One of the significant shifts in the many struggles over racial inclusion at non profits is a power shift over who’s in charge. Diversity activists don’t just want more inclusive programs and more people of color on staffs and boards. They want a greater say in forging policies, not just better policies. It’s about ownership of change, though it’s usually glossed over by buzzy euphemisms.
Much of this story is playing out in the Black Brilliance Project, stemming from the summer protests and pushing for participatory budgeting where “the community” has a greater say than just giving input to elected leaders. This kind of power shift also underlies the protests at Hugo House, whose long-a-lefty leader Tree Swenson has just been forced to resign after years of rebuilding the organization. The leader of the Hugo House protests, writer and Hugo House teacher Shankar Narayan, was quoted in a Seattle Times story as dismissing the Hugo House’s racial-equity proposals by saying, “They’re doing these tweaks without consulting or talking to anybody.” Doubtless the Hugo House leaders talked to many writers and activists, but “consulting” is not the same as “empowering.”
A clear statement of the rationale for this shift to shared decision-making comes from a Black educator and artist, Toya Lillard, who inveighs against decisional tokenism and advocates “decisional equity” in this essay. Lillard writes:
“There is a chasm that often exists between white executive leadership at nonprofits, higher education institutions, and philanthropic entities and people on the ground, with their hands deep in the soil, tending to the needs of communities, navigating root systems and ecosystems of support. Built upon the fundamentals of white saviorism, the nonprofit sector rewards leadership that speaks and acts on behalf of Black and Brown folks, and casts a specious eye toward leadership from within those communities….
“The nonprofit sector must immediately lean away from the precedent of empowering white leaders to act on behalf of Black and Brown people. Period. All organizations must lean into rewarding, cultivating, and trusting leadership within their respective stakeholder communities and the communities being served. Change will feel snail-like as long as white organizational leaders, tenured professors, board members, and funders control and dictate the pace of inclusion and the adoption of anti-racist practices.”
Among the many difficulties of this transition is the situation where empowered minority decision-makers have a tough time mediating among the needs of the organization they lead and the impatient imperatives of the minority communities. This was the difficult tightrope that Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was forced to walk. She owed her job to activism from the minority communities but had also to manage and earn respect from a police department with entrenched and well-defended bad practices. As often, the only honorable way out was to quit, as Chief Best did.