By Dana Jaehnert, Entrepreneurs of Color Program Development Coordinator, LegalCORPS
This story is one not primarily of my service, but of my education.
I say this because these past 7 months of my VISTA service year have not been as much about what I can bring to a community, but about how my community is shaping me.
I was educated my whole life by textbooks that told the stories of white people conquering continents, starting new technological innovations, winning wars, and finding resources. As I’ve grown up, I’ve slowly begun to realize that this was not a proper education.
Some of my teachers in high school did amazing work teaching me about the successes, struggles, and truth of non-white communities in the United States. They taught truths about the destruction of Hiroshima, the colonization of Native Lands, the conqueror Cortez who pillaged Latin America, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Few ventured to talk about the racial disparities that are in our own backyards. I did read a book about a man who added pigment to his skin; he took on the life of a black man living in the south of the U.S., when he had grown up as a white man in the north. The personal struggles that he went through in the book were eye opening for me.
It was truly in college – in a dominantly white, conservative, evangelical, upper middle class atmosphere that I began learning about racial inequities. Some professors in the Anthropology & Bible/Theology departments began to re-educate me about the realities of our rapidly globalizing world. If we don’t keep up with our multicultural cities, then we will eventually lose out economically, politically, culturally, and especially relationally. Disparities affect everyone, because it is our communities and the next generations that will suffer if we do not take action. I am grateful for this opportunity to take action. And it is while taking action in this VISTA position that I continue to learn: about community healing, healthy community engagement, sharing services within communities of color. There’s a long way for me to go, but I know a difference is being made as relationships are built.
I like to think that individuals are a product of the systems that surround them. The debate between nature vs. nurture has been raging for decades. But I’m not as much of a psychologist as a sociologist – and my framework of understanding is that individuals do not act irrespective of their experiences, geographic locations, relationships, cultures, and other societal influences. Absolutely nothing happens in a vacuum. We are all intricately woven into an ever-moving, ever-evolving, ever-complex blanket made of single thread fabrics that hold together a big tapestry we call the world. Let’s just say: I happen to believe that nurture bunks nature any day.
Currently, I am working as the Entrepreneurs of Color Program Development Coordinator at LegalCORPS. My small little fabric piece is currently in a larger fabric of the Twin Cities Metro area nonprofit sector, where I have never extensively ventured before. Beyond that sector, Minnesota’s Fortune 500 companies, private and public sectors, refugee and immigrant communities, diverse spiritual groups, governmental agencies and more all interact with one another. Despite its large nonprofit sector, Minnesota is nationally known for its deeply grieving disparities. From education, to healthcare, to the job-market, to transportation: statistics show that Minnesota struggles with major disparities that put some groups at an advantage over others. When privilege exists, it always means that someone else loses out.
Being a VISTA member, I am also part of the national volunteer organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service. Thousands of volunteers across the nation work under CNCS every year. Beyond that, my nonprofit world in Minnesota is part of a larger nonprofit network that reaches across the globe. This broader network is where I was first introduced to the nonprofit world, in a small organization called Off-Tu Mission. They work with children who have been living on the street in Mukono, Uganda. I did not know that I would continue in this nonprofit world after returning home to the United States.
What I did know was that I was returning to a racialized society, where white people are advantaged in ways that people of color are not. White privilege isn’t the only advantage that exists: economic privileges, educational privileges, gender privileges, sexual-identity privileges, age-related privileges and more. Privilege does not condemn the holder, but reveals that there are systemic issues in our world today. Over the past few years, I saw the same types of disparities in cities all over the world -- from Bratislava to Kigali, Jerusalem to Haifa, Prague to San Jose, Chicago to Delhi, Amsterdam to Kibungu.
Traveling the world educated me about inequities around the globe. My education at Bethel University taught me about those same inequities – but I didn’t have classes focused upon the inequities of my own neighborhoods. I always applied what I was learning abroad to my context back home, but I didn’t start truly learning the extent of the systemic injustices in the Twin Cities Metro Area until my VISTA experience.
The nonprofit network in Minnesota is full of powerful leaders and community members that are making impacts upon systemic injustices. They are innovative and strong, honest and hopeful. They embrace their weaknesses and limits, and aren’t afraid to call out Minnesota “nice” as Minnesota passive-aggressive. I have seen nonprofit leaders who are already paving the way for a more equitable society, but they do not pat themselves on the back. The work that they do is tied with their souls – they do not take credit for sharing in a communal heart for justice. Because some of them have said: that it’s not about their choice, their community demands that they take action.
My year of service at LegalCORPS is greatly impacted by the lives of these community leaders. They have been teaching me not only to survive in the nonprofit field, but to remember that I am never alone in racial equity work. They have continually and persistently developed new and innovative strategies for engaging communities in their fabulous work. I feel as though these leaders do not need my service, but they do need my power. We need each other. And at this time in my life, their wisdom is shaping my life and work.
Our Minnesota Council of Nonprofits VISTA Cohort had the opportunity of volunteering with the Overcoming Racism Conference at Metropolitan State University. One of these community leaders, Samuel Grant, shared an inspiring keynote speech at the conference. Sam brilliantly explained that,
“Our liberations are caught up with one another… Decolonization begins with combatting self-acquisition.”
It is this truth: that selfishness and self-acquisition continue the process of colonization and power grabbing; this truth continues to educate and humble me in the face of inequity. I cannot and will not be able to do my work of expanding resources for immigrant communities without collaborating with other leaders who know this to be true. We need each other to not only know this truth, but to live this truth. What I have been realizing is that my way of engaging a community may look one way. It may include an anti-racism perspective, and it may mean that I think organizational change is something to be embraced. But if my liberation is caught up with the liberations of the others in my organization, the clients we serve, and the volunteers who engage in our processes – then the only way to decolonize the process and share power, is to humble oneself and give up personal gain. Can an organization do that?
This position is about my professional development. But it is not about my professional development so that I can “help” others without their input. It is not about my advancement without the communal feedback on the projects that I work on. The question is: will my organization embrace this same call? Can an organization be present to the needs of various communities, and not continue to self-promote its own services and self-glory? Yes. I think this is possible, but it takes a lot of work. LegalCORPS is doing amazing work with entrepreneurs all across the state of Minnesota. But what concerns me with the whole nonprofit sector is this – I wonder if nonprofit professionals are willing to be educated from the grassroots. What if we were told how to provide our services by the people we are serving? What then? What if the way we have been educated our whole lives has led us to live and act in a certain way, but we need a re-education in order to bring sustainable change within communities? Are we willing to change: those of us with power, privilege, the “ability to help”. Will our organizations change their structures, because they have been educated about the inequities in our state?
My whole life, I have grown up in a society where personal gain was considered a value. I despised the consumerism and materialism that I saw around me, but many things about my life reinforced these values. I have some privileges that others don’t. I choose to recognize that I have those privileges. But I also choose to create a story where I am learning from those that did not create the dominant narratives that I have spent most of my life learning.
My VISTA service is not nearly as valuable as my learning in the process. Being educated by those that understand racial equity better than I, continues to show me how beautiful liberation can be. Liberation may look like services expanding into communities of color, but it definitely looks like communities of color and immigrant communities leading the way in what they find most beneficial for their brothers and sisters. Liberation begins with being present to others. That’s where I find most of my power – in spaces where I can see the heart and life of another individual; where pain and joy are shared with one another. I’m grateful to VISTA, to MCN, to LegalCORPS, and mostly: to my friends, colleagues, community members, and other nonprofit leaders. There are many of you who continue to encourage me that the disparities we face exist because we are disconnected from one another. We have to continue building, together.
My education continues. Books that are on my to-read list this year: