Being the #1 charity won’t end systemic racism

On my drive home from the gym this morning, I spotted a proclamation from the roadside glowing marquee of a nonprofit organization:

“Ranked #1 charity in North Carolina” alongside the Guidestar logo

This organization provides vital services to people experiencing homelessness; who are facing food insecurity; who are under-or-unemployed; who lack access to mental or physical health services.

So, what’s the problem? Why should we not also celebrate the achievement of being recognized as the top charity across the Old North State?

As my friend Atrayus reminded us at the YNPN Triangle NC #NonprofitSTRONG Summit in 2016, on the whole, nonprofit organizations are not achieving their missions. Whether we work to end homelessness, increase access to the voting booth, or close the achievement gap, we’re working in systems that have been intentionally designed to lead to inequities. Therefore, until we address that we’re operating in a flawed framework, we will continue to fail, number one rankings or not.

Each time the conversation, especially in nonprofit circles, turns to tackling systemic issues, the typical positive, optimist outlooks morph into echo chambers of negativity.

“It’s too much.”

“It’s too hard.”

“No one will fund that type of work.”

“(Insert group impacted by nonprofit’s service) needs help now. They don’t have time to wait for us to construct a new infrastructure.”

Each of these pushbacks isn’t wrong, per say. A commitment to systemic change can be too much; it is neither easy work nor work considered sexy by typical funders. Yes, people/animals/communities/natural resources do need champions in the here and now.

When we hear of individuals in other fields — science, business, sports — overcoming seemingly impossible odds, we laud them with accolades. They are our new muses, our latest inspirations. These innovators have defied what we thought possible within our current systems of knowledge and understanding.

Why can’t the nonprofit sector do this too? Why do we let the trope of being undervalued and meek permeate into our assessment of our own capabilities to upend and re-imagine systems? We are committed, passionate individuals whose values extend beyond the individual and to the whole. But, if we refuse to shrug off the restraints we have placed on ourselves — not to mention the ones broader society wraps around our bodies, hearts, and minds — then we will never be able to fully live our values.

Systems are behemoths. They can exist without us even interacting with them. And we allow this cycle to continue, day in, day out. I believe this happens because we either aren’t able or aren’t willing to push pause, really take a close look our systems, and name them for what they are: racistTherefore, systems plus racism equals…

Systemic racism. The folks at Race Forward have fabulous resources on what systemic racism is and how it shows up across a myriad of ways: employment, incarceration rates, education, health outcomes. Here’s one video focused specifically on how systemic racism is connected to wealth.

It doesn’t matter if we’re good people committed to racial equity. It doesn’t matter if we work at a nonprofit with a fabulous mission. We need to continue to do both of this AND actively disrupt systemic racism.

How do we start?

  1. Learn the definitions. What is race? What is racism? Is it the same as prejudice or discrimination? Community-based organizations like Dismantling Racism offers answers and more free resources.
  2. Explore how systemic racism shows up in your life, work, and community. Tap into an existing organization or network to get started.
  3. Learn more about systemic racism. Check out Podcasts like “Pod Save The People” . Read books like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, “Stamped From The Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi or any on lists provided by Internet-favorites Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. Attend a training or workshop. Talk with friends who have to a training or workshop.

Baby steps, yes. Every day, we have to take at least one step. What is your step today? What will be your step tomorrow?

Plod forward. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. But it’s way to truly achieve what we all believe in.

Instead of charity rankings, we’ll be able to close our doors. Nonprofits shouldn’t have to exist. We fill holes, gaps, flaws in our systems.

Let’s go to work.

Catalyst for commitment

Major observances, such as birthdays and holidays, often provide the catalyst for commitment, at least in my experience.

Last week, I celebrated with family and friends, near and far, the “achievement” of completing around rotation around the sun. I argue that luck and privilege served as the two driving forces behind that achievement. Still, I won’t squander the opportunity to give gratitude for more time to give and receive love; to build community; to learn; to fail; and to fight for a more just, equitable world [dismantling racism, white folks. Let’s name it.]

A re-branding of this blog seemed in order as I have (for the nth time) reaffirmed that I want to be a writer. And I want to be a good writer. Such ambition requires continual practice, reflection, and refinement. As a budding pianist, I recall drawn out fights with my parents, particularly my mother, when it came to carving out time for the dreaded “p” word. My seven-year-old entitled self truly believed that I could merely show up to each lesson and have improved by the grace of the Almighty without tickling a single ivory over the previous seven days.

I’m a tad ashamed to admit this, but this attitude followed me through much of my younger life. In 4th grade, I joined our elementary school concert band as a clarinetist. Again, I chalked up practicing as something other people did. That’s not to say that I never practiced throughout my  brief musical career. In high school, as I picked up the saxophone and melaphone, I recognized a need for me to spend time building my embouchure, finding the right pitch, and running through the various scales.

But how much better could I have been! (she types with regret)

This older (and much wiser) version of Katie recognizes and embraces commitment and persistence to a degree that younger Katie couldn’t fathom. However, I still find opportunities to derail myself in pursuit of how I want to be spending the limited resource of time.

Who do I want to be? When people look at my life, what would they say? While I’m not *quite* ready to write my obituary (a very uncomfortable exercise I experienced last year), I want to end the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors that keep me from growing into my desired identities.  What I want to be requires work. I could continue to show up. I could continue to coast. But, why? And how would that reflect my core values? Short answer: it wouldn’t.

Passion. Bliss. Contentment. These outcomes thrive in settings when your actions align with your values, personal mission, and vision. I’ve spent the last few months (ok, let’s be real, the last 20+ years) defining and re-defining each of those based on new information received, relationships gained and lost, and experiences processed. I hope that I maintain a growth and stretch mindset when it comes to self-awareness and self-assessment. In order to be the type of person that I want to be — for you and for the rest of the world — I must continue to check my assumptions, my bias, and my adherence to positions.

As of May 28, 2018, I want to work toward being a person who is known as:

  1. A trusted, honest, and loving wife/friend/family member.
  2. A person committed to antiracist work in all aspects of life.
  3. A writer who avoids wasting your time or her breath.
  4. A student hungry for knowledge.
  5. A future farmer who wants to cultivate a healthier, more sustainable natural world.
  6. A leader who is unabashedly relentless in demanding respect and justice and who can throw her head back and laugh loudly without apologizing.

The mindfulness practice that I started six months ago has created the mental space for me to explore each of these six areas to various degrees. Now, with more mindful prioritizing of my time, I look forward to improving upon each of these hats, one day at a time.

Today is day one.

That moment during ‘Waitress’ where I wanted to stand up and scream

Not the typical response during a Broadway musical, perhaps. Especially one built on the bubbly, emotional-fueled songs of Sara Bareilles. But, it wasn’t Sara’s fault that I felt compelled to stop the show and decry the scene unfolding on the stage.

If anyone needs to be blamed, then I will point a finger at the original book’s author, Jessie Nelson. Although I don’t like to blame others. It’s counter productive.  Instead, let me offer an open letter (are those still a thing??) to the writer about what bubbled up inside me at the pivotal scene in the musical:

Dear Jessie,

Former NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano said: “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.”

Adopting that approach to evaluating a day, I can proudly share that I had a heck of a day yesterday thanks to seeing the traveling production of Waitress. However, I also experienced a level of frustration that left a stain on my memory of the show. It has to do with this:

Waitress2

Jenna is a woman who has clearly endured years of pain and suffering due to an abusive relationship. She is a dedicated friend and employee; she creates and shares willingly. She is not perfect; she perseveres yet doesn’t allow herself to achieve actual happiness.

But then she has her baby and EVERYTHING IS SUNSHINE AND ROSES. She has the courage to leave Earl and start her own business. She reclaims her self-worth and finds her entrepreneurial chops. Obviously, she shares this newfound realization in a musical number dubbed ‘Everything Changes’ where Jenna sings:

“Today’s a day like any other
But I’m changed, I am a mother
Oh, in an instant
And who I was has disappeared
It doesn’t matter, now you’re here
So innocent
I was lost
For you to find
And now I’m yours, and you are mine.”

I do not doubt that such a moment could have such a profound impact on someone’s perspective and life. Yet, as an audience member struggling with infertility, it felt like a reinforcement that achieving motherhood is the ultimate quest. My life remains in gray until that moment of bringing a life into this world. If my life was a mess prior to this moment, then it will be magically scrubbed anew. 

If that is the measuring stick we’re using for women like Jenna, that such troubled lives can be turned around completely after taking on the role of mom, what does that mean for those of us who cannot — or don’t want to — take that journey? It reminds me of my former high school students, many of whom actively sought getting pregnant in order to create something to love — and something to love them — in their lives. 

While I applaud Jenna’s metamorphosis, I do wish that it didn’t have to be fully centered on becoming a mother. Because that makes me feel sad, inadequate, and worried that I don’t ever fully realize my best self if I can’t become a mother. Will I be able to experience that type of love and empathy? Will I ever feel that overwhelming sense of joy that I have watched play out in film, TV, books, and now a musical?

I know you can’t answer my questions, Jessie. But thanks for listening.

Sincerely,

Katie