When I first got out of grad school with my Master in Social Work, I was a bright-eyed kid full of hopes and dreams of doing my part to make the world better. Completely broke and desperate to find work before the student loans people released their hounds, I applied to countless jobs and found that no one would hire me because I had no experience, a vicious “Experience Paradox” that many young grads go through each year. Frustrated and dejected, I secluded myself in my room (in my parents’ house), sending out my resume all day, coming out at night to raise my clenched fist to the dark skies and screaming “I may be inexperienced, but I am still a human being! A human being!!!” Then I would eat some ramen and watch Spanish soap operas on Univision. Continue reading “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift (and why I’m leaving my job)”
In the past few years, the concept of Collective Impact has covered lots of ground, with great results. Concerted efforts can kick some serious butts. Look what Strive has accomplished. Characteristics of CI are a common agenda, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities, constant communication, a backbone organization, and monthly happy hours.
However, like taking naps at work, Collective Impact should be done strategically and sometimes not at all. Recently, I’ve started seeing it become more and more like the Borg in Star Trek, a species that assimilates other life forms in a quest for dominance and perfection. Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, they are strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam. Resistance is futile, since any entity that tries to put up a fight is either assimilated and loses its identity, or else destroyed.
That, unfortunately, is what it feels like sometimes by those of us on the ground, the nonprofits that work directly with individuals and families. While no one is arguing with the importance and effectiveness of collective impact, it can be a little frustrating. Three or four times this year, we were told by various funders we need to align with The Borg. (There are several great CI efforts all around, so by “The Borg,” I am not referring to any specific one). Program officers, who are the Sherpas on the oftentimes Everestian slopes of foundation applications, have seen this shift in paradigm and have been trying to be helpful. Once a while, I get a call like this:
Program Officer: I’m calling to provide some feedback on your proposal. Are you in a secure location?
Me: Yes. I just walked into the bathroom.
PO: You need to mention a little bit more about your work with the Borg. The review team is looking for projects that really align with the Borg’s strategy.
Me: All right, we can expand that section. Thank you.
PO: I never called you. This conversation never happened.
Sometimes, we actually align with the Borg, in which case I’m happy to expand on how wonderful it is to be assimilated into the Borg hive mind. But occasionally we do not align. Heck, once in a while it makes no sense to be. As powerful as the Borg are in Star Trek, they were never able to assimilate members of Species 8472, which looks kind of like bugs, but that’s neither here nor there. Species 8472 is just so biologically different and incompatible, assimilation would only lead to disaster. A parallel can be made with collective impact efforts that try to involve communities of color, who have unique strengths and needs. Oftentimes, the first instinct is to assimilate everyone under one umbrella, and that could work. However, sometimes it does not work, and it may not necessarily be anyone’s fault. Several umbrellas may be needed.
Another frustration I’ve seen is funders’ shifting the funding priorities from direct service work to collective impact efforts and backbone organizations. Queries about support for direct impact programs often come back with “Sorry, we are now prioritizing funding the Borg’s work. Maybe you should go talk to them.” This is extremely frustrating. While the push is for everyone to align with CI efforts, the funding is not equitable. Direct service organizations, especially the ones that focus on communities of color, can only be involved in these amazing, region-wide efforts if we are strong and stable and have credibility with our clients. VFA has been getting requests to join various CI efforts and we have become more and more involved. If we were to shut down our after-school, leadership, parental engagement, and community-building work, no one would approach us, because we would have no connection or credibility. In order for these major collective impact efforts to succeed, funders must continue funding direct service organizations in parallel.
Much more importantly, however, is that clients may not be able to afford the time that it often takes for Borg-like efforts to achieve perfection. CI usually takes years. A kid who is failing school or an elder who needs food doesn’t have years. I just talked to a principal of a school with 90% low-income kids of color. She would love a common agenda and shared measurements and fully supports the work in this area. But right now her school desperately needs an after-school tutoring program because many students are several grades behind and they go home to empty houses and get no support.
In the Star Trek universe, there are few things more terrifying than a Borg invasion. They sweep through and assimilate or destroy everything. They absorb all resources. Collective impact should not have to be like that. The premise for collective impact is that we can do things much better by working together than by working in isolation. This is a premise that all of us on the ground fully believe in. But funding must be equitable and direct service must be simultaneously supported.
Two weeks ago I had lunch with Luke, whom you may recall from “Being a Nonprofit with Balls.” Luke had come to VFA a couple of months ago asking us to rally 15 to 20 community members for a focus group. I had just woken up from my daily ED power nap and was kind of groggy and in no mood to be accommodating, so we got into a fistfight. Of course, this the nonprofit field in Seattle, so by “fistfight” I mean that we threw big concepts, hoping to wound each other with phrases like “authentic engagement” and “equity.” I told him that we small ethnic nonprofits are overwhelmed with similar requests from well-meaning organizations who are trying to be “inclusive” and that we just didn’t have staff capacity to do it and that he should go back to advocate for more equitable funding if he really wanted to authentically engage the communities of color.
We decided to have lunch, and I was looking forward to it. While I thought Luke’s approach was ineffective, I appreciated his refreshing directness. He arrived on time at my favorite restaurant. Since he was technically my elder, I poured him tea.
“So, how did you get to where you are?” I asked. He told me of his journey and of his philosophy on life, which is basically that if you serve others selflessly, the Universe will reward you.
“I moved up here, didn’t have a job. I was at this event, and I met Ted, who is a millionaire. He told me about this thing he’s trying to do to improve education, so I said that sounds great, how can I help? And he gave me a job.”
“That’s great,” I said, wishing that I knew more millionaires so I could be selfless around them.
“Listen,” he said, “that thing with asking you to put together a focus group, that was garbage.”
“It’s OK,” I said, “we get asked all the time. We know people mean well.”
“It’s just, how do we get the communities to the table? We keep inviting them.”
For the past several months, I’ve been on this bent about community engagement and funding equity, especially around education. After talking to Luke, I realize that he’s a nice guy, but his approach is very indicative of the standard approach to community engagement, which has gone nowhere. People wonder, Why are the communities of color refusing to join our table? We’ve invited them countless times. Don’t they want to work with us? We’ve prepared place settings for them and everything!
The reality is that whoever hosts the table has the majority of the power. They can shift people’s seats around, kick them out, refuse to share the recipe for coconut cornbread, or whatever. It is challenging to have authentic engagement when people feel like guests at a table and not a co-host. “Inviting” people to the table is not enough, since this is symptomatic of not engaging people at square one, when the table was being created in the first place.
“Community engagement must begin at square one,” I said. “Too often efforts get to square three or four, usually well-supported by funding at each step of the way, before people stop to realize, ‘Hold on, we’re not doing a good job reaching underrepresented communities.’ They scramble and backtrack, but it may be too late, since funding usually has been allocated without these communities in mind. So then we get asked to participate without being provided resources.”
“Another thing,” I said, “the people most impacted need to lead the effort. This is especially true with an issue like education, where the ‘achievement gap’ is basically kids of color. If this is the civil rights issue of our time, then the people most impacted need to be in the front leading. Allies and supporters are critically important. This work cannot be successful without then, especially since they have the relationships with funders. But they must be on the side or behind supporting the people most affected by inequity. Too often we see well-meaning people coming into the neighborhood saying ‘Hey, we know what works best for you. Come join and support our efforts!’”
“Also, people think that presence equals engagement. I’ve been to numerous ‘community input’ events that are fully attended by diverse communities. VFA has rallied our community members to these events. They have interpreters and UN-style headsets, and the room looks beautiful and inspiring, and no doubt pictures of the event will be posted everywhere afterward as proof of how effective the outreach and engagement was. Many of our community members leave going ‘Huh?’ Then they don’t see any results and feel that their time was wasted, and VFA loses credibility with them for inviting them. They may not understand all the concepts presented, but they know enough to feel shafted and tokenized. Presence is only one-half of engagement.”
“Here, try this vegan lemongrass chicken,’” I said, taking a break from my lecture, which I realized had been welling up for the past few years. “Having names on a list does not indicate engagement,” I continued, “VFA and other ethnic nonprofits get asked to join various coalitions and efforts. Because we are so busy doing direct service, we sometimes say ‘Yeah, go ahead, sign us up and use our name. We’ll drop by occasionally.’ This is a horribly destructive practice, as it stymies responsibility on our part to actively lead in the effort, and it reinforces the system of funding inequity and poor engagement. Funders looking at this list of ‘members’ may not be aware of how actively engaged they actually are. Heck, some organizations on the list may no longer even exist.”
“Finally,” I said, “direct service organizations have tremendous potential for advocacy. After all, they work directly with families and know their needs and can mobilize them to change policies and practices. But we are not funded to do that stuff.”
This was a lot of information to take in. We paused for a while to eat our food. “So what can I do to help?” he asked. I thought about it for a second. For the past year and a half I’ve been involved with the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is mobilizing the communities of color and allies to work together to improve education in Southeast Seattle. This is one of the few efforts actually led by the local communities of color to address the achievement gap. We are tired of being “invited” to the table. We must be a table. Trouble is, communities of color are not as connected to funders and decision makers, so we’ve been struggling with funding.
“Introduce me to your millionaire friend Ted,” I said, “I want to talk to him about SESEC.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. We continued our conversation until the bill came. “I’ll pay,” I said, but Luke insisted on getting it. I could have fought for the bill, or at least to pay for my share, but I knew he felt some guilt, and this was his way of appeasing. I let him pay. I guess it’s my way of being selfless.
Last week, Luke emailed me saying he had talked to Ted and that Ted was willing to meet with me. I followed up to schedule a meeting. I am going to meet with a millionaire. Will keep you updated. [Read Part 3]