By Katie Latino
This blog started out as a note in my phone, a list of my frustrations with nonprofit culture. In the following days, inspirations bloomed up in unexpected places–at a nonprofit board meeting, while listening to S-Town, at the Tzedek Fellowship’s Lunch and Learn exploring White Supremacy Culture in Nonprofit Social Justice Organizations, in a Nonprofit Quarterly article entitled “How to Think Differently about Diversity in Nonprofit Leadership: Get Comfortable with Discomfort,” and finally in a tarot reading with my dear friend, Sam. I drew the Reversed Visionary of Branches card from the Slow Holler deck, which literally read “Finding inspiration in unexpected places,” a bit eerie considering that there in the note in my phone, I had already typed “inspiration blooming up in unexpected places.” The message urged me to find deeper meaning in this catharsis, to use my anger about nonprofit culture to get at some insight about social justice work.
For a sector whose North Star is justice and equity, there’s an awful lot of toxic organizational culture at work. What is it that’s holding organizations back, causing us to stray from our North Star? Dr. Prasad Kaipa’s concept of Core Incompetence can provide a framework for understanding this phenomenon. He writes,
Core incompetence (CI) is unique to each of us and prevents us from moving towards our purpose. It seems to have its roots in our past successes and behaviors that lead to automated patterns because we are comfortable with certain well-tested and successful formulae. When the core incompetence takes over, our capacity to think and act rationally is seriously impaired and we act on autopilot. Instead of being aware of the current context and engaging in fresh thinking, we react from past memories and dysfunctional patterns and hope for success because we developed that pattern based on past successes. In other words, our debilitating weaknesses come from unconscious application of our strengths inappropriately and out of context.
I believe that white supremacy values (WSV) embedded in organizational culture are the root of many of nonprofits’ core incompetencies. WSV are a well-tested formula for being successful within the dominant culture of the United States, so it’s not surprising that people who work in nonprofits fall back on these values. But when we’re trying to undo oppressions, these values are a major barrier to achieving our social justice missions.
White Supremacy Values
The symptoms of these values show up in a variety of ways: siloed departments and charismatic leaders (WSV: individualism); misguided fundraising strategies that tokenize people of color (WSV: paternalism); micromanagement which sends the message to employees that they aren’t trusted to do their jobs decreasing staff productivity (WSV: perfectionism); lack of mentorship which stunts an employee’s ability to thrive and grow within an organization (WSV: individualism and power hoarding); top-down hierarchical cultures that do not value the voices of staff at the bottom of the organization chart, the very folks who come from communities organizations aim to serve (WSV: paternalism); and many other ways of being and doing.
And herein is a deep irony of nonprofits–people who do movement work are not only hurt by inequitable systems of society but also by the very organizations that seek justice.
Folks who see the damage being caused by toxic organizational cultures are caught on a tightrope, balancing their needs for job security and their desire to fit into the culture against the longing to stay true to themselves and the desire to call out injustice, even in the organization they work for. We rarely talk about this openly within our organizations, especially in ways that transcend hierarchies and include the voices of those with the least power who are often experiencing oppression at both the hands of inequitable systems and the organization they work for.
Organizations’ needs to protect their image, maintain relationships with funders, and deal with the daily crises (sometimes falsely created by the WSV of a sense of urgency) leaves little room to own that sometimes nonprofits mirror and replicate the inequities they seek to eliminate. Without such an admission, how are we to move forward and eradicate these values from our organizational cultures? How can an organization get out from under its own crushing weight and rise above this paradox?
Asheville’s Nonprofit Modem Operandi
Recently, I was listening to the podcast S-Town. In it, one central subject, John B. McLemore, reads from a sundial inscribed with the following words: “Your life is tedious and brief.” I couldn’t get this quote out of my head. I realized this is the ideology I’ve been entrenched in for months, maybe even years, as my uneasiness with nonprofit work and symptoms of depression have grown increasingly alarming. Nonprofit cultures rooted in WSVs feed this ideology, particularly through a perfect storm of perfectionism, sense of urgency, and quantity over quality. Nonprofits move from one program idea to the next seeking out measurable outcomes in order to secure funding, which is always urgently needed, and demanding perfection from staffs that are underpaid and overworked amidst an ever-changing financial and political landscape with a revolving door of staff members leaving and joining the organization.
The city I live in, Asheville, NC, is a S-Town in it’s own way. Though it is a small city, it’s surrounded by the rural towns of Western North Carolina (WNC). The city prides itself on being a “blue dot in a sea of red,” but it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s a city where inequities run deep, fueled by the legacies of redlining and urban renewal (e.g., the second fastest gentrifying city in the US, racial segregation, public housing residents in fear of losing their homes). Childcare is unaffordable and largely unavailable and it is the worst county for childhood upward mobility in WNC. Asheville is the most expensive rental market in all of North Carolina with only a one percent vacancy rate. It is home to turncoat legislators and a police department entangled in years of controversy and complaints.
Visionary of Branches
Despite the tedious and brief nature of our lives and very real systemic oppression, there are still moments where I envision a future where our lives could be a little less tedious, full of more joy, more community, and meaningful connection.
At a recent Asheville City Schools Foundation board meeting, Tamiko Ambrose Murray said, “Traditional nonprofit structure is by its very nature inequitable so we are working within a structure that is not meant to achieve equity. We have to use our imaginations to envision what that looks like.”
Social justice organizations, particularly nonprofits, can simultaneously do terrible and amazing things. How do we move from patterns like tokenizing people of color and using their stories to raise money towards efforts that utilize resources to make transformational services available to our communities? How do we transcend nonprofit cultures that accept without question what is “tedious and brief” over what is transformative and meaningful?
Many of us will not get to see our visions of social justice come to fruition in our tedious and brief time with an organization, but we can hope that our perspectives will sow seeds for change in the future. We can dream and vision the futures we crave, while simultaneously ruminating on the issues we are currently seeing. Ultimately here’s the inspiration that emerged in a moment of frustration: Compassion and criticism of an organization are not mutually exclusive concepts, rather they are both necessary to push an organization forward. There’s a lot of disdain toward folks who let others know they’re unhappy with the way things work, as if they are halting progress from reaching the North Star, but in order to do truly transformational work it is necessary for organizations to listen to voices of dissent.
Half a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. explained the concept of ‘creative tension’ to defend against criticisms of the protests and demonstrations of the day. It is worth remembering that King’s critics were friends and supporters of civil rights; they just wanted activists to wait rather than push so aggressively for change. And if the nonprofit sector is going to grow and evolve to fully embrace the leadership of diverse staff, change agents inside of organizations will need to follow their lead, despite appeals from colleagues to be patient and polite.
This resistance to creative tension (WSV: fear of open conflict), while it is a wholly human response, prevents organizations from growing into better versions of themselves. A willingness to push for creative tension is really a display of dedication to the mission, and it is the only way that nonprofits will ever find a way out of toxic organizational cultures that prioritize WSVs. I hope that social justice nonprofits can increasingly embrace dissent and see that our North Star is beautiful, attainable, magical, but it requires that our organizational cultures push past our core incompetencies.
In an effort to resist WSVs and the dehumanization they feed, I feel that it is important to celebrate the folks I’ve been collaborating and dissenting with for the past eight months: the other Fellows. They continue to push me to be better and inspire me to keep going every day. They have shown me so much love, held space for me, changed my perspective, offered guidance, and brought many smiles to my face. I’d like to end this post with gratitude for each of them:
- Britney, who brings an upbeat, outgoing energy, her honesty and groundedness, and her commitment to getting shit done.
- Hannah, who has shown so much care and support for each intern at the Center for Diversity Education, and her resistance to being put on a path that isn’t genuinely her own throughout her quest to find purpose.
- Jess, whose analyses of systems of oppression continue to expand my understanding and whose “Impossibility Now” tattoo reminds me that there are people in the world making the impossible possible every damn day.
- Lea, whose faith in Judaism and passion for helping people solve problems is unwavering.
- Monse whose fearlessness and authenticity amazes me. She also opened my eyes to an entire piece of the movement that was missing from my liberation framework: language justice.
- Sam’s commitment to taking care of herself and her ability to hold space for others. Our cosmic connection has kept me afloat on many tough days in recent memory.
- Sheneika, a force in her own right, inspires me to speak my truth. Her devotion to social justice through Christianity, her children, and community remind me to hold the important pieces of my life close.
- And of course, Heather. Though she is not a Fellow she has been a light in my life since the day I met her, and I am eternally thankful that she has been part of my Fellowship experience. I strive to have a fraction of the all encompassing empathy that Heather has brought to every interaction and space I’ve shared with her.
I am also eternally grateful for and indebted to the the rich legacy of social justice work in the South and the opportunities I have to witness people co-creating their legacies for future generations right now. I hope that all the legacies of creative tension will continue to push us to be better.
Katie is the Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at the YWCA of Asheville. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, racial justice, queer liberation, and public education. Katie holds a B.S. in Sociology with a concentration in Social Inequalities, a minor in Women’s Studies, and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Appalachian State University. She served as an AmeriCorps VISTA for two years in Asheville, NC, where she learned to write and manage grants and take excellent meeting minutes. According to a former supervisor, she is an “insightful, curious, pop culture queen.” Katie inspires thoughtfulness and a spirit of collaboration, and she excels in a deadline driven environment. In an alternate universe, Katie would be a comedy writer that goes shopping with Mindy Kaling. Katie aspires to someday become a therapist.