Dani Robbins

Options and Opportunities for White Social Justice Leaders

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on February 24, 2021 at 1:30 pm

I’m writing this piece as the first step in a conversation that’s been long in coming. I’d like to talk about what the role is or should be of white social justice leaders right now.

There have been calls for white leaders to step aside and internal (possibly unspoken) consideration that maybe we should. Many of my peers, clients, students, and friends are trying to figure out if they’re in the right spot or if the spots to which they aspire are no longer appropriate for them to ascend. Each leader must answer that for themselves.

What is the right way to honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing?

I would like to offer some food for thought while you’re still in the leadership chair as you contemplate your next move.

We can change both the systems we impact AND the ways we lead. We can change the opinions and minds of other white leaders. We can change ourselves!

If you have spent your whole career, as many of us have, trying to advance social justice and working towards racial equity, continuing on or continuing to apply or aspire to apply for the role of a leader of a social justice agency is complicated.

We have a role to play in changing the landscape of leadership by including new and diverse voices in our quest to achieve social justice.

I’ve heard the questions: “Should we step aside to create space for a person of color to ascend into leadership?” “Should we not apply at all to make space for a leader of color?”

While this sounds and is dramatically ma/paternalistic, is it in service to a larger mission? It may or may not be. Individuals have to determine for themselves what their personal sacrifice might be.

While we’re thinking about these large existential questions, our Boards may not be. The million-dollar question right now is “if we do step aside, will the board just hire a different white leader that may know less about justice, equity, the mission and leadership than we do?” If history is any guide, they likely will.

We know, and there’s certainly enough evidence to support, that white leaders get more resources, get hired more often, get paid more, stay longer, and get more grace when they make a mistake.

If we don’t want to be a part of perpetuating inequity, and we don’t, then we must consider our role. A not insignificant number of white leaders have a lot of experience, significant education, a huge network, and have earned respect across communities.

There are too few good leaders of all races anyway, and we can’t afford to say goodbye to the still majority of them that are white.

Which brings me back to my initial question: What is the role of a white social justice leader right now?

I offer the following ideas for your consideration; they all won’t apply to you, but some of them might. Special thanks to Tasha Booker from City Year Columbus, Tiffany Galvin Green from John Carroll University and John Miller from Boys & Girls Club of America for helping me articulate my thoughts around this issue. You each and all bring light to my life, appreciation to my heart, and depth to my leadership.

These are a starting place as I see it. I encourage you to share other options.

Representation matters

Make sure that you are bringing people into your organization who don’t look like you or look like each other.

Representation is built in a variety of ways; it includes where we recruit, how we hire and who we promote. It’s the Boards we build and the policies and practices we recommend. It’s the values we live, and the cultures of inclusion we craft.

It also means we create processes and outcome measures that can be assessed. Most of us don’t like quotas and also don’t like tokenism; find a way to measure without marginalizing. You will need different metrics to measure awareness, education and transparency. 

To be clear, meeting measurements may not mean you’ve changed the culture. It’s one thing to bring in people of color. It’s another to create a culture that allows them to bring their full selves to work, to be their best selves and do their best work. Retention is a good metric with which to start. 

Representation also means not allowing all white leadership or all white boards. If that happens to be where you find yourself, commit to change. Question the process that got you there. Introduce the need for diversity, educate the group on why diverse groups make better decisions, and why homogeneous groups aren’t representative of the community you (likely) serve. Plant and cultivate the seeds for change.

Talk about and improve systems regarding diversity, equity and inclusion every chance you get.

Celebrate successes and call people in as necessary; commit to creating space for alternative opinions and alternative voices. Commit to not only inviting people to the table but making sure they are embraced and made to feel as if they belong. Also commit to being uncomfortable and to holding others accountable when they’re out of line.

The goal is awareness, understanding and appreciation. You may need to create cultural competency even as you’re changing the cultural make up and landscape. Agencies can’t diversify without changing the cultural cues and raising the competency to understand what different looks like.

Commit to improve the policies and practices at your organization to embrace people from all groups and eliminate the ones that alienate, or worse, discriminate. Critique all with an eye toward potential harm and then (work with the Board to) change what does not meet your new standards.

Differentiate between feeling intimidated and being intimidated

You may feel intimidated in the new more inclusive culture you’ve established, but that may have nothing to do with the actions of other people. Learn to discern the difference between feeling intimated and being intimidated.

Impact your sphere

Take a look at everything in your sphere of influence where you can affect change.

  • How is your organization investing their resources?
  • What are your hiring practices?
  • Where are you advertising your open positions?
    • If only white people apply, what do you do next?  (hint: shoulder shrugging is not the right answer; changing where you’re advertising might be.)
  • Who are you grooming for leadership?
  • Who is in your succession?

If you don’t like what you see, change it.

Send the elevator back down

We are all standing on other people’s shoulders. Make sure there are people who don’t look like you standing on yours. Create opportunities for leaders and potential leaders of color to grow and to learn, to safely make mistakes, and to step into their power.

Normalize and invite feedback

If someone calls you out, consider your role in whatever you’ve been accused of and commit to do better. None of us are going to get this right all the time. We have to be gracious enough to realize that and to welcome opportunities to learn.

Create mechanisms and space for feedback- in whatever form it’s offered.  Everyone comes to the table from the personal perspective of their own safety. It’s the leader’s job to create a culture of safety.

Some mechanism will have to be built; we can create the polices, practice and history that demonstrate our ability to hear, accept and integrate feedback and create trust.

Amplify leaders of color whenever possible.

We can amplify others’ voice. Compliment leaders publicly and provide opportunities for them privately. We can reinforce their statements, while giving them credit for making them. We can be an ally and an accomplice to their success. This is true of our colleagues in the community, our peers in the organization and also our team members.

For our teams, I’m going to dip back to the ma/paternalistic for a minute, and we have to, because white leaders are still the majority of leaders.

We can advocate for leadership projects and provide real ongoing feedback. We can position our up-and-coming or current leaders of colors to be in a place to receive public compliments. We can identify them privately with other (hopefully not all white) leaders, provide opportunities for them to take on projects to create a profile for them to publicly represent the organization.

We can find a way to put people of color in situations where they can shine which also advances the mission, and the work of justice.

Avoid performative statements and insist on action

A commitment to diversity is great but only if it moves the action forward. Commitment must be supported by action. It can’t just be on paper and then we all go along the way we always have. If you want change, you have to change.

Consider your place and your role

The questions where we began are tough, and so are you.

Yes, you should probably apply. The hiring decision isn’t yours to make. If you get the job, know that you have an obligation.

You have an obligation to develop every person on your team to become their very best, to be prepared for whatever role they aspire to next, to step into their power and away from feeling like they’re not worthy. You should push and support them in considering roles you see they’re capable of, even if they don’t.

If you are stepping down and you’ve developed your team, encourage them to apply and cheerlead for them to be hired. Consider also keeping an eye out for jobs outside of your organization. Social justice is advanced when we work together as a community to affect change.

Change management requires change in leaders as well.

It’s not enough to change the organization. We have to change ourselves.

It’s much easier to defend our values than to live up to them.

Let’s live up to them. If all we have are words and war, let’s talk. Let’s hold up, mentor and create opportunities for the leaders our communities need. Let’s be the change and let’s develop it in others as well.

This is the way we honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing.

A New Day Dawns

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, nonprofit executives on November 25, 2020 at 9:53 am

Four very long years ago I wrote the article Just Don’t after Trump was elected. Since then, those of us who work for and believe in justice have endured four very long years.

Four years of hate, pettiness and meanness.

Four years of seeing our stature in the world reduced, and our friendships with dictators and autocrats increased.

Four years of the dismantling of sacred institutions and the embracing of white supremacy and misogyny.

Four years of demeaning women, minimizing rape victims, and ignoring gender imbalance, other than to exploit it.

Four (more, more encouraged and also more often denied) years of racial and ethnic injustice. Four years of minimizing our fears and embracing those from whom our fears are born.

Four years of the abject denial that there’s a price being paid by the children of those that were brought here against their will and a debt owed.

Four year of turning our backs on immigrants and refugees, despite the fact that almost all of us are the children of immigrants and refugees.

Four years of embracing the idea that experience doesn’t matter, that science isn’t real, and that news is fake, even when you saw it unfolding yourself.

Four years that allowed a pandemic to rage in the final year with no federal response, no compassion and certainly no plan.

Four years of screaming into the wilderness and feeling as if we might lose our democracy, our hope, and maybe even our minds.

Today, a new day dawns.

We have joined together to elect a president who sees us, and a vice president who looks different than any vice president who has come before her. (I cried as I wrote that.)

Together, they are building a cabinet that looks like us, to represent us.

We now can turn our energies to supporting them. We won’t agree with everything they do, and that’s okay. We don’t always agree among ourselves. This is a pluralistic society and if we do our jobs right, it always will be.

We now have the opportunity to focus our energies to move forward the missions we serve, the values we believe and the justice we desire.

Thank you to my brothers and sisters across this country who have used their voice, their bodies and their money to stand up to bullies and to stand against hatred; to stand up for what we believe.

I salute you. I see you. I am grateful for you. Thank you.

Are Your Organization’s Stories Dishonoring the Families You Serve?

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, nonprofit executives, Organizational Development on August 16, 2020 at 1:12 pm

This article, by Dani Robbins, was originally published on Blue Avocado.

Please indulge me the time to paint a picture of the backdrop against which many of us work but don’t often acknowledge. I will then use that backdrop to illustrate the challenge of discussing work that is funded by one group (donors), executed by another group (staff), on behalf of a third group (families) and how that discussion has the potential to harm the people it is intended to help.

We have a problem in this country with the idea of a class system. We like to pretend we don’t have such a system, except for when we want to describe groups, especially groups served by agencies that work for justice. We have a philanthropic class that supports agencies that serve families in lower socioeconomic income groups, or other marginalized groups typically characterized as some version of disadvantaged, living below the poverty level, poor, minority, minoritized, or _____ (insert your favorite pejorative adjective here).

Our boards and our leaders often don’t look like or have the same experiences as the people our agencies serve. The American philanthropic sector is one where, as Burton and Barnes so eloquently put it in “Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Justice,” “often well-intentioned people make decisions for communities they do not come from, may not understand, rarely interact with, and almost never set foot in.”

Let me layer on top of that troubling foundation two theories, and even though you’ve heard of these, you may not be aware they are actual theories, taught in schools and reinforced… everywhere. I’m speaking of the Bootstrap Theory and the Theory of the Deserving Poor and the Undeserving Poor.

The bootstrap theory is baked into our country’s history. It is the foundation of the American Dream: Anyone from anywhere can come to America and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to make a better life.

Is it true that the bootstrap theory is real for many families? Yes! Do I hear some of you yelling at your screens that your grandparents did just that? I hear you and I believe they did. Mine did too. Yet the American Dream is inextricably interwoven with its less appreciated counterpart: privilege. Unfortunately, this term is often taken out of context and inaccurately understood as meaning “freedom from struggle.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every family has struggled, and most people work hard. The distinction of privilege is the breaks you get or don’t get along the way because of things that have nothing to do with you, your dreams, or your abilities, and have everything to do with what other people see and perceive about you. The distinction is the obstacles placed or removed from your path and the chances and choices other people will give you or take away based on things they believe about you that have nothing to do with you at all.

Let’s layer on top of that of this country’s acceptance of the sharp delineation between the “undeserving” poor and the “deserving” poor. That delineation is the basis for much of our public policy. It’s what underlies the decision regarding whether the homeless veteran with a history of addiction and crime gets housing or whether the family who just got evicted because of medical bills does. It’s why we have a shelter and transitional housing system instead of a robust and available permanent housing system. It is less expensive to create affordable housing than a three-layer system of shelters, transitional housing, and affordable housing, each layer staffed by paid staff working to move people into permanent housing.

Why don’t we just start with permanent housing? I submit we’re unwilling to defend housing for the long-term homeless addicted veteran over the newly evicted family, even as the Coalition for the Homeless notes, “numerous research studies have consistently confirmed that long-term housing assistance not only successfully reduces homelessness—it is also less expensive than shelter and other institutional care.”

Lest you think that’s all the delineation between the deserving and underserving poor entails, it’s also the idea of creating an extensive (and expensive) bureaucracy to make sure that the poor don’t take advantage of a system ostensibly designed to help them, even though this overladen structure costs multiples more than it would to fund what the people actually need, which we’re still funding in part but with fewer resources and much less dignity. Most services for those in need are set up on the assumption that people cheat. To combat that assumption, we have entire bureaucracies dedicated to make people prove they need assistance. We insist people prostrate themselves to defend their needs and jump through arbitrary hoops to get assistance. I submit a subset of the population will find a way to take advantage of any system that is created. That doesn’t mean we need to build systems that alienate the many to protect against the few. We could, and I believe should, set up systems to mitigate cheating while affirming dignity.

“Deserving” and “undeserving” is about blame. (Cue the bootstrap theory.) The policies that follow in the wake of these two theories set up the families we serve to receive pity but not empathy. Help but not respect. Services but not dignity.

Are there groups who are more deserving and groups who are less? Should that determine who gets services and who doesn’t? Does it impact who gets that house and who doesn’t? As I tell my classes, it always comes down to “What’s the goal?” and “Who decides?”

These two ways of framing the world also set agencies up to tell unflattering stories about the deficits of our families—or worse, exploitive ones to pull at the heartstrings of donors, to make them feel good about their magnanimity while illustrating that donors and recipients are not the same. There are people you can help, but they’re obviously not your people. They’re fundamentally different. There’s them, and there’s us. Us who have worked hard, who deserve where we landed and can now give back to those who… well… didn’t.

It’s an inaccurate story.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating to make a point, I received a letter recently from an organization saying that the children they serve “have no role models in the house.” Does that honor the dignity of their families? Is it even true? It doesn’t, and it’s not.

This letter is not an anomaly: I receive lots of similar letters from a variety of service providers. I might have even written some of them before I understood and could articulate the difference between honoring the families we serve, and not. I bet you have too. Nor is this attitude limited to donor outreach. Many years ago, I received a call from a woman who wanted to bring her kids down to my organization so they could see how “other people” live. I said no. Now you may think I missed an opportunity to engage someone, and you would be right. But I didn’t miss a teachable moment to share that a trip to another community is not a trip to the zoo. (Those might have been the words I used; I’d figured it out by then.)

Taking your kids to see how “other people” (read: not us) live sends a message both to your kids and to the people living in that community. Saying that kids “don’t have good role models” is disrespectful. Many families are doing the best they can for their kids and would be appalled if they saw that letter or met someone who was only there to see how “other people” live.

If you wouldn’t want your families to see what you allow in an appeal letter or what you’d say to a visitor or allow the visitor to do—and that should be one of your lenses—then don’t say it, and don’t do it. Moreover, the chances of such a letter alienating some of your donors (me, for one) is high. We all know that disengaged donors are not going to call us to explain; they’re just going to stop supporting us. After receiving the letter about “role models,” I did call.

If you who are in leadership positions are of a different faith, gender, or race than the majority of the families your agency serves—or if you are joining our sector from the business or government sector—I implore you to tread carefully. We ought never to be perceived as exploiting the people our organizations exist to serve. It’s disrespectful to them; it’s destructive to our agencies.

I invite you to read “How Can Nonprofits Move from Exploitative Storytelling to Justice-Oriented Storytelling?” by Dr. Debra Jenkins. We cannot, we should not—and please join me in saying—we will not exploit our families to engage our donors. It’s not acceptable. It’s not reasonable. It’s not necessary. It complicates our ability as social justice and nonprofit leaders to honor the people in our community and their lives. It is critically important that the messaging you use does not reinforce either the bootstrap theory or the theory of the deserving and the undeserving poor.

Finally, I will share that I worry that our focus on donors sometimes comes at the expense of our families. That’s not the intent, but it may be the result. Our agencies do not exist to serve donors. We should embrace our donors and invite them to partner with us to make our communities better, but we can never forget that nonprofits exist to improve our communities. The mission and those we serve must always be our primary focus.

Those of us who work for social justice can never contribute to the narrative that there are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. We cannot reinforce the bootstrap theory. We can talk with our donors about the difference between theory and reality and about how to build on the assets our communities already have. We can hold those assets up as being worthy and deserving. To do anything less is unjust. We must tell stories that honor the dignity of our families and embrace our donors, as we work together toward creating a more equitable and just world for all.

What’s your experience with deficit or asset based story telling? What would you add, or delete? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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