It’s 2020. Be bold or get the hell out of the way

[Image description: People marching int a rally. Many are wearing pink hats. A person in the center, with long blond hair, is wearing a white jacket and pink gloves. Their left fist is raised and their right hand is holding a sign that says “We are better than this!”]

Hi everyone. Today’s post will likely be serious, as it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I know many of us in the sector are reflecting on his legacy. It has been a rough few years, and there were several moments where it was hard for me to believe that the “arc of the moral universe” bends toward justice. But I know it does. I see it on my travels, speaking with various brilliant leaders and organizations. I see it in on a daily basis through the work that you each do to lift up individuals and families and make our world better. Thank you. You give me hope and keep me going.

Unfortunately, however, we still often stand in our own ways, sometimes without even realizing it. A while ago I attended a meeting with group of local leaders. We were talking about equity. Someone said, “What is our definition of equity? Have we defined it? Are we on the same page?” The discussion devolved into a conversation about the definition of equity. I have no poker face, so it slowly contorted into a visage of pure frustration tinged with rage.

Our sector’s, and specifically progressives’, ability to intellectualize is without parallel. The harmfulness of our propensity to intellectualize is only matched by our delusion that we’re making progress through intellectualization. “Equity has been defined by researchers and others already,” I said, “we have kids in cages still to this day; we don’t have time for this.” A few agreed, and the definition of equity was relegated to a committee.

The following meeting, the group started to discuss specific areas of injustice—education, housing, jobs. I brought up that we always do this, that we come up with list of problems and actions, and we never address the levers of power, so then nothing ever changes. We can keep proposing solutions, but who will implement them? Who will fund them?

As I mentioned earlier, if we want to tackle these and other social problems, we need focus on a few critical levers of power:

  1. Elect more women of color into office
  2. Ensure marginalized people can vote and have the resources to do so
  3. Remove the influence of corporations and money in general on politics
  4. Change the tax code so rich people pay their fair share of taxes
  5. Control the public’s perception on important issues (to align with facts, not fear)

If we as a sector do not focus more resources on these things—around which conservatives have rallied extremely effectively these past few decades—then we will keep spinning our wheels, now matter how many retreats and discussions we engage in and no matter how many white papers and action plans we create. I brought this up, and immediately was disappointed by the reaction:

“But are people ready for this?” “How do we not upset Amazon and other corporations who may partner with us?” “How do we start where people are and not move too far ahead of them?”

What was surprising was that these reactions were not coming so much from the funders in the room, but from other nonprofit and community leaders. Especially other leaders of color. I felt my energy draining. One leader in so many words said the 2020 presidential election’s results are foretold, and that’s it’s basically hopeless, so we should just focus on whatever small degree of damage control we can do.

I’m sorry, I do not accept this, and I hope you don’t either. I know things are dire. I know many of us are exhausted; I am too. Continents are burning; Neo-Nazis are marching; 162 billionaires have the same wealth as half the population on earth. But all of us must get over whatever sense of despair and despondency we feel, because our communities are relying on us. Children and families traumatized at the border are relying on us. Innocent people getting killed because of racism are relying on us. People and animals whose lives will be severely affected by the devastation brought by climate change are relying on us.

It’s 2020. This is a critical year for us. I’m talking mainly about the US, but I know other countries feel it too. Not only is the US presidential election this year, but it’s also Census 2020. We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves. Nor can we keep doing the same energy-wasting, ineffective stuff. Has incrementalism worked? Has spending decades trying to inch along the very people who cause the problems worked?

We need to be bold, and we need to cut the crap. The definition of equity? Here’s my revised definition: Equity is about restoring power and resources to the people and communities who have been most harmed by the ongoing legacy of colonization, slavery, and injustice based on white supremacy and toxic patriarchy.

There, let’s move on. It’s not perfect, but we don’t have years to debate it like we have been. Our sector needs to think, speak, and act more boldly. Here are a few things we all need to do:

Take a public stance, and be explicit: Stop skirting around difficult issues and take a stance. If your foundation is focused on bringing more resources to communities of color, say it. If your nonprofit wants to make a public statement about being against white nationalism in light of rising hatred, do it. We all need to be loud for justice and against injustice, and it’s going to piss some people off. That must be accepted as part of our job if we’re doing it right.

Rally around the levers of power: As I mentioned, the things that will lead to change are electing more women of color, getting disenfranchised people to vote, get money out of politics, change the tax code, and shape public opinions. Also, fix gerrymandering. Every equity or systems change effort is doomed to fail unless it focuses on one or more of these things. This is not to say we should abandon our other programs and services; we should continue them, but our sector simultaneously needs to be working in concert on these levers if we’re going to make a dent.

Be engaged in advocacy: We have some amazing advocacy organizations leading the way. But all of us need to be involved. Show up for rallies. Write op-eds. Mobilize community members to call elected officials. Stage a sit-in. Whatever, do something, anything! We can’t keep navigating and helping marginalized people navigate within an unjust system. We have to change unfair laws and practices.

Throw some wrenches: Stop going with the flow. If something seems off to you, if internally you’re thinking “oh God, not again,” stop just going along with it. If an agenda does not make sense, say so. If a group you’re a part of is wasting its time on things you don’t think will make a difference, point it out. If the group is mostly white or mostly dudes or whatever, ask to halt the meeting until there’s meaningful representation. Your wrench-throwing may save a lot of time and energy, and chances are, others are thinking the same but are afraid to say anything. If your efforts to change things don’t work, quit, find a more receptive group.

Funders, fund and support advocacy: I’m getting tired of the foundations who are squeamish about advocacy. Your fear and disdain of advocacy, on top of your pervasive risk-aversion on everything, is costing lives. Fund advocacy, voter drives, civic participation, political engagement of marginalized communities, progressive media, and other things that will lead to systems change. Encourage organizations to participate in these things, because most of you have historically been actively preventing them through your words and actions. Do better.

Analyze how you may be complicit in perpetuating injustice: This is for a longer post, but we all need to reflect on how we may be benefiting from the status quo. We have rent. We have kids to feed. If we have a cushy job, or any job at all, why would we rock the boat? But we need to stop denying that we have conflicts of interest and may be complicit in perpetuating or furthering the problems we are trying to solve, and we have to start figuring out what we are willing to give up.

I know, it’s easy for me to just say stuff on this blog and think I’m doing something useful. I have to figure out what my role is moving forward. All of us do. We need to stop quoting Dr. King, feeling good about ourselves, and then continuing to do the same old crap that hasn’t worked for generations. We did not get into this field to be ineffective, or to harm the people we are supposed to help. If we are going to bend the arc toward justice, we must each be bold, or get the hell out of the way of the people who are.

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