Opinion
July 12, 2016

All Nonprofits Must Take a Stand Against Racial Division and Violence

Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the wake of shootings of police officers and black men, nonprofits can play an important role in bridging the gulf of misunderstandings that have produce so much heartbreak.

As I awoke on Friday to the news of the horrific killing of five Dallas police officers and reflected further on the shooting deaths in the days prior of African-American men by police in Baton Rouge, La., and suburban St. Paul, Minn., I was disheartened, angry, saddened, sick, and tired. But I am not giving up hope.

Neither, I hope, will my colleagues in the nonprofit world. We must lead the way in bridging the gulf of misunderstanding that is causing so much violence and heartbreak across our country.

For the last 18 years, I’ve worked as a development professional, helping to raise funds for causes that change the lives of people from all walks of life. Though many of us are not on the front lines like police officers and social-change activists, fundraisers and others who work at nonprofits choose this work at least in part because we believe in doing good, we believe in change, we believe in the pursuit of social justice.

My position on what’s next is shaped by far more than my day job: I am an African-American whose father was a New York City Transit Police officer for 21 years. I followed him into law enforcement as a member of the Secret Service, so I see these ugly times through multiple prisms.

During my time in law enforcement, I personally witnessed incredible deeds of heroism and service by police officers. I have also witnessed ugly, evil acts against innocent people by officers. There are far more good people serving in uniform than there are bad, in my estimation, just as there are many more good, kind people in the country than bad.

So it’s time to say enough with the finger pointing, name calling, and angry rhetoric from all sides. We must come together to solve these issues, or else our nation will continue to spiral backward into an abyss of hatred born from our country’s original sin of enslaving blacks.

What I witnessed in the videos from Baton Rouge and St. Paul was simply terrible police work. We need full investigations of what happened, but if it turns out that additional facts do not exonerate these officers, our justice system must punish them to the fullest extent of the law.

That said, the killing of Dallas police officers who were protecting the citizens of their city as they demonstrated against the horrific incidents of violence against black men in recent days was equally horrific and is not the answer.

We can cast blame in all directions. But what we need to change the culture and inequalities that exist in our legal system and law-enforcement agencies, and the culture of mistrust and hatred of police in our communities, is for all good-hearted people of all races, creeds, and religions, and from both sides of the political aisle, to stand up and speak up for real and actionable solutions.

We all need to hold ourselves accountable. Good, hard-working police officers need to call out those among their ranks who are not good cops, hold them accountable for their actions, and no longer protect them. Good, hard-working citizens must hold everyone in our communities accountable for the actions of the few who perpetrate criminal and senseless violent behavior.

The solutions are not this simple, but it is a start. We must all come together to identify and work on these issues. We can no longer stand on the sidelines. It won’t be easy, but if we don’t, we will all suffer.

No matter whether you are white, black, Hispanic, or Asian, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Christian, Muslim. or Jewish, I hope you will join me in standing up, speaking out, and being accountable as we try to heal our nation and restore the sense that everyone who lives in the United States is entitled to justice.

What can those at nonprofits do? Here are some first steps:

Seek to understand structural and institutional racism and root it out within your own organizations and your surrounding community.

We can’t cool every hot spot or solve every community’s problems. But we can recognize that racism goes beyond crude epithets and outright bigotry. Structural racism is a feature of the social, economic, and political systems in which we all exist. It defines invisible but highly enforced "boundaries" between communities, including school districts defined by race and ethnicity and real-estate redlining that keeps communities segregated. My work on Long Island with the nonprofit organization ERASE Racism New York showed me that even in "liberal" suburban neighborhoods, structural racism comes with a real costs to an open and free society.

Support an overhaul of the criminal-justice system.

As a former Secret Service officer, I know firsthand how the nation’s drug laws and the targeting of young men of color have affected our society. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, and African-Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites, according to the NAACP. For the first time in a generation, there’s a bipartisan consensus forming that our justice system needs change. More philanthropists should support the groups pushing for a more humane approach.

Respect the activist voice. Believe me, as a former law-enforcement officer I completely understand that sometimes the slogans and anger of groups like Black Lives Matter can be upsetting to the police. Not all cops are bad; not even the majority. But there are times in our nation’s history when the voices from the street matter deeply. They mattered in the fight for civil rights. They mattered in the quests for women’s rights and LGBT rights and in the push to expand immigrants’ rights. And they matter now. Nonprofits that focus on all causes must listen closely and find ways to respond to the cries from the community.

Encourage your organizations to collaborate with churches, schools, and other nonprofits in your community.

Create coalitions in support of social justice and provide opportunities for people of all races in your city or town to find their common humanity. Build safe spaces for open, honest dialogue among people from all walks of life, especially people of color and the people who manage and work in our police departments. These grass-roots efforts will facilitate real change.

Despite these terrible days, I believe in our shared future, and I’m convinced that great nonprofit organizations and those who support them can be part of the solution.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

The nonprofit organizations that I serve as a consultant are certainly part of helping it bend. Times like these can seem like the most dystopian, partisan, and dangerous periods in history. Yet philanthropists, nonprofit professionals, social entrepreneurs, and everyone else in civil society has to pause, perhaps reset after dispiriting and tragic news, and keep pressing on with our missions. It’s time to stand up, speak out, and be accountable. Our humanity is at stake if we do not.

Scott A. Williams is founder and managing partner of Panorama Fundraising, where he advises a wide range of charitable organizations.