Here’s Why Racial Justice Is Already in Your Nonprofit Mission
A few weeks after I joined Our Clubhouse, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that I lead, I began asking questions. We serve Pennsylvania residents affected by cancer, and we know, unfortunately, that cancer impacts nearly everyone. Yet most of our members and, at the time, all of our staff and board members were white. I wanted to know why it was like this.
The answers I received — such as staff capacity and financial resources — are likely familiar to most nonprofit leaders attempting to introduce something new to their organization. After spending my life and career in more diverse environments, it was important for me to change this. For three years, I tried to make progress. For three years, I failed.
Then came COVID-19, the recession, and the nation’s racial reckoning.
Suddenly, the conversations happening on a global and national scale opened more space to talk about incorporating racial justice into our work. And I found myself in frequent conversations with other white nonprofit leaders who wanted to do so, but I also was hearing the same reasons stopping them as I had heard years earlier.
Despite the desire to increase racial equity, many nonprofit leaders and their boards lack the knowledge and skills to do so. COVID-19 and the recession have led to declining revenue for 80 percent of Pennsylvania nonprofits, which makes investing in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) specialists even more difficult.
I’ve also heard many white nonprofit leaders say they want to avoid performative actions, such as adding a statement on standing with the Black community to their websites before they change their organizational culture or programs.
Another barrier mentioned is that discussing racism and white supremacy is often an uncomfortable subject for many stakeholders, including donors.
These are all important issues, but to make progress in these areas, we must decide to focus on racial justice in our daily work.
That commitment must come first, and the barrier I’ve heard most often – both in my work and from others – is the one that prevents people from making that initial critical decision. It’s also the biggest fallacy. It’s the idea that engaging in racial justice work “is not our mission.”
This argument rests on the belief that if your mission does not explicitly call for racial justice, then it’s not what you do. If it’s not what you do, then it’s not your responsibility.
But think more deeply about your organization, its mission, the communities you serve, and the overall purpose of the nonprofit sector. Why does your nonprofit exist? Who is impacted by the problem you are trying to solve? Who are the people in your communities? Who is accessing your services?
Upon reflection, I believe you’ll find that racial justice is what you should be doing. That, actually, it’s already part of your mission.
- Do you work to find stable housing for veterans? Nonwhite veterans have higher rates of housing instability. Racial justice is in your mission.
- Are you advocating for policies that will combat climate crisis? One legacy of unequitable public policies is that Black communities are disproportionately located in areas vulnerable to climate crises. Racial justice is in your mission.
- Are you dedicated to education? Predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more than predominantly nonwhite school districts, despite serving the same number of students. Racial justice is in your mission.
- Do you work to eliminate poverty? Support sustainable agriculture? Improve mental health? Racial justice is in your mission.
The best nonprofit leaders never lose sight of their mission, which is why it’s imperative that we all know how racial justice fits into ours.
At Our Clubhouse, we believe no one should face cancer alone. We provide free clinical support, creative expression classes, education programs, family and youth workshops, and health and wellness activities for people with a cancer diagnosis and their loved ones. Over 3,550 members have joined this vibrant cancer support community.
Yet over 15 years, only 8 percent of people who became Our Clubhouse members identified as Black or African American. Pittsburgh – home to over 300,000 residents – is a city where Black people comprise at least 23 percent of the population.
This is how racial justice shows up in our work.
The disproportionately low numbers of Black people seeking cancer support at Our Clubhouse certainly isn’t because of the way cancer affects the population. In Pennsylvania, Black women are over 30 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. In the U.S., African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group for most cancers.
Poorer health outcomes for Black oncology patients are partly attributed to implicit bias and ensuing communication difficulties. A racially discordant interaction (i.e. Black patient and non-Black physician) results in shorter and fewer supportive interactions.
The primary way people learn about Our Clubhouse is through these supportive interactions. Because we know that health providers with higher implicit bias spend less time with their Black patients than their white patients, we also know they are less likely to hear about our services.
It’s not enough to say that our programs are free and open to anyone impacted by cancer and then ignore the communities that are not learning about us. Being available to the Black community does not absolve us from being welcoming to the Black community. Knowing the impact of longstanding systemic health and social inequities should propel us to ensure our services are benefiting people disproportionately affected by cancer.
Reflecting on your own work may bring you to the same conclusion:
What is your mission? Why are your services necessary? Who is not benefiting? How is your organization engaging in community building?
If your mission includes the word or idea of “all,” what does “all” mean to you? Unless your mission specifically excludes integrating racial justice into your work, then your mission includes it.
I didn’t have this critical understanding when I started working at Our Clubhouse. Until I did, my efforts to integrate racial justice initiatives resulted in little to no change, not because people weren’t listening, but because I was presenting it as an additional component to our work, instead of an existing responsibility. This simple shift in perspective provided a certainty and strength to overcome other barriers.
I brought this new perspective, research, member feedback, and our demographic information to our board of directors. Then we developed a strategic plan that emphasizes DEI throughout all aspects of our nonprofit. We believe this plan is the foundation of our efforts to create a more inclusive organization.
Our upcoming investment in an initial three-year partnership with a DEI specialist will result in a comprehensive assessment with recommendations for measuring and increasing diversity, equitable programs, and engagement throughout our organization. This includes members, employees, volunteers, and board members. We also will be creating a plan for long-term monitoring and evaluation of our efforts.
Our goal is to have a program structure that recognizes the diversity of the cancer experience and provides inclusive programs in which any individual or group feels welcomed, respected, supported, and valued.
When I joined Our Clubhouse, I thought I had to convince people to do racial justice work, but as it turns out, all I had to do was demonstrate that it’s been our mandate all along.
Dani Wilson, MSW is a macro social worker and executive director of Our Clubhouse, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that provides social and emotional support for everyone impacted by cancer, including those with a diagnosis as well as their family and friends. She is also a Warm Data Lab Host with the International Bateson Institute. She is currently training with Liberation Academy, a program for white-identified practitioners working to decolonizing mental health.