March 21st is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (#EndRacism Day), marked in observance of the 1960 police shooting of 69 people peacefully protesting apartheid in South Africa. Incidences of racism persist around the world today – 156 years after the emancipation proclamation, 154 years since all enslaved people were freed in the United States, 65 years since the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, 54 years since the Equal Voting Rights Act and 26 years since the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Racism is both overt and covert, structural and personal, and I believe we all have a role in dismantling it. It is easy for people with privilege to ignore racialized incidences, policies, and practices. It is easy to think that racism exists only at a macro level among white supremacists or within large institutions when the aggressions and marginalization of nuanced racism is not affecting your daily life. However, we know that cultural systems like racism are insidious and seep into everything when left alone.
At United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, we are working to dismantle racism in our work and our communities. We are not only supporting kids and families of color in moving up and out of poverty, but also looking inward and reflecting on our own organizational culture and policies. And, we are working with other organizations on the same journey.
In 2014, we decided to try something new when we put out a request for proposals for a ‘Community Strengthening’ program. Through this program, we provided general operating and capacity-building support to a group of strong organizations (centered on housing, education, social services, etc.) across our region. Together, as a group, we engaged in three years of collaborative learning focused on the question: how can we collectively strengthen our systems to better reduce childhood poverty in our region? After sharing research and on-the-ground observations, the group decided to center learning focused on a common goal that would have a tremendous impact for kids and families in our region – reducing poverty by advancing racial equity.
From Community Strengthening, the Equity in Operations cohort was formed. This cohort of nonprofit organizations developed out of the understanding and realization that we cannot effectively serve our communities or fulfill our missions if we as organizations aren’t also doing the internal work to end racism within our organizations. Throughout the duration of the grant, we held regular convening sessions to learn, assess and unpack how racism shows up in our operations. We worked with the Center for Equity and Inclusion to facilitate trainings and conversations on racial equity and inclusion. For example, how does racial equity affect our data? How are we collecting, disaggregating and analyzing data in a way that best serves our communities?
We also worked with the Coalition of Communities of Color using their Organizational Assessment Tool, a tool that helps culturally responsive organizations (or those working to become culturally responsive) assess equity in their operations. We extended the program for a fourth year, while many of the organizations continued to develop and implement their equity plans.
As a result of their participation in the Equity in Operations cohort, a number of our nonprofit partners took concrete steps to continue the work of advancing racial equity in their organizations, such as building out information management systems to be able to disaggregate data by race and ethnicity, establishing racial equity and advocacy committees, and hiring new positions specifically dedicated to moving forward equity plans.
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette has worked to increase the racial diversity of our own staff and shift our grantmaking to prioritize support for culturally specific approaches and racial equity strategies. Though we’ve come a long way since launching Community Strengthening in 2014, we recognize how far we still have to go to undoing racial inequities and dramatically improving outcomes for kids and families across our region.
In honor of #EndRacismDay, I encourage you to think about your role in dismantling racial oppression and advancing equity in our society.