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Do Nothing About Me Without Me

Nonprofits need to do (and pay for) Anti-Racism Work

In order to fulfill your mission and see long-term movement toward more inclusive, equitable, and positive mission delivery, nonprofits must invest with time, money, learning, listening, and action. There is no mission written or outcome identified that is NOT working to undo harms created by bias, greed, discrimination and majority-culture norms. Until these four items are unraveled, nonprofits uphold the systems their missions seek to address.

When societal and environmental issues have a disproportionate impact on populations of color, people of color have the solutions. However, when they are not represented on staff, boards, or regular volunteer teams it is problematic at best. When nonprofits continue to be led primarily by well-meaning white people, these critical solutions are not given the light of day. I’m a firm believer in the concept of “do nothing about me without me.” (Valerie Billingham, 1998)

If your organization doesn’t adequately, and abundantly, reflect the community affected by your programs, decisions, spending and advocacy, you are not alone. I know that now but that wasn’t always the case. It’s time to learn and do better.

For 13 years, I had the honor of running an organization that provided diapers to hundreds of thousands of children from struggling families. We had a white Executive Director (me), and a mostly white board and leadership team for the majority of my tenure. Like most nonprofits, we did a lot of amazing things and contributed to the basic needs and health of local children, an economy where more parents could utilize daycare (with diapered babies) and work, and the bonding and thriving of the whole household.

That said, for years we had a program that, by design, failed to include the local diverse community near our facility…as volunteers, staff or board members. Thousands of items came and left our building each week, but almost all the work was done inside by people very different from those receiving the items. Meetings, conversations, and even meals, were white culture dominant. We prioritized urgency, saviorism, and our own comfort over inclusion. I was a chief offender of this, but at the time, I had no idea. Instead, I thought it was my role to be decisive, fast-moving, and efficient. Those can be good things, but they need tempering.

We recruited board members based on who we knew and we knew people from our own bubbles, even if skills and personalities varied a fair amount. We made all kinds of decisions that impacted a population without making space for those impacted to inform us. There is not just missed opportunity in that design; there is real harm.

Unfortunately, this is how nonprofits predominately work. And it needs to change.

If you are a white person doing tireless work to help others, take a moment to breathe through the defensiveness and emotions you may be experiencing. It is possible to do both good and harm at the same time - Both/And thinking is central to unpacking racist systems, and a signature principle of our work here at Ampersand.

As Robin DiAngelo states, “[T]he simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic.”

Remember, “do nothing about me without me” and step-aside for the voices who are affected. Those voices will have solutions and your access as a white leader can fuel that flame. Learn how the systems, inside and outside the nonprofit sector, impact those you hope to serve. Devote the money, time, and talent in exactly the same way you’d resource every program, project or initiative connected to your mission.

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