Erika Massoud | Montreal, Quebec
Erika Massoud is a young professional in the non-profit sector, working on immigrant rights and youth engagement. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Development and Globalization and a master’s degree in Migration and Intercultural Relations. Erika has worked with non-profit organizations and academic institutions in Canada and internationally. Recently, she participated in the Commission on the Status of Women as a Youth Delegate with the United Nations Association in Canada. Erika is trilingual and is passionate about social justice issues, migrant activism, and intercultural dialogue.
About the Race Forward Racial Justice Trainings
Over the course of the spring/summer 2020, Erika attended Race Forward’s racial justice trainings, namely Building Racial Equity and Organizing Racial Equity: Shifting Power. These trainings support participants to “address structural racism and advance racial equity” in their sector or institution (Race Forward, 2020). Reflecting on her learnings from these trainings, Erika’s blog post seeks to raise questions and encourage self-reflection on the role of non-profits in advancing racial equity.
Towards transformational change: racial justice and equity in the non-profit sector
Although equity, diversity, and inclusion work is not new, it has gained significant attention in the non-profit sector and beyond over the last decade or so. Unfortunately, in my experience, diversity and inclusion have also become buzzwords associated with a range of different ideas, and often talked about in a vacuum. Organizations are willing to adopt policies that promote diversity and inclusion, yet fail to question their structure, culture, and ways of functioning. Without understanding and addressing the systems of oppression, such as racism, colonialism, and patriarchy, which condition our society and consequently, our workplaces, policies promoting diversity and inclusion will have little to no impact. Centering equity and justice work in our organizations requires actively pushing against and dismantling these systems if we wish to achieve transformational change.
Seeking to gain tools and strategies to advance racial equity in my own workplace, I heard about Race Forward’s racial justice trainings, which have been offered online since the beginning of the pandemic. Race Forward is a US-based organization working towards advancing racial equity and justice through research, media, and practice. Notably, they publish the online news site Colourlines, which offers a racial justice lens on current events, and organize Facing Race, the largest, multiracial gathering in the US. I participated in their two trainings, entitled Building Racial Equity and Organizing Racial Equity: Shifting Power, and had the opportunity to exchange with racial justice advocates from across the continent. I was particularly inspired by Race Forward’s intersectional approach, which centers the voices and experiences of gender non-conforming, Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), and acknowledges the ways in which systems of oppression overlap and intersect. Their #RaceAnd approach, which is also a webinar series they’ve developed, addresses race explicitly, but not exclusively. In order to tackle historical and contemporary inequities, organizations must be explicit in naming racial injustice, and understand how racial justice is interwoven with gender justice, disability justice, environmental justice, etc.
These trainings raised many questions for me on justice and equity work in the non-profit sector in so-called Canada and Quebec, where I am based. For example, how can non-profit organizations center racial equity in their work to better serve communities? To whom are non-profits truly accountable to? Accountability to the communities that organizations serve and work with is, in my opinion, a central piece of working towards equity. Other key points which emerged from the trainings and where I believe we can start include: contextualizing our work, understanding systems of oppression, assessing our current practices, and changing how we work.
CONTEXTUALIZE OUR WORK
What does it mean to work towards racial equity and justice on stolen land? Both trainings began by grounding participants in the context we live and work in, as community organizers, activists, non-profit or private/public sector workers. Beginning by acknowledging the unceded, stolen lands we live on and the Indigenous nations who have and continue to inhabit these lands, and going further, the facilitators made explicit the link between settler colonialism, land theft, and slavery. The history of structural racism on this continent departs from and is central to colonialization and slavery. Therefore, the work we are doing today must be grounded in an understanding of our historical and contemporary context, as the impacts of these systems persist.
Connected to the local context where I am situated, on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territory, land defender Ellen Gabriel from Kanehsatà:ke recently shared why it’s important to go beyond land acknowledgments and understand what they mean in the context of ongoing Haudenosaunee and Indigenous resistance. If you’d like to learn more about the Indigenous nations and territories where you are located, this website is a great starting point and offers the opportunity to listen to Indigenous youth sharing their own land acknowledgements.
UNDERSTAND HOW SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION WORK
What are the systems of oppression at work and how are these systems ingrained in our work? During the trainings, we discussed how systems of oppression and hierarchy, namely white supremacy and systemic racism, are reinforced and maintained by institutions. We must critically understand the ways in which our organizations operate within these systems, in order to disentangle ourselves from and push against them. Non-profits have long been guilty of deficit thinking, anchored in the belief that certain groups or communities are inherently vulnerable and lack capacity, thus justifying the organization’s intervention and perpetuating white saviourism.
To understand the systemic nature of racism and white supremacy, one of the facilitators offered a metaphor of society as cinnamon raisin bread. Although we can remove the raisins, symbolizing individual acts of racism or the “few bad apples”, we cannot remove the cinnamon or systemic racism which is baked in the bread. Some would argue that because society was designed or structured in this way, we must imagine other ways of working and hence, bake other recipes!
The Center for Community Organizations (COCO) in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal has documented how white supremacy culture manifests itself in organizations, and offers antidotes to depart from these ways of doing. Namely, white supremacy culture can show up through a sense of urgency, defensiveness, power hoarding, and a fear of conflict, amongst many other harmful behaviours. White supremacy is also gendered and this blogs describes the specific ways in which white women uphold white supremacy in the non-profit sector, which includes performative allyship and privileging “niceness”. Understanding how white supremacy culture shows up and how our organizations perpetuate it is a necessary step to work towards equity.
ASSESS OUR PRACTICES
Who is being heard? Who holds power and who is being recognized? Equity and justice work require us to go further than the questions that diversity and inclusion ask (see image below). In fact, some have argued that “Diversity is a dangerous set-up” and diverts efforts for transformative change, which involves dismantling systemic racism and white supremacy. Thus, it is important to distinguish between equity and justice, diversity and equality.
Analyzing who has access to power, whose work is recognized, and whose active participation is welcome in our organizations, means understanding whose voices are centered and whose are marginalized. One of the key learnings which emerged for me from Race Forward’s training is how being on the margins involves being in heightened state of awareness of group dynamics, because of one’s exclusion from the mainstream. In other words, people at the margins have the power to see beyond the existing norms and understand clearly how power is operating as they are excluded from it.
The power flower tool allows us to reflect on our own social location and our proximity to society’s dominant or mainstream “norm”, specifically the white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-upper class, male (or female in the non-profit sector). It is also a tool that can help us answer the question: how am I benefiting and hurting from white supremacy culture? Understanding how we are implicated in this culture and how we perpetuate or experience harm is part of healing from these systems.
The question then follows, how to we address these power imbalances and shift power? The trainings encouraged us to shift the focus: “from blame and shame, guilt and grievance, to cause and effects, systems and solutions” (Race Forward, 2020). To start working on racial equity in your organization, check out these online tools to undertake an organizational assessment and learn about strategies for organizational change. The Racial Equity Alliance, a project co-led by Race Forward, also offers many resources and tools to get started.
CHANGE HOW WE WORK
How do we create change? To whom are we, as an organization, accountable to? Who do we serve? Changing our practices and how we work starts by understanding that our organizational cultures are built within societal culture, and that they feed into each other. Change requires power and will to address implicit and explicit institutional bias which exist in our organizations. Enacting change, according to The Rockwood Wheel of Change, is about simultaneously transforming our hearts and minds, behaviour, and structures. Individual and collective change fuels organizational change, and vice versa.
During the training Organizing Racial Equity: Shifting Power, we looked at different ways of understanding power and how it operates in our organizations. Power can function as power over, power with, power to, and power within. The facilitators made clear that race, as a tool of white supremacy, is fundamentally about the domination of and power over non-white bodies. Organizations have a responsibility to understand how they reproduce power over the communities they serve and acknowledge that they have the power to change how they work. Utilizing our power to do something also involves being accountable and responsible to oneself and to others.
As organizations and individuals, there are actions we can take on the short, medium, and long-term to think about and act upon equity; and ultimately, to work towards a shift in our organizational culture. Although moving towards transformational change and equity isn’t a linear process, there are guidelines on how to start this work, while making sure we are not reproducing “fakequity”. For example, anti-racism work is increasingly being talked about in the international development sector, and Cooperation Canada recently announced the launch of an anti-racism framework. Critical conversations on how the development sector emerged from and is embedded in colonialism, imperialism, and racism, are not new. Yet some organizations are seriously reflecting on how to do things differently and what racial justice and anti-racism imply in the development sector. Building relationships is key to this work, both at the individual and organizational levels, as well as working as accomplices for our collective liberation.
After participating in Race Forward’s trainings, I am continuing to grow, learn, unlearn, and build my racial equity toolbox. The learnings outlined above are by no means comprehensive and are only pieces of the puzzle, which must be continuously revisited, rather than followed as a step-by-step process.
Despite leaving these trainings with hope and tools, I continue to wonder if transformational change is truly possible within the confines of the non-profit industrial complex, which thrives on the maintenance of the very systems of oppression non-profits operate in. Women of colour activists and African feminist organizers have asserted that “The revolution will not be funded”, nor will it be led by non-profits. These activists denounce the cooptation and depoliticization of social movements by non-profits, states, and other actors.
Non-profits certainly have work to do, as racial justice and equity is fundamentally political work, which they can no longer shy away from. Whether or not transformational change can happen within the non-profit sector, it is certainly already underway in society. Recognizing that youth are at the forefront of movements for racial justice, including Black Lives Matter, Race Forward is organizing the #RaceAnd Our Present, Our Future conference this fall to center and uplift the voices of young BIPOC activists. As poet Amanda Gorman stated at the beginning of the year:
- White Supremacy Culture: http://www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html
- “Why Are Nonprofits Still So white?”: https://www.thesparkmill.com/blog-posts/2020/6/8/why-are-nonprofits-still-so-white
- The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture: https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html
- White Supremacy Culture in our organizations:
- “Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the “white moderate” that Dr. King warned us about?”: https://nonprofitaf.com/2020/06/have-nonprofit-and-philanthropy-become-the-white-moderate-that-dr-king-warned-us-about/
- “21 Signs You or Your Organization May Be the White Moderate Dr. King Warned About”: https://nonprofitaf.com/2021/01/21-signs-you-or-your-organization-may-be-the-white-moderate-dr-king-warned-about/
- “Privilege, power, and personal conflicts: The forces preventing change in nonprofit and philanthropy”: https://nonprofitaf.com/2020/06/privilege-power-and-personal-conflicts-the-forces-preventing-change-in-nonprofit-and-philanthropy/
- “Yup. Non-profit culture and performative activism perpetuate ableism and anti-Blackness”: http://blackyouthproject.com/yup-non-profit-culture-and-performative-activism-perpetuate-ableism-and-anti-blackness/
- “Why We Don’t Believe in Having an Anti-Oppression Policy”: https://coco-net.org/why-we-dont-believe-in-an-anti-oppression-policy/
- “Diversity is for white people: The big lie behind a well-intended word”: https://www.salon.com/2015/10/26/diversity_is_for_white_people_the_big_lie_behind_a_well_intended_word/
- 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge: https://www.eddiemoorejr.com/21daychallenge