As part of the research for BMP’s recently released On the Frontlines: Nonprofits Led by People of Color Confront COVID-19 and Structural Racism, we conducted several interviews with leaders of nonprofit organizations based in New Mexico. Given our long-standing relationships with groups in the state and the particular impacts of COVID-19 and the uprisings against anti-Black racism there, BMP hosted a webinar with a panel of three local leaders: Johana Bencomo (NM CAFé), Henry Brutus (La Casa, Inc.), and Angel Charley (Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women).
The discussion was honest, forceful, and the panelists shared that the report validated their experiences as leaders of color. Angel noted that the data presented in the report is now readily available for leaders when they need to have difficult conversations with funders and stakeholders about race and systemic inequity. Johana shared that the report elicited an emotional response for her, and that while it made her feel seen, it also brought about a sense of sadness. She uplifted the work of the leaders mentioned in the report who are innovative, caring, and resilient, but she also questioned the idea of resiliency as a positive trait. She called upon us to consider the systems that force people to suffer and become resilient. She asked, “How do we ensure that people thrive not in spite of barriers, but because there aren’t any? How can we make sure that people thrive without being forced to be resilient?” Henry continued this line of thinking and questioned, “Why do people of color always have to be the resilient ones?”
We have included more takeaways below.
Meeting the needs of staff
The panelists emphasized the importance of meeting the needs of their staff and how self-care and community-care are vital to sustaining their efforts. Henry noted that this means being sympathetic and recognizing that if staff members are “not whole and well, then they can’t do the work.” Johana echoed this and added that taking care of staff needs will look different from organization to organization. “Implementing blanket policies won’t work,” she said, “We need policies that are geared to our staff needs.” Angel highlighted how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting tribal communities, and how it is uniquely challenging for nonprofit staff in New Mexico to continue their work. “It’s not just on the community level, COVID is in each and every one of our families. Everyone has had someone with COVID. Staff have lost family members,” she shared, uplifting the need for physical and mental health care services for staff.
Supporting leaders of color
The panelists identified many ways that the nonprofit sector and philanthropy can support leaders of color, with particular emphasis on how these efforts are even more vital during the pandemic. Angel touched on a variety of points, from enacting policies and practices that center Native voices to ensuring that women of color in leadership have access to opportunities that allow them to thrive as leaders. Regarding DEI efforts, she put it simply: “Find ways to put people of color in leadership positions and then commit to supporting them in those roles.” Johana echoed this commitment and reminded us that leaders of color are “incredibly talented, but also incredibly impacted.” She advocated for a wider application of trauma-informed self-care for leaders of color and uplifted the importance of mentorship opportunities particularly for women of color. Henry added that an integral, and often quite easy, way to support leaders of color is to simply listen to them. Angel and Johana agreed, adding that it may feel like COVID-19 “exposed” systemic failures and inequities, but the reality is that many leaders of color have been confronting these issues for years.
Heading towards a new normal
Looking to the future, Henry lifted up a key theme of the report: there is no returning to normal. He emphasized that “normal” was not working for the majority of folks living in the United States, and that we have an opportunity now to make a world that we want to see. Angel concluded that solutions exist within the communities most impacted by an issue. She called upon the sector to support the organizations, which are predominantly POC-led, that are working with impacted communities so that those solutions can be put into action.