“This is not a Moment; it’s a movement.”
- Lin-Manuel Miranda
Here we are, post 2020 election and 2021 Inauguration. Many people in the nonprofit sector went into this election assuming (or at least wondering if) we were going to see a giant blue wave, a sweeping outcry against the Trump administration and everything it stands for. Much of the leadership of these nonprofits are well-meaning white folks.
But, we did not see that blue wave. We saw that the majority of white people voted to keep someone who upheld systems of overt racism and elected and incited others to do the same. For the most part, we saw the “blue” states (and cities) vote blue and the “red” states and areas vote red. And in the places we did see a flip, it was black and brown voters, especially Black women, who saved the day.
And, particularly in the blue areas, we saw white folks in total despair and disbelief. They could not believe the wave didn’t come. On the other hand: Black and Brown folks were sitting in these same blue areas rolling their eyes, looking at their white friends saying “and…?”
Then January 6, 2021 happened. A mob of white-supremacy insurrectionists stormed our nation’s Capitol at the urging of our then-President. And white folks said “this is not OUR America” and “this is not us.”
And Black folks were, once again, not shocked. It was just a Wednesday. Violent white folks stood fully in their privilege and power, attacked police, desecrated the seat of our government, met open doors and escorts, and knew they could do that without all being killed on the spot (or face any sort of prosecution, for that matter). In fact, they were escorted out peacefully after they committed these crimes. This is America.
Individually, all white people are complicit in these actions with our silence, lack of understanding and/or defensiveness. With white people leading 80% of nonprofits overall and 90% of the largest, this complicity leads to mission-crunch rather than mission fulfillment. And, as the third largest employment sector in the nation, employing 10% of the US workforce and engaging 63 million volunteers, those leading this sector have power in numbers and money with $390 billion dollars donated in 2016.
So, we need to move forward with this movement to make the nonprofit sector anti-racist. Now.
Many who said “this is not our America” are the same people who work in and lead nonprofits. Well-intentioned white people who don’t approve of violence but paralyze themselves out of action. (See our Blog Intent is Bullshit for more on that.)
The White People cycle goes like this:
Something glaring happens that we cannot ignore related to racism.
We are shocked.
We take to social media, talk to other white people (the ones who align closely with our thoughts).
We create book clubs, come up with quick action items.
Pat ourselves and each other on the back.
Find time, grace, and resources to ensure we engage in self-care (and encourage our white people to do the same).
Then we go back to engaging in our nonprofit “good” work the same way we always have. Without livable wages, without partnership with the communities we serve, and without creating pathways for BIPOC to reach leadership roles. Our Boards continue to consider anti-racism or equity and inclusion work to be “extra” rather than central to mission delivery.
We MUST engage in sustained, process-oriented, systemic change-making. This means in every aspect of a nonprofit, from volunteer recruitment to staff meetings and board policies. Devoting time and energy to this work needs to move to the “must do” list from the “nice to have”
When thinking about systemic, sustained anti-racist centered change, consider these:
Culture and power-sharing. Who is at the table and who gets airtime?
Service provision. Who designs your programs and how is the community involved in decisions and execution? Who has ownership of the programs?
Volunteer management. What opportunities are there for those who may have less privilege but equal interest in helping?
Leadership. Who is in charge at the staff level? Who serves on your Board and how do those individuals “show-up” and make room within their roles and duties? What is your recruitment process?
Money: where is your money coming from? What is it going to? Who has power over it?
And it’s not about finger-pointing, unless you happen to be looking in the mirror and see yourself.
Each white person has a role to play. Each well-intentioned white nonprofit CEO, Executive Director or Board Chair must pause and give this thought and follow with action.
There is something to be given up and a lot to be gained.
It’s transformative work that leads to nonprofit excellence!! And transformative work is not comfortable. If you are comfortable in this, you are not truly doing the work and making the necessary changes.
The sector will give up “the way it’s always been done”. It will shift the mindset from scarcity to abundance. It will give up many fundraising and grant-making principles. It will spend more money on salaries and benefits for employees. It will be real about job expectations and time. It will move power to the communities the missions are meant to serve and will LISTEN.
A first step is to accept the role of white supremacy. Hold up, white folks - don’t click away! Be uncomfortable, but stay with it. Thanks to Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones (2001), we know the twelve characteristics of white dominant culture and norms lift up one group and hold down another. This is rampant in the nonprofit sector.
Recognizing the impact of being raised in a nation that lifts up the goodness/ betterness/ rightness of being white or adhering to practices created by white people is a great first-step to undoing this problem. And there are antidotes to all twelve tendencies we can all consider. White supremacy causes white folks to feel urgency, want results, and to feel good about progress. So we look to things that allow us to checkboxes, produce things (results), and then move on. Sound familiar?
Black folks have been calling us out on this for so long. The antidote for the white supremacy culture of urgency? Acknowledge things take time, allow for the process. Antidotes for progress is bigger include to “create Seventh Generation thinking by asking how the actions of the group now will affect people seven generations from now” or in a cost/benefit analysis “consider all the costs, not just the financial costs.” Basically, it means to put to humanity first, isn’t that what nonprofits do?
Our focus on the right now, the change right now, the action right now, is counteracting the work of the anti-racist movement. It means we don’t make the space and time to engage with others to gather ideas, shift thinking. We need to slow down in order to listen.
Also, it's real that it is white people who made this mess, who continue to uphold it. We need to change it. But what we have been doing will NOT create that change. That paralysis, that discomfort, that “busy” is upholding racism just as much as storming the Capitol highlights white folks getting away with murder. Yes, there is work to be done for the right now, but the real work is for seven generations. We must look longer down the road.
The question is: what do we do? If we are looking down the road seven generations if we are working for culture, system change, what are the steps we take?
We are building a movement. We must look ahead seven generations. We must move beyond in-the-moment thinking.