Lawrence, The Migration Series, 1940-41 (detail of 59 of 60 panels).” Steven Zucker

Each of us is in a container of some kind. The label signals to the world what is presumed to be inside and what is to be done with it. The label tells you which shelf your container supposedly belongs on. In a caste system, the label is frequently out of sync with the contents, mistakenly put on the wrong shelf and this hurts people and institutions in ways we may not always know.

~ Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

This article is the third in a series of personal essays that NPQ, in partnership with Tony Pickett of the Grounded Solutions Network and Marcus Littles of Frontline Solutions, is publishing in the coming weeks. Titled Black Male Leadership: Nonprofit Voices, Truth, and Power, the objective of this series is to lift up Black male voices to highlight the challenges facing Black male leaders in the nonprofit sector, as well as the sector as a whole, amid ongoing anti-Black violence and the disparate racial impact of COVID-19You can read prior entries here and here.

During my childhood, it was commonplace for adults and older youth to preface either a chide or pearl of conventional wisdom with the phrase, “Black men don’t do….” My early sense of racial and gender identity was informed by profound racial group pride in Black community progress braided with social conservatism rooted in southern, Black Christian traditions. This orientation to the world presents paradoxes that shape limiting informal rules for socially permissible behaviors.

For example, Black men working outside the home was socially accepted, while performing care or housework was the domain for women, most of whom also worked outside the home. These constraining norms, if adhered to, would simultaneously affirm heterosexual maleness and, unapologetically, advance racial pride. Conversely, thoughts and behaviors outside the convention of Black male do’s and dont’s could lead to, at least, unyielding teasing and, at worst, intimidation and violence. In a perverse way, the intent and reinforcement of these norms was to “strengthen you against the loveless world,” James Baldwin aptly references in The Fire Next Time.

In practice, these norms often have the opposite effect; for some Black people, they mirror the oppressive experiences of navigating predominantly white contexts. The subjugation of individuality in favor of the perceived collective good can unintentionally exclude people. The marginalization and erasure of difference and diversity is oppressive and, similarly, can lead to othering people. The assignment of individual or group achievement to socially constructed labels unduly relegates human potential to the imagination of its architects. These social dynamics do not inspire freedom; instead they help maintain the status quo. Fortunately, there are more loving ways to equip each of us with the confidence and resilience needed to thrive.

The nonprofit sector is seemingly holding firm to its own set of obdurate norms and expectations based on identity. Along with others, this publication has well-documented the sector’s tribulations with predominantly white and male executive staff and board leadership throughout the sector at well-established and more recently emergent fields alike. Rather than regurgitate readily available information on the challenges of diverse and inclusive nonprofit leadership, I encourage reading the insightful works cited here. It is worth noting that according to available data, Black men are woefully under-represented among the executive and board leadership of this sector. Instead, I’ll use this space to be solutions-oriented.

Like the nation, the nonprofit sector faces a reckoning with its own progress, or lack thereof, confronting historical and contemporary manifestations of a social ordering that allocates opportunity, privilege, and power based on race. Over the last 15 years, and more intensely in 2020, leading voices for diversity, equity, and inclusion have been amplifying calls for executive leaders and boards to address the churn effect—overall absence, turnover, lack of mobility, and departure from the sector—of Black and POC [people of color] professionals across the industry.

As we are witnessing in technology, advertising, and other industries, the nonprofit sector needs to raise the ante on its commitment to additional investments in sustaining diversity and inclusion. Such general measures could include producing reliable and up-to-date demographic information to enable tracking and monitoring of progress on diversity and inclusion efforts, building pathways into executive leadership, crafting culturally appropriate retention strategies, creating welcoming organizational cultures, developing resources and supports for first-time executive leaders, and, importantly brokering introductions to influential networks and people.

For Black men, some specific steps might improve their recruitment, retention, and mobility in the sector. The list below details some of these themes. It is a compilation of original ideas and adapted suggestions from diversity and inclusion advocates, with attribution.

  1. Recruit and coach Black male interns and fellows from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) and pair them with professional coaches to add more diverse talent to the philanthropy pipeline and support their acclimation to the sector.
  2. Use your privilege to affirm the voices of the Black men and women. When a Black person shares a good idea in a meeting, repeat it and credit them properly. Even when your views differ, affirm the importance of their contribution to moving the conversation forward.
  3. Be honest about bias by taking a look at your organization’s rate of hiring and promoting Black men and women. Analyzing their progress helps you see if you are creating a diverse leadership bench.
  4. Lead by example and mentor Black men and women by sharing your knowledge, demonstrating behaviors, and talking about the performance habits that lead to success in your organizatio