April 23, 2019; Root
“Change takes time.” How often do you hear this? But is it true? Some change does take time, like the building up of glaciers or the passing of seasons. But other change is a matter of shifts. Social changes seem to happen in shifts—people decide that something is no longer acceptable, and they make different choices.
It could be that the type of change you believe in relates to where you stand in the system. In my years of experience in nonprofits, white leaders, especially founders, have very long spans of time when they think about any change to the organization they built, which are often white majority with white dominant cultures. They love the “change takes time” frame. When they are shamed into changing and finally hire people of color, they often don’t understand that those people of color often take these roles on at great risk to personal well-being and reputation, and that they have a radically different timeline for change.
In his article, “Waiting Is for White People: The Privilege of Not Impeaching Trump,” The Root’s Michael Harriot reminds us that timelines are political. He opens with this quote from MLK from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is an indicator of just how long the wait strategy has been in use.
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s [sic] freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
This is why you won’t see me writing any nonprofit-gone-wrong stories; I’m less concerned with policing the boundaries of the sector to make sure unsavory characters do not use it for ill-gain than I am about the ones already in it believing they do not. I’m way more interested in a critical eye to our internal practices and how they shore up domination, and over the last few months, the “change takes time” frame has become particularly irksome.
It is easy to call for patience when your children are not being ripped from your arms. White people can stand to ruminate on their course of action as the president packs the court with far-right judges who have displayed anti-black animus both anecdotally and statistically. It does not hurt white people to delay or even deny justice while Trump dismantles affirmative action, reverses rules on discrimination, destroys health care, promotes gentrification, champions police brutality and downplays the rise of white supremacist hate groups.
But, as Harriot confesses from the start, “As a black man, I cannot have faith in America.” I can say the same about our sector.
Whatever one’s feelings are about the strategy and implications of impeaching Trump, the point of Harriot’s article is that people are positioned differently in systems and that affects their timeline for change. Those who are affected the least and often benefit in significant ways are usually the ones who see a long path for change. Those who are dying without the change see it as something that should have happened decades ago, as something we should all be working on now, whatever it takes.
But my experience shows that in every example, it is the white leaders setting the timeline. Underneath a lot of this is ego; these leaders think they have the answer, the new design for a “more diverse” organization. They don’t want their legacy improved on by others, much less changed. They struggle to imagine and build new, more collaborative spaces with their unexamined white dominant leadership styles. They are willing to sabotage the change process, and ultimately the organization, to preserve their ego/legacy. Funders—who are often the only ones who can hold these leaders accountable, if they can get beyond their own power plays to see these particular power plays—need to take note, stop trusting white leaders to lead change processes that require their giving up power, and explicitly negotiate power shifts regarding narratives for change and decision making, particularly about strategy and resource allocation.
My former City Councilor, Ayanna Pressley, strode into Congress with a campaign that challenged a longtime white progressive who believed in incremental change with the slogan, “Change Can’t Wait.” People of color voted for her in droves. Like Harriot, we understand that waiting is for white people. (Many white progressives also voted for Pressley. Thank you to those of you who also can’t wait for change.)—Cyndi Suarez