Winter is here, and we must build the power of organizations and communities of color

[Image description: Nine hands of diverse skin colors, overlapping in a circle, as in a show of unity. Image obtained from]
Last month, I attended a luncheon where one of the speakers, a colleague of mine, mentioned doing a home visit to check in on a little girl and her mom. The small apartment was completely dark. As my colleague’s eyes adjusted, she noticed there were papers with strings of numbers taped to the walls. Seeing her curious look, the mom said, “These are phone numbers. I want her to memorize these numbers…in case they take me away.”

Stories like these are now more and more common. In Seattle we’ve seen flyers posted all over the South Park neighborhood encouraging people to call ICE “for fast deportation of illegal immigrants.” We’ve heard about the tragedy in Portland of the men who were murdered on a train for defending two Muslim women against the abuse of a bigot. These stories of fear and hatred are enough for many of us to lose faith in humanity. But I have been encouraged by the parallel stories of compassion and solidarity, of neighbors looking out for one another.

All of this makes me wonder about one of the most important roles of our sector, which is the building of community power. When the voices of the community members most affected by injustice are strong, when they have the resources and power to help change the systems—by voting, by shaping policies—our society is strengthened and all of us benefit. As our world spirals into divisiveness and intolerance, building the voice and power of the most marginalized is our best defense against the rise in racist nationalism, hate-mongering, xenophobia, violence, and injustice.

But we can’t do that until we admit that we have not done a great job thus far of supporting communities-of-color-led organizations, who play a critical role in serving and mobilizing communities. It is getting more and more urgent that we understand why, and figure out a new strategy. The current model of building capacity for these organizations, and thus the power of the communities they serve, is ineffective for several reasons, including:

  • Inequity in funding—It is very difficult for a community to build power if it does not get significant funding, but it cannot get significant funding if it does not have capacity, but it cannot build capacity if it doesn’t get significant funding. The funding landscape continues to be inhospitable to marginalized communities.
  • The lack of cultural awareness in traditional capacity building strategies: Traditional capacity building strategies to help organizations led by communities of color often do not take into consideration factors such as historical trauma, homeland politics, the role of elders, gender dynamics, etc. While current capacity builders mean well, many do not have the background, experience, and cultural responsiveness to address the specific needs and strengths of diverse communities.
  • The Infantilization of communities of color: As I mentioned earlier, there is a pervasive sense among funders and others in power that the people who are most affected by injustice do not have the solutions to their problems. This is coupled with the belief that those who have degrees and credentials from prestigious institutions know best. This has led to furthering the funding and influence gaps, leaving the communities who have the solutions without the resources to implement them, and resourcing the organizations who can talk a good game but whose solutions are not grounded in the reality faced by people.
  • A system that encourages competition and individualism: While we talk a good deal about collaboration, the default model reinforces individualism and perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games. For example, many foundations still won’t fund organizations that are fiscally sponsored. I’ll expand on why this is inequitable in a future post, but suffice to say, it leaves out many organizations led by communities of color, forcing them to spend endless amounts of time getting and maintaining an independent 501c3 tax status instead of focusing on building power and engaging in systems change.
  • Inadequate, disparate attempts at investing in organizations led by communities of color: I had lunch with a funder who is trying to move his foundation towards incorporating equity into funding strategies. He said, “Maybe instead of giving large multi-year grants, which are hard for smaller organizations [led by marginalized communities] to apply to, we give out smaller one-year grants. Grassroots organizations can apply for larger grants when they get big enough.” And how are they going to get bigger with the tiny amounts we give them? How can they focus on their work if we force them to spend all their time cobbling dozens of small grants together? To continue the theme of infantilizing communities, it’s like telling a toddler, “Hey, when you grow bigger, we’ll give you real food. Until then, here are a few Cheerios.” It’s insulting, and it does not work. (Cheerios alone will not get anyone to grow, no matter what my kids tell you). If we want organizations and communities to build power, then significant, cohesive investments are needed.
  • The destructive “Teach a Man to Fish” mentality: As I mentioned before, we have a pervasive belief that all nonprofits must spend their time learning over a dozen highly-specialized skills: HR, legal compliance, financial management, communications, fundraising, IT, etc. A highly-influential leader from the black community told me he spent hours on YouTube learning how to use QuickBooks. We expect everyone to learn to fish when the reality is that many people are carpenters. We force them to fish all the time and then we whine about the lack of people building houses in the community. We make organizations and leaders of color spend all the time learning a constellation of complex operational tasks and then wonder why they aren’t out there getting people to vote, or to engage with the Census project (Which is coming up, and we all need to freak out about the suppression of counts).

We need a new model for building the power of communities of color, one that addresses all the above and other challenges. We must do things completely differently. We must invest significantly in a suite of complementary strategies, and be willing to take risks. And that’s what my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, is proposing to do. We have been developing an ambitious model, created after consulting with dozens of community organizations and local and national capacity builders. I am writing about it here because I think the strategies and lessons are critical to the sector as it seeks to strengthen the voices and power of the most marginalized. (Plus, I don’t talk on this blog a lot about my organization’s work, so many people have no clue about the amazing stuff we actually do!)

RVC’s Community Alliance Model for Building Community Power

To effectively build the power of our communities, Rainier Valley Corps is forming a Community Alliance. We are banding together organizations led by and serving communities of color, primarily in Southeast Seattle, in order to maximize operational efficiency and greatly increase the abilities of these communities to work together to change and shape systems and policies. The key strategies around this Alliance are:

Fellowship program to develop leaders of color: Building community power requires that we support the leaders working to strengthen and mobilize communities. Yet, we have woefully underinvested in pipeline programs and other ways to develop and support these leaders. RVC’s fellowship program recruits talented leaders of color, provides them with training in leadership and nonprofit management, and sends them to work full-time at organizations led by communities of color for two years. There, they help to build these organizations’ capacity while at the same time developing skills and experience to become effective community leaders.

Operations support and shared services: The era of every organization having to learn to fish needs to end, if we are to have any hope of building community power. RVC will centralize operations—financial management, HR, IT, evaluation, legal compliance, etc.,–to free up organizations’ and leaders’ time to focus on their important work. This centralized shared-services model will greatly reduce costs for organizations in the Alliance, give leaders access to talented professionals specializing in each complex technical area, provide timelier and more accurate finance and other data, and free up organizations and leaders to do the things we need them to do.

Culturally-relevant capacity-building coaching: As I mentioned, so many existing capacity building strategies do not work for communities of color because they do not take into account cultural factors such the effects of historical trauma, the role of elders, and gender dynamics. A one-size-fits-all approach that ignores these factors has not been working. We hired an awesome capacity building coach who understands the nuances of working in diverse communities, and who will support the board members, staff, and RVC fellows of organizations in the Alliance. Core to this strategy is the importance of building deep relationships of trust before and while engaging in capacity building strategies, as well as the partnership in identifying what unique strategies will best strengthen organizations.

Partnership fundraising: The memory of one of my Executive Director colleagues, who is a woman of color, spending 30 hours writing a $5,000 grant proposal still haunts me. We need our community leaders out there mobilizing and organizing people and leveraging community strength to address urgent needs and change inequitable practices, not spend endless amounts of time writing grant proposals. RVC will serve as an intermediary organization that negotiates with funders to bring significant multi-year, general operating funds to members of our Community Alliance.

Collaboration and advocacy: Collaboration, especially collaborations around common advocacy agendas, do not tend to happen by accident. We must be intentional about it. RVC will play a convening role among organizations, creating opportunities for communities of color-led non-profits and communities to share resources, create strategic partnerships, and work together to address systemic inequity.

These five key strategies were selected after speaking to many leaders of organizations led by communities of color, as well as with residents of the Southeast Seattle community and capacity building leaders across the US. They cannot work in isolation from one another. Our sector needs to stop acting like hummingbirds, flitting from one strategy to another. All of these strategies are needed in different combinations depending on the needs of individual Alliance members. That’s the only way this will work.

And it is an expensive model. We calculate that it costs anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 per organization per year, depending on the combination of services they need as an Alliance member. That seems like a lot, but if we are going to get anywhere, this piecemeal, give-a-toddler-a-handful-of-Cheerios approach to funding the communities most affected by violence and injustice is no longer acceptable.

The model is continually evolving. Capacity building, and community power building, is messy and needs to be customized to each org at different times, so while these strategies like the best mix for our specific partner organizations, we expect the model to continue to evolve as we continue this dialogue with our partners and with other experts in capacity building, leadership, and community organizing. I’d love to hear your thoughts as we continue to strengthen it. If you are in or near Seattle, we are having our quarterly community gathering this Thursday, June 1st, from 6pm to 8pm, where we’ll be talking further about these strategies as well as interview a local community leader on her work in this volatile political climate.

Our sector needs to focus significantly more time and resources on building community power. Because winter is here. I know this oft-used Game of Thrones reference sounds ridiculous considering the 80-degree-and-above weather many of us have been experiencing. In GOT, winter arrives, and it lasts whole generations, and the unlucky enter the world and die in the snowy darkness. It feels like that now for many of our community members forced to live in fear and uncertainty. In the darkest of times throughout history, our sector—comprising nonprofits, funders, donors, and volunteers—has often been the light, the beacon. One of our most important tasks is to build the strength of our community, but to do that effectively, we must let go of many of our preconceived ideas and take some risks.

That’s what my organization continues to do, and I hope the lessons from our successes and failures—to-be shared on this blog and on RVC’s blog—will help to inform our sector as we all work together to build a just and inclusive society.