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  • Caryn Bosson

Building bridges to inclusive nonprofit leadership

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

In Ventura County, California, more than half the population are people of color, predominantly Latino (43%). But looking at the leadership of our nonprofit sector, you’d never know it.

In 2019, regional nonprofits who responded to a survey by the Center for Nonprofit Leadership reported that their Executive Directors/CEOs were 84% white, and their Board Members were 83% white.

There’s clearly a long way to go for equitable inclusion in nonprofit leadership.

With people of all races rising up and passionately pleading for racial equity and justice for African Americans and people of color, it’s beyond time to take action. But to do so, it's critical that white nonprofit leaders have the necessary tools and understanding to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations.

Locally, the educational, training and advocacy organization, Just Communities serves the Central Coast. While much of their work centers on school and community settings, they offer excellent nonprofit trainings and a valuable Language Justice Initiative.

I’ve personally taken heart in the framework offered by john a. powell, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley (formerly the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society) and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

In his recent article, Bridging or Breaking? The Stories We Tell Will Create the Future We Inhabit in the Nonprofit Quarterly, he writes about the choice we have as a society. Do we respond to the insecurities we feel due to our nation’s accelerated changes through a lens of threat (breaking) or opportunity (bridging)?

As powell describes it, through healthy dialogue and listening deeply to those who are different from us, we can succeed in bridging, leading to a larger, more inclusive “we.”

But this work isn’t simple or comfortable. As a white nonprofit colleague of mine recently described her messy learning experience:

“My go to these past few weeks has been acknowledging discomfort, figuring out what I am supposed to learn, avoid defensive response, beware of shame, what more am I suppose to learn, reflect on my own actions in oppressive systems and take action. Rinse, repeat. It's not perfect.”

With a willingness to grapple with difficulty, and to bring our hearts, minds and courage to the process, we can enlarge the scope of "who belongs" in nonprofit leadership. At the same time, we can enlarge ourselves as individuals as well as a society. As powell states in this video (which is accompanied by free curriculum):

"Bridging means acknowledging our shared humanity, rejecting that there is a 'them,' and moving towards a future where there is instead a new 'us.'

I expect that recent events are going to yield a wealth of new training resources and opportunities. Now's the time to prepare for them, by reading widely, watching documentaries, and gaining more shared understanding and terminology.

And then comes the hard part, where the bridges are actually built.

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