Sometimes, issues like systemic racism can feel so deeply rooted and overwhelming that it’s hard to know where to even begin chipping away at it.
But that’s when we must remind ourselves that all journeys begin with a single step.
One step taken by Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) – a Washtenaw County-based nonprofit support organization – involved a push to diversify the boards of local nonprofits. (Of the county’s more than 2,400 hundred nonprofit organizations, fewer than 30 are led by a person of color.)
After nearly a decade of NEW’s matching and recruitment efforts, more than 200 people of color were serving on local nonprofits’ boards; but what appeared like progress on a broad scale seemed to have little substantive impact within each organization.
So a second, more recent step involved the development of NEW’s Champions for Change program, which initially aimed to cultivate and support leaders of color within the nonprofit sector.
“But once we started having meetings with stakeholders, we started to understand that if we’re really going to attempt achieving systemic change, we have to be more open and offer the program to leadership across our county,” said NEW’s relationship manager Will Jones III.
“There’s still a heavy emphasis on nonprofits, and working with leaders of color, but we’re also working with white leaders. Given the current power dynamics that are in play, if you’re not including white leaders in the conversation, you’re not going to be moving the needle forward at all.”
Champions for Change welcomed its first class of 18 Leaders of Color fellows (along with a 50-person Allies Academy, a cohort now called White Leaders) in August 2019, thereby launching an eight-month intensive leadership development program that aimed to advance racial justice in Washtenaw County.
Monthly three-hour talking sessions – sometimes with the two cohorts in conversation with each other, sometimes in separate meetings – were grounded in topics like local history, how to have courageous conversations, and envisioning a liberated future.
“The cohort for leaders of color talked a lot about racial identity, resilience, and how to find others in the community who will help carry on the work in this long journey,” said Jones. “White leaders focused more on deconstructing internalized biases that are connected to white supremacy – which is the water we all swim in, so we have to work to dismantle that in our minds and in our hearts. … We only have a year together, but we know it will take decades to complete this work, so getting folks grounded in that core work is really important.”
Will Jones III. Photo by Nick Hagen.
NEW program manager Ananya Mayukha noted that she also witnessed a lot of discussions, in the leaders of color cohort, about simply wanting to feel comfortable in the world.
“One thing we straddle across is this connection to humanity, and to the tenderheartedness that gets cultivated in the fellowship experience, and the constant denial of that outside in the world,” Mayukha said. “ … Many have not experienced community like this before, where they can be fully who they are and express themselves and be loved for that.”
But like nearly all things in 2020, the program had to shift from in-person dialogues to virtual/online meetings earlier this year.
How did that transition go? According to Mayukha, the change didn’t hamper the quality of the discussions in the least.
“Maybe it’s because people had already made those close connections and were now more ready to bear what they’re holding,” Mayukha said. “ … At the end of the session, you can close your laptop and just go on with the rest of your day, but when they’re there, it feels like everyone’s going really deep. So I wouldn’t say the connections have been less present. They’re just virtual … And in this virtual space, we tried to really encourage everyone to take ownership of how they will continue to connect and collaborate with each other beyond the program.”
Jones added, “Since one of the first things to come to light (because of COVID) were the disparities and impacts within black and indigenous communities, versus white communities, … that’s definitely contributed to people’s eagerness to engage even more in the conversations and the work.”
Champions for Change recently started working with its second class of Leaders of Color fellows and White Leaders, and the latest session focused on Washtenaw County’s racial history.
“I think having that conversation early on in the program roots fellows in their personal connections to this place, and their feelings of personal accountability to this community, and to the work of racial justice,” said Mayukha.
NEW plans to stay connected to Champions for Change alumni, so as to cumulatively build its foundation and impact.
And while quantifying the success of this kind of work can be challenging, Jones and Mayukha have both been inspired by the growth and connections they’ve witnessed in Champions for Change sessions.
“This isn’t as much about, this is how you change your HR approach – we’ve done that, too – but how you change your heart and mind and your approach to all your systems,” said Jones. “ … We’ve decided it’s better to go deep and go wide.”
According to Jones, many of the first-year participants helped recruit others for the next class, thus indicating how positive and worthwhile they found the experience to be.
Ananya Mayukha. Photo by Nick Hagen.
“The connection that is happening, even virtually, that makes itself known at moments throughout the program – there’s a sense that people are really craving that,” said Mayukha. “I crave it, too. It seems to be feeding people in really important ways. We may not grasp exactly where it’s going to lead, or what outcomes it will have, but it feels really amazing.”
So while the program’s social justice mission feels ambitious and grand, its facilitators believe it starts simply – with local leaders of all stripes stepping forward to have substantive conversations about race.
“This county is extremely segregated,” Jones said. “It’s not something that folks regularly acknowledge. … But our collective vision is one that requires folks to know each other across boundaries and provide more opportunities for connecting in an authentic way. Which is different from – I mean, there are plenty of networking things out there, but not a lot of opportunities for people with the same value set to dive deep and do the trust-building that’s necessary to really do this work. … And when they’re done, (participants) have to be able to carry on the work without us, so then it becomes about how we set them up to do that. That’s something we thought a lot about between year one and year two.”