Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Confronting Our Complicity in Racial Inequity

GEO Guest Post

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

If Monday’s plenary inspired us to dream about GEO’s 2038 vision, the discussion during Tuesday’s lunch snapped us back to the fierce urgency of now. When John Funabiki – a Professor of Journalism at San Francisco State University and Executive Director of Renaissance Journalism and Storytelling Center – interviewed Nikole Hannah-Jones – the award-winning investigative journalist who was named a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant fellow – their conversation challenged all of us to confront our complicity in maintaining racial inequity in these troubling times.

Nikole’s 2016 article about choosing a school for her daughter in New York City’s segregated school district highlighted the systemic factors that keep our nation’s schools separate and unequal. But the article also zeroed in on how the personal choices made by middle-class parents – like Nikole and her husband – reveal that even though people may say they want “equality for all,” their choices indicate that what they really want is advantage for their own children.

Nikole warned that her job was to hold a mirror up and make people uncomfortable, and I wondered how much discomfort people were feeling as she spoke critically about funder-driven education reforms over the past decade. She said that too often funding decisions failed to deal with the root of the problem with public schools: segregation.

With school districts across the country abandoning desegregation initiatives – in the form of bussing programs to take kids to schools outside of their neighborhoods – many schools are just as segregated as they were before the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. In arguing for integration, Nikole said that the goal is not to have white kids and kids of color sitting next to each other in class, as if proximity magically makes kids smarter or better. Integration is a pragmatic strategy for ensuring that white parents and the government invest the same level of resources in schools with kids of color as they do in majority white schools. She reminded us of the lesson learned six decades ago: “separate but equal is not equal.” So for schools to be equal, we can’t keep them separated by race.

Earlier this year, my organization analyzed data from our survey of over 4,000 nonprofit staff about the nonprofit racial leadership gap, paying special attention to the respondents from California in this third report in our Race to Lead series. When we looked at the CEOs in our sample, we realized that half of the leaders of color were running organizations that they categorized as identity-based groups focused on communities of color, whereas two-thirds of white leaders didn’t categorize their organizations as identity-based groups at all. This data suggests that we have segregation in the nonprofit sector too.

While we certainly need to take steps to diversify historically white nonprofit institutions, I also want to affirm the critical role of people of color identity-based organizations. As someone who worked most of my career in identity-based advocacy and organizing groups, I know that those organizations are great places to work, support the leadership development of staff of color, and make critical change in the communities most impacted by systemic and structural racism.

The problem is not that leaders of color work in identity-based organizations, the problem is that those organizations don’t get the same level of investment. Roughly three-quarters of CEOs of color in our sample agreed that organizations led by people of color have a harder time fundraising than similar organizations with white leaders, only a third of white leaders indicated that they were aware of this phenomenon. Separate but equal is not equal.

Note: This blog post is the second of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference blog series. It was first published by Social Velocity and is re-shared here with permission. You can view the original blog here

Leadership leadership development leadership structures and practices race race to lead racial leadership gap structuring leadership