Champions for Change: Upending structural racism and barriers to equity barriers

Almost three years ago, we started discussing how Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW), a Washtenaw County-based nonprofit support organization that strives to improve the impact and performance of fellow nonprofits by empowering leaders and co-creating solutions, could address the racial leadership gap in Washtenaw County.

According to Guidestar, there are 2,400-plus nonprofits that call Washtenaw County home. Yet fewer than 30 are led by a person of color. In years past, we strove to diversify nonprofit boards through matching and recruitment. In partnership with the McGregor Fund, we spent about a decade successfully placing 200-plus diverse leaders on boards. In follow up, however, there was little evidence that those placements improved the outcomes of the organizations. Many recruits reported feeling isolated, tokenized, or expected to represent their entire community. Identity as a checkbox for boards simply does not work.Yodit Mesfin Johnson

The absence of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) across our work called us to do more. Nonprofit staff, too, were often homogeneous and unrepresentative of communities served. This was not an isolated issue.

Emboldened by the Building Movement Project’s original Race to Lead report, we began working on Champions for Change, a community of practice working towards an anti-racist, co-liberated future.

The report documented what we’d been seeing and saying for years: it isn’t lack of education, skill, interest, or commitment that locks BIPOC folx out of leadership roles. It is structural racism.

As we start receiving applications for the next Champions for Change cohorts, it feels important to resurface the 'why' behind this work. Why now? Why NEW?

The Building Movement Project’s latest report, Race To Lead Revisited, gives us some of those answers. It explains why Champions for Change feels important to continue. The new report confirms findings from the original. People of color have similar leadership qualifications as white respondents. In fact, more people of color aspire to become nonprofit leaders than their white counterparts. Yet, the 2019 results show the gap between the two groups is widening.

However, something has changed in the past three years. This time around, people of color were more likely to name race as a barrier to their advancement. And white respondents were more likely to agree that their race provides a career advantage. Today, people of all races are more likely to recognize obstacles people of color face in obtaining leadership positions. 

These findings point to greater awareness of the problem, but a lack of change in actual conditions. While career support has generally improved, white respondents still report more types of support and fewer challenges than people of color. And the gap between the experiences of these two groups has either remained constant or grown.

Eager to upend structural racism and barriers to equity, we're excited to begin the second year of Champions for Change. While the program won’t solve all of our sector's challenges, it offers a community of practice for working towards an anti-racist, co-liberated future. You can learn new ways to disrupt institutional, interpersonal, individual, and internalized racism.

You can have space for radical imagination, experimentation, and transformative work. You can learn from others’ diverse ideas, experiences, and identities to shape your vision and action.

Yodit Mesfin Johnson is the President & CEO at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW). Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector — and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.
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