It’s Time to Shift the Power Inequities Among Arts Nonprofits

As a nonprofit leader, artist, and educator, I have been “invited in” by predominately white institutions (PWIs) to participate in well-intentioned efforts to move towards anti-racism. I have hired personnel to facilitate difficult conversations around racial equity, and have developed best practices for shifting power within the nonprofit, philanthropic, and higher education sectors.

Shifting power is one area that seems to go nowhere across sectors. One reason, as Brittany Cooper noted in her 2019 TED talk, is that white people “own time.” And, as Professor George Lipsitz observed, in the United States, white people have historically dictated the pace of social inclusion. White people have also dictated the modalities for social inclusion. Thus, after 10 plus years of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, very few shifts in power have occurred without a calling-in, or shaming. One new way to run down the clock is for  PWIs to invite one or two Black people into leadership positions as a cure for structural racism, only to have them report to the very entities who may be causing harm. These folks invariably quit in the name of self-preservation. There must be an earnest effort made by those with positional power to understand the relationship between their implicit biases and the slow pace of inclusion.

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 speak and act on behalf of Black and Brown folks, and casts a specious eye toward leadership from within those communities.

Until recently, it was customary to have a white person lead, and be able to secure more funding for, an organization engaging Black and Brown folks. It has been customary to have DEI initiatives designed by, controlled by, facilitated by, and reported on by white executive leadership, followed by a ticking off of the “anti-racism” box, without engaging people of color.  It is still normal for white nonprofit leaders to employ Black and Brown staff to work within Black and Brown communities, as well as expect them to serve as living, breathing, symbols of their employers’ “commitment to diversity.” These white leaders then take credit for the work on the ground (where they may have never been) and get rewarded for it, because philanthropy is obsessed with outcomes, and impact measurement, not root systems, or power shifts.

The truth is, that the leaders within the nonprofit, philanthropic, and education sectors, much like the rest of the US, all behave as if they distrust leadership that comes from folks who look like those being served: poor, dark skinned, fat, transgender, disabled, older, or folks living at the intersections. Many talented, highly skilled folks with these identities enter these fields each year, wanting to lead. Many live within the communities they serve. Yet Black and Brown staff at nonprofits have long reported the lack of mentorship, dearth of professional development, and being overlooked for advancement. Why aren’t they being given leadership opportunities?

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.

This is a calling-in to institutions and entities with power and privilege to relinquish it and to incentivize similar power shifts to center the people connected to their core values. This is a calling-in to the philanthropic, nonprofit, and education sectors to expand their circles of trust beyond white or white-adjacent executive leadership, to loosen their grip on time and space, in order to water the roots. This is how to support and elevate Black and Brown leadership, and (finally!) take a nonstop journey toward an anti-racist future. It’s time.

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