A few months ago, I was talking at a conference about what race, equity, diversity, and inclusion look like in every day practices. “These concepts have been like coconut water,” I said, “everyone’s drinking them after hot yoga. But how are we actually changing our hiring, communications, board governance, evaluation, fundraising, and other areas?”
After my presentation, a colleague raised her hand. “My organization does not focus on social justice,” she said. “We address cancer, which does not discriminate; it affects every one of all races. How are these concepts applicable to my organization?”
I was glad she asked that question, because I am sure others feel the same way. Another time, a different colleague wrote, “While measures of injustice, inequity[,] and racial oppression might be appropriate outcomes for your nonprofit—ours is reduction in hunger. Which might lead to all those other things but really—we care about feeding kids.”
Sometimes, when I bring issues of race and equity, I can almost hear the groans. Not DEI again! How many more times must we bring up the topic of race? Haven’t we discussed it enough? Can’t we move on to something else, like how we need to get our board to be more engaged in fundraising or how to increase our social media presence? I appreciate the brave souls who speak up to ask why these topics are relevant to their work, because it allows us to have a conversation.
To put it simply: race, equity, diversity, and inclusion affect ALL nonprofits, and thinking your org is exempt indicates a level of privilege and lack of awareness that may be detrimental to the work. No matter what your organization’s mission is, you still need to think about these things:
Disproportionality of impact: Sorry, cancer actually does discriminate. According to this article, “Black women and white women get breast cancer at about the same rate, but black women die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women.” And according to this research study, “In comparison with other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., Vietnamese women experience the highest incidence rate of invasive cervical cancer.” Meanwhile, there are clear racial disparities in food insecurity; according to this fact sheet provided by the Alliance to End Hunger, “While 10% of white households experience hunger, households of color experience hunger at rates of up to 21.5%.” Chances are, whatever issue your organization is tackling, there will be racial, gender, disability, and other elements affecting it.
Inequitable access to services: OK, so provide services to people with cancer. But who is able to access your services? Is it mainly people who are proficient in English? What if they don’t speak English? Are your materials translated? Do you have interpreters available? Do your staff reflect the people who live in the neighborhood you’re serving? I often see this self-reinforcing cycle where services are inaccessible to people of different races and ethnicities, which then leads the organization to believe their clients are naturally a particular demographic, such as white, so they target outreach and services to that particular group, which then makes the services inaccessible to people of different races and ethnicities. Check your clients’ demographics against the demographics of the neighborhood you are serving to see if you may be in this cycle.
Root causes of injustice: I know from working to address education inequity (and being married to a public school teacher) that many kids get most of their nutrients at school and don’t have enough to eat on the weekends and during school breaks. That’s why amazing organizations like Blessings in a Backpack are so critical. And while we provide frontline services, we must also examine the causes of why these services are needed, so that we can also address it at the systems level. There are now lots of research linking racism to issues like poverty and hunger. To deny that these root causes are relevant and to say something like “race doesn’t really affect my organization; we only care about feeding kids” is to choose a level of willful ignorance that is counterproductive to the work.
So yeah, if you work at a nonprofit, the conversations on race, equity, diversity, and inclusion apply to you and your work. If you don’t agree, spend some time trying to figure out why. Just like there are still many “color-blind” people (see “All right, color-blind colleagues, we need to have a talk”), there are also many “color-blind” nonprofits. Both are problematic. Our sector is working hard to address some of society’s most pressing problems. If we cannot tackle the conversations about race, equity, diversity, and inclusion, which sector can?
As for the point that some organizations are social justice focused and others are not, and that race and equity only apply to social justice organizations, I will save it for a longer post in the future, but I would argue that almost all of us are “social justice organizations.” Parks, arts, healthcare, education, animal welfare—they all have social justice elements. If you are trying to make the world better, you are working for social justice. So yes, you and your organization also have to talk about race, equity, diversity, inclusion, intersectionality, etc., because they are relevant to all our missions, and to the fundamental essence of our sector.
Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears monthly in the GuideStar Blog. This article is a cross-post of a March 25, 2019, piece from his blog, Nonprofit ... And Fearless. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.