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The Non- Profit Industrial Complex

  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the woman of colour in the organization?

  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the organization?

  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the community sector at large?

Looking back at the experiences I've had working in for and non profit companies I've come to realize it wasn't me. Last week I had a conversation with a colleague about why I structured BIPOC STAHC as a horizontal agency. We discussed our similar experiences working for and within white agencies, this does not mean that there are not folks of color leading these orgs, it just is a term I will use here for organizations that operate under historically systematically structured white agency. As our discussion progressed it occured to me that it wasn't me and when I finally made the decision 10 years ago to stop working for agencies that are not only hierarchical but operate with white agency infrastructures it was my intuition guiding that decision due to the many hurtful and painful experiences I had experienced trying to climb 'the ladder of white success.' After our conversation she sent me this model and it hit home. I wanted to explore these ideas in more depth from my own personal point of view.

When women of color enter into a binding commitment to serve as tokens or just accept a job position, they are usually accepting the job because it will not only better their lives but the lives of their communities, which is a very different perspective from which eurocentric folks accept positions in organizations. You see, more times than not, women of color are coming more from the concept of being leaders in their communities and have experienced way more outsider moments than their white counterparts. As for me this was the case. It took a great deal of effort and struggle for me to attain my degrees and I knew when I was aiming for graduation that with those two pieces of certification (my BA and MA) I thought I would be able to situate myself in a position within companies in which I could enact change. At the time of entering the job market I was delusional about the direct effect my race identity as an african american women would play. I was eager to be 'the change' I wanted to see in the world not recognizing that that change was not in alignment with my white colleague counterparts. It took me decades to understand what I thought it was that 'I was doing wrong.' Until, one day I woke and said, 'I can't do this anymore.' I started to unpack what that really meant for me. That took another decade as I plugged along in trying to start my own business working part time for others and part time for myself.

It wasn't until I was able to launch full time into working for myself that it occured to me, 'all along I thought it was me.' Which, now looking back I realize that there was actually nothing 'wrong,' with me and that it was the actual structure in which I had been operating that was the problem. As I started to unpack my experiences I started to gain more confidence not only in myself but in my abilities to recognize these traps. The stronger I became in my own skin and ability to be able to understand that race dynamics are front and center in every company in America, the more I could see that it never mattered 'what' I did only that I 'existed.' So what is this 'not me?' thing that I am talking about?

First, lets look at the the first question in detail:

  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the woman of colour in the organization?

My first real position after obtaining my Masters degree in Organizational Systems Renewal was as a Youth Leaders of Promise Coordinator. At the time I couldn't believe that they even gave me the job but soon after realized that as the only person of color on the team that the decision to hire me had a lot to do with me being black, even though I couldn't see it at first. I thought that it was my skill set or that I could 'speak white' or maybe 'the way I carried myself.' For the first year I was a force to be reckoned with shifting agency and working statewide with high school principals to build teenage leaders within their high schools. I was eager to 'do my part.' I was passionate about seeking out underrepresented youth and launching them into their ideal careers as leaders in their fields. There was a sort of happiness that came when I saw a youth have a light bulb moment around realizing that they too had the power to change the world and become a leader. The position was one I was so passionate about and deeply found gratification for.

It wasn't until I started to question the agency in which I was working about the impacts of having only one person of color on staff that my problems started to arise. After a year I started to feel unheard and silenced by many in the organization even though in side conversations I felt that they understood my plight. But in ur main group staff meetings Iwas being targeted and judged for having 'the other position' in terms of identity politics. I felt like a guinea pig, as if being tested on and forced to 'just go with the flow,' which went against everything I believed not only for the youth I was serving but for the community that I had come from. It was like I had too much power, too much agency and that was not why they hired me. Towards the end of that position I started to realize that I was hired to 'fill' a gap, that the agency had not been able to garner. To be able to attain grants and 'look like' they were catering to communities of color, I was hired as a token. When I started to push back on that concept is when all my challenges within that organization started. At the time I had not even known that that was what I was doing. I had thought I was just trying to 'fix the problem,' by asking critical questions, but those were not the questions anyone there truly wanted to tackle or internalize. Because, asking the question of why you are aloud to do certain things and hold certain power but not act on those ideals was a definite no no.

When this happened to me it made me feel small and insignificant. I felt targeted and judged for trying to make the organization stronger by trying to get additional folks of color on the staff. This was not the original intention of my hire, and my colleagues could not understand why that was so important to me. They had each other to confide in where as I was all alone in my thinking, and isolated as a person of color in a very white organization. Looking back now I can see that of course the next move was that I would turn it around on myself thinking that it was me,' not them who had the problem because I had no other person of color to bounce my experiences in that organization off of. At the point in which I felt so entirely isolated is when I decided to leave and search for employment elsewhere not recognizing that I would encounter the same experience on a different level.

As a woman of color - lets unpack THAT for a minute.

  1. first - as a woman - our current models for leadership are in fields that are still women led, yet that IS changing and there are women in charge of multinational organizations. But voice is still a problem as most of these women leaders must 'act' like men in order to succeed and not given the opportunity to lead as women.

  2. second - as a women OF COLOR - the same holds true except that even our white female counterparts hold no intention around allowing us to just be ourselves. The expectations of our heritage 'should be left at the door.' and if you bring your heritage it must 'be watered down' into containers that are easily refined and accepted in the workplace.

And as a Strong Woman of Color I was expected to NOT think too much, just BE PRESENT, which to me means 'we want your skin color but we do not want your radical thinking ways, ok, so leave those at the door, because change will not come from you and we will not accept you as you are.'

This underlying assumption plays out in every organization in America whether white folks think it does or not. And the time has come to truly address these assumptions of color identity. I for one have yet to witness an organization, even ones led by all folks of color that do not operate from this lens especially towards African American women. What we must understand is that not only is this detrimental to the growth of our character but it is a dismantling of our own self perception as a woman of color. To lead should not mean that I must walk in the skin of a masculine way of making decisions or politics. To lead should mean that I can bring my empathy, my imperfect self, and/ or my strong sense of self to the table in a way that does not diminish YOUR identity. To be me should not reflect on your ability to be you. There must be equal reciprocity around identity politics in the work place and I for one believe that starts with truly understanding and breaking down the silence and assumptions around these ideals. If we as an American Culture are unable to bring empathy and true passionate listening to the work place how then are we ever going to be able to have these conversations to be able to eradicate the concept of 'better than, less than' scenarios?

Now, lets take a closer look at the second question:

  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the organization?

First and foremost, what these organizations and companies do not recognize is that the impact not only to the organization is grave but also to our entire communities as a whole. In a country with every nationality and skin color and identity under the sun, it is no longer acceptable that organizations seek out people of color to hire just for the sake of hiring us. It is no longer acceptable to just say you can check off a box and 'count' us in your ledger as 'doing your due diligence' for numbers sake. This country has moved pass affirmative action on so many levels yet we are still stuck in a affirmative action mind set. Yes, affirmative action is still needed but for me it is also based on the qualifications in which I am able to attain my own inherent better self.

When our companies force people into being what they are not, we are forcing people to shed their very own identity and come to the work place as a mere shell of themselves and NOT their entire being. This is unacceptable to me and should be for all of America. I ask the critical questions:

1. What is the purpose of work?

2. What are we training our youth to be? and Why?

There must be a larger perspective here or our country will continue to falter against other developing and developed nations. If democracy does not stand for all, including acceptance of who a person is, comes from and operates, than what truly IS the point of building anything in this country? If we are not focused on bettering ALL of America (white kids included) as a nation of empathetic beings, able to critically think on its own, and love 'intentionally,' than what is the point of work? What IS the point of product production? What is the point of any of it, if NOT to make better human beings on this planet that not only respect, but listen and truly hear each other in order to be able to make decisions and policy that truly affect us all?

This leads me to the last question:

  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the community sector at large?

Many folks of color, especially those in leadership positions are starting to either leave the corporate and non profit sectors to start their own companies, me included, not because we can't work there, but because we are not honored there. And I for one have a difficult time NOT being me wherever I go. For me, I will speak personally, my heart is huge, my determination great and my skill set vast. I can do any position I put my mind to and be a massive positive force for any organization I choose...and that'[s the key phrase there, 'I choose.' But many of my fellow folks of color do not have a choice and do not have 'that piece of paper,' that allows them to just get any position they want. For them I also write this article. The impact of this dynamic on my community is that many are left behind without a voice, without a heart to 'make it,' and that to me is the saddest part of all, especially if the goal of America is to become and embody a democratic society. There are some that would say we are not a democracy and we never were, and to those I is more about the striving to be than whether we are, and that it is all an experiment anyways. So, if that is the case might it be possible to dream much larger than we are dreaming and envision a possibility that ACTUALLY encompasses not just all folks of color but all beings into this ideal or practice in democracy? For the impacts ARE vast and wide and the above situations if not tended to will continue to divide us instead of bridge us. It is my hope that the majority of the country would like to see more love, honesty and acceptance not only in the work place but from the gate keepers who may have a hard time being visionaries because they are tasked with keeping us till or out. To you I say, 'being human is an exercise in consciousness, not just rules and regulations.'

Dream a better world. Don't be afraid. Be Fierce. You got this! Be inspired...For that is what I am aiming for.

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