By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC
Acronyms used: HWL – Historically White Led organization; BLM – Black Lives Matter
It seems like every day there’s another statement from a historically white led organization (HWL) stating that they “stand with Black Lives matter.” Overall, I am really happy that there is a swell of consciousness and recognition among HWLs of the systemic racism against Black people. There are many white leaders out there who are really paying attention with heightened urgency and truly want to make change. In the grand scheme of things, this has the potential to be such an impactful shift in the nonprofit sector to really identify and uproot racism in our systems. But, as I was reading these beautifully crafted statements, I found myself getting frustrated, even angry, about this onslaught of verbal support, and I know I am not alone in this feeling (ex. #ShowtheReceipts is trending on many platforms). Why? Because many of these organizations are the very ones who one year ago, one month ago, even one week ago either overtly or covertly refused to stand with BLM. It used to be too risky to be seen with BLM; now it is too risky NOT to be seen with them. The historic refusal of HWLs to stand with BLM and take real anti-racist action in their organizations has actually contributed to the need for movements like BLM to begin with. In all of those statements out there, there has been little to no acknowledgment of these ironies. Is it any wonder why I and so many others are questioning the authenticity of these statements?
“It used to be too risky to be seen with BLM; now it is too risky NOT to be seen with them.”
This all got me thinking: what do I want to see in a statement to let me know that the organization isn’t just hopping on the solidarity bandwagon? Here’s what I came up with:
- Acknowledgement of the organization’s past silence and complicity. Chances are at some point in an organization’s recent history, some staffer/client/volunteer/etc. asked the question, “why don’t we openly support BLM?” Or, maybe it was more subtle, like “why do we support diversity and inclusion but not racial justice or anti-racism?” If this was the case for your organization, as it was for so many HWLs out there, please own it. Otherwise, your statements now about standing in solidarity can feel inauthentic. Silence is a form of action. Own the past complicity of this choice. Because in reality, it is this silence on the part of those with power that contributed to the need for Black communities to shout, “Black Lives Matter!”
- Self-reflection to understand the rationale of this history and its impacts. Why didn’t more HWLs stand up for BLM before? Maybe they felt it was “too political” (suggestion: dig into the coding on this…what does “political” really mean???), maybe they were worried about offending/losing donors, maybe they didn’t want to be seen as radical. Whatever the reason, please own it and explain that you will no longer use it as an excuse. Because if you don’t take time to uproot the implicit bias in your past rationale, it will keep coming up over and over again in the future to stop your progress as you try to take action for BLM.
- Acknowledgment of the violence. For every Black person who is killed by racist violence, like George Floyd, there are thousands more whose lives are also impacted every day by the same systemic oppression: jobs not offered, schools not funded, compensation not fairly provided, avenues cut off, microagressions endured. Daily. But it took violence and the subsequent outrage of an entire community to wake your organization up to the point of making a public statement. Why? Please really grapple with this question and own it. And please promise to never again wait for this level of violence before taking action.
- Commit to real action informed by Black stakeholders. “Standing” is an action, so I want to know what actions your organization will take and how you will choose those goals. This is a golden opportunity to center and amplify Black voices! Even committing to meeting with Black stakeholders specifically to set these goals for your org is an action, a first step. And if you do this, please compensate these stakeholders for their time to work with you on this plan. Remember: they are helping YOU bring to life your commitment to BLM, not the other way around.
- Publicly state a timeline. This is a major complaint I hear from BIPOC staffers and stakeholders: HWLs so often promise to make change but do not provide timelines to follow up. Just like with any strategy, give yourself a “report back” deadline and share this with your community members. Otherwise, without this accountability, it is likely that these actions will simply be pushed off when some other stressor enters the organizational system (as history has so often taught us).
- Authentically report back on progress. I know that organizations will not succeed in everything they try. But, it is okay to try, fail, learn from failure, and try again. This is how we grow, and this growth is not easy. We need to be comfortable with imperfection because we will likely not hit every target the first time we try, but we need to recognize why we didn’t, be able to explain how we will adjust to do it better, and have the developed resilience to stick with it. (one major caveat here – trying and failing at the expense of Black people is NOT okay. Take the time in your initial planning to identify and implement ways to mitigate fallout if failure to achieve a goal should occur. This takes deliberate intentionality and will be more easily addressed if planning is done with Black stakeholders from the start.)
If an organization makes a statement that takes all this into account, I would feel excited and engaged.* I would want to follow them, to learn more about them and support them by holding them accountable, and maybe even get involved as a volunteer or a donor if I see evidence of their work. In short, an organization that made a statement like this would take a critical step towards building a relationship with me, not just making a statement at me. But, crafting a statement like this may be hard, so as part of my commitment to offer practical strategies in these blogs, I drafted a template for organizations to use as a straw horse:
“We didn’t stand up for BLM before. We were scared and didn’t want to risk losing our largest contracts/donors/non-Black stakeholders. We now see that our silence and lack of action was complicit in the systemic oppression of Black people. And we are so sorry that it took so much violence against Black people to make us see this. So, we commit to taking risk, speaking out, and working hard from today on. We will deliberately analyze our organizational systems and structures to expose and uproot anti-Black bias. We will set these goals with our Black community members in ways that amplify their voices and needs. We will report back transparently on these goals every ____ through our website, email, etc. We will share what went well, what didn’t, what we learned, and how we will apply that learning to move forward. This is how we will earn the honor of saying that we stand with BLM.”
This is not a plug-n-play statement and it’s definitely not one-size-fits-all, but it should provide a foundation to start from and good fodder for discussions. And I hope it helps because I truly want this current wave of consciousness to succeed. Because we can’t and shouldn’t push off radical change any longer. Now’s the time, and we’re just getting started.
If you’d like to discuss how I may be of further support to your organization, please reach out. You got this; I got you; together we can make change.
*Please note that I am speaking for myself as an Asian-American cis-hetero woman who works professionally as a racial justice consultant. My recommendations are informed by my lived and learned experiences and the input of my BIPOC colleagues and friends, but I do not speak for anyone else.