Nonprofits and Foundations Are Unintentionally Promoting Racism: Here’s How to Stop
Leaders of the Bridge and the Communications Network
It took a wide range of viewpoints to decide on the best cover for an issue of Change Agent devoted to racism.
Remember when the term "post-racial" could be uttered in a serious conversation without eliciting a guffaw or cynical eyeroll? Of course you can because it wasn’t that long ago.
America — with the election of a black president — seemed so eager to put racism in the rearview mirror, believing we had landed in a new, utopian space where matters of racial identity would be less important.
The fact is, we cannot easily or perhaps ever fully outrun this issue unless we embrace a hard truth: Racism and its impact are bright, red throbbing tributaries in America’s body politic.
It is not a malady that swoops down on our country like a bad cold or an ill wind. It is part of the bones and the architecture of our country and has been since America’s inception.
Confronting this hard truth and, more important, reducing the effects of racism and inequality require that we at foundations and nonprofits address institutional barriers throughout society. It also requires introspection — from those in leadership positions, especially — to acknowledge and understand the roots and reality of interpersonal intolerance and division.
It often seems like America has shifted from a period of post-racial hubris to a state of racial fatigue, with so many people asking why the issue is so important, explosive, or seemingly intractable. But this is a big country, and it is clear that a lot of people are also longing for connection, healing, and honest dialogue.
The nonprofit world is focused, in theory, on a shared set of values: community, diversity, justice, integrity, equity. If we want to live up to and live out those values, racism needs to be something we acknowledge so that we may do our part to recognize, resist, and dismantle it.
Foundations and nonprofits wield tremendous influence.
Our messages influence worldviews. Our language can help shape policy.
That’s why it’s easy to cause unintended harm if foundations and nonprofits are not vigilant about seeing their own blind spots on systemic and structural racism and privilege.
Building a diverse and inclusive work force that brings more viewpoints and voices to the table is a significant piece of this work. But it’s critical that foundations and nonprofits are also mindful about how they communicate.
Those who head nonprofits and foundations or lead their communications have considerable authority in deciding who gets the mic, which conversations take place (and with whom), and what narratives are pushed forward — or pushed aside.
Our words carry currency. How we talk about it matters. The imagery we use, whom we listen to, whom we invite to sit at the table, and whom we’re talking to (or aren’t) can help perpetuate racist systems. Or it can begin to break them down.
So what do we do? How do we ensure we’re on the right side of history? It starts with having honest conversations with ourselves, first and foremost.
The Bridge at the Aspen Institute, which is supported by the award-winning Race Card Project, seeks to create spaces for people to engage in authentic conversations on and across race, culture, and identity. The Communications Network, a community of nonprofit and foundation communications professionals spanning the globe, is doing research right now on how to incorporate the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion into the practice of communications for good. As the leaders of these organizations, we realized there was no time like the present to act.
So we were inspired to collaborate and dedicate the latest issue of Change Agent (the Communications Network’s journal) to racism and examining how it can be seen in so many parts of the nonprofit world. Nearing the completion of the issue, we fell into the very traps we were seeking to illuminate.
Our design partners came to us with an extraordinary image of a young black man draped in the American flag, staring at the camera with confidence and purpose. The team at the Communications Network was captivated by the image. It seemed a powerful representation of some of the ideas we wanted to communicate.
But that cover image never graced the magazine.
Our partnership allowed us to examine that issue through several sets of eyes, and we did not all see the same thing. Some on the team thought the image, while provocative, aligned with well-worn tropes and could misrepresent the broader story we were trying to tell. Worse, it could conjure up negative, harmful, racist narratives that black men were objects of fear or willing agents of confrontation.
The subject matter was race, so it was not that we wanted to sidestep something edgy. But placing a sole image of a black man on the cover painted too narrow a picture. Examining racism requires assessing its impact and inclination across several races. When we talk about race, too often we turn to people of color, particularly black people, to serve as experts or examples of the impact of bias. True introspection requires a 360-degree view to examine the people who harbor bias (even unknowingly) and those who are harmed by it.
There was another reason a single image did not seem quite right. We wanted to expand the way people think about race and identity. So often discussions about race are binary — straddled across a black-white divide while failing to fully acknowledge America’s variegated racial and ethnic composition. Throughout the publication, we wanted people to confront new ideas but also see something of themselves.
We made sure a diverse set of eyes, ears, and experiences were in the room and making decisions at every turn in the production process. When communicators fail to do that, phrases like "poverty program" become harmful and inaccurate shorthand for black or brown families in urban America. Or "working class" turns into shorthand for "white."
Our work was stronger because we brought the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion into our process. The use of the word "practice" there is intentional, meaning "the actual application or use of an idea or belief, as opposed to theories relating to it."
It’s important to create space for divergent opinions to be expressed, heard, and incorporated into our work.
We know that building practices that lead to these conversations isn’t easy. But it is necessary.
To be clear, race is something worth celebrating. Race and identity are connected to every issue and every person. It’s racism — the stereotypes, discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice — that we’re struggling with.
It’s hard to acknowledge our own shortcomings. But it’s important we do so, because every philanthropic and nonprofit organization has an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility to do better.
If you’re also looking for a place to start, we humbly offer the final product of our collaboration: Change Agent, which was distributed in print earlier this year to members of the Communications Network and is now available digitally to all.
Inside you’ll find candid examples of people who are grappling with this issue, like the staff at the Center for Health Progress in Colorado. After realizing that the all-white staff and board were unintentionally causing harm with their messaging and communications practices, they committed to a radical transformation.
That meant changing who served on the staff and board, rewriting internal policies to eliminate biased requirements, scheduling recurring equity-focused meetings, committing to multilingual communications, and even changing the name of the organization.
Also, National Geographic’s editor in chief, Susan Goldberg, reflects on how to acknowledge an institution’s troubled history. The Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker and the Raikes Foundation’s Jeff Raikes discuss why "colorblindness" isn’t acceptable. Journalist Maria Hinojosa demonstrates the value of inclusive language.
BMe Community CEO Trabian Shorters explains how defining black Americans by their obstacles (instead of their successes), a widespread practice in philanthropic communications, actually perpetuates the inequality philanthropy seeks to solve — echoing the warning Martin Luther King issued not long before he was killed: "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."
Talking — and listening — to one another is the first step toward the solution. Deep and honest introspection is an important second step. Where are the blind spots? Does the staffing at the organization reflect its mission? Do the people who work at foundations or affiliated organizations come directly from the communities they serve, or at least spend time in them? Is the environment truly diverse in terms of religious beliefs, social class, military service, sexual orientation, disability, or experience?
Confronting our own contributions to racism and privilege takes vigilance, curiosity, courage, and kindness. It’s a journey. One we’re all walking together.
Foundations and nonprofits need to do more. To do better. To be better.
As the current climate should illuminate clearly, we haven’t been doing enough.
Michele Norris is founder of the Race Card Project and executive director of the Bridge, the Aspen Institute’s program on race, identity, connectivity and inclusion, and Sean Gibbons is CEO of the Communications Network.