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.