Dani Robbins

Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category

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.

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.

Discretion and Discernment: A Call to Action on Behalf of Our Young People

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Organizational Development on February 24, 2019 at 12:07 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about discernment and discretion in the past few weeks. I’ve been thinking about 9/11, Sandy Hook and Parkland and about the processes we put in place since then. I’ve been mulling what happens in the worst cases and the best cases of our policies being realized.

After Sandy Hook, schools across the country became lockdown facilities, even though Sandy Hook was a locked facility and it didn’t help. We had to do something! Hand wringing, prayers and fear weren’t getting us anywhere and many of us were devastated. Locking the doors was one roadblock we could erect.

After Parkland, many schools put in school resource officers even though Parkland had an officer outside who did nothing AND there’s ample evidence to suggest that the introduction of a school resource officer criminalizes behavior that otherwise would stay at the school level. It’s another roadblock, though I’m not convinced it’s the right roadblock.

We have reporting policies and after 9/11 have “see something say something” policies. We need those policies. We also need discretion and discernment in assessing the information that gets reported.

In an era when we have police officers being dispatched because there’s a random black person in someone’s neighborhood or a college student asleep in the common room of his own dorm, we have to have a conversation about discretion and discernment.

Sensitive content warning:

Many years ago, when I ran a program for school age youth in Texas, I had a young staff member who heard the youngest of three boys in a family use the word blowjob. She immediately decided that that meant that kid was being sexually abused at home and she called Children’s Services.

This is one of those (countless) incidences when where you sit determines where you stand. She was young, right out of college and new to the field. Would a more experienced staff member have read the situation the same way? Would you have?

What happened when Children’s Services showed up at that family’s door? Does a kid with two older brothers using the word blowjob automatically indicate sexual abuse? How could that family prove the absence of child sexual abuse? Children’s Services had to make that call. They have processes in place to help them to do so. It’s an impossible position.

The law requires staff that work with youth be mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect. We have to report and we should!

But there should also be some discretion on the part of the person who takes the call of asking follow-up questions before they deploy resources.

This is hard. I don’t harbor any illusions that this is not hard. How do you decide from a phone call what’s really a threat and what is not? How do you decide who is in danger or who just has older siblings or was allowed to watch a show that perhaps he shouldn’t have been?

After that incident we added an addendum to our reporting policy that employees should speak with a supervisor before they made such a call. That policy (and the law) was very clear that the final decision was still the employee’s and we would never stop an employee for making that call but we did want to have a conversation around discernment.

Every time we deploy police officers, children service workers or security staff, we disengage the people whom they’re questioning. We put those people in the position of defending themselves, sometimes rightly; sometimes not.

We know that once the door opens to the criminal justice system, it can be a one-way door – especially for families that are already living on the edge.

How do we not get to that door for people who don’t need to walk through it? How do we protect the kids we are entrusted to serve, and hold accountable the people who are trying to hurt them? How do we respect the dignity of visitors and not feed the racism or fear of those who want to decide who “belongs?”

How do we protect our young people – and everyone – by putting in place the right policies to keep us safe, while also protecting people’s dignity and right to be heard? How do we not create spaces where fear breeds and every stranger is a danger?

We have to figure out how to deploy our resources in the right places, for the right reasons and not further alienate those we are also entrusted to serve. We have to build policies to take into account and discern actual harm from rumor, speculation, racism, implicit and explicit bias.

I understand and support the need for locked schools. I believe in roadblocks. We can never 100% protect against a threat but we can put as many roadblocks in place as possible. I support policies that keep people safe.  But I’ve also seen too many incidences of leaders hiding behind a policy that made something worse in an uneducated attempt to respond.

We’re the grown ups and the leaders. We decide what’s safe for our community’s children and what’s not. We decide what’s a reasonable policy and what’s rife for abuse. We assess what will protect us and what will get in the way.  Let’s have the policies, but, please, let’s also have a conversation around discretion and discernment. 

What are your ideas to introduce discretion and discernment?  Have you been successful in your community? What’s your experience creating policies that protect and also discern?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

What Can You and Your Nonprofit Do in These Uncertain Times?

In Advocacy, Leadership on August 16, 2018 at 8:04 am

I have been watching and worrying, wringing my hands, furiously reading and posting articles, vacillating between being terrified and sick to my stomach, and occasionally screaming about the current status of our country’s leadership and the crash course we seem to be on toward becoming all of our worst fears. As that is only so productive for so long, I am electing to make a list of things I can do, and our field can do, to affect change. I invite you to join me.

Give

I can give to a cause I believe is working for justice. I am already a member of the ACLU and both of my local NPR stations (why we have two is a post for another time, and another blogger) After reading How to Make Fun of Nazis about a town in Germany in which people pledge to donate to social justice for every step made by neo-Nazis, I made a donation to one of my favorite charities.  After the Kavenaugh hearings, I sent money to a rape crisis center. Today, the morning after the Tree Of Life massacre, I sent money to the Democratic house candidate in my district.

Nonprofits, you can promote your work addressing these issues.  You can engage donors to rally around you. You can engage people to fight hatred in all forms. You can protect your clients, members and community. You can solicit donations to execute (the non candidate related suggestions) listed below, assuming they are aligned with your mission and in concert with your programming and your Board. If not, I encourage you to support your partner agencies in doing so.

Call

I can call my elected officials.  I (personally) have called Senator Portman’s office so often, I’m on a first name basis with some of the staff. (Hi Eric and Kevin!) If you’re going to call, be clear on what you want. Is it that a vote should be put off, or an FBI investigation be requested? Is it to vote no? Is it impeachment?  Is it that protestors should not be allowed to carry guns? Is it to enhance prayer with action and legislation? Is it to protect and defend minority groups? Statements are nice but legislative or judicial action is the only way we’re going to ensure our values are upheld. While it’s true that our personal values aren’t all the same, our country’s values are pretty clear; even as we haven’t always or often lived up the them. This is one more opportunity to be who we wish we were.

Nonprofits, if you’re not already doing so, you can send out posts informing people how to engage elected officials. If you want to encourage a specific view point or recommend a letter be used, depending on the topic, you may have to follow different rules based on your IRS status.  If you’re unsure, check your status before you do.  The rules are different for 501 c 3s and a 501 c 4s.  Both can lobby, but 3s can only do so to a point and cannot support candidates. I also recommend you check with your Board before you set down this path.

Join

I can join together with like-minded partners.  I can join a current group; there are many.  Or I can start my own.  One person is just that. Three is a group. Ten is a coalition. 100 is movement. We can stand together to fight hatred and promote peace.

Nonprofits, we are all stronger together. If there’s a collation you can build or join with your partner agencies to promote an agenda of peace, I encourage you to consider it.  Ten agencies standing together to promote their city as a sanctuary city sends a strong message.  Ten agencies partnering to train people to protect their neighbors does as well.  Again, bring your Board along with you.

Protest

I can, live and in person, go to a protest and put my life and my body on the line to stand up for my beliefs.  It is my right and my choice. Yours, too. The only way to be heard sometimes is to also be seen.

Nonprofits, many of our strongest and oldest agencies were birthed in protest.  You can bus people to marches. You can train them on the law and their rights. You can ensure your clients have a political voice and know how to use it. You can also take out an ad in the local paper, write an op-ed piece or post a letter on your website.

Speak Up and Speak Out

Speak out not only to the elected officials or on your computer, but to your family, friends, and neighbors when they say something disrespectful, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or just plain stupid, wrong or ignorant. Silence is acquiescence. There are no sidelines and, no (!) both sides do not have equal validity. There’s right and there’s wrong.  Where do you stand?

Nonprofits, you can train people on how to do this.  It’s hard and sometimes it’s dangerous. You can give people tools.

Vote, Support a Candidate or Run for Office

I can vote, as I have done and will continue to do. I can support, financially and with my time, candidates that I believe in.  I can also run for office. So can you.

Nonprofits can and are training people on how to run, register to vote and support others.  We can encourage them. We can support them. We can teach them how to raise money, file the paperwork and campaign.  Many of you are already doing it.  The rest of us can promote your work.

Heal

We have never healed the wounds of our history. We have never reconciled the hell of slavery.  The history of women as chattel. The cost Native Americans paid. The scars of internment. The vestiges of WWII on its survivors and the families of those who weren’t as lucky. Our past is haunting us. We have some hard questions to face and some difficult conversation to have. Let’s have them. Let’s talk.

If all we have are words and war, I’d prefer words.

Nonprofits, we are already poised to hold these conversations.  We can set ground rules, start the dialogue and begin the healing process.

What I can’t do, you can’t do and we can’t do is nothing.  Our silence will not protect us.

What more can I do?  What have you done?  What else can our field do? I welcome your insight, your answers and your comments, with the understanding that hate will (still) not be perpetuated here.

Why I Will Walk Out, a guest blog

In Advocacy, Leadership, Lessons Learned on March 14, 2018 at 3:31 pm

Multiple times today, March 13, 2018, I was asked what I thought walking out of school would do for America and why I thought that my actions would have enough of an impact to make a change. Some of those who asked me were ignorant and attempting to make fun of me, but some of the people were genuinely curious. I have to admit, their questions did make me think. Why am I walking out? What difference do I think I’ll make in the big picture? I’ve been thinking about these questions all day, trying to find the words for the impact that I hope to make, and I finally have a solid answer.

I am walking out tomorrow to stand with my peers in the hopes that someone will hear our cries. We’re scared. The power went out today and I couldn’t breathe because of all the conclusions that my head jumped to. Conclusions that were put into my head by Nikolas Cruz, and other school shooters. What if today had been my last day to live?

If our government will do nothing, my peers and I will. Someone needs to say “no, we are not okay with this”. We want control, and we want it now. We want safety, and we want it now. We want to be heard, and we will. Students in my high school, and students in countless other high schools will peacefully raise our voices in unison to ask for a change. If enough of us speak up, someone will hear our message loud and clear, and when they do, something will change, and if it doesn’t, then I guess we’ll just have to be louder. I guess we’ll just have to do more.

I am walking out tomorrow to show anyone who might be watching that I am not okay with the current way that unqualified buyers are able to purchase guns. The man in Florida was just 19 when he shot and killed 17 people with families. The FBI has admitted that he had been on their radar since at least last year. And he was still able to buy a gun? This feels like the punch line to a bad joke. 17 people die and what do people care about? They want to keep their AR 15s. You know, for protection purposes. If only the children and staff at  Stoneman Douglas had the luxury of protection. “I want my guns” people scream. “I want my dad back. I want my mom back. I want my son back. I want my daughter back. I want my husband back. I want my wife back. We want our lives back.” The victims sob. Is anyone listening to them? I am, and I want to help them in the scariest times of their lives.

I am walking out tomorrow to remember the lives that were lost. 17 lives were lost. That’s not a statistic. That is 17 individual families who just got destroyed. 17 families who need support while our president tells them that they should have done more. One of the lost ones, was a wrestling coach. He had four children and a wife. That’s four children who now have no father. That’s a wife with no husband, raising her children alone. Everyone on the wrestling team loved their coach. He was a father figure to each and every one of them, too. Each of those kids just lost a guide in the dark path of high school. How did he die? He died protecting the kids in his school. His name was Chris Hixon. He had a name. There was a football coach who died shielding his students from the shooter. His name was Aaron Feis. He had a name. Cara Loughran. Alex Schachter. Scott Beigel. Alaina Petty. Helena Ramsey. Carmen Schentrup. Luke Hoyer. Nicholas Dworet. Meadow Pollack. Jaime Guttenberg. Joaquin Oliver. Peter Wang. Martin Duque. Gina Montalto. Alyssa Alhadeff. They all had names, they all had families and they’re all dead. How many more people have to die before something changes?

So next time, when I am asked why I walk out, why I make a fuss, I will say, “I walk out because I am tired of being quiet. I walk out because I am not willing to go unheard. I walk out because I am ready to fight for what I believe in. I walk out to try and make a difference. Are you?”

 

This is a guest blog by Sydney Zulich, a local H.S student.

Lessons from the Nonprofit Sector on the Gun Debate

In Advocacy, Lessons Learned on February 25, 2018 at 1:29 pm

The domestic violence movement spent years educating the public that family violence was not a family affair and that we all had an obligation to keep people safe. We had to train the police and the prosecutors and advocate to change the laws and public opinion. We each had to speak up and speak out, individually and collectively. The domestic violence community insisted, and continues to insist, that victims be protected under the law.

Mothers against Drunk Driving spent years changing public opinion on drunk driving; teaching everyone that we all had an obligation to keep our roads safe. That we shouldn’t drive drunk or let our friends drive drunk.  They insisted that laws be improved to make our roads safer.

The rape crisis movement spent years changing public opinion, advocating for the media to not report victim’s names and to stop saying that the victim didn’t contribute to her/his assault, implying that all the other victims had.  They insisted that rapists to be brought to justice.  They changed the common assumptions about who has a right to put their hands on women’s bodies: the answer is those who the women allow to touch them. The #metoo movement brought it wider and challenged assumptions of power and who has the right to be heard, and when. Both groups continue to fight to make us safer.

Each is an illustration of how things change in this country and about what needs to happen for people to feel and be safe.

The NRA is a nonprofit.  In fact, it’s a nonprofit that routinely advocates against the wishes of its members, who do believe in limited gun control.  That is not a sustainable plan long term for any nonprofit.  I predict their leadership will transition within the next year, especially if public opinion continues to turn against them.

What does all this have to do about the current gun debate? The lesson is about roadblocks and also proximity.  We change public opinion one person at a time, one community at a time.

The Second Amendment is not the issue. You have a right to protect yourself; the vast majority of advocates are not denying that or trying to take that away. It is baked into our constitution and our consciousness. However, what is also baked into our constitution and our consciousness is pluralism, along with the understanding that you accessing your rights doesn’t get to impede me accessing mine.  With freedom comes obligation.

It’s not going to be a one size fits all approach. In the case of Parkland, Florida the police and the FBI collectively let us down, even as the community was screaming to be heard. In the Denver police shootings, a good guy with a gun, looked like a bad guy with a gun, which made it more difficult for the police to find the actual bad guy with a gun. In the case of the Vegas shooting, there was nothing on paper about the killer.  No trail to follow.  No clues to miss.  Nothing.

A good guy with a gun may not stop a bad guy. They haven’t yet, though there was an armed guard in Parkland and many presumably good guys with guns in Denver. Arming more people is not going to get us there. Making one kind of gun harder to get is not going to get us there.  Though I do agree that making semi-automatic weapons harder to get while we figure it out is a start.

It’s true that the cities with the most restrictive gun laws have the highest number of gun deaths.  It’s also true those are not the places where schools have been shot up. In those cities, kids get killed on their way to school, not at school. The wealthier suburbs are where kids have been getting killed in school.  We have an obligation to protect all of our kids, regardless of neighborhood!

Here’s the other thing we know: The states with the toughest guns laws do have lower proportionate gun deaths.  It’s a place to start.

We need it all: More laws. More enforcement of current laws. More response to reports of issues.  More roadblocks. More services for people in need.  More people intervening when a kid, or kids, need help.

The lesson from the nonprofit sector is about roadblocks. Look at domestic violence; it’s not enough to have laws.  It’s not enough to have shelters or jails; it’s not enough to train the community on what domestic violence looks like and how to intervene.  Sometimes though, it is enough to put up roadblocks in every sense so that it’s harder for a man who is trying to kill his wife to get to her.

That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to take anybody’s guns away, unless they shouldn’t have them. We’re trying to make it harder for the people who shouldn’t have guns to get them, so that the people who want to and should have guns, can.

It’s not any different than the new – and annoying but mostly only inconvenient –  laws on buying Sudafed, and having your name be put on a list just because you’re sick.  Or taking your shoes off at the airport.  Sure, it’s a hassle to wait 3 days to buy a gun.  Just like it’s a hassle to only get one pack of Sudafed after you show identification, and to stand barefoot on a disgusting floor on which thousands of people have walked and who knows when was last mopped, but it’s one way that we have agreed in this pluralistic society in which we live – and which we love-  that we can protect the whole from the few.

That’s the goal: protecting your right to defend yourself and all kids’ rights to be safe at school, and on their way to school.  We can do it, together.

Does Your Agency Aspire to Social Justice or Charity?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on May 23, 2017 at 11:40 am

The two questions I repeat the most, in both my classes and in my practice, are these: What’s the goal?  Who decides?

What’s the goal?

Is your agency’s goal to be the best food pantry (or any other service providing/safety net charity)? Or is it to address the underlying issues related to food scarcity (or any other complicated, multi-layered critical issue)?  If it’s the former, that’s charity.  If it’s the latter, that’s social justice.

Social Justice is working to change systemic issues. Charity is responding to immediate needs.  As anyone who has ever taken my class or worked in our field will tell you, we need both.  We’re not going to ignore the hungry child in front of us to work for social justice. Yet, we can’t only get food for those who are hungry, because the root causes are what’s causing food scarcity.

Every person who serves a nonprofit has to decide where to plug in. Every staff member. Every researcher. Every leader. Every volunteer. Every donor.

What’s the goal?

Do we keep fishing cats out of the river, or look upstream and deal with whatever or whoever is causing the cats to be in the river? What’s the goal? (It’s a handy question.)

Nonprofit Boards, in concert with their CEO, set the goal. The goal sets the path. (This could be a great generative conversation for a future Board meeting.)

If the goal is to be the best food pantry, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best food pantry –  unless your goal is social justice, and then you’re on the wrong path. The path supports the work toward the goal.

Maybe you want both?  I always did. I wanted to run the best agency I could, doing good work, meeting our mission, with a well trained, dedicated and talented Board and staff, serving our clients with dignity AND I want to work with my community partners to eliminate the need for my agency.

That means dual goals with dual paths. You can be the best food pantry and also work with community partners to eliminate food scarcity.  Food scarcity, and all systemic issues, is a big scary multi layered bucket of issues that include privilege, implicit bias, legal and policy challenges, poverty elimination, racism, sexism, classism, housing, school funding imbalances, and lots of other things that are hard to tease out and even harder to solve.

Being the best is a go it alone, we have the answers, and we’ll get it done model. It’s a bit more territorial and a lot less collaborative, but it’s not ineffective and sometimes the circumstances call for it.

Am I competing against my partner agencies for funding?  Sometimes I am. Does that mean I can’t also work with them to address the underlying issues in our community. Some will tell you it does.  I’m here to tell you it doesn’t.  Where you sit always determines where you stand.

It’s why your values have to match your agency’s policies and its aspirations?  As I mentioned in Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice “saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing message. If we want our teams to live our values, then we have to live them and our policies and systems have to reflect them.”

Who Decides?

You do, collectively and individually. You decide at the agency level.  You decide at the community level. You decide at your leadership level- on your team, in your neighborhood.  Every day.  With every decision. Every donation. Every allocation. Every choice.

There was a great piece on NPR this morning  In Some Rural Counties, Hunger Is Rising, But Food Donations Aren’t looking at just this issue. It’s not just SW Virginia.  There are communities across the country that are discussing systemic issues and setting goals for change in their community.  I’m proud to tell you that several of those cities are in Ohio; Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus have been and continue to have these conversations.

I’m hoping it’s a national trend. Even if it’s not yet a trend that has come to your community, you can still move toward social justice.

We each get to decide if we run our agencies to be the best organization alone or if we work together to eliminate the need for all of our agencies, because we addressed the systemic issue requiring our agencies.  How?

By deciding to be less territorial and more collaborative. Call your partners and other leaders in your community who work on like issues and invite them to discuss the options. Are you ready to set a Theory of Change for your community?  If so, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a great manual on how.

Before you do, you might have to stop being afraid of scarcity and start embracing abundance.  If you’re currently looking at the world and your ability to impact change as a zero sum game –  and it’s how many of us have been trained to think –  I invite you to read Agreements, Vibrancy and Abundance.

We can change our corner of the world alone at our desks or we can do it together.  If our goal is social justice, together will get us farther, faster.

What’s your experience standing in the breech between social justice and charity.  Where did you elect to stand? 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.

Just Don’t: An Open Letter to my Family, Friends and Neighbors that Voted for Trump

In Advocacy on November 10, 2016 at 9:02 pm

I have taken down this post twice.  The first time a few weeks after it was written and before the inauguration in the hopes that perhaps something would change and whatever good you saw would come to light.  The second time because I was questioning what it would accomplish.

I have since watched multiple mass murders, aggressions big and small, children separated from their families at the border (in an inept attempt to stop their coming and despite zero evidence that it is having any effect), a second man appointed the Supreme Court after being accused of abusing yet another woman, eligible voters being turn away or deleted off the rolls, the introduction of “alternative facts” – which let’s be very clear are actually lies, the hypocrisy of holding others accountable to what the leaders do every day with impunity, and the mass loss of civility, tolerance and respect.

We and the world, as many of us initially feared,  are in the midst of four years of narcissism, hate mongering,  the increase in violence, the decrease of decorum and respect, and the chipping away of our civil liberties and our rights; all with a decreased ability to address or pay for it.

Those who support Trump, out loud or by staying silent, must believe it is worth it- for the new justices elected to the bench, for the economy (previously yet no longer) booming.

All the while, our values burn.

All of my fears have come true. I (still) blame you.

Here is the original post, as written:

Do not call to ask if I’m okay. I don’t trust myself not to scream at you. Don’t drop by. Don’t invite me to things. I’m not coming.

I am sad and despondent and angry. I’m angry at you and your peers. You just elected the most racist, misogynist, and ill prepared President we’ve ever had the misfortune to have to live through, if we manage to make it at all.

Don’t talk to me about Hillary and why you hate her. Don’t talk to me about the economy and why it sucks. Don’t talk to me about whatever craziness you’re telling yourself to justify getting into bed with the devil.  Make no mistake that that is where you are, and now, thanks to you, where we all are.

Do I sound angry? Good! I am angry. I’m also afraid.

Maybe you think you know me, but don’t really know me. I believe women (and men) have the right to be safe in their own bodies and in their own homes. Because of that I spent the first part of my career working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Maybe you don’t know what that means.  Maybe you believe that women who stay in an abusive relationship must like it because they could always leave and maybe you believe that rape victims were asking for it and shouldn’t have been there or wearing that. If you do, you’re wrong about that too.

I believe that all young people have the right to realize their full potential as responsible and productive citizens. Because of that, I’ve worked in the inner city and in rural communities with young people to make sure they know that what they see isn’t all there is. To make sure they know they have a future and choices and a world that awaits their brilliance and needs their leadership.

I believe that when nonprofits are stronger, communities are stronger. Because of that I work with small to midsize nonprofits so they have the capacity to fulfill their mission and serve their community.

I believe that young people will make our world better. Because of that, I teach.

I believe we each have an obligation to reach back and help up the people behind us and to give thanks to the ones on whose shoulders we stand.

I know that there are people who voted for Trump because they don’t see a way forward.  They don’t understand how they can help their family and their community.  They want change but don’t see how they fit in this new multicultural, technological based world. I get that.

I understand the level of hopelessness that can make Trump look reasonable.  I understand how people who fit in that space can see Trump as change. Yet, and still, I firmly believe that you can never buy anything from a man selling fear.

We, as a society and a world, must find a way to come together and that includes everyone who feels left out and passed by as well as the ones who don’t.  This is not the way forward. We never move forward for long by stepping on the necks of others.

What I totally don’t get, is that those people are not you. You, my friends, family and neighbors, in your nice houses, with money in the bank, food in the fridge, a retirement plan and a job, just stepped on the necks of every minority group in this country, including the ones to which we belong. You have helped to sow my fear.

So, while I’d love to be writing one of those inspiring, uplifting messages that we must come together and work toward change, and I believe we do, I’m starting with this message of anger because I’m pissed and I’m pissed at you. You have put me in this position and I’m holding you accountable.

I have fear in my stomach and terror in my heart. I blame you collectively and individually. Don’t tell me not to take it so personally. It is personal.  Did you watch Michelle Obama’s speech? Watch it now. Or do you only watch or listen to things that reinforce what you already believe?

I have spent my life fighting against this man, not him specifically but men like him. Men who act like women are pawns and play things but not real people.  Men  – and women- who think that their skin color gives them power that the rest of us can’t access.  Men – and women – who think that their religion is the right religion and their beliefs are beliefs the rest of us have to honor, and to whom our own beliefs are irrelevant.

You, my friends, family and neighbors, have aligned yourself with a rapist. You elected a man who made fun of the disabled, and who talks about the inner city as if it’s a war zone, even though I’m not sure he’s ever been in either the inner city or an actual war zone. You elected a man who has screwed over small business owners and students, his own tenants, and those who aspired to be. You elected a man who goes against not only everything I believe, but many of the things you believe.

Your decision has repudiated my life’s work.  It has put my family, and yours, in harm’s way. It has made me afraid. I blame you.

Do People Understand What Your Agency Does?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Organizational Development on July 25, 2016 at 7:40 am

I have a theory that the vast majority of Americans think there are three to five nonprofits:  One that works on children’s issues. One that works on whatever medical issue has affected their family. One for animals. One that provided the day care where their kids went to pre-school and maybe, maybe one that offers a thrift store, which I just realized may be what they think the agency does, not what funds what the agency does.

Yes, that is a huge, enormous difference.

I was driving with a friend earlier this week. This is the conversation we had:

Friend:  It’s so weird that there is a Party Center right next to a Goodwill.

Me:  Why?

Friend, who I know for a fact regularly donates to Goodwill:  The Party Center is for people who have money to entertain and Goodwill is for the poor.

Me:  Goodwill doesn’t serve the poor. Goodwill is a workforce development agency that employs people who have Developmental Disabilities. The thrift store is how they fund their work. (Please see Goodwill’s actual mission below.)

Friend:  Are you sure?  I don’t think that’s what people think they do.

He’s not even wrong. If he thinks that, lots of other people think that too. Goodwill is one of the largest and most recognizable names in our field. What does that mean for the millions of smaller, less recognizable agencies? It means we have work to do, and an opportunity!

Sometimes people don’t have any idea what we do. They don’t know! Even our partners sometimes find it hard to keep track of our work. I once had a conversation with a program officer of a foundation that funded us. It went like this:

Hey Dani, I ran into your counterpart last week from the Boy & Girls Clubs of – I don’t even remember where but it was someplace that I knew didn’t have a Club, but did have a Big Brothers Big Sisters. I mentioned your name but he didn’t know you.

Me:  I don’t think we have a Club there. Could it have been Big Brothers Big Sisters?

Program Officer: Oh yeah. Probably.

If a program officer who we’d been working with for years couldn’t easily remember the difference between a Big Brother Big Sisters and a Boy & Girls Clubs, no one else will either.

There was a study fifteen years ago or so (I looked but couldn’t find it so I’m going on memory here) that found that the vast majority of Americans could recognize the largest agencies among us but had no idea what they did. United Way – in almost every workplace – 20% recognition. Boys & Girls Clubs – thousands of Clubs across the country and on military basis around the world with our logo behind home plate at every Major League Baseball game, nope. Red Cross working local, nationally and internationally, not so much.  Goodwill, in almost every community, clearly not.

We have got to tell our stories better. How?

First and foremost, we each have to clarify how we communicate what our organizations do? Not the mission, though that too, but every day. What does your website say you do?  Is it obvious? I’m here to tell you that for people who are coming at it cold, it’s not always. Sometimes I have to go to three or more different pages on an organization’s website to figure out what they do – and I work in this field!  For someone who doesn’t, I’m not even sure how they’d figure it out.

Make it easy. Put your mission, a short summary of your work, and its impact on your home page. While you’re at it, make sure there’s a link to your leadership, including the Board, and a donation button. Then, put up some client’s stories. If you work in a field in which confidentiality issues are paramount, or a small town where it will be easy to identify someone, create a compilation story and put an asterisk to explain why it’s a compilation and not an actual story.

Train your people – Board and staff – to have a three sentence explanation of your work.  They should also know your mission.  I do trainings all over and when I do, I invariably ask about the missions represented in the room; many audience members cannot tell me their agency’s – the ones that sent them to hear me speak- mission.  If they don’t know your mission, they’re not moving your mission forward.  (It’s the same with organizational values, but that’s a different blog post.)

My Club’s mission was “to inspire and enable all young people to achieve their full potential as responsible, productive and caring citizens.” We did that by providing “after school and summer programming for school age, primarily at risk, youth.”  Now the youth development field calls it “out of school time”, which is both better and clearer and also shorter.

My local Goodwill’s mission “Transforming the lives of individuals with disabilities and other barriers through pathways to independence and the power of work.”

Mission, programs and work are not the same thing. Mission is why your organization exists. Programs are how you get to your mission. Work is the sum total of your programs and may also include advocacy and awareness. I’m separating them out here because agencies often do a lot of community awareness around their issue but don’t necessarily include that information in their program list, though they certainly could.

When I ran domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers we did a lot of formal and informational advocacy and awareness, and a lot of training of the police and medical workers, but didn’t count either as a program. That was a long time ago so I’m hopeful that is no longer the case.  It was a missed opportunity for us.  It was also one of the things that I believe greatly increased our impact, which is the demonstrated change of your clients and community because of your work.

It starts at your website but it can’t stop there. Your people should be able to explain your work, your programs and their impact.  If they can’t easily explain the impact, or won’t be able to answer follow up questions from whomever they’re talking with, make sure they have a staff member’s name to give out who can.

We often only get one shot to explain what we do. Take your shot. Tell your story. Move forward your mission.

How have you ensured people understand your organization’s work? What have you done? Any advice to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button. A rising tide raises all boats.

Questions without Answers

In Advocacy on June 21, 2016 at 8:05 am

I’ve been thinking and reading and trying to figure out how we, as a country, could have elected a presidential candidate from a major party who so consistently and regularly goes against the values and laws of our country, and instead foments hate. I’ve been trying to juxtapose that with the mass murders in Orlando and too many other places to name, the daily rape cases in the news (and not in the news), the shootings of unarmed Black men, the large and small comments that perpetuate the seeds of injustice and the everyday challenges of anyone who ever gets categorized as “other”.  I’ve elected to join the legion of writers who are using their voice to counteract this hatred in an effort to stem the tide. Once it’s in, I cannot have done nothing.  Can you?

We must each fight against hatred in all its forms. We must resist the urge to separate people into us and them. We must each use our voice to counter extremism and injustice at every opportunity, every time.

We cannot walk away and say “he didn’t mean it”, “she doesn’t really think that” or “that will never happen.”  We have to assume that he did mean it, she does think that and it will happen. We have to act. If not, we have missed our opportunity to prevent the unthinkable.

We must challenge the smugness – of others and in ourselves – that comes with hatred of another whom we do not know and about whom we have no direct information other than categorical. We must each ask ourselves and each other to dig deep and figure out why. Why does my being a woman, Jewish, Gay, Black, Liberal, Conservative or Muslim bother someone else. Why does that give them permission to think about me differently? What does it say about them and what does it say about me? What power does that offer to me? What can I do to counteract that hate before it becomes action?

One of the best lessons from the struggle for marriage equality was the lesson that the best way to change minds is one by one and family by family. It’s scary, and also necessary. Other isn’t some random person you don’t know.  Other is your cousin, your son, or your neighbor.  Once other is known, it’s a lot less scary.

Prejudice is what you think and discrimination is what you do; there is an opportunity in between for change. How can we encourage the change and counteract the hate?

There are white Christians who commit murder, rape, mass shootings, and acts of terrorism but other white people or random Christians are not blamed. Neither fact is even mentioned. Yet when a member of a minority faith or race does something horrible, it is a pox on all of our houses.

Everyone who is or has ever been a member of a minority group, any minority group, knows that once they start lining people up by their beliefs, gender, race, orientation, faith or any other grouping, they will eventually get to the group to which we belong. The hierarchy of oppression is real and there is certainly discrimination among our ranks that reflect the discrimination among the larger societal ranks, but don’t be fooled, when there are lines, we will all be in them.

If by some chance you’re not, you will be on the other side. Both will have soul searing ramifications and there will be no sidelines. That is why we each have to use our voice, now, to be heard. If you have never had to think in these terms, you are extremely fortunate because it’s terrifying. Consider it now and keep considering it as you move forward in your life. Use it to counteract the hate.

To my brothers and sisters, daughters and sons in Orlando, in Newtown, in Charleston, across the country and the world whom we so obviously cannot protect; to everyone everywhere who is struggling to be accepted on their own terms, for who they are, and safe in their own bodies, wherever they are, I stand with you.

I welcome your insight, your answers and your comments, with the understanding that hate will not be perpetuated here.

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