The following is the project by 2016-17 cohort of the American Express NGen Fellows program. This podcast series features emerging nonprofit leaders grappling with complex, sometimes controversial issues. Each leader brings an authentic voice to the conversation, based on personal views and lived experience. These leaders were selected for the NGen Fellows program by American Express and Independent Sector, but the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of either organization.
Racial justice is a broad, multi-dimensional topic that can overwhelm us to the point of inaction. After all, there’s so much at stake, and as we know, the power of our words can have a lifetime impact. To prepare for this blog, I listened intently to the third episode of NGen Speaks featuring my fearless American Express NGen colleagues—Ola Ojewumi, Jeremie Greer, and Jamie Smith. I was inspired by their conclusion that as we move forward with our respective roles as nonprofit leaders, funders, and policymakers, it’s imperative to take a hard look at our own sector and how we, as a group, have implicitly contributed to racial injustice along the way.
As described in this episode, racial injustice is “baked into the fabric of American society,” and as a result, inequities exist in the work that we do every day. What I can attest to in my personal experience is that to do this work in a manner that acknowledges injustice and moves our sector towards equity, it’s critical to know when to step up, and more importantly, when to step down.
Ola, Jeremie, and Jamie made the important point that racial justice does not happen in a vacuum – it doesn’t belong to one person, one group, one community. To tackle racial injustice is to understand that it exists on a systems level. And to begin moving us in the right direction, we must look at the intersections of injustice and the “sauce” we’ve been cooking in our respective pots. What follows are a few key themes on racial justice from this episode of NGen Speaks.
Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?
Racial injustice doesn’t just exist in overt ways – we all participate in a system rife with undercurrents that harm us all. The nonprofit field has, intentionally or not, contributed to further oppressing communities of color by “spinning our wheels with a good works mentality.” As a sector, we need to realize that our missions may be shortsighted and part of a larger nonprofit industrial complex. By helping to alleviate people’s immediate needs, and not addressing underlying issues such as disparities in economics, education, criminal justice, and healthcare, we cannot continue to pat ourselves on the back with a job well done while keeping racial justice as hard work that some other group will address. If our sector is serious about racial justice, know that intention is key and plays a leading role in challenging ourselves before we can ever change the system.
It’s hard to ask ourselves tough and uncomfortable questions. I’m no different. I don’t often step back enough and ask the question, “How have the systems that I’m a part of, and the work that I do now contribute to racial injustice?” I’ve come to understand that I am, and—as a coalition—our own organizations are in a constant state of learning. Just in this last year alone, I have been checked and have had to check myself on the intersections of injustice that extend far beyond what I take for granted as an able-bodied, educated, cisgender, Asian American woman. My identity and privilege has certainly afforded me a spot in the middle class, bringing with me intellectual capital, time, and physical energy to do work in the nonprofit sector. In my frenetic work life, decisions that I make will not only affect my work colleagues, but the families we ultimately serve who are living with cancer. Taking stock of decisions—like requiring higher education for hiring—and assumptions—like a family’s availability to access healthcare—can make the task of chipping away at systemic issues seem overwhelming, and even impossible. But it’s important to practice this humility when it comes to racial injustice, and continue to check ourselves. Every one of us. Both personally and professionally.
By now, it’s been well publicized that nonprofit leadership is largely white. Three of my NGen colleagues discussed this racial equity gap in a the previous episode of NGen Speaks. In both that conversation and this one on racial justice, we’ve noted that this disparity severely limits our ability to solve problems. Why? Because racial justice and leadership is good from a diversity perspective, and also makes good business sense, too. When nonprofit leadership do not adequately represent marginalized communities, it sets our entire sector back. And typical comments to emerging leaders of color such as “you need more training” or “you don’t know how to fundraise or relate to our donors” again continues the cycle of oppression for communities of color, especially African Americans, who remain the most segregated population in our country. As a sector, we are especially accountable.
That racial injustice exists in the social good space sounds counter-intuitive, but institutionalized racism exists everywhere, and our sector isn’t exempt. In their conversation, my colleagues talk about entities that wield power, namely, those who control the resources that enable us to do our work. Having to go to a power broker – who in turn sets up esoteric systems and barriers to decide whether or not we are worthy – sounds like a narrative from a bygone era, but it can still be a serious issue for nonprofit leaders working on racial justice today. I’ll leave you with this last question: As leaders, how do we want to show up to our work, broaden our perspective, and act to right our wrongs in the social sector?
In this episode of NGen Speaks, Jeremie, Ola, and Jamie make the point that racial injustice is an issue that affects everyone. In addition to their insights, here are a few texts that have helped inform my understanding of the scope of racial injustice in our history and inspired me to learn more, be brave, and dare to create change:
- A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki
- The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism by Audre Lorde
- An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (ReVisioning American History) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-colored Century by Elizabeth Martínez
- Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience by Angelo N. Ancheta
Jane Cheung is a 2016-17 American Express NGen Fellow and the serves as vice president of programs for The Pablove Foundation.