Reflections pt. II on Dismantling Racism in an Historically White-Led Nonprofit
A PDF of the full statement is available here.
Dear friends of Seattle Works,
In December 2019, I shared a letter reflecting on our journey to build an anti-racist organization. A whirlwind of a year later – filled with constant learning and adapting – I am here to share some updates and progress on our anti-racist journey.
WE TOOK A STAND & GOT POLITICAL
We are using our platforms to stand with communities most impacted by racism, police brutality, inequity, and oppression. One of the biggest lessons from 2020 was that Seattle Works, and the nonprofit sector, must be vocal on issues impacting our most vulnerable populations. Our friend Vu Le’s seminal blog post “This is the wake-up call for nonprofits and foundations to get political” anchored these conversations. In 2020, we:
Educated ourselves about alternatives to policing as we know it (see here, here, and here) and amplified the Defund movement. We were accountable to our written strategic commitment to “center Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) and marginalized voices” and “disrupting white silence as an organization.”
Signed on to advocacy letters, including “The Solidarity Budget: For 2021 and Beyond” that is anti-racist, pro-Black and towards a healthy future for all.
Donated $2,500 to Black-led orgs, including King County Equity Now, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, and National Bail Out. Our Black staff chose these organizations with support from other BIPOC colleagues. (We also contribute monthly reparations via Real Rent Duwamish).
Supported staff in taking paid time off and flexing hours to be on the ground at protests and marches.
Amplified efforts led by- and for- marginalizedcommunities and offered opportunities for local action. We used our social media channels and newsletters like never-before. Our online impressions have been through the roof; as an example, our Instagram post during Black History Month has garnered more than 16,000 likes.
WE TOOK SOME HEAT – AND THAT’S OKAY
To build a more inclusive culture of volunteerism, we are constantly addressing race, power, privilege, and white supremacy. Pleasing everyone is impossible and we have faced our share of pushback.
A long-time, beloved supporter of Seattle Works asserted that we were not operating in the spirit of our founders. I couldn’t disagree more. Seattle Works was launched by people in their 20’s who insisted that we must evolve with the needs, wants, desires, and demands of new generations of changemakers.
After stating “white silence is violence” in a newsletter, we received a comment that this language is “extreme,” and the sender was “sad to see Seattle Works going over the ideological deep end.”
There have been several remarks like these e.g. people suggesting we are perpetuating “reverse racism”; “denigrating white male leadership”; becoming an “activist” organization. If amplifying voices from historically oppressed communities and creating more inclusive programs means we are now an “activist” organization, then I welcome that label. Let us all be activist organizations!
I share these critical anecdotes above as a reminder that facing white fragility is part of this work. We try to be judgment-free and hold compassion when meeting people where they are, AND we will center racial justice over white comfort every time. Fortunately, the writing on the wall is that our efforts to honor our mission and vision by centering anti-racism are working. For example, we:
- Had an astounding seven times more applications for our new Agents of Change program than available spots.
- Received a six-figure general operating gift, as well as other gifts from individuals, foundations, and companies explicitly in support of our work to center anti-racism and change the narrative around volunteerism. We acknowledge that access to these opportunities is likely influenced by Seattle Works being a historically white- led and white-founded organization and urge funders to continue to challenge their unconscious biases. Read more about funding inequity in Vu Le’s “Philanthropy and the Destructive Illusion of ‘Leveling the Playing Field’.”
- Had companies from tech to biopharmaceutical state they chose to partner with Seattle Works because they recognize our commitment to training anti-racist volunteers.
- Were invited to speak to 23 different groups (boards, staff teams, cohorts, coalitions, councils) to share our testimonial and inspire action (at each speaking engagement we refer groups to local anti-racist BIPOC consultants who are thanking us for all the referrals).
- Had our work featured in national blogs, articles, and newsletters.
- Last but not least, we hear validation in the day-to-day interactions from peers who text us notes of appreciation and, most importantly, from our BIPOC staff sharing that they feel wholly supported by Seattle Works and are able to bring their full, authentic selves to work.
WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A MAJOR RE-ORG WITH STAFF AND BOARD
Okay, this one is huge. Together, our staff used a powerful, consensus-based decision-making process to shift to a flat structure at Seattle Works. What does this mean?
Seattle Works is now a worker self-directed organization with distributive leadership. We have replaced the structure of hierarchy with a structure of peer co-creation.
I am no longer the Executive Director of Seattle Works. My new title is Connector Director; I took a 30% pay cut and have a revised job description. Each staff person is now a director of a sphere of influence, we all now make the same salary, and we share power and responsibilities equally.
We have upwards of 20 pages outlining the structure of this new model, including peer accountability, decision making, and cultural norms. Flat does not mean no structure.
We are re-imagining the size and scope of our board, which has been bumpy for everyone as we navigate board governance implications for a distributive leadership structure. There is no one right answer and we are still in the process of figuring out what makes the most sense for us. I’ve regularly bragged how remarkable our board is; at the same time, I think everyone should read Vu’s Nonprofit AF blog post “How the default nonprofit board model is archaic and toxic; let’s try some new models” as it invites us to imagine a different way.
Our new organizational structure is a grand experiment that will take ongoing nurturing and tweaking. There is immense risk in making this change – however, there is more risk in not making it. Here are some resources that helped inform our re-org strategy:
- The Future of Nonprofit Leadership: Worker Self-directed Organizations - Non-Profit Quarterly
- How to grow distributed leadership - Medium.com
- Resources for Workplace Democracy – Sustainable Economies Law Center
- Compass Point, Reimagining Compensation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
- Race to Lead: Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing the Nonprofit Leadership Gap -- Building Movement Project
- Exploring Distributed Leadership with RVC Seattle – RVC + Leadership Learning Community
WE LAUNCHED NEW PROGRAMS & LET GO OF OTHERS; WE MUSTN’T OPERATE OUT OF HISTORY & HABIT
After years of fierce internal reflection and change, 2020 was the year to thoroughly incorporateanti-racism education externally in all our programs, including:
- Launched our new cohort-based program, Agents of Change, that goes through eight virtual sessions in an effort to decolonize our sector and activate anti-racist changemakers. Topics include implicit bias, the non-profit industrial complex, volunteer engagement with an anti-racist lens, and advocacy.
- Launched a bi-weekly white caucus meetup to process feelings, retrain ourselves, and take action to dismantle racism, build community, and shift power to people who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).
- Handled the fiscal sponsorship of the Mothers of Color COVID Relief Grant and helped funnel $17,500 directly into the hands of families who needed it most (shout out to Ruchika Tulshyan who founded the grant and trusted Seattle Works as a partner).
- Successfully shifted our Bridge: Board Training and BIPOC Link-Up programs online.
- Participated in tough and necessary conversations about what needs to be let go at Seattle Works. We decided to indefinitely cancel our annual gala, Swank, and our day of service, Seattle Works Day. Additionally, we are re- envisioning our volunteer calendar in 2021 to be more in line with our values by integrating deeper educational work around power and race in volunteering. We will, however, continue to create opportunities for people to come together in community because we know the *magic* that happens at our events.
Saying "No" to something means saying "Yes" to priorities. In 2020 we were emboldened by the moment and chose to say Yesto racial justice, deeper education, more transformative relationships, and a better organizational culture.
To be part of this organizational transformation with this team has been the greatest honor of my career and given me a sense of purpose during this intense and traumatic year. I hope these updates give you fodder for thought and that you can learn from Seattle Works. Thanks for reading!
- Ben Reuler,
Executive Connector Director