The Habit of Exclusion: Questions Raised by Activists on the “Chattanooga Way”

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By phaedra from Rossville, GA (Market Street Bridge) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

August 7, 2016; Chattanooga Times Free Press

In a report entitled “Chattanooga Next: Moving Beyond Good Intentions,” Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA) tears a veil off philanthropy and nonprofits central to a recent and much-lauded public/private policy economic initiative some call the “Chattanooga Way.” This initiative was recently celebrated by the Kaufmann Foundation as a model other cities should adopt, but it appears that doing so might replicate dynamics of exclusion.

In this report, we focus primarily on the lack of inclusion among major stakeholders who drive local policy. And, we ask numerous questions germane to achieving inclusion.

Who elected elite organizations and individuals to plan for low-income residents?

Do these organizations have the cultural competency to represent the views and needs of Chattanooga’s poorest citizens?

How inclusive are local elite organizations?

How are elite organizations and individuals held accountable by the general public?

What are the implications for local democracy?

These concerns are real and based on the failure of previous plans to positively improve the lives of citizens in Alton Park, East Chattanooga, West Side, Avondale and other poor neighborhoods who live with rising rents and displacement related to gentrification but who have no input on policies and programs to manage these disruptive processes.

The authors point out that for philanthropists and nonprofits to promote policy in such fields as economic development, schools or the environment without attending to their own lack of diversity is unsupportable and provides residents with less accountability than even government might. The report’s simple analysis of the staffs and boards of all of the key organizations involved in various policy domains in the city finds the racial makeup to be regressive in most cases.

The racial composition of the selected nonprofits and organizations do not reflect the diversity of the Chattanooga community. Of the 149 board members in the selected organizations, 82 percent are white, 15 percent are African American and 3 percent are classified as Other (Hispanic or Asian). Roughly 50 percent of board members are white males and 32 percent are white females.

According to the U.S. Census, the city of Chattanooga is 56.6 percent white only, 33.8 percent black only, and about 5.5 percent Hispanic. The leadership of organizations analyzed in the Appendix of this report does not reflect the racial diversity of the city. Some organizations like Co.Lab and Causeway deserve praise for being more racially diverse than their peers. Yet, in many foundations and influential nonprofits, African Americans are noticeably absent as either board members or employees.

The report further details the relationship between local business, which is almost exclusively represented by white males, and the foundations and nonprofits involved in policy settings within the context of the project. The picture suggests that elite movers and shakers are working in a familiar, tightly networked way to advance a set of interests that purport to benefit marginalized communities but do not include their voices in positions of power.—Ruth McCambridge