I’m sitting across from a dear friend at a coffee shop in the Bronx. Soft jazz plays as I enjoy a foamy latte; I am at peace.
We’re discussing his job at his nonprofit in Harlem, an alternative to incarceration (ATI) program that works with 95% Black and Brown young people. I worked there with him for a few months and left because of a co-worker’s homophobic rant. A man who’d been at the company for entirely too long and was a well known sexist who regularly harassed women started calling one of our supervisors a “faggot.” After the second usage of the word I confronted him and somehow the company ended up disciplining me. This in itself is a testament to the climate of that company.
Astrud Gilberto plays in the background while the smell of freshly baked cinnamon pastries fills the tiny corner cafe. My friend is partially hidden behind his laptop telling me a story about a white woman at the company. She came aboard as a fellow in 2016 and worked there for only a few months. After her fellowship ended she spoke with the CEO of the company, a white man who had a strong relationship with her father. When I was working there, the biggest complaint that I heard from our young people was that this white man in charge never spoke to them and rarely made eye contact with them. The woman expressed how she “didn’t like what was going on” at the company and she wanted to change the climate. After a short hiatus, she returned in what was no doubt an act of cronyism, as a director. This act was met with outrage from every Black employee in the company. There are people of color who’ve been working there for many years, who’ve been routinely passed over for adequate promotions. Many people of color have quit working at this company for this reason.
There are people of color who’ve been working there for many years, who’ve been routinely passed over for adequate promotions.
My stance on being a Black radical is that, for the good of Black people and people of color, it is your job to radicalize every space you enter for the rest of your life. The language of radicalism is often times viewed as too aggressive. I consider this to be more of a misnomer to soften Black people and Black movements for the white palate. I view radicalism through acts of resistance and transgression, of every shape and texture, at every level. Immediately addressing microaggressions or macroaggressions of racism in the spaces you enter is radical. Consistently being a voice for vulnerable populations is radical. Working to shift a problematic climate in a place that serves predominantly Black and Brown persons is a radical act. It also feels like a lost cause. When you have a white led institution, of any kind, that offers services to or has a large impact on the lives of vulnerable populations, in the end, they will always be more ineffective than effective because they can’t understand the nuanced experiences of these marginalized communities.
I have worked in the nonprofit world for nine years. I am coming to understand that the road of the Black radical in this and almost all industries is going to be extremely exhausting and complicated. Simply put, white folks are not going to let you come in and destroy/complicate how they profit, dominate, and exert their control/whiteness over the experiences of people of color. Although my stance feels righteous and ethically viable it will inevitably come up against whiteness and be defeated. So where is a Black radical to go, in order to effect positive change in their community?
I was recently fired from a nonprofit in New York City that works specifically with LGBTQIA young people experiencing homelessness. The majority of the clients at this organization are Black and Brown young people, ages 16-24. At an organization like this, one that centers a very specific vulnerable population and that considers itself a truly safe space for people of color and LGBTQIA folks, one would imagine it to be a relatively progressive workplace. This was not the case.
My stance on being a Black radical is that, for the good of Black people and people of color, it is your job to radicalize every space you enter for the rest of your life.
From the initial interview to my firing, I was a radical Black person in that space. My office donned pictures of Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Marcus Garvey, and Marsha P. Johnson. I was radical in all of my daily comments and interactions. from correcting my co-workers misgendering of our clients to consistently speaking out on issues of racism, ableism, anti-blackness when others were silent. In the beginning, this was viewed as a positive attribute that the majority of white directors praised me for. I was often lauded for my leadership ability and grassroots mentality and allegedly I was, “just what the space needed.” However, when the critical nature of radical resistance was gently aimed toward the white people in positions of power, suddenly I became a danger and a threat.
There was any number of terribly problematic actions taking place on a given day in the space, usually among staff. Some staff members refused to address our Trans clients with proper pronouns. Latino directors casually used the N-Word, then explained it as their proximity to Blackness and geographic conditioning: “I grew up around nothing but Black people.” Several times a week they would parade groups of funders and volunteers through this supposedly confidential space. A white presenting, Latino man would lead the charge. He never interacted with the young people we supported. He would walk the groups through the space and say things like, “Many of our young people have cognitive delays. Some of our kids can barely count to ten.” He often used language and imagery that was inaccurate and tinged with anti-Blackness. The longer I worked there the angrier I got.
When I got fired from this organization it felt like a clear cut case of retaliation. They fired me with the intention of sending a message to me and the other people of color trying to address oppressive behaviors. I had pulled aside four white people: two supervisors, a director, and the company’s Executive Director, to address genuinely racist things that they had said and done. From a white male supervisor loudly proclaiming in the halls that we need to start forcing our young people to have more abortions, to a white male director invoking the imagery of, “A Nigger hanging from a tree,” as an example of things a white man should never say.
They fired me with the intention of sending a message to me and the other people of color trying to address oppressive behaviors.
The final incident involved a gay Black man who openly opposed the idea that there was any racism at the agency; instead, he exclaimed that we were all complainers. This person had threatened physical violence against me after an agency-wide Anti-Racism training. He began gossiping about me around the office and making me feel extremely uncomfortable. I brought these instances to my supervisor, a white woman who somehow went from doing her job poorly as an intern and education specialist to being a supervisor. During supervision, I decided to take this issue to HR. Before I had a chance to, they claimed that I threatened violence against him and used several racial slurs, calling him an Uncle Tom, Sambo, and a Step and Fetch it. These were untruths, but even as I asserted this point I was quickly fired.
It feels like the Nonprofit Industrial Complex is no place for Black people looking to effect real, measurable, and more importantly, sustainable change in the lives of vulnerable populations. It is no place for people of color who are outspoken and ready to fight for fairness and dignity at every turn. The only real remedy/alternative to this issue is community organizations that hire strategically from the communities they are trying to serve, and do not accept money from the nonprofit industry, political arena, or foundational grants. Organizations that hire people who understand context, nuance, and more importantly that look like the people who we are trying to support. But this often feels like more of an ideal than a practical reality.
It feels like the Nonprofit Industrial Complex is no place for Black people looking to effect real, measurable, and more importantly, sustainable change in the lives of vulnerable populations.
Black and Brown communities experiencing poverty are often times forced to utilize white nonprofits and depend upon them in order to survive. When I was working in a Catholic shelter, I would constantly come across people of color who were not Catholic at all, they just needed the services. These organizations would force their homeless populations into the streets if they did not attend church services. They would openly discriminate against the LGBTQIA populations and try to persuade queer people into “changing their ways,” which shows that nuanced experience is necessary in order to effectively serve. These nonprofits tend to have structural approaches that are too rigid to be effective. For example, many nonprofits have policies around interacting with young people outside of the spaces we work, some going as far as having policies that restrict this type of interaction for years after your employment has ended or the young people have been discharged. These fears, although seemingly valid, are often financial. These organizations seem to be looking out for the possible lawsuits, not the young person’s best interest. Policies that deal with fraternization are a great example of this. Many organizations have policies that severely limit or restrict the interactions you can have outside of work with the people you support. But meeting them where they are in order to do the real work of building community and support usually involves going beyond the office door.
These rules create a structure that relies heavily on the notion that the lives of the people we support are predictable. People living through homelessness, criminal and court involvement or intellectual or developmental disability do not have this luxury. And this often times calls for us to deviate from the rules. In my opinion, this feels a lot easier for people of color to understand. Many of the white folks leading and working in these nonprofits are too afraid to venture to the clients’ homes or their neighborhoods, but this is often where the real work lies. This is not to ignore the safety, boundaries, and security issues that could arise, but at the end of the day, things happen and sometimes as workers, we are all our clients have in the way of support.
There are clearly no quick fixes. This is a multifaceted problem. For those of us who want to do this work from a place of authenticity, we must be more strategic. Working for and starting our own grassroots organizations feels like the only way to do this effectively, but it will be difficult. Funding organizations like these without ever taking a white handout is extremely challenging, and it’s designed to be. However, it seems to be the only route toward building freedom and independence in communities that need it the most.