One reason for limited outcomes from these efforts is that they have softened the topic itself and uncomfortable discussions around it by bundling it all into a bumper-sticker of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Instead, if we want to achieve authentic DEI outcomes, we need to talk about racism, identify it in our organizations, and address it systemically as a structural, procedural, and cultural issue.
Of late, more is being written and discussed on the new needs from management in response to the social changes happening before our eyes. The premise of much of the writing is a need for change from a long tradition of authoritarian management to engage workers' perspectives. While this is a great place to start undoing racism, more should be done to engage all organizational stakeholders.
At a recent session during the Washington State Nonprofit Conference, we attempted to tackle this challenge. Our premise started with the understanding that there are 3 expressions of racism: cultural, personal, and institutional. In nonprofit institutions we create new knowledge about how to apply anti-racism “at home” for and with the people in the sector. Using the premise that institutional racism is expressed when there is both bias and power.
Nonprofit Organizational Structures
First, we need to understand the traditional structure (for better or worse!) of nonprofit accountability and responsibility.
Some argue that hierarchical power structures are remnants of white supremacist structures. This perspective ignores the fact that clear delineation of authority, roles, and responsibilities is critical for any organization to function effectively. And while the abuse of this traditional organizational structure can promote outcomes incompatible with the principles of equity and inclusion, these outcomes can be avoided.
Power Dynamics and Governance
The power dynamics in organizations are complex and matrixed. Managing them can be tricky and requires trust and patience as well as urgency and accountability for anti-racist practices.
Given the hierarchical structure of most organizations, there are invisible power dynamics throughout. And, in order to address organizational racism, we need to see the invisible power dynamics across the whole organization between three key stakeholder groups of people in the structure. The three groups are:
Regardless of what is on paper or in the laws, the reality is that power is wielded from all the stakeholders in an organization. We know that the board of directors has power, but staff also has power in its ability to deliver mission. Constituents (donors, volunteers, and recipients of services) also exert influence and power through their participation in the organization and their decisions of whether to continue involvement in the organization. Every member of all three groups is valuable to the organization.
After a quick review practice of identifying challenges from power between the three groups in nonprofit organizations, we quickly reviewed the characteristics of and the antidotes to white supremacy culture.
In the workshop we asked more than 100 participants to start engaging on identifying the problem based on the premise. We asked:
What are some of the organizational challenges that you've seen or experienced that might have been caused by white supremacy culture?
The discussion was enlightening (and frankly, frightening) in its revelations that the “problem” is so expansive that solutions all seem to address only part of the problem. A few realities quickly became clear:
What leadership actions and antidotes to white supremacy culture could address the challenges?
An organization can only make true progress towards anti-racism when it addresses its shortcomings structurally, procedurally, and culturally. This means bringing on diverse voices at all levels of the organization, ensuring that processes are in place to allow these voices to be heard, and creating a culture that promotes collaboration and values differing perspectives. And, because anti-racism is aligned with effective leadership practice across all three elements we need to recognize the power dynamics and exercise effective leadership to move towards anti-racism.
Successful initiatives typically follow this framework:
The overriding advice from the group was two-fold:
The following resources are extremely valuable in aiding with education and self-reflection:
If you need help finding nonprofit leadership that understands how to move your organization to an anti-racist culture in the nonprofit workspace, please reach out to us. We provide interim Executive Directors and offer nonprofit leadership recruiting services to match organizations with the kind of leadership that understands the fundamental worth of all people.
Dave is the Managing Partner of Valtas Group where his focus is on providing clients the best resources available while working to achieve equity and inclusion for all in the non-profit sector. Over the course of his career, Dave spent over 35 years serving in leadership roles at Special Olympics.
Peter began his career as an educator and foundation program officer focused on access to quality education for students from low-income, working families and empowering them to advocate for systemic change. From there he jumped to the front line of advocacy as Executive Director of the Latino Community Fund of Washington (LCF) & Progreso: Latino Progress, after several years as founder and past board roles. To round out his experience and impact in the community, Peter moved to the public sector to focus on economic equity and justice by supporting neighborhood business districts in BIPOC communities.
Peter is passionate about advancing racial equity and addressing climate change through movement building of BIPOC communities for systemic change. He is also dedicated to moving the nonprofit sector to improve their internal organizational cultures to match the values of their mission and become intentionally anti-racist in practice.
Stephen has served in leadership positions on boards of over a dozen local, regional, and national nonprofit organizations. He has advised scores of other organizations regarding nearly every aspect of nonprofit governance and operations.
An attorney who began his career as a judge advocate and defense lawyer in the U.S. Navy, Stephen is currently a partner at Cascadia Law Group, where he focuses his practice on environmental litigation. He received his B.A. in biology and environmental science from the University of Virginia and his J.D. from the University of Colorado.
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