Some of My Best Friends are Black Organizers!

Ivy HestReal Talk, Skills and Principles, Strategy, Supervising and Mentoring

(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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