And most recently: George Floyd.
Each of these names is part of the tragic “roll call” of black individuals who have lost their lives at the hands of police in recent years. Some of us remember every name; some of us, let’s be honest, never knew some of these names or have forgotten them over time. We have become far too familiar with “processing” the news of deaths like the ones these individuals experienced; we read (or if videotaped, we watch) in horror, we mourn the senseless killings, but then eventually, we move on to the next issue in the news cycle.
As nonprofit leaders, it’s time to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Questions such as: now that we are painfully aware of George Floyd’s death and the environment of structural racism and inequity that enabled it (and the deaths of the other black people listed above), what will we, as nonprofit leaders, do to effect change? If we are truly “stewards of the public good,” how can we justify turning a blind eye to the injustices that continue to happen in public, often in the light of day? And how can we make sure that we do our part to remember and remind others of their names, and what their tragic deaths represent?
As a black man who leads BoardSource’s external diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives, I know from my own experiences in the sector that nonprofit leaders (both white and people of color) are eager to engage and begin confronting these kinds of questions meaningfully, especially given the tragedies in recent weeks. But for white leaders in particular, I believe it’s important to keep this in mind: you can be allies in this effort, but you need to do the necessary work to prepare to engage — and that means committing to your own racial equity journey, acknowledging and respecting the perspectives of people of color, and perhaps most of all, accepting that “it’s not all about you.” I’m thinking of three specific interactions I’ve had with white leaders that underscore the “mindset change” that needs to happen for them to engage in this work effectively:
- Last year I had a conversation with a white nonprofit leader who shared that he was so upset by the content in a two-day racial equity training that he shut down and stopped participating after the first 30 minutes. The reason he shut down? The content of the first 30 minutes was focused on this country’s history of racism, and he felt he was being personally “blamed” for the current state of racial inequity in our country.
- In another training setting, I recall a white nonprofit leader asking if it would be OK to use a “softer” term than “white supremacy” because the term is so “off-putting” to white leaders, as if catering to white leaders’ comfort levels was more important than the actual content and authenticity of the training itself.
- Another white leader approached me and essentially asked for my “permission” to set a low target percentage for racial diversity on her board. The reason: the mission of the organization was not directly tied to the traditional “community development” issues that impact communities of color, so why did it matter if the board included people of color or not?
Each of these scenarios highlights an important hurdle that white leaders need to clear, specifically:
- Acknowledging that a fundamental understanding of our country’s historic racism is essential to understanding the context for our current state of racial inequity
- Realizing that they need to get past their fragility regarding racial equity terminology that may be “uncomfortable” to hear
- Recognizing that issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity are relevant to every nonprofit organization — regardless of mission — and that the very concept of trying to “opt out” of a focus on racial equity is an exercise of white privilege in and of itself
It is my enduring hope that one day, nonprofit leadership will clear these and other hurdles and become truly diverse in its composition, inclusive in its culture, and equity-focused in the way it operates. It is only then that the sector will make a more significant contribution toward the realization of a racially-equitable society, where there are no more senseless killings of black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. I am hoping for that day — and hoping that along the journey, we will not forget their names.