Happy New Year! Last week, we highlighted seven critical trends that marked the civil sector in the US in 2018. But what will 2019 bring? Or, more importantly, what will you—and all of us—bring to it?
Often at this point, we like to take out our crystal ball and unleash a slate of predictions, as we did last year, but this year, our minds are fixed less on what others might or might not do and more on how to build upon the forward-seeking energy that emerged from the civil sector. That gets us thinking about how to build movements and nonprofit and philanthropic practice that emphasize equity and justice in the outcomes we seek. In our opinion, it’s there that social corners were turned last year, and where we must push ourselves in the year to come, building power and influence and credibility for a newly balanced, just, and sustainable future.
With Trump still in the White House and a Republican majority still in the Senate, the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives is unlikely to result in many legislative achievements, but the opportunity is there—if our sector and the communities we serve seize it—to begin to define positive policy alternatives. Some activists, for instance, have called for the creation of a House Select Committee for a Green New Deal. But why stop there? How about establishing work groups to address homelessness, gender equality, healthcare, and reparations, to name just a few challenges facing our nation? Rather than focus on highly unlikely immediate policy gains, an engaged civil sector could do something a little more important—even if it is a little bit un-American—and envision and plan for the future. In the nonprofit world, we often laud strategic planning for our organizations. It might not be a bad idea to apply the same principles to the greater commonweal.
If you happen to live in one of the 235 communities that didn’t “win” the Amazon lottery—which is to say the entire country outside of New York City, northern Virginia, and Nashville—maybe it is time to recognize the obvious truth that we are our own best architects of our economic futures! Over the holidays, the most popular article on the NPQ website happened to be an article we first posted in July about a community—in northern Virginia, as it turns out—that decided to convert a mothballed shopping mall into a homeless shelter. We think this speaks to a general hunger to connect the dots and build economies in our communities that truly serve all residents.
This idea of building an economy based on existing assets—one that fosters broadly shared wealth and prosperity, rather than concentrating wealth and income at the top—is starting to gain ground in many cities across the country, with employee ownership and community land trusts in particularly gaining ground in a number of cities. Even in the last Congress under unified Republican government, a bill passed that made it easier nationally to convert businesses to employee ownership. Perhaps in 2019, building a democratic economy can move from a “nice to have” to a “must have” for the civil sector as a whole.
What if our sector decided that 2019 was the year when fostering racial inclusion—as well as building on the diversity of America more generally, including supporting women leaders and leaders from the queer community—ceased to be considered a distant goal to be realized sometime in the indefinite future and became an urgent necessity? At NPQ, we have regularly covered the slow, often nonexistent, movement toward racial equity at the level of nonprofit board and staff leadership. As we noted not long ago, while there are technical steps to take, action plans to develop, and so forth, ultimately what matters—and will drive taking those steps and developing and implementing those action plans—is a shift in values. “It is one thing to prescribe remedies, but in the end, organizations must have an appetite for these values,” notes NPQ’s Elizabeth Castillo.
Due in part to deep organizing in communities of color—and, frankly, to how naked the expressions of white supremacy have become in the Trump era—the time when having “diversity plans” could possibly be considered a sufficient response to racial inequality is long past. Perhaps 2019 can be the year that our sector finally takes these hard lessons to heart, leading to many more emerging success stories of racial equity to share.
But this will not happen by itself. Stand ready to learn and support women and people of color and members of the LGBTQ community for elected office because it does matter what our public officials look like. Observe your unquestioning presence in all-white spaces or in spaces where no people of color occupy leadership positions.
What if our sector more openly embraced the energy and leadership of young people? As we noted in our 2018 trends article last week, America’s youth are on fire as a sophisticated and motivated force for change, as demonstrated in immigrants’ rights organizing, indigenous rights organizing, gun control activism, local elections and the midterm national elections, to name a few big examples. So, why aren’t more nonprofits nurturing this energy and motivation? We think that all of us could benefit by committing to and seriously investing in the development of young leaders.
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Ask yourself: Do you create and pay for opportunities for development? Do you share power in ways that promote that development and their emergence? Every time we hear someone talking about a “leadership gap” to be caused by the resignation of baby boomers, we think it is worthwhile to think about the world we are creating in our own organizations.
What if the civil sector stopped being surprised by disasters? If we have paid any attention to the increasingly dire reports emanating about climate change from United Nations scientists and even our own federal government, we know that one of the principal impacts of climate change is not just rising temperatures, but rather increasing climate volatility. The rise in average global temperature means there is more weather “energy” in the system—and more energy means more frequent and more intense storms (e.g., hurricanes) and other weather-related phenomena, such as droughts, floods, fires, and so forth.
Nonprofits play a critical role in disaster response, but that response tends to be front-loaded and neutral about issues of social equity, even when we all know that recovery is a multi-year endeavor and that rebuilding must be infused with a focus on equity to not worsen the wealth, health, and environmental differentials that already exist. In places like Puerto Rico and Texas, communities are still suffering and will be for some time. Perhaps 2019 can be the year that our civil sector truly recognizes that disaster recovery is a marathon and not a sprint—and uses its energy to support sustained partnerships and engagement with frontline communities. If our sector takes this on, maybe we can help create the conditions for sustainable recovery—rooted in deep attention to equity that makes sure that low-income communities and communities of color play strong leadership roles in rebuilding.
What if this sector finally realized that it was far more powerful in figuring out how to share power and resources, how to actively and authentically engage the intelligence and agency of its constituents, and how to link issues than by hoarding money and attention? Movements like Black Lives Matter and United We Dream have brought this lesson home in a big way.
What if we paid closer attention to the stories that we tell ourselves and others? At NPQ, we have often called out the importance of framing and narratives. Attend carefully to the stories you tell and support and ask yourself to what narratives do they attach.
Have you told a story that paints people who should be partners as victims and then do you continue to act out that story by neglecting to consult them about what is being done supposedly for their benefit? Do you accept without question stories that portray the rich who have refused to pay taxes as benevolent for their self-directed philanthropy? Can we get in the habit of reviewing the fair payment of taxes by these uber-rich philanthropists before we start monitoring their philanthropy?
What if the “we” in our sector truly changed? As NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez has persuasively argued, the “we” in nonprofit America remains by-and-large a white “we.” Much has been made of the fact that by mid-century, the majority of Americans will be people of color. But even today, in 2019, nearly two in five Americans are people of color. And, indeed, the future is already here. Among public school students, the federal government reports that whites are already a minority, as 26.6 million of the 50.7 million pre-K through grade 12 students enrolled (52.5 percent) are students of color. So civil society is now and will increasingly be constituted by people of color, yet the sector’s norms and language still betray a white cultural frame. How can we change this? We can begin by asking, Suarez writes, “How do white leaders in the nonprofit sector use white space approaches to addressing public space as white space?”
Suarez notes that this dominance of “white space” is visible in our language. Indeed, it shows up “in the very framing of racial equity work”—with terms such as diversity, equity, and inclusion “preferred” (by whites) over terms more commonly used in communities of color such as “racial justice” and “reparations.” Perhaps in 2019, our sector can, as Suarez suggests, act more consciously tap into the counternarratives of people of color. By doing so, we may begin to reframe the “problem” of racial inclusion more accurately as one of dismantling colonialism and white domination, a necessary step on the path to building a truly inclusive sector.
This next year, in other words, requires much of us, but the opportunities we can create together are staggering. And as always, NPQ invites you to add to this DIY list of practice reminders, under the category of “How to Make a Better World in 2019.”