Letter to RVC’s first cohort of nonprofit leaders of color


IMG_2905Hi everyone, RVC’s first ever cohort of ten leaders of color start their work today after spending most of last week in an intense orientation retreat designed to introduce them to the nonprofit sector: “And this, you may know, is hummus. It is present at 90% of nonprofit meetings in Seattle. Traditionally it is eaten with pita wedges, but recently we’ve been seeing an increase in raw broccoli and baby carrots, especially at community forums.”

I’ve spent most of last week with the Fellows, and since today is such a historic moment for my organization and for our first cohort of leaders, I want to spend this post writing a letter to them. It will likely be long and sappy and sentimental, much like this letter I wrote my son just in case I died early. If you feel like skipping this week’s post, I’ll understand. Next week we will get back to a normal, less sentimental post.

Dear RVC’s first cohort of leaders,

Before I met you last week, I was starting to doubt my sanity. This work can be so stressful, with the endless scrambling for resources and the always present urgency of our communities’ needs, coupled with the awful non-ergonomic chairs all of us are sitting on. Sometimes, when I’m at a conference making a second round of visit to the vendors’ tables to collect free pens for the office, I wonder, “Is this all worth it?” This year has been exciting, but also nerve-wracking, because we haven’t run our program before, and I wasn’t sure how this will all turn out.

Last week, you had your orientation retreat, and I decided I was going to set aside my other duties so I could spend time with you and to get to know you. After all the work that has gone into building our curriculum, and selecting applicants, and doing outreach, and thousands of hours that staff and volunteers have put in this year in all sorts of other ways, I needed some validation that what we are doing—creating a new leadership program responsive to the needs of communities of color—has some hope of actually succeeding.

I’m glad I took all that time last week, because these four days with you have been some of the best days of my career. This time with you has done more for my morale than IMG_2854I can express in one blog post. I have been humbled and inspired by your stories and the journeys you have taken that led you to our program and to the nonprofit sector, sometimes defying and disappointing your families and communities.

There were so many moments during this retreat when I felt a sense of hope and peace that I did not realize I so desperately needed. I was awed by the thoughtfulness you displayed, ensuring we give thanks to the people whose land we are on, and that we think of those who are not in the room. During the meals, I looked around and saw leaders who come from so many cultures—Black, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Native American, Somali, Eritrean, Filipino, Chamorro—;and religions—Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, agnostic—eating together, laughing together, sharing stories, supporting one another. And I realized this is the kind of community our world needs, and that we must be intentional in creating it. 

These past few days hanging out with and getting to know you have been so renewing and inspiring for me. It gives me hope and courage to keep going. I have learned so much from all of you, and as you start your work, I want to point out, with appreciation, the things you have taught me:

Andy, your sense of joy and your kick-ass creativity are mind-blowing. I can’t believe you wrote an entire song in 39 minutes. As Nate said, “That had no reason to be as good as it was.” Somali Community Services of Seattle will benefit from your infectious energy.

Haregu, through you I was reminded of the importance of humility and thoughtfulness. Quietly and without any fanfare, you did a lot of work that needed to be done during the retreat to support the group. You remind me that great leaders are not always the ones in the limelight. Eritrean Association of Greater Seattle is lucky to have you.

Kristine, you are always laughing and finding humor in everything. You bring warmth to any room you are in. Yeah, you kind of make me feel old sometimes, but I’ll get over that. Maybe. You will help make Filipino Community of Seattle even more awesome than it is.

Marion, you remind me of the importance of brave space, to be courageous while still compassionate, and you also bring the gift of music and harmony. Got Green and its work around communities of color and the green economy will greatly benefit from having you on the team. I’ll practice so we can sing songs from Trio Los Panchos together during the mid-year retreat.

Mindy, I learned from you the power of fierce determination and of not giving up. The Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, working to support students of color, will appreciate your drive to accomplish meaningful things even against multiple obstacles. 

Nate, you are one of the most thoughtful and deeply analytical thinkers that I know. Your constant questioning of what defines a leader, and what makes a good one, will help guide our program and make it better. Rainier Beach Action Coalition will do even more amazing work around equity and community development with you on the team.

Niesha, from you I learned the gift of appreciation. In these short few days, you took notes of everyone’s strengths. You see and acknowledge people and appreciate the good in everyone around you. Sure, thanks to you I am now called “Yoda”—“He’s wise and sarcastic,” you said—but to be seen and appreciated is a gift you bring to people. Benefit greatly from your presence they will, Ethiopian Community in Seattle

Saida, I appreciate the strength that you bring, coupled with a wicked sense of humor. You are one of the funniest people I know, and I have learned so much from you about combining fiery passion with grace and patience. I know you will do so much for East African Community Services.  

Selena, from you I learned about the importance of perseverance and faith, the faith to keep going even when the path ahead is not completely illuminated. Families of Color Seattle, whose programs my family has personally benefited from, will do more amazing things with you there.

Tess, talking to you and listening to your story have made me more aware of the importance of understanding our cultural, racial, and gender identity, as we cannot do this work without understanding who we are. Horn of Africa Services will benefit from the critical lens you bring. 

Today, you begin your work to build the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits, and to build the bridges between different cultures to work together to create and change systems. So often, and in so many areas, the voices of our communities have gone unheard. Nonprofit systems, while well-meaning, are often inhospitable to communities of color, and our people are often left behind by the processes and programs intended to serve them.

And for too long our communities have been civil to one another, but isolated. If we hope to address the various entrenched challenges we as a world are facing, we can no longer work in parallel. Our paths must intersect. This is why you and your work are so important. It goes far beyond just helping your host organizations write better grants and put financial systems in place and develop an individual donor strategy, etc. Your work includes helping your organizations understand and appreciate the vast potential they have to create and change policies and systems and play a major part in building an ideal world that we all want to exist in.

IMG_2849Of course, that is not going to be an easy task. I have gone through a similar fellowship program, so I know how difficult it is. Even today, ten years after my program has ended and I am an executive director, it is still difficult, and most days I wonder if I am doing enough and if any of the stuff I am doing does any good at all. I doubt myself, and you will too. I get night terrors about funding and cashflow and whether I can pay my team and keep services going. Sometimes the challenges our communities face seem insurmountable, and some days are filled with guilt and frustration and hopelessness. At times you will feel like you’re beating your head against a wall. Your family may continue to have no clue about what you do, and many, many occasions you may have to endure soul-crushing criticism by members of the same community you try to serve. These difficult days are all part of the package for us who dedicate our lives to doing this work.

But it is great work. It is amazing work. As often as I feel like crap, there are so many days when I can’t believe I get to do this for a living. Our work helps lift up families. Our work helps build strong communities. We are constantly surrounded by brilliant, passionate people who are committed to making the world better. And we get free hummus all the time. I don’t know what other field can claim all that.

Last week for me was one of the best weeks ever, and I know it was for many other people too, because after several years of dreaming of the program, and planning it, and fundraising for it, it was surreal for us to actually meet the ten of you. And then to realize just how incredible and brilliant and compassionate and thoughtful and hilarious and community-minded you all are, and how much you have to give and to teach, it’s beyond what many of us had hoped for.

As you start your placement this week building the capacity of our communities-of-color-led nonprofit partners, I want to send you off with these two words: Thank you. Whatever meandering journey you took to get here, I am grateful you are here. Our community needs you. You go with all my gratitude and the gratitude of hundreds of people because you will be helping to build a community that we all want to live in, where our kids can grow up in. Our world will be a stronger, happier place because of you and your work. Welcome to the nonprofit family.

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