Some of My Best Friends are Black Organizers!

Ivy HestReal Talk, Skills and Principles, Strategy, Supervising and Mentoring5 Comments

(About 5.5 minutes to read)

I missed the opportunity to go to Wisconsin a few years back, to organize protesters against crippling legislation that would disable unions; I also never had much time to participate in Occupy protests, which were flourishing in Boston.  I felt (and feel) like we are in a particular moment in history where society is getting pushed to the edge.  And maybe, once we’ve really had enough, we’ll all be ready to finally fight back and change a system that’s been oppressive and abusive for years.  And I hope and believe that we’re approaching that time.  But I was just too busy organizing at my place of employment, fighting different, important battles to get involved with other movements at those moments.  And I sometimes feel regret that I missed out on these important, historic moments where the anger is bubbling to the point of bursting, and our society gets up the courage to fight back.

So when the protests began in Ferguson, MO over the shooting of Michael Brown, I too felt anger, rage, and sadness.  I wanted to do something about the injustice- I tried to find out if I could make my way to Ferguson and help organize the community out there.  But friends and organizers alike gave me the same answer: “We don’t need white organizers working in the black community for this.  We appreciate your intentions, but we need people from our own communities out there.”  And they are right.  It’s not that any help is good help.  It’s that strategic, thoughtfully used help is how we’ll win this.  And I’m just not going to be as effective as someone from the community being directly impacted.

I’m white.  I’m so white I might even be translucent in some light.  I grew up with all kinds of privileges and within certain communities that it’s impossible for me to fully understand the challenges and struggles of being a person of color in our society.  And though I have had many experiences that help me relate personally to low-income communities from a financial point of view (so fighting for fair wages, tenant rights, and welfare benefits is not a far stretch for me), I will never not be white, and will never experience for myself what it’s like to be targeted for not being white.

And yet, the only communities I’ve organized in have been communities of color.  I feel comfortable in these communities, and have had some success organizing in them.  I believe that part of my success is in my willingness to be open to and be called out on my privileges and ways I may unintentionally express those privileges.  But I also believe that any good organizer understands the difference in the power of organizing between someone who is “other” and someone who is directly impacted by the issues we’re fighting for.  And while being “other” does afford some benefits (presumed trust, credentials, and safety, to name a few), it’s just not the same.

I bring this up because a great article in the blog Nonprofit with Balls by Vu  Le sparked me to think again about how we hire staff.  I’ve worked in organizations that were mostly women, but also mostly white.  And, just as Vu discusses in his article, we hire (or at least tell ourselves that we hire) the person most qualified for the job, regardless of their race.  And we try hard to dilbert-biathlon1“expand our pool of applicants”, but then, in the end, do not wind up following through with the commitment to actually hire a diverse staff.

Real talk here.  I sometimes feel like I’m not doing anyone any favors by being an organizer in these communities.  I have to remind myself that they had a pool of applicants (presumably…), and concluded that I was the best fit for the job.  And I do try to remember that I am a damn good organizer.  But I also have a nagging feeling that there have to be more, or at least equally, qualified people from those communities, and I wonder why it’s such an issue to “find” them.  I suppose if I were really dedicated to ensuring people of color get hired to work in their own communities, I’d stop applying for jobs that work in those communities.  But, and my family reminds me of this often, I need a job too, and I’d like to think that I’m effective in what I do that I’m not actively hurting these communities.  It’s complicated and scary and confusing.  How do I work as a conscientious ally but still work in a field where I excel? It’s a question I’ll continue to wrestle with, as I try to get over my own “White Guilt” and do what I can to change the system.

I once worked somewhere that had me organize in a low income, immigrant community they were struggling to get solid grounding in.  After I followed the organization’s model of organizing for a few weeks, I concluded that the model was great for white, suburban communities, but the same rules would not as effectively be applied to this community.  I proposed some changes, but was told “The model isn’t wrong, you’re wrong.” (Surely a discussion for a different post!)

But it hit me recently— what if that way of thinking is also how we approach hiring?  The way we are hiring isn’t wrong, the people applying are!

Forget that in organizing we teach leaders that just putting a message out into the world without following up with some real turnout will never yield results— and yet we post on Idealist, Craiglist, and forward to our networks and expect the “right” people to come.

What if we’re looking at how we define who is qualified all wrong? 

Toward the end of my time at my last job, I began to discuss with the Executive Director starting a training program for organizers.  We never got far enough in the planning (and of course, there would have been an idea of funding, which Vu so clearly articulates in his article).  But here’s what I think:

Being a good organizer has nothing to do with qualifications, and everything to do with instincts, personality, and ability to take risks and learn from them.  We need organizers who have an instinct for tension, who have a curiosity about people, and a fiery, fierce desire for change.  Those qualities are what makes an organizer effective or not.  The rest can be learned.

So when we say the “right” people aren’t applying, what we’re really saying is that we don’t have the capacity to train someone who has good instincts but no experience.  We don’t have the time to give to go in the field with someone who’s new, and coach them on-the-job.  We don’t have the funding to hire someone who can’t hit the ground running.  We need all hands on deck, and if they’re not ready to go, well, they’re a drain on resources.  You’d of course want someone effective to be the trainer, which would require precious time taken away from your strongest organizers to train someone unknown and untested.  It’s scary, and it’s costly.

And so we unintentionally perpetuate a racist, classist, ableist, ageist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, religiously intolerant (and I’m sure I missed many!) system- where (much like those recent college grads who complain, “how am I supposed to get experience if no one will hire me?!”) we disadvantage people who weren’t privileged enough to deal with the unfortunate pay scale, to come home at odd and irregular hours, and to have access to programs that focus on their leadership- not to say that these communities do not have these programs, but that these programs are sorely underfunded and thus have a limited capacity for how many people they can train and support.

I feel like a broken record when I say that training is the answer to most things.  But I think we need to expand our definition of what makes a “qualified organizer” to include people who have the right instincts and just not the experience.  Unions get this right sometimes, hiring members of the rank and file who’ve demonstrated leadership and an eye toward strategic thinking.  We need to be doing the same, and making sure these people are supported and trained so that they stay in the work.

I don’t have all the answers, and this kind of topic is filled with all kinds of nuances and complications that I haven’t addressed here.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, and any experiences you’ve had or programs you’ve encountered that support incoming organizers of color.

I try to move in this world as a thoughtful ally, but I also feel that it’s my job to move out of the way of others at times, and make space for other voices to be raised up, beyond just the voices of those that I’m organizing.  It’s tough, and many of us tend to tread lightly when it comes to talking about race— but if we continue to disillusion ourselves into thinking that there just aren’t the right people out there to hire, we’re just perpetuating the oppressive system we’re trying to dismantle.

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5 Comments on “Some of My Best Friends are Black Organizers!”

  1. Ivy, thank you for a very thoughtful reflection on a complex issue. The dissonance and gap regarding who is hired to work with communities of color is often glaring. That is not to say, however, that allies should have no part in the work. The work cannot be done unless we all roll up our sleeves, and oftentimes allies can say and do things much more effectively than communities of color. This is just the reality. I think the bottom line is for us to be thoughtful and to balance the short-term needs with the long-term investment in communities being empowered to lead the movement. What you are doing–reflecting on your role, advocating to do things differently and to take risks–is not easy, but it’s exactly what we all need to be doing more of, and I wish all allies are as willing as you to ask the difficult questions. Thank you for your work.

  2. Hiya Ivy, not surprised to see this piece because you always struck me so invested in the work but also open & unafraid to explore new perspectives. That is key, in my opinion.

    On one hand, it is a conversation I have had a lot ~ especially lately. There is always the threat & often the reality, that the so called advocate will co-opt over & over the community it is attempting to ‘help.’ Then perhaps the advocate writes up & submits proposals for funding, based on initiatives coming out of that same community. Not only are important dollars taken out of the picture for community efforts but the community will be expected to adhere to objectives & ‘deliverables’ which appear in those proposals. Goals the community group identified for itself early on are soon enough off the table & what the advocate considers more important, loftier altogether & underscored by such glorious language in the proposal that the advocate presents to the group is unrecognizable to them. And when they question or object ~ and any worthwhile community group questions or objects ~ the advocate might grow hurt & resentful, even competitive with members of the community group. S/he may point out that s/he has degrees & education surpassing theirs, knows what’s best and/or otherwise pats them on their collective head. Back from this point, they cannot go.

    That there is no common ground for going forward together is not true, in my view. There are other bases for building a coalition. Take poverty. If one points out that the program for which they are submitting a proposal will result in self sufficiency, foundations are all over it. All of them will have different motivations: some people rightfully realize that independence is something to which people aspire, something which grows with proper care. This means proper care by proper people: ‘target audience,’ (horrible phrase,) people who will do day to day work, those who account for program expenses, maintain records & stay in touch with funders. But foundations have changed the outcomes they accepted 20 years ago, even 5 years ago, outcomes which are always being updated. Sources of money want to know about the programs they fund, not just how much was spent over what period of time & on what. They want to know about the numbers of people reached & to what degree they have contributed to change. In this way, they also know better how to evaluate other proposals & objectives.

    So there is a place for people of all colors in such a process. The process of protesting? Also people of all colors BUT in what capacities? Some of us expected monies to be donated to the Ferguson police officer for his family, legal defense fund, etc. Many people younger than I took it almost as a personal insult. I have yet to see, and I keep checking, funds for Michael Brown’s funeral expenses or his mother’s civil suit. I can’t speak for everyone but I assure you that my days of demonstrations may be over. Not positive about that but fairly certain. I would be quite effective, if I do say so myself, in a telephone bank for the purpose of soliciting funds. Of course, there will be some nasty replies to such a request but I am used to that. And there is every reason to think that suits against the city, the PD and Wilson will be successful because of the inadequacies of police departments & prosecutor’s office, virtually impossible to bring about the same outcomes a second time.

    What else might I, as a white person, do? There are contributions I could make, based on my 63 long years. But I could not duplicate those made by Ivy Hest during her time in Boston. She is not only intelligent but insightful; listens more than she speaks; is a good writer & researcher; has no problem whatsoever refusing to do something she believes will cause more harm than good; and she can get down.

    Now, how do I get out of this site? off this page?

    Would my experience be better utilized in managing a telephone bank? Perhaps.

    1. Hi Carol! So great to hear from you!

      I think you make some really great points. Some call it the Non-Profit Industrial Complex- where organizations that want to do work in communities are slave to funders to help them hire the staff they need and pay for their operations, and thus are forced to adhere to what the funders’ priorities are, not necessarily what the organization or their “client base” prioritize (membership, target audience, whatever you want to call it).

      There’s a great book called the Revolution Will Not Be Funded by Incite! (www.incite-national.org) that I recommend if you want some more info and perspectives about the very issue you’re discussing.

      And as for the protests– I do believe that at this point, the only way we’re going to make real change and draw attention to the real issues is to disrupt the system altogether, which is what protests are all about. You know me, I’m all about the direct action!

      But I understand where you’re coming from, and knowing your abilities and strengths, I think that raising funds through phone banking (and in person!) is a great use of your skills, and essential to achieve what we want to. If we want to break away from the model of having to appease funders, we have to find ways to diversify where the money comes from so that we are not relying on a few big donors. We need to be more thoughtful about how we get our money, and we need all the help we can get!

      As always, it’s a pleasure learning from you, Carol!

  3. I think that the framing is a bit of a problem as well! The idea of training people to work in their communities seems like a really strange, colonialist one. Like an outsider with experience really knows more about organizing in a community than someone who is from there?

    The education needs to go both ways and the people someone would be “wasting time” training have as much, if not more training to do for the outsider. Yes, experienced organizers bring a lot to the table that can be offered as training skills, but why can’t it be seen as more of a collaboration?

    1. Thank you for your comment! I totally agree with you, and appreciate your calling me out. I do believe that training should be a collaboration (a la Paulo Friere’s Popular Education model, where everyone’s experience adds to a greater understanding as a whole, and everyone learns from each other- no one is an “expert”, but everyone is an expert in their own experiences). I suppose I was approaching training more for the mechanics of organizing (the kinds of questions to ask others in a one-on-one meeting, how to create and facilitate an agenda, etc), not necessarily the heart of organizing, the strategy, and the tactics that can be learned from experience- and not always formal experience.

      I think you make a good point that also gets into the question of the professionalization of organizing. Those of us who make a living off of supporting communities to fight back inherently have a different dynamic from those who do this without compensation, in their own communities. The Non-Profit Industrial Complex for a profession that is based around “empowerment”. This dynamic is also a complicated one, that could create a colonialist dynamic simply by being paid to do the work.

      You are right that the way I frame a “solution” of training is colonialist and problematic. Who am I to tell people how to work in their own community?

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