boarding school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I can honestly say these were some of the best years of my life (although by senior year I didn’t think so – courtesy teenage growing pains). I met my lifelong girlfriends and the school’s Quaker values helped to cultivate my passion for social justice issues.

After graduating from the Westtown, I was awarded a full academic scholarship to the University of Richmond, one of the top liberal arts institutions in the country. Admittedly, I struggled at UR my first year. Academically I was fine, but socially, I had a hard time adjusting. It wasn’t just the fact that UR was a predominantly white institution; the class differences amongst my peers and me were palpable. They appeared to have few worries, while I was constantly burdened with having to balance schoolwork and on-campus jobs so I didn’t have to ask my mother for spending money. So, there I was, a black 18-year-old girl from inner city New York having to manage how to exist in this overwhelmingly wealthy and extremely white space.  

Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do.

The reality is, for most of my life, I have existed in white spaces. At school, at work, and in some social settings depending on where I choose to go. These experiences have been met with a great amount of racial anxiety, which I learned is actually a thing thanks to TMI’s Unconscious Bias Training. When I walked into rooms, I’d scan them and my mind would implode with a series of concerns. Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do. These are just to name a few, the point being, I was constantly in my head, as I know many black people are in these types of spaces.

As I have gotten older, with more confidence, spending more time reflecting on who I am and embracing this era of Black Girl Magic, the racial anxiety has lessened tremendously, but I’d be lying if I said it has gone away completely. When I think about the types of workplace environments that have allowed me to feel more comfortable, they have been those where coworkers, especially my white ones, acknowledge and are willing to engage in conversations about their privilege.  Where they are aware of the experiences I can potentially face when I walk outside of the office even if they attempt to offer a safe space at work.

It was no surprise that I am the only person of color at The Spark Mill.  When I first joined the team part time, I was clearly aware of this fact, but quite frankly used to it.  When I first sat down to speak with Sarah, the firm’s founder, she was as aware of the team’s lack of racial diversity as I was.  We talked about the need to build a team that was more reflective of our clients as well as the clients they serve. I was intrigued, not because I was willing to accept being a token, but because our conversation felt genuine. She was interested in getting to know me not simply as the black woman she wanted to bring on her team, but as Mariah, the masters in urban and regional planning student, University of Richmond graduate with a passion for black people, cities, and urban planning.

The reality is nonprofit and government organizations have a tremendous issue with diversity, including those whose core clients are in fact people of color.

In 2012, CommonGood Careers published a study called the Voice of Non-Profit Talent. This report revealed that while many nonprofit leaders express a commitment to diversity within their organizations, few organizations actually do enough to attract and retain people of color. And when they do, people of color are often tokenized and forced day in and day out to deal with the micro aggressions that are symptoms of larger systemic issues of race. The reality is also that nonprofits and government agencies are not the only ones who suffer from this problem and that many black people like myself have managed to cope with working in predominantly white spaces.

Giving Equal Power to People of Color

In the meantime, where a system may be slower to change, there are ways for organizations to help decrease the racial anxieties experienced on a daily basis while also working towards organizational change that gives equal power to people of color.

  • Recognize that a person of color’s job is not simply to be the person of color in the room. We have a voice, lived experiences, and most importantly, the hard skills necessary to advance and lead work within organizations.
  • Understand that for people of color working within organizations serving vulnerable populations of color, this work is extremely personal, and on a regular basis we are forced to balance a professional and personal lens. Double consciousness is real and sometimes extremely difficult to manage. However, when people of color are accepted for being themselves, when we feel as though who we are is embraced, and when our personal stories and voices coupled with professional expertise are trusted and welcomed throughout an organization, walls begin to be broken down. Breaking down these barriers may look different depending on your organization.

3 Questions to Ask to Help Break Down the Walls: 

  • How might you be more intentional about understanding the personal stories of your employees of color?
  • How might you work to better understand their experience being in a space built, owned, and operated by individuals who do not look like them?
  • How might you think about your approach to making them feel a part of your organization by sharing ownership of the spaces you both occupy?

All of these ideas are rooted in a 21st century view of community engagement. As a firm we have been reminding, nudging, and cajoling clients to think differently about belonging. To own their bias in the historical development of the programs and to commit to doing it differently going forward. 

Overwhelmed? We can help. 


Creating Employee Centric Policies that Reinforce Your Values and Brand

 Wilder and Dax at 5 months the week before I returned. 

Wilder and Dax at 5 months the week before I returned. 

My Maternity Leave Story

When I told Sarah (founder and CEO of The Spark Mill) that I was pregnant with twins she screamed with delight and congratulated me profusely. At that point it was early in my pregnancy and too early to make any sort of concrete plans for what this news might mean for my future at work but if I’m honest, I was sweating it big time. There are a lot of unknowns with twin pregnancies and on top of a then one year old at home I felt like I wasn’t exactly the poster child for the best kind of employee to have working for you.

In that moment I went from feeling like a liability to an intricate part of a well-functioning team that respects the balance that comes with being a full-person at work.

During a drive to see a client Sarah and I both were talking about our lives and families and of course the twins and she looked me in the eyes and said, “Take the time you need, you’ll always have a job here.” In that moment I went from feeling like a liability to an intricate part of a well-functioning team that respects the balance that comes with being a full-person at work.

The team at The Spark Mill took my pregnancy and impending maternity leave in stride, we were optimistic but also realistic. We made sure I had coverage for client-facing work, and we were honest and up front with our clients about the transition that was going to occur. I documented as much as I possibly could.

And then, at 31 weeks, I had my babies. Fast and without any warning. Much, much earlier than we were anticipating. It was a traumatic birth and my babies were in the NICU for five of the hardest weeks of my life. Right after giving birth there was no way for me to have a phone conversation with my co-workers and I had no brain space to give to work in any way. Sarah and I had a few back and forth texts and then I was done. Instructed to not worry about work at all—Sarah even emailed me an out-of-office response for my email, so all I had to do was copy and paste. And, guys, we were busy at work when I left. We are generally hustling hard but we had A LOT going on, losing someone unexpectedly had to be extremely challenging.

My co-workers all checked in on me, brought me meals, sent me texts letting me know that I was missed but that everything was thriving in my absence. They even hired someone to come in temporarily to pick up some of my slack and kept me in the loop enough to feel completely confident and excited about this person (and lucky for me, Mariah was so awesome she is sticking around now that I’m back).  I took just over 5 months off from work.  That’s a long time!

My loyalty to The Spark Mill grew 10x over through this process and I know I am a better team member because of it.

When it was time to come back to work, I was offered more time, a flexible schedule, and the ability to come back slowly. They gave me flowers. They asked about my babies and how I was doing before we dove into work. And because they had given me the space and time to really unplug and focus on my babies I was more than ready to come back to work. My loyalty to The Spark Mill grew 10x over through this process and I know I am a better team member because of it.

I’ve worked at a lot of places in my tenure, and I would say that I’ve been luckier than most when it comes to working in an environment that values their team being balanced (probably in part because I’ve worked really hard at culture change everywhere I’ve worked). But I consider myself incredibly privileged to work somewhere that has such a healthy attitude toward their team members thriving in their work and home life. I wholeheartedly believe this makes us better at our work, because our clients are real people who have to find their own balances in their everyday lives.

Culture Change is an integral part of all of our work whether you are navigating change, plotting new programs, or embarking on a new brand. It was amazing to see our values and brand at play during my leave. 

If your organization is searching for a way to bring more balance to your work and create a culture where your employees feel backed up and supported, schedule a time to talk with us. 

Our Very Own Brand Reveal


Tomorrow is our 5th birthday, or maybe it’s our 5-year anniversary…anyway…The Spark Mill is 5!  What better way to celebrate than to officially reveal our sexy new brand?! Those super perceptive folks may have noticed the slight changes in palette and font over the last month but as of today, it is official. 

Since May 1, 2013, when TSM officially got a desk in a co-working space so much has happened.  We’ve grown from one consultant to a five-person firm, we’ve moved into our own building, and we’ve expanded our work – in the types of clients we work with, the types of projects we do, and the geographic area in which we regularly do business. 

Much of our work centers around helping clients recognize their own opportunities for growth and change.  Often that includes identifying when the story they are telling about themselves no longer captures who they are or what they are doing in the world.  Somewhere around the first of the year TSM team realized we were closing in on that moment ourselves.  When Sarah started this company back in 2013 she worked with a few talented friends to help her craft a brand that represented her vision.  It was perfect and lovely and served The Spark Mill well for many years and there will always be nostalgia around that first iteration of TSM.  Now that vision has been cultivated and nurtured into reality and a new vision has emerged.


We reached out to our super talented friends at Campfire & Co. who asked us some questions and genuinely listened to our answers - even when we didn't all answer the same.  They brought us a draft with a few variations of what they heard, and listened again as we talked through what we liked, what felt right, and what didn't.  We did this one more time and they had pretty much nailed it.  As we sat with them and chatted about one last tweak, they began to sketch in their notebook and we watched our words and half formed ideas manifest into the perfect graphics right there at the table!  Campfire helped capture who The Spark Mill is now and where we are heading as they worked with our team to turn TSM into shapes and colors and fonts and precisely hand-drawn letters.  We get to watch them work with other organizations on the regular – but having the opportunity to be their client was magical and so much fun! 

We feel inspired and whole again, now that our work, our vision, and our brand are in alignment. Our brand may have a fresh new look, but don’t worry, our core beliefs haven’t wavered. 


Change shouldn’t be boring, the process is just as important as the final product, the plan is yours not ours, and there are no one-size-fits-all boilerplate solutions. 


Inclusion Is a Bad Word - It's Time to Throw It Away

Or, why the way most people do inclusive is lazy

Earlier this month I was in Chattanooga at the Startup Champions Network bi-annual summit. On day one of the summit, Paulo Harris, co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, got up to explain they were changing the name of the committee to shed the word inclusion. He said something along these lines, “Inclusion is the act of being included, but this means someone owns the table and they are granting you access.” These words shook me to my core.

consulting firm richmond virginia inclusion

My first thought was where did this word come from? (Thanks to an amazing English professor in college) Language changes over time – this is why Merriam Webster added 1000 words to the dictionary this year. Understanding the evolution of a word is necessary to uncover some of the bias that trickles through language over time. So, I started with the etymology of the word.

c. 1600, "act of making a part of," from Latin inclusionem (nominative inclusio) "a shutting up, confinement," noun of action from past participle stem of includere (see include). Meaning "that which is included" is from 1839. From Etymology Online

And now today’s definition, from the Oxford Dictionary - the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

Read those lines with me, “within a group or structure.”

“Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.”

In our work we coach clients in building a process of change and growth that is rooted in the voice of the community. We most often find an appetite for this version of inclusion – “Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.” We are going to be pushing for a more radical view of community engagement that leans into the lens of lived experience and listens more than it talks and gathers feedback in constant loops.

So here’s the thing, I don’t have an answer for a new word – but I am making a commitment to stop using inclusion. It isn’t right and here’s why:

Inclusion is often used as a placeholder for all kinds of minority representation. Inclusion done wrong looks like, see we invited a woman to the table – we are inclusive. Inclusion done wrong looks an awful lot like the tokenism my co-worker Mariah wrote about in her blog a couple of weeks ago. This kind of inclusion results in systemic discrimination and problems.

Thinking back to inclusion in start-up ecosystems, odds are entrepreneur eco-systems around the country are patting themselves on the back for having a handful of women at their tables.  But that gets uneven results for a reason and there is data to back it up. According to Fortune Magazine, Female Founders Got 2% of Venture Capital Dollars in 2017. This isn’t because women don’t launch great businesses. This is because the funding tables and the ecosystem tables and the networking tables are all owned by men.

In Richmond this looks like inviting people of color to participate in focus groups and fill out surveys and thinking that you are being inclusive, or being fine that you have that one black board member. True community engagement that can create moments of respectful and appropriate change and growth doesn't mean this version of inclusivity. 

So what do you do?

  1. Look at your table. Is everyone the same color or gender or from the same town? Or worse, do you have token representatives of each?
  2. Build a new table, collaboratively, with a diverse audience of mentors and end users (clients or customers).

  3. Let the new table draft the agenda and create the questions to be solved for.

  4. Take a deep breath and listen and then restate and then ask for feedback, over and over and over. 

In my work, I am making the commitment to push clients not to give into the temptation to be inclusive and call it a done day and pat themselves on the back. 

What happens when you ask Black women and White women if they feel like they belong in Richmond?

Mapping Belonging and Inclusion in the City of Richmond

 Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to conduct focus groups with three separate cohorts of women from Richmond. One of our goals during these groups was to identify spaces on a map of the city where they felt a sense of comfort, belonging, inclusion, and safety.

Now, I’ve visited local establishments in Richmond on many occasions, either alone or with friends. While there are never any apparent symbols to suggest that I am unwanted or unwelcomed in these spaces, I often feel a keen sense of displacement; a feeling of emotional detachment from any of the activities taking place in the space around me. More times than not, unless my friends or I intentionally seek out environments where other people of color are the majority, we are among the few black people, if any.

During these focus groups, one of the conversations that emerged was the nuanced difference between being included and belonging, inclusion being where others work to make you a part of a space and belonging being a sense of emotional embeddedness in a space, where you possess shared values with those around you and feel connected to the people and the space itself. 

And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen.

The distinction between the two sentiments is important, as are the distinctions between say, tokenism and authentic community engagement. The former suggests that while the community may be invited to attend meetings or public hearings, their voices serve as a mere addition to an existing engagement process. Authentic community engagement, on the other hand, ensures that individuals feel both a sense of inclusion and belonging. And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen. Only then, can communities become the true vision of themselves and embrace the values that are important to them.

I say this to say: Community engagement work is not only about creating a sense of belonging, it’s about realizing the power of letting individuals and communities be self sufficient and lift up the things that matter most to them. In my focus group with Black women from the city, they mentioned there were many places where they felt included, but very few where they felt a sense of belonging, and the ones where they did were Black owned and operated.  For them, it was about being welcomed into a space, seeing Black art on the walls, or hearing music that reflected their culture and identity. It was also feeling a sense of community and being surrounding by others who look like them.

As we work with our clients around community engagement, I won’t lie and say these issues are easy to tackle or that there is a one size fits all solution for creating environments where marginalized groups feel a sense of belonging. In fact, there isn’t.  The whole idea of translating the ideas of belonging and inclusion into something tangible can be extremely difficult and only each specific community can figure out how these goals can be achieved in their community. But, I will say that it is worth it for organizations and businesses that have social missions to think creatively about how this can be achieved through:

  1.  relinquishing of traditional power structures
  2.  understanding that belonging can only be achieved when community voices are embedded in every part of the empowerment and change process.  

How can we help you design change that fosters belonging?