NEW helps nonprofits seeking racial justice and equity to challenge their missions and visions

At Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) we want to uplift people who are very mission-driven. We work with leaders of nonprofit organizations in Southeast Michigan, not only to uplift their voices, but also their thought processes, organizational processes and the ways they and their staff engage with their communities. Our goal is to help them realize the vision of their work, toward a just and thriving society.

At NEW, we focus heavily on racial equity issues, uplifting aspects of racial justice and helping organizations thrive in what could be perceived as disruptors, but I'd rather think of them as revealers. Racial inequity has been going on for centuries, and whether it's environmental challenges we're facing, racial injustice or economic issues, there’s been a peeling back of things that’ve long been hidden and are now being openly discussed. We're being challenged to identify the ways we have, over centuries, oppressed whole groups of people and done great damage to the environment.

One thing I’m noticing, working with clients in the pandemic environment of staying home and coming together on Zoom discussions, is a significantly increased introspection about things. When we come together, we’re having conversations based on thought processes we've had outside of that Zoom setting, and there's often some explanatory background that has to take place to help others understand how, whether it’s an executive director or a board or directors, got to certain thought processes.

We're focusing on a lot of really wonderful content that's available to us from around the world now, instead of being in our own little silos. It’s giving us opportunities to be introspective about our place in the world, and how our organizations can act on their visions and their missions. 

What I and others have seen emerge, is that boards that are dominantly white are recognizing their inadequacy to properly serve BIPOC communities. And they've been bringing that forward. At NEW, we've done much more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, and had many more exploration discussions and equity challenges. There's an element of broad community—I wouldn't say overall receptiveness—but curiosity about what am I missing here as a white person?

Our staff has been challenged to even meet the need in this area. We've grown in how many people we have doing this work, and each of us personally are doing more introspection on these issues so we can help our clients as well. It’s very personal, very revealing work; enlightening at times, and certainly challenging.

I'm a biracial person. My people are Lakota and Métis from Canada. I'm noticing things people will say because they think they're safe with me because I'm perceived as white. I'm proud of that part of my heritage, and my ancestors who struggled so I could be here. But similarly, I'm recognizing that my perspective as an Indigenous person is also angry at their assumptions and negative comments. That’s my personal journey that not only my colleagues and NEW are helping me with, but also access to great blog posts and webinars helping me dig into that identity more so I can be of compassionate service to the broader nonprofit community.

In our equity challenges, we help people clarify what they mean by words like racism, racial equity, white supremacy, etc. We give them language. We also give them tools to get other perspectives and an opportunity in a very safe and facilitated environment to talk about the way these things impact their organization's mission. We help to reveal the avenues of work, and the attitudes that pervade not only the thought processes of serving people that have certain lived experiences, life traumas and economic disadvantages, but the ability to see those things.

This is offered in a way that doesn’t slap you in the face, but where people can hear and be receptive to new information, whether that’s data, or maps to show, for instance, redlining. One key piece I like is a series of wonderful videos of individual people from a wide spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, occupations, disabilities etc.,  talking about the experience of their lives. This is an important tool because many people in the dominant culture don't have those connections with other people groups.

We're seeing organizations dig into the true meanings behind their mission, vision and value statements. That’s something wonderful that’s emerged from 2020. They’re asking how they can uplift those in ways that are deeper, more thoughtful and more evidence-based. In spite of tremendous challenges last year, the resiliency of the nonprofit sector has been revealed to me in beautiful ways. There’s courageous activity and thought, and a shown ability to pivot in uniquely powerful ways.  Both the volunteers, as in the board of directors, and the paid staff, everybody's just doing so much. And in such flexible, resilient, intelligent ways.

A major challenge for them right now is to get outside themselves and see how they look from the other side of the door, as people come to them for services. With funding issues, it’s also a challenge to encourage them to see beyond the deficit-thinking model—we don't have enough money, we don't have the right staff— to get to a prosperity mindset, a resiliency mindset. 

Because there are great funding challenges. Foundations, corporations and governments put so many restrictions on these nonprofits that are immensely creative, and if you removed the barriers, the reporting requirements and all of the restrictions, if you unbound them and let them do what they do best, our communities would all be better. We are well-represented in the nonprofit sector, there are deeply thoughtful people who are wanting to be courageous with what they do. And that gives me lots of hope.

Judy Nimer Muhn is an organizational development consultant at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work in Washtenaw County. The support organization connects nonprofit leaders with the resources they need to advance their mission-minded work. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.