Michigan Nonprofit Association launches Anti-racism Accountability and Action CohortThe Nonprofit Journal Project

“It's an opportunity for white leaders to better understand their whiteness, to deconstruct it and work for racial equity...people get to remain whole because that’s the goal, that people actually feel they have agency and power to change oppression and racism."
In 2020, following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and many others, white allies across the U.S. asked how they could join the fight for racial justice and equity. 

As COVID-19 exposes and intensifies systems of racism, many nonprofit leaders are addressing these inequities by working toward deep, organizational change. They’re reexamining their missions and values, their governance, and even themselves with a goal to better represent and serve their communities. 

In response to requests for anti-racism resources and training, Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) is launching a deep dive for white nonprofit leaders on how to shift allyship into action, starting Jan. 21. 

The offering was sparked by Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer at MNA, and a class she took at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) about a year ago.

“In the aftermath of George Floyd, I was intent on not only increasing my awareness, but also on learning how to do something about it,” says Gustafson. “It’s great to protest and to be there, but then what? This [class] is something white people can do to take initiative, and to put the onus on ourselves to be more proactive in this fight.”Joan Gustafson

The class at GVSU’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Institute, consisted of a cohort of white women, aimed at helping them identify systems of oppression, examine personal biases and behaviors, and take an active role in interrupting white supremacy. The group was led by Deanna Rolffs, of Design Group International and Marlene Kowalski-Braun, Ph.D., GVSU Associate Vice President for Inclusion & Student Support. 

“It’s about inviting people to sit in a place fully as a learner,” says Kowalski-Braun. “In our professional lives, and as adults, we often have this expectation of expertise all the time. It’s rare, but also important, that we be invited into spaces to ask difficult questions or to be curious.”

As facilitators of the class, she and Rolffs are learning also, she says. The two work closely with BIPOC advisory councils to vet class content, center voices of color through the course material, and to hold themselves accountable for learning outcomes. 

“We don’t have all the answers, but we want to walk alongside people and do the hard work,” says Rolffs. “This is about shifting labor. While it’s critical to center the voices of BIPOC people, we also know that many have said, ‘take the responsibility, you have the most privilege in this situation, work for racial equity yourselves.'”

The cohort’s brave and open conversations made Gustafson consider her own past behaviors, moments or experiences she’d hardly noticed before. “Being white, you really have the luxury of being unaware of the experiences of Black and brown people in this country,” she says. “Very few of us would call ourselves racist, but there are subtle things we do or say, and we’re not even aware of the harm we’re causing.” 

Since taking the course, she’s been working on listening deeply to others, she says, and not trying to explain or gloss over microaggressions her coworkers or friends experience. She’s also looked for opportunities to carry forward what she’s learning. Seeking to challenge her coworkers through a space of honesty, support and encouragement, Gustafson brought back the cohort to MNA and invited all those who identify as white women to join her in the material.

“We established a cadence of meeting every month to read and reflect on books, articles and research papers about racism,” says incoming president and CEO Kelley Kuhn, to share stories and experiences and learn from each other.”

Now the organization is offering the Anti-racism Accountability and Action Cohort to nonprofit leaders, members and non-members, putting its values of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice into action. 

“We’re committed to breaking down barriers for marginalized communities statewide and influencing change,” Kuhn says, “[This] begins with knowledge and understanding of what issues exist.”

“The Anti-racism Accountability and Action Cohort is important because many nonprofit leaders, including our members, reached out wanting tools and resources for understanding a major issue, systematic racism,” she says. “This offering creates a structured space for those who identify as white to engage in deep, meaningful conversations about how to put their allyship into action.”

From a Safe Space to a Brave Space

While some assume the idea of white consciousness is rooted in shaming and guilt, instructors Rolffs and Kowalski-Braun say the course is not about blame. 

“It's an opportunity for white leaders to better understand their whiteness, to deconstruct it and work for racial equity,” says Rolffs. “While there’s different levels of discomfort in that work, people get to remain whole because that’s the goal, that people actually feel they have agency and power to change oppression and racism."

Brent Taylor, senior director of operations and strategy at Early Childhood Investment Corporation, is looking for that guidance. His nonprofit works to improve access and equity to quality early childhood care and education. Systemic racism plays a role in communities ECIC serves, he says, creating inequities to access and affordability.

“I'm increasingly forming the opinion that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. There’s no middle ground,” he says. “It’s easy for many of us to fall back on good intentions, but my goal is to move past that. I think educating myself and being able to have concrete, candid conversations with others in the learning space and people with expertise in this area is the path forward.”

He admits he’s a little nervous about how he’ll come across in the group, and that he’s hoping he’ll be able to get comfortable enough to risk asking “the dumb question.”

“I'm still at a point in my evolution where there’s a lot surrounding issues with racism that I simply don't understand," he says, "or haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to through my community, the setting in which I was raised or my career thus far.”

This isn’t uncommon, says Kowalski-Braun, and it’s part of the motivation for the work. 

“Most of us are not deeply learned about these topics. We don't do a great job in K-12 education,” she says, “and our higher education doesn’t often create space and language for this either. As organizations really want to welcome people, they don’t always have the tools they need.”

Working with a small group of 15 participants, spacing classes out to give time for reflection and building rapport, sharing with the group their own mistakes in this area are ways the team looks to build trust and vulnerability within the cohort. People also create that space for one another, she says. 

The facilitators encourage participants to actually move from the idea of a “safe space” to a brave one. By setting aside safety that comes with privilege, and allowing themselves to share genuinely and even get it wrong, Rolffs says deeper learning can happen. 

The curriculum for this deeper learning has been reviewed by several BIPOC advisory councils over the last couple of years, she says, and recently, by three women of color who work at MNA and are willing to give honest, open feedback. Facilitators will continue to meet with MNA’s advisory council throughout the series to share on the class’s journey, to hear insights and assess outcomes.

“Because we don't have the lived experience, this is our accountability to also sit as learners as well as teachers,” says Kowalski-Braun, “holding our agendas loosely and hearing from our accountability partners what their hopes are, what knowledge they want to share, and how we might do things differently in the future.”

For participants, facilitators, and advisors, MNA’s cohort involves a lot of straight talk, humility and courage. The outcome, Taylor says, will hopefully be a path toward understanding and meaningful action, both personally and professionally. 

“I want to become a person who can more readily recognize where inequities exist,” he says, “both within my organization in terms of culture and externally with the work we do, and to be able to react to those things based on the knowledge and experience I’ve gained through trainings of this nature.”

Whether you’re a nonprofit leader who's been doing anti-racism work for years or you’re at the beginning of this journey and not quite sure how to start, this is a place for you, says Rolffs.

“We look at this work as a labor of love because we know that people of color have trusted us enough over and over to share what their reality is, and we white folks can walk through the world and not know deeply the reality for people of color. We believe most people are doing the very best job they can, and just aren't sure what to do next.”

Registration is still open for the Anti-racism Accountability and Action Cohort starting Jan. 21. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.