The time is now. If you’re looking for a sign, this is it. I don’t know what we’re careening towards, but the future is heading our way. Racists and transphobes are trying to legislate us out of existence. People decrying inflation ignore the record profits these companies are bringing in. It’s a cash grab. It’s a rights grab. We need to push back. If you have committed to racial, gender, and social justice, we need you to act.
No matter who you are, no matter the position you occupy, you can do something right now. I have some ideas for what people can do at any level of their organization. As always, my expertise is public sector/non-profit office jobs in a top-down hierarchy. I’ll describe strategies for four roles with different proximities to power. I’ll also share a couple actions for each that you can take. The actions you’ll be able to take will depend on your own relationship to the power structure.
when you’re outside the company: ask questions
Job candidates can influence an organization’s culture without even getting hired. Donors can do the same thing when they make clear what they value. Outside the organization, your greatest leverage is your talents and your money. If you’re desperate for a job or can’t donate to them, you’re limited in how you can influence their decisions. Still, everyone in the community is free to ask questions and push for accountability.
what you can do
Show what you value by asking real questions about their progress towards equity. Do your research and don’t accept vague platitudes. Have they made a bold, public declaration of their commitment to racial justice? They should be able give examples of what they’ve done, not what they hope to do. Here are a few examples of the questions I’d find interesting:
- How has your company responded to calls for racial equity and the defense of Black lives?
- How have you updated your strategic plan to incorporate racial justice goals?
- How does staff influence executive-level decision-making here?
- How do members of the community influence the direction of the organization?
- Can you give an example of how you have changed your policies to create a more inclusive workplace?
- What kind of employee resource groups are active here? How do they work with leadership?
- How often do you review what employee benefits you offer?
- Do you pay for or subsidize health insurance for the children and families of staff?
when you’re entry-level/non-supervisory: speak up
People new to an organization often join with passion for the mission and fire to be a part of something. Fresh perspectives are vital for a company of any age. But power is often limited for someone low in the traditional hierarchy. Someone else has to approve most decisions, often a series of someones, depending on the place.
what you can do
At this level, you may have a lot of ideas but little power. That doesn’t mean you can’t access it. You have collective power with other entry-level staff working across teams and departments. Speak with one voice through whatever channels you can find to make yourself heard.
In most non-profits, entry-level staff often have a direct connection to the community. This is also where a lot of BIPOC staff tend to start and (unfortunately) stay. I strike a balance between speaking up in public and following up in private. If you are white, no matter where you are in an organization, know that your whiteness will protect you from most forms of retaliation. Please, even if you don’t quite know what to say, speak up when you see injustices at work. Not every person of color will be able to use the actions below without risking their jobs. Use your privilege in a white-dominant culture to raise awareness for the causes that matter to all of us.
When speaking up, the primary goal isn’t to shame people in power to change. Shame is a fantastic tool for effecting change, but it doesn’t work on everyone. A more universal path is to educate and then demand we work together to take action.
Speaking up about racial justice helps bring these topics to the surface. Too often we try to talk about these issues behind closed doors only for those doors to stay closed. In an ideal organization, speaking up can be the spark that helps change things. If that doesn’t work, it can at least help you feel less alone. If it doesn’t, it might be time to move on.
when you’re a supervisor or leader: normalize concepts
I’ve written a lot of words about the power you can have as a manager of people or programs. As a manager, you have authority and a stronger voice within your organization. You also have a cohort of other managers you can work with to push for policies across the company.
what you can do
Use your power to lead discussions and make plans for change. When other employees speak up, join them. Work to persuade other people to contribute to your efforts.
As a leader with a voice, it’s your responsibility to question your how you see things. How did you get to where you are? What biases do you bring with you? How might another person see those biases in action? What’s the racial makeup of your organization? Does it reflect the surrounding area? Does it reflect the population you support?
Champion the racial equity and social justice work happening across your organization. Provide support and cover for your colleagues. If you have the budget, invite guest speakers who are on the leading edge of antiracism in your industry. Push your employees to consider how we can apply principles of equity throughout the day. Talk at team or group meetings about ways to advance antiracism at work. Praise and provide feedback for positive examples of these efforts. Ask other leaders if those employees can present to their teams as well.
when you’re the executive director: create a shared vision
Here we are: the top of the organizational hierarchy! This is where the buck stops. (In some organizations, it’s where strong antiracist ideas stop as well). If you’re committed to racial equity and you’re in charge, do something about it now. There are few people who can challenge the power you wield. If you’re bent on enforcing the status quo, why have that power at all? Doing nothing will achieve the same result. Instead, lead your organization into the future. We need you.
what you can do
Executive directors set the tone and the vision for an organization. But as humans, we too have our own biases and outdated judgments. We can correct our blind spots by inviting diverse perspectives in to co-create a vision with us.
Give your staff the freedom to create. Let them help you build a vision for the organization that begins with racial justice. Then, reward people who help push us further than that vision.
If something feels too “out there,” try to understand it before you dismiss it. Who will this change benefit? Who will receive more influence? Think to yourself: where is your resistance rooted? Is it based in your business sense? Financial obligations? You cultivated both while steeped in artificial white supremacy. That doesn’t mean your resistance isn’t without merit, but you need to think hard about this. Allow people to sway the direction you want to go.
Make time to discuss uncomfortable topics with your executive-level staff and other leaders. Antiracism is a practice that we’re all figuring out. Give plenty of time and space for people who have the most direct connection to racism and its impacts.
Celebrate your progress—with your organization! Stay off social media. Trust me: people will know when you do the things you’re talking about doing. Let them see the results, not your statement of intent.
Engagement isn’t a one-time event. It’s an ongoing conversation. Get comfortable with that. Embrace meetings with community. Find different ways to connect with them that considers access needs. Engage with community on a regular basis. Don’t limit yourself to reaching out only the month before a report is due.
no matter where you are
Some people facing the challenges of antiracism and social justice can feel helpless. I hope that we as a society are moving beyond “ask the one BIPOC on staff to do it.” Some people will feel overwhelmed and then do nothing. Instead, build your tools of analysis. Find people who are good at this, who are making a difference, and see what they reference. Find resources from places with a proven track record. Here are a few that I reference often:
- Black Lives Matter has a resources page with several guides for workplace discussions.
- Racial Equity Tools has an incredible library of more than 3,000 different resources.
- Everyday Democracy has a library of workbooks, guides, and other resources that I’ve used in multiple workplaces.
- The University of Kansas has a toolbox with 46 community engagement guides that are informative and accessible.
- Nonprofit AF is an inspiration of mine: it’s funny, informative, and passionate.
- Fakequity is another blog I love that covers racial equity topics and related ideas.
- Community-Centric Fundraising has a fantastic blog and resource library focused on how we can fund programs without causing harm.
We’ve had caretakers acting timid and upholding the status quo for too long. I can’t stress this enough: we are running out of time. No matter your role, you can influence people and systems to change. Don’t persuade yourself into believing the fight is hopeless. No matter where you are in an organization, you have power. Today is your chance to use it.