Trickle-Down Community Engagement, part 2: The infantilization of marginalized communities must stop


lantern-827784_960_720Last year, I wrote a post on the phenomenon called “Trickle-Down Community Engagement” (TDCE), which is “when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.” This post became NWB’s most-read article, triggering discussions, workshops, debates, and at least one R-rated puppet show. Today, I want to revisit TDCE, because it is a destructive force in our sector, much like the Overhead Myth, the Sustainability Myth, and the lack of ergonomic chairs, and we must keep it at the front of our minds. (Warning: Seahawks lost to the Panthers, so this post may be a little grumpier than most)

Taking a lantern to go find the light

Every Lunar New Year (which this year is on February 8th), my wife and I go to the local Buddhist temple at midnight to get our fortunes for the year by shaking a container of 80-or-so wooden sticks until one falls out. Each stick has a number corresponding with a particular fortune, one that is supposed to guide your entire year. One time, I got the worst fortune ever, something like “This stick represents a bird in the storm. Danger unfolds from four directions. All your endeavors will lead to failure. For every path you take, there is only pain and despair, and your hopes will be dashed upon the rocky shoals of futility.”

That’s terrifying, so I did what you are supposed to do when you receive a bad fortune for the New Year. It is a secret technique I learned from my father, and he learned from his father, and something I will pass down to my sons: When you get a bad fortune, put the stick back in the container and keep shaking until you find a fortune that you like.

So I put it back, and got this fortune instead: “This stick represents taking a lantern to go find the light. In the darkness, you search for the flame. On the treacherous and winding path, you use a lantern to illuminate your way. Tormented will be your quest, until you realize the light is within your hand.

What does this have to do with anything, you ask? We in the nonprofit sector often fall into this trap, where we do not appreciate the awesome people and things we have, even as we use them to search for something awesome. For example, we poorly pay a superstar team member, so they leave, and we end up raising the salary for their position in order to find someone almost as good as the person who just left (and we’ll lamps-998173_960_720probably even ask the former staff to help train the incoming one). Or we abandon existing proven programs in search of “innovation.” Or we underappreciate our existing donors and chase after new ones. Talk to your team and see if there are any lanterns that your org is taking for granted even while you use these lanterns to search for some elusive light.

This metaphor may explain why Trickle-Down Community Engagement happens, and why communities of color and other marginalized communities have been so frustrated with many practices and systems and conversations within the nonprofit sector.

A few months ago I was checking in with a couple of program officers about their plans around leadership and capacity among communities-of-color-led nonprofits. These are program officers that I like and admire (and I’m not just saying that because they read this blog). The foundation had expressed interest in my organization’s work around bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector.

“The trustees just approved our plans to do some research to find out what communities of color need in order to build leadership and organizational capacity. I know you’ve been working in this area. You’re on our list of people to talk to.”

I took a sip of beer (stop judging, it was at least 2pm). I had not had the best day that day, and that bit of news just added to the general crappiness.

“Can I be honest?” I said, and they nodded, because they’re awesome that way, “my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, did all that research already. Over a year, we asked a whole bunch of organizations led by communities of color what they need in order to grow their capacity. We had interviews and focus groups. What they all wanted was staffing. They need people, because historically, funders have been sending them to workshops, or paying for consultants to come do a strategic plan or fundraising plan or something. And it usually doesn’t work, because if an organization does not have full-time staffing, you can send them to a thousand workshops and conferences and do a hundred strategic plans, it’s going to go nowhere because who is going to implement anything? In fact, that is why Rainier Valley Corps was formed in the first place. We send full-time fellows into these organizations, and we’ll train both the fellows and the organizations. That’s what the communities want! Why are you trying to find a model when we already have a strong model to test out?”

“Well, we—“

“You’re going to take 18 months to do this research. You’re going to hire a consultant to come and ask me for my opinions, and I will tell you exactly what I just told you: Fund leaders of color to work full-time at these organizations. Communities are getting so tired of being asked what we want to see, and then we propose solutions, and then these solutions are not funded because it doesn’t line up with funders’ agendas and priorities.”

I let out a high-pitched wail, then collapsed on the floor, beating my chest and tearing at my hair in anguish, before regaining my composure and sitting up to calmly sip on my beer. After more discussion, I found out that this due diligence is the way to convince the foundation’s trustees. They need to see this research done. I apologized to my colleagues for snapping at them, understanding that foundation staff are often bound by whims of their boards and other factors. Still, it is frustrating to have these conversations, and I am not the only one having them.

The infantilizing of communities

As I’ve been working in the field, and working specifically with communities of color, I’ve been seeing more and more signs of diverse communities being treated like children who don’t know what’s good for them. I don’t think it is conscious or intentional. But it is still frustrating, like watching the first half of the Seahawks/Panthers game. Here are a few key ways it plays out: 

The lack of trust that communities have solutions to their own problems. A major frustration—probably THE major frustration—that many of us grassroots organizations have is that there seems to be a lampions-796640_960_720disbelief among many funders and other people in power that communities actually have the solutions to our own problems. It is really ridiculous if you think about it. The people and communities who have personal experiences dealing with society’s entrenched problems should know more about it than those who have not. But there seems to be this weird paradox, where if you are too close to a problem, then people may assume that your judgement got harmed by it or something.

The unrealistic expectations for communities to “get along.” I’ve talked to funders and others who seem like impatient parents sighing at a bunch of bickering siblings, wondering why these dang kids can’t just cooperate. They get dismissive, as if it were easy for communities with thousands of years of unique histories and cultures to suddenly just all be buddies. I’ve been seeing more and more leaders of color becoming hyper aware and cautious of what they say and when they openly disagree or give honest feedback to one another, fearing that any “negative” interactions will reaffirm these unrealistic expectations.  

The demands for communities to prove themselves with little initial support. Here’s your weekly allowance; I’ll hold it safe for you until you can prove you understand how to spend it responsibly. Whereas mainstream organizations, even those just starting out, have higher chances of getting significant funding to do planning, research, or whatever, often efforts led by marginalized communities are expected to perform miracles and get a “track record” and come up with a perfect plan on pennies before even thinking of asking for a medium-sized grant.  

This thinking of communities as children who don’t know what’s good for themselves may be a reason why it has been a struggle for so many of us to find significant funding, and why Trickle-Down Community Engagement exists. “Data,” “track-record,” “readiness,” “capacity,” and other terms and concepts are thrown about as justification to keep funding larger organizations who may not be rooted in the communities they serve, when in reality, it may just be that there is no trust that people and communities who have endured decades or millennia of injustice actually understand their own problems and know how to fix them. And this may be why funders and policy makers keep searching for some sort of “innovative” solution to various problems, while simultaneously finding reasons to not support the solutions proposed by the people who have lived through these challenges.

I don’t question anyone’s motivations. In fact, I think most people in our sector mean well. But good intention is no longer enough; and when it is coupled with a paternalistic philosophy that infantilizes diverse communities, it is incredibly destructive.

Let’s stop finding solutions, and start funding solutions

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is a serious problem, and communities are getting exasperated. If we are to solve problems, we must stop thinking of communities as helpless children, and start trusting that people are the experts of their own lives and invest accordingly. “We need to stop finding solutions and instead fund them,” says one of my colleagues, Jondou Chen, who helped me think about the concept of Weaponized Data a while ago. I agree with him. There is way too little trust that communities have the solutions, that they are the solutions..

And this lack of trust and faith in communities has not been working. If investing significant funding in large organizations who are not connected to communities, who then trickle-down resources to grassroots organizations, if that has been working, then there should not be a swelling tide of frustration and anger among marginalized communities at the continued inequity. For example, see “Why communities of color are getting frustrated with collective impact.”

Why don’t we try the reverse for once, and invest significant amounts in organizations led by the people who know first-hand the inequity they are trying to address. We need to stop using our communities as lanterns to search for this mysterious light in the distance with the expressed purpose of bringing light back to our communities. We are tired to being asked to attend more forums, summits, focus groups, answer more surveys, rally our community members, only for our opinions to be dismissed. One funder told me, “Communities need to stop complaining and start proposing solutions.”

We have been. We propose solutions all the time. But if there’s no trust that we actually know what we’re talking about, if there’s no faith that the qualitative experiences and perspectives of people who have lived through decades of social injustice are just as valid as double-blind quantitative meta-studies written up in a glossy white paper or whatever, then what’s the point? The investments will be token, oftentimes trickled-down, and then that will be used to say, “You know what, we invested in you, and it didn’t lead to what we wanted,” further perpetuating the cycle.

My organization operates with the guiding belief that our communities are the light, that the leaders of color whom we train and mentor are the light, and that we just need to help them find fuel to keep burning. This something we all need to believe and act on. Because a neglected lantern can only illuminate a path for so long before its fuel runs out and its flame extinguished. And then all of us will be left in the dark.

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