We did a set of interviews with organizations here in New York, where we talk to the outgoing White leader, the incoming leader of color, and someone who was on the board. And, what Dax is describing absolutely was true of that small sample, but I think it was still an interesting report, that a lot of boards were trying to have solve for DEI challenges that had been leveled against the White predecessor by replacing that person with a person of color. And so then what happens is that person of color comes in and still has to lead the organization, grow the organization, and we know that funders are not always as supportive of people of color as they claim they’re going to be. So they’re going to do that and also have to do all the cleanup from the DEI mess of their predecessor. Oftentimes people complain about the executive director job not being sustainable anyway, but I think these are the sorts of situations that make it particularly burdensome, unsustainable, et cetera for executive leaders of color.
And what is implicit and often not safe for a person in that position to say is, “I just got here, and I don’t yet have the power to do the things you want. In fact, I’m not sure I have the power to protect you. And, power is not positional, power is accrued over time, and I just got here.” That is never explicitly on the table. But I take a lot of phone calls from people who want to talk about that privately. And there’s another piece that’s connected to that, for me, that is specific to Black people. We know that we often finally get hired for the thing that we were qualified for fifteen years ago, because they now need a brown person to come do the HAZMAT cleanup. And the hazardous material we’re trying to clean up is distrust. And all of us do trust-based work based in the cultures we come from. And one of the things that is hardest for me, having seen what is now the third wave of work toward racial justice happening in the nonprofit/social sector, is that this is the first time I’m seeing African-American people trying to do that work based not in African-American cultural values but in nonprofit cultural values. In traditional African-American culture, what challenge looks like and how challenge is responded to looks way different than what I’m seeing in meeting rooms where people say things to an elder who’s been holding it up for twenty years with no dollars and no public support as, “Well, if you had done a better job, we wouldn’t have to be here at all.” Like that is not a thing that would have happened inside of African-American culture but is actually vaunted in nonprofit culture.
Yeah, I would also just contextualize that I was raised by my grandmother, so you know, oftentimes, when I’m thinking about intergenerational differences, I’m thinking about a woman who walked this globe for sixty years before I got here and was very much so keenly aware of what that meant for how she felt her responsibility to show up as a guardian.
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I think the thing that I’m seeing most is this difference of perspective in how we set priorities. So it’s tough not to over generalize amongst generations, but one thing that seems to be thematic is folks saying, yo, we don’t have enough time. And when I say folks, I mean younger folks who are on that cusp of emerging leadership, who are feeling the burden of and directly seeing the impact of when nonprofits are one, either purposefully not hitting the mark to be more radical when they are complicit in the nonprofit industrial complex, and they want to call it out because they see what the consequence of that is in community, juxtaposed to we’ve been doing this for a long time.
It can be, I think, particularly tough for folks to show up in those conversations with humility and with an open ear towards well, what am I missing about your experience that would help me bridge the gap between what it is that we both think is getting in the way but are coming to conclusions around why it’s getting in the way and how it’s getting in the way from very different places?
Those of us who studied a bit of the history recognize that the professionalization of nonprofit work, which is why Sean, your point, I think, is completely valid, but I think that there’s also been a conflation of organizing work and nonprofit work such that people think that they’re working for social justice organizations when actually they’re working for sometimes really mainstream organizations that do some social service work. That’s not actually what they were set up to do. And you want it to now be social justice work, but that’s not actually what it is. So you need to find some place to do your movement work.
I’m working with organizations that are using radical approaches to pedagogy, radical frameworks, in environments that I wouldn’t from first glance say are conducive to it. So we’re talking about folks really channeling in spirit of bell hooks and Angela Davis, in an organization that is service-oriented and is providing, essentially, band-aids, not really getting at the root of the problem that their mission is committed to. So there’s a sense of disingenuousness though, when you have that point of realization. We’re using these radical frameworks in an organizational container, and of course, then, I want to get my political needs, my community building needs, the kind of family aura that I’m trying to build in this space, because so much of what we are saying we want to achieve is built on strategies, principles, and approaches that invoke that type of thinking.