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Creating the Safe Space to Talk About Race in the Nonprofit Sector

Just because we now have a president of color does not mean we should take the topic of diversity off our agenda.

Here in America, we’ve had several opportunities to discuss race since the election of our nation’s first African American President:

  • The New York Post title depicting the author of the economic stimulus bill as a dead monkey
  • Attorney General Eric Holder declaring that our country is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race
  • And all of this talk of a “post-racial” America. Whatever that is.

I don’t need to tell you how disappointed I’ve been after reading the commentary these events have prompted. Or maybe I do. For the most part, this nationwide conversation about race that we’ve been having very reluctantly has also been approached in some of the most demeaning ways, namely this editorial by one Heather Mac Donald. The idea that we are moving “past race” in any way because we have a Black President has only served to bring to light the reality of just how marginalized people of color are in this country, and even in our very own nonprofit sector. I’ll be interested to see how many nonprofit conferences this year take diversity off the agenda, now that California foundations have agreed to invest more in “minorities.”

I’m not saying we should drop everything and run around hooping & hollering about race and diversity. We all have competing priorities in the work we do on a daily basis. But as agents of change and the keepers of our nonprofit culture, we do need to make it a point to consider race & diversity in every decision we make, or don’t make, in our work. I know it is hard to talk about race. It will not get easier. It is hard and it will not get easier no matter how much we want to believe whomever is telling us that we are “post-race.” I’m under no illusion that when you see me walk into the room, you no doubt see my skin color. That inconvenient truth is what drives these statistics on leadership in the nonprofit sector: 82 percent of nonprofit CEOs are White, 94 percent of foundation presidents are White, and 86 percent of board members are White. In order to change that, we need to be able to talk about it. Without being dismissive or demeaning. This is our opportunity to show that we as a nonprofit sector can do better than mainstream America on this issue.

I’m always disappointed when discussions about diversity at nonprofit conferences are so sparsely attended. People don’t come for many different reasons, but mainly because they are afraid. So we need to do a better job of creating the kind of safe space to have conversations about race in a productive way.

If you attend a conference, meeting, training, or dialogue about race, diversity, or inclusion, please know that you are the right person in the room at the right time. It’s important to remember that talking about race is difficult, but that to learn anything, you must move past the discomfort to fully participate. I believe that deep down, what we all want is to find a place where we can engage together and make meaning out of this thing called history. We’re all searching for that sweet poetry that lies beneath the work that we are called to do. We want to overcome our own personal issues with race and be reminded of the common values that brought us to nonprofit work in the first place. We need to know that we are kept in a safe place where we’re free to put our hopes and dreams out on the table and co-create something new and real once it’s all said and done. Talking about race and how to increase the diversity of our sector is still an important conversation to have.

We also need to define in a real way what can and cannot come into the room when we talk about race. If the room were a poem, it might look like this:

Excuses cannot come into the room
Control cannot come into the room
Guilt cannot come into the room
Your facade cannot come into the room
Condescension cannot come into the room
Rolling eyes cannot come into the room
Actors cannot come into the room
Fear cannot come into the room
The status quo cannot come into the room

New ideas can enter the room
Open minds can enter the room
Curiosity can enter the room
Compassion can enter the room
Forgiveness can enter the room
Dreams can enter the room
Respect can enter the room
Trust can enter the room

What are your ideas for creating a safe place to talk about race in the nonprofit sector?


imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.

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