Reflections on our first lunch and learn

By Wayne Lee, Inclusion and Engagement Resource Specialist, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Our VISTA cohort is predicated on the recognition that numerous nonprofits led by and serving communities of color face particular challenges in being able to more effectively realize their missions. In tandem with that recognition is the understanding that the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits has great access to various resources that promote, connect, and strengthen nonprofits, but that these resources have historically not been accessed by organizations of color. Consequently, our cohort is placed at various capacity-building nonprofits in hopes of meeting the needs of these organizations and increasing their access to the aforementioned resources.

One form of community learning that we have throughout the year is a series of Lunch and Learns, where we as a cohort gather and learn from the expertise of various nonprofit leaders and also reflect upon our current work. On October 2, 2014 we had our first Lunch and Learn. For the second half of our gathering, Fartun Weli came in as our guest speaker. Fartun is the executive director of Isuroon, an organization that provides empowerment, culturally sensitive health education, and advocacy for Somali women living outside Somalia.  It has been just over a month since she spoke with us, so although I have forgotten some of the specifics that she touched on, I still remember poignantly how I felt while listening to Fartun speak. I did jot down a few notes from what Fartun shared with us, so I’ll just put those words and thoughts on the page and see where they take me.

Trust-driven relationship versus service-driven relationship. 
What is the purpose of relationships at your organization? This is a fundamental question, where the answer can be very telling of an organization’s values and priorities. The potential answers to that question are not as simple and dichotmous as either developing trust or providing a service, though it is important to acknowledge these two types of responses are easily recognizable and common chorus among various nonprofit spaces. In choosing to engage in this conversation, I am fixated on one key aspect that I identify as distinguishing trust-driven versus service-driven (and why I align myself more with trust-driven). To me, trust-driven manifests in the question, “what can I/we do for you?”, whereas service-driven manifests in the question, “this is what I/we have to offer, how can I/we give it to you?” The former emphasizes relationship building and meeting on the other’s terms; the latter emphasizes the service that one has to offer and centers one’s own self/organization. When we talk about communities of color, we are talking – whether explicitly or implicitly – about a long history of distrust for and mistreatment from mainstream organizations and institutions, strongly founded on the legacy and still-present-day impact of structural racism in this country. A genuine desire and capability to build trust is immeasurably more critical than any service or expertise that an organization can provide. I greatly appreciated Fartun sharing this point with us, and it ties in well with the next point I wrote down.

System not designed for organizations like theirs to thrive (“theirs” referring to organizations led by and serving communities of color).
Structural racism plays a significant role in this. From the amount of legal hoops to jump through and understand in order to be a nonprofit, to the widely accepted norms of how to conduct oneself in a nonprofit setting, these are elements that many communities of color do not have access to until they enter such an environment (and based on demographic data available, there are not a lot of people of color employed at nonprofits). This means that for those who are in nonprofit settings and want to be in the sector for the long haul, face particularly distinct challenges. Not only are they more likely to feel external pressure to change how they act so that it feels in line with what they think their organization’s expectations are, but adopting these changes can also lead to greater disconnect from one’s community and social circles outside of work because of how the norms from these distinct spaces can be at odds with one another, and sometimes even incompatible. The system as currently constructed is not designed for people and communities of color to thrive, and in order to move towards something that does, will require a lot of intentionality and self-reflection.

We are the cherry on top of the sundae (last thing put on, first thing to go).
This sundae analogy that Fartun shared with us speaks to the precarious situation that people and organizations of color find themselves time and time again: they are the last thing considered, added to account for diversity, and the first thing to go when an organization is strapped and resources are tight. In building off of this analogy, Fartun also talked about the importance of organizations of color making their own sundae, where they are not preoccupied with being incorporated into the mainstream, where they strive to be self-determining and self-define what success for them looks like and not be concerned with success and failure as defined by others. Because the system was not designed for these types of organizations to thrive.

So the challenge for us, as a cohort, as ambassadors of our organizations, and as individuals, is how do we take Fartun’s poignant message and not reproduce these inequities (and remind ourselves that Fartun is not the only who carries this message). This is a challenge that energizes and invigorates me because this is the kind of work I want to be a part of. I know not to expect to find resolution at the end of this one year of service, which is simultaneously reassuring and frustrating. I am grateful for the opportunity to really sit down and reflect in writing about how I felt when Fartun spoke with us, as well as what I have thought and felt since.