During a recent Aspen Institute sponsored forum on what nonprofits did and how they fared in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, the fault lines of class and race on which this issue focuses came into relief. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the Red Cross presented their challenges and what they have learned. When they were done, the next presenter, Derrick Johnson of the Mississippi NAACP plainly retorted, “Disaster planning should always start with the most vulnerable communities first but the response (by FEMA and the Red Cross) was an all-out failure when it came to those communities.” He described how, in the absence of these national agencies, and especially in rural areas, African American churches often took up the immediate slack, providing shelter and other necessities. Still, because many did not meet standards they were never reimbursed as part of the relief effort. This weakened important pre-existing institutions in already damaged communities that were low income before the storms hit.

Melissa Flournoy of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations agreed that this was a dynamic that was replicated among many grassroots nonprofits in her state. Basically, these were the institutions on the front lines and they bankrupted themselves by responding where the well funded refused to go.

In this edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, we address how issues of social class affect the workings of nonprofits, and how that affects the viability of whole communities of people. The above story highlights in excruciating terms how the status of groups of people and their nonprofits are interconnected. Social class is one of those powerful but remarkably invisible contextual forces that drive social policy, funding, and often the very nature and parameters of the concerns we are set up to address.

But, social class is a very difficult issue to wrestle with. Since this country is founded on an image of classless opportunity and equal protection, it is hard to get through the myth—in which so many are invested—to the fault lines of reality which inconveniently surface during emergencies and other times of great stress like those that occurred during and in the wake of Katrina.

Later in the Aspen forum an OXFAM representative weighed in, saying that in international disaster response, the cardinal rule is to target the most vulnerable first in planning for and providing aid. And, of course, the United States partially funds many of those efforts—so why does such a discrepancy exist between what we do in other countries as opposed to here?
Johnson may have hit the nail on the head when he commented, “Poor people and people of color are obviously not seen in this country as assets to protect.”

Each sector has some responsibility for attending to the structural inequities that evolve as a result of race and class but the nonprofit sector has a special role in continuing to raise and work upon them. As always, we invite your feedback and participation in the ideas we have presented in this issue.