Editors’ note: This article is part of our ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project in collaboration between NPQ and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are three words perpetually bound together in our modern lexicon to convey the ideal components of a fair and just society. In theory, they provide a worthwhile blueprint for removing bias and privilege from our collective experience, but a blueprint can take us only so far—realization of this goal will require daily introspection and vigilance in our external interactions to check and recalibrate our motives.
Introspection is critical, since we are quite naturally “wired” to seek out and favor people like ourselves and experiences close to our own. We unconsciously project our experiences onto others for our own comfort, are far more likely than not to minimize differences, focus on shared experience, and treat people as monoliths instead of constantly evolving beings. This vestigial safety mechanism of using “classification over calculus” to resolve risk that most likely helped us survive the Stone Ages cripples our progress and stifles our potential in the modern age.1 It encourages those deemed different to conform, instead of compelling mainstream society to broaden. This is why we must be intentional about recognizing our inherent and learned biases in matters of equity and inclusion.
In theory, inclusion is the active and ongoing engagement with diversity in a manner that ensures that perspectives are valued and needs are understood. It is a social remedy that exists to counteract the injustices of systematic exclusion, diminished access, and devaluation of diversity experienced by many in our society. But, however noble its intentions, inclusion is a flawed construct. Inclusion is not a right guaranteed to anyone, and, ironically, it is conferred by the very unjust and discriminatory systems that make inclusive policy necessary in the first place. The word inclusion itself betrays its true intent; its Latin origin—includere, meaning “to shut in”—hints at a cloistered larger structure granting access and rescinding invitation at will. Nonprofit leaders and advocates must be especially vigilant to ensure that this restrictive form of inclusion does not infiltrate and undermine our collective social justice goals. In fact, we must radically reframe what it means to be inclusive: moving beyond opening doors of access, to providing tools for the marginalized to knock the sequestered doors of privilege off their hinges.
My personal aha moment came during a crowded breakout session at an urban food insecurity conference. This workshop was not unlike others I had attended in the past: a few rounds of passionate appeals, bouts of energetic brainstorming, and a feverish last-minute dash to formalize an action plan before the session ended. What ingrained this particular session in my mind was the one soul who stood up—just around the time we were all feeling especially satisfied with ourselves—and asked three simple, resounding questions: Where are they? Why aren’t they here? Why are we having conversations without them?
It was like air rushing from a balloon.
Of course, they were the people we were ostensibly trying to help, and it was probably a safe bet that no one in the room was currently food insecure, depended on public assistance, or lived in an area defined as high risk by this conference. The question was unavoidable: How can we effectively lead sustainable change and promote self-empowerment without the insight, agreement, and active contribution of those who have been marginalized?
In admitting there was a problem, and that I, in fact, was a part of it, I had taken the first steps toward redemption. But I needed to understand what exactly I was a part of. I needed to examine social justice work within the greater cultural context of exclusion and inclusion, which began with the shift from individually sponsored to foundation-based charity.
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Prior to the 1930s, most charitable work (outside of hospitals, religious groups, and educational institutions) was done by individuals, not organizations.2 Concerned citizens who identified lack and disparity took action to meet the immediate, localized needs of those in crisis. Generally well-to-do or climbing the social rungs themselves, these individuals had neither the desire nor the means to formally disrupt the status quo or tackle systems of oppression, especially as related to generationally poor nonwhites. It was later, as the Great Depression indiscriminately impoverished hundreds of thousands of Americans across the racial and socioeconomic spectrum, that nonprofits gained prominence. The social relief and recovery efforts of Roosevelt’s New Deal brought to the nation’s consciousness the need for all Americans to be concerned about the welfare of every American. The Great Depression also ushered in changes in state laws that had previously prohibited private charity; as a result, the country saw growth in the number of charitable foundations.3
Foundations transformed the scope and impact of charity work, making it possible to reach more communities and provide comprehensive resources to attack the root causes of poverty and injustice. But foundations also added a layer of bureaucracy that kept community stakeholders closest to the real issues far from the actual decision making. On the one hand, foundations gave community advocates who had previously worked in silos the opportunity to convene and tackle problems collectively, which was a net positive; however, they also bred a seductive familiarity between advocates and wealthy industry powerbrokers that often alienated the communities they sought to serve. As social justice advocates began to gain more access to power structures and subsequently broker more power themselves, perhaps it became easier to justify (or ignore) their own slow drift into the systematic exclusion of already-marginalized people. Had advocates effectively succumbed to the faulty logic that they were somehow experts not just on what initiatives foundations wanted to sponsor but also on the plight and pain of underserved communities?
In the nonprofit world, we know that without the marginalized, there is no mission. But if we want to actualize radical inclusiveness, we must be intentional about being transparent. More importantly, advocates must be explicitly accountable to the communities in which they work—just as much as (or, preferably, far more than) they are accountable to their funders. Let’s be clear—this requires a certain level of fearlessness. When we truly embrace inclusiveness, community members are empowered to be actively involved in strategic sessions, taking co-ownership of social justice initiatives, and modifying them—or dismantling them, if need be—if they do not support long-term progress and community self-determination. If we do not respectfully support inclusive advocacy, we send the message that strong community voices cannot be heard without the amplification of nonprofit assistance.
Our programs should be magnified by the collective effort and support of the community. To accomplish this aim, we must demonstrate to our funders and community partners that the work we start can and should continue without us. As advocates, we wear many hats: we are the educators, organizers, supporters, and obstacle removers of the social justice movement—but the movement is only validated, and can only be sustained, by those affected by the issues.
Coming back full circle to my conference experience: I think, though well meaning, we failed to fully grasp that the group assembled in that room could not sustainably solve the problem of food insecurity for the communities we sought to assist. We could only project our limited secondary experiences and monolithic views onto a diverse and constantly evolving issue. This was the fundamental flaw in our approach. If we were fully embracing diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, we would have recognized our limitation: none of us had firsthand knowledge of food insecurity or its collateral socioeconomic repercussions. We did not properly acknowledge that a diversity of experience—yours, mine, and collectively, ours—needed to be present in that room. In hindsight, the conference should have been held in or near a food desert community. This would have provided an opportunity for conference attendees to interact with impacted families and really see what it means to live with and survive food insecurity every day. Members of the community should have led the discussion. Advocates, policy-makers, business leaders, and funders could have used this community input and their own systems knowledge to collaborate on sustainable solutions that would take into account the unique political and socioeconomic characteristics of the target communities. Finally, these resources and strategies must be shared, tested, then broadly implemented to assist communities with navigating obstacles and maximizing opportunities to achieve mutual goals.
When used effectively, foundations can provide the resources, programmatic support, and access to power structures that will bring us closer to realizing a society that thrives in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But a new generation of advocates must emerge—one that is more teachable, and unafraid to have uncomfortable conversations that challenge the very foundations of our work in communities. We must be a generation unwavering in our resolve to use our agency to apply collective pressure to institutional barriers that seek to divide us. We must be a generation with the profound understanding that a just and open society is something that we across the spectrum of humanity owe each other.
- Nigel Nicholson, “How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?,” Harvard Business Review 76 (1998): 134–47.
- James Allen Smith, “The Evolving Role of American Foundations,” Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector in a Changing America, Charles T. Clotfelter and Thomas Erlich (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1999): 34–51.
- Peter Dobkin Hall, “Historical Perspectives on Nonprofit Organizations,” The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, ed. Robert D. Herman (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1st ed., 1994): 3–41.