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    Capacity Building for Communities of Color: The Paradigm Shift and Why I Left My Job

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    When I first got out of grad school with my Master in Social Work, I was a bright-eyed kid full of hopes and dreams of doing my part to make the world better. Completely broke and desperate to find work before the student loans people released their hounds, I applied to countless jobs and found that no one would hire me because I had no experience, a vicious “Experience Paradox” that many young grads go through each year.

    Frustrated and dejected, I secluded myself in my room (in my parents’ house), sending out my resume all day, coming out at night to raise my clenched fist to the dark skies and screaming “I may be inexperienced, but I am still a human being! A human being!!!” Then I would eat some ramen and watch Spanish soap operas on Univision.

    building-capacityWhat is the point of that story? The point is that communities of color, and the organizations led by these communities, often feel like these recent grads. We are stuck in this debilitating and demoralizing “Capacity Paradox” where funders do not invest sufficient funds in our organizations to build capacity because we don’t have enough capacity. Yet, we are constantly asked to do stuff, to sit at various tables, to help with outreach, to rally our community members to attend various summits and support various policies.

    Everyone seems to be in agreement that major efforts to effect systemic change are missing the voices of communities of color and would benefit from having those voices. Everyone also seems to be in agreement that communities of color that have strong organizations behind them are much more involved and effective at all levels of service and policies. Building the capacity of these organizations, then, is critical to all systems-change efforts: Housing, homelessness, climate change, education, neighborhood safety, etc.

    What many of us fail to recognize is that the current efforts to increase the capacity of nonprofits led by immigrant, refugee, or other communities of color, which I call “nonprofits of color,” are not sufficient. Funders who provide significant, multi-year, general operating funds—the holy grail of funding and the thing that will help any organization develop its capacity the fastest—operate under systems that leave most nonprofits of color behind. These significant capacity building grants are almost impossible for nonprofits of color to attain. We usually don’t have the same relationships. Or grantwriting skills. Or board members who can strongly articulate the vision. Because we don’t have capacity, we can’t get support to develop capacity.

    With significant, catalytic funding out of the question, funders provide small grants to nonprofits of color so they can do things like hire a consultant to facilitate a strategic planning retreat, or to send them to workshops on board development, fundraising, personnel policies, or myriad other capacity building topics. These grants can be very helpful to keep an organization going. But in the long run it doesn’t work because there is a critical missing element. Staffing.

    You can send an organization to a thousand workshops and do a thousand strategic planning processes, but if they do not have staff to implement their learnings, they are not going to build significant capacity. We have many, many nonprofits that are doing good and much-needed work, that are constantly asked to do more work for free, without receiving any of the trust and support to hire qualified staff to sustain and grow their operations.

    The paradigm has to shift. I don’t say this lightly, because there are few things I hate more than jargons like “shifting the paradigm.” But the reality is that what we are doing is not working, and we have to change our mindset completely and do things differently. If we value the voice of our diverse communities, we must build the capacity of organizations led by those communities. But we must do it differently than how we’ve been doing it. We must invest strategically and sufficiently. We must take some risks. It to society’s benefit to help these nonprofits break out of the Capacity Paradox.

    For the past couple of years I have been working with a group of brilliant and passionate people on a project called the Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), a model designed to increase the capacity of immigrant/refugee-led nonprofits by providing this critical missing element of staffing. The project recruits emerging leaders of color from within immigrant/refugee communities, trains them in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management, and sends them to work full-time at nonprofits of color to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness.

    Now, we can send these nonprofits to workshops and do strategic plans, because now there is staffing to implement stuff. These emerging leaders get a stipend, healthcare, and a bonus to support paying back student loans or furthering their education. They will get mentorship and support and encouragement to stay in the nonprofit field and rise up to become leaders within their communities.

    RVC addresses several needs, among them the vital staffing that is required for capacity building to be successful. But it also addresses a scary challenge that many of us are not even talking about: The gap in leadership among the immigrant/refugee communities will widen further because kids are not entering the nonprofit field. Most immigrant/refugee kids are pressured by their families to go into jobs with higher pay and prestige.

    Many nonprofits of color are currently led by elders, who will in 10 or 15 years retire, and if we don’t start to develop the pipeline for new generations of leaders of color soon, we may not have many in the future. This will jeopardize all sorts of systemic-change efforts.

    So, Rainier Valley Corps will increase capacity of nonprofits of color, improve services to immigrant/refugee communities, build up new generations of leaders of color in the nonprofit field, and foster collaboration between diverse ethnic groups to address inequities. If we do a good job, lessons can be learned that can be applied to diverse communities all over the US.

    The project itself is ambitious with nearly $700,000 per year for seven years to support cohorts of 10 to 18 emerging leaders/organizations each year, but if we genuinely want to build the capacity of nonprofits of color, then we must be willing to invest sufficient funds to make it work.

    This year, RVC received some start-up funding, enough to hire a full-time Project Director who will focus on raising the $700K/year, develop the infrastructure and curriculum, and strengthen relationships among the various nonprofits, funders, and capacity-building organizations. I firmly believe this model holds promise to greatly increase our immigrant/refugee communities’ effectiveness and voice which is why I left my job as executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) to become RVC’s project director.

    It was bittersweet leaving an organization that I love and one that has given me so much in terms of skills and connections as well as relieved some existential angst about the meaning of life. But, VFA is doing great, with an incredible board, amazing staff, and dedicated supporters. I have nothing but gratitude and pride for VFA and all we achieved over the last nine years. I still remember when we had an operating budget less than $20,000, no staff, and one program. I remember staying at the office until midnight to get work done, and then come to my car to find it had been broken into. VFA have grown a lot. We strengthened our capacity. We now have several staff, many great programs serving thousands each year, and we’re being more and more involved in cool stuff like working with other ethnic groups to push for education equity.

    VFA is why I so strongly believe that Rainier Valley Corps holds the key to capacity building for immigrant/refugee communities. Ten years ago, when I could not find a job because I had all this passion and no experience, I was accepted into a unique program. It recruited us emerging leaders, trained us in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management.

    Then, it sent us to work full-time in small Vietnamese-led nonprofits across the US to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness, and I was sent to VFA. I know this RVC model and how effective it can be because I personally went through it and have seen the results. The program drew us inexperienced-but-passionate grads into the field, and many of us stayed and continue to contribute. Several of us became leaders of our organizations and within our communities, which is great.

    Without this program that kept me in the nonprofit field and inspired Rainier Valley Corps, I probably would have ended up on another career path: Writing for Spanish soap operas.

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    Vu Le, MSW, is the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps [link: rainiervalleycorps.org], which aims to bring more professionals of color into the nonprofit sector and develop the capacity of people-of-color-led nonprofits. He writes weekly at his nonprofit humor blog, nonprofitwithballs.com, and is the humor columnist for Blue Avocado [blueavocado.org].

    Diversity

    Why Political Science Can and Should Lead Diversity Efforts in Higher Education

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    Diversity is big business in the academy. Foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, and Robert Wood Johnson support academic efforts to diversify the professoriate; and colleges and universities across the country are investing significant resources in diversity efforts. Furthermore, the academy has begun hiring chief diversity officers, following corporate sector trends — 60% of Fortune 500 companies have chief diversity officers among their top-executives.

    Although the numbers of women in political science have shown modest growth over the last two decades, the number of women of color in the field has largely remained flat. Political science scholarship on minority representation in U.S. legislatures sheds light on this professional conundrum, too. This literature shows how organized women, racial and ethnic minorities, and their allies can promote diversity and inclusive practices to bring about lasting change in political science, other disciplines and higher education more broadly.

    An Opportune Moment for Political Science

    Research on social movements shows that, when windows of opportunity arise, activists must have the resources to change the status quo and push for policy breakthroughs. I suggest that heightened attention to institutional diversity across academia presents an opportunity that political scientists can and should seize by presenting themselves as credible stakeholders who are well-equipped to: steward institutions’ newly available resources, run innovative pilot programs, and produce returns on institutional diversity investments for both students and faculty.

    Student demands will be a key resource in these efforts, but administrators can often “wait students out” — stalling student diversity efforts until a new cohort must begin afresh. Political Science is uniquely positioned to lead institutional change by using research from the discipline to encourage student activists to investigate the issues, formulate long- and short-term goals, determine the scope of their influence, identify allies and opponents, construct informed arguments, and make specific demands with measurable outcomes. This informed activism can help students leverage their status over time as students, alumni, and donors to move towards shared goals for departmental, disciplinary, and institutional change.

    Political Science is attracting many undergraduate women majors. Women are faring as well as men on the discipline’s job market. They are approaching pay equity with male colleagues and increasing their presence in the ranks of full professors. In 2010, women of color comprised 13.5% of female political science faculty, more than double their share in 1980. Although this improvement remains relatively modest compared to the nearly 300% increase in women faculty over that span, the progress for women of color is promising and can act as a foundation for future diversity efforts. Nevertheless, many challenges must still be addressed — including burdens of balancing tenure-track and family responsibilities, “inhospitable” institutional climates, and research norms that discount women’s contributions to collaborative work.

    Building a Diversity Infrastructure

    Sheer numbers are the first requirement for building diversity infrastructure. With sufficient numbers, members of gender and racial caucuses can promote further change and build organizational capacities. Research on the impact of diversity in Congress shows that the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses encourage information and resource sharing, enhanced communication, and collective action on behalf of racial and ethnic minorities. Through caucuses, task forces, and organized voting blocs, minority legislators have kept low-salience civil rights issues on the congressional agenda despite waning public interest. Women’s and racial and ethnic caucuses in national and regional political science associations show that female political scientists can capitalize on their numbers to act as disruptive-insiders to further diversify faculties and challenge discrimination.

    Buy-in from political science department heads who name search committees and from faculty making influential recommendations will be indispensable for furthering these efforts. Departmental objectives can be linked to university diversity efforts. Male faculty members should be encouraged to serve on diversity committees and act as change agents.

    Thinking beyond individual departments, women’s caucuses and ethnic caucuses in political science associations could share resources and knowledge and coordinate agendas. If increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the discipline is to be achieved, then women’s caucuses will need to work closely with race and ethnic caucuses in the discipline. Although universal sisterhood may be a worthy ideal, faculty women of color cannot be cast as handmaidens rather than full partners in the work of transforming the discipline.

    Mentorship is Not Enough

    The number of women of color entering political science faculties has stagnated, and many minority faculty members leave political science departments for more hospitable interdisciplinary centers. Recruitment and retention should therefore be top priorities — and that is going to take more than just mentoring programs.

    Mentorship is a common answer to the challenge of recruiting, supporting, and retaining minority faculty. Mentoring, however, only teaches people how to survive in institutions. It does not necessarily attract more people to enter institutions, and it does not help them change institutions. Although the very presence of black women on academic faculties and in front of classrooms changes the academy, that is not enough. Despite widely shared good intentions, the discipline cannot rely on mentoring alone to help women of color overcome racism, sexism, and other systematic obstacles to their advancement. At best, mentoring will help women faculty of color expand their social networks, establish important professional relationships, and better navigate minefields. At worst, mentoring will help some individuals survive and advance, while maintaining longstanding power disparities in the discipline. Mentoring obviously cannot ameliorate the impediments that routinely challenge and undermine women of color at all ranks of the professoriate. Political science must lead the way in identifying and deploying all of the strategies that can bring broader progress in universities and disciplines.

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    Diversity

    The Impact of Institutional Racism on Capitol Hill

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    The 116th Congress, the current meeting of the legislative branch of the United States federal government, is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. Black, Latinx, Asian/ Pacific Islander, or Indigenous members now account for 22% of Congress, a record-breaking trend on Capitol Hill. This represents an 84% increase over the 107th Congress of 2001 to 2003, which had 63 diverse members. Although racial and ethnic diversity among lawmakers has increased over the years, Congress remains disproportionately white when compared to the overall U.S. population.

    Social Solutionist Dr. Angela Henderson suggests that the lack of diversity of legislators on Capitol Hill is directly tied to institutional racism. Skilled in research and statistical analysis, Dr. Henderson examined demographic data from the 116th Congress to better understand the relationship between systemic inequities and racial and ethnic disproportionality. Dr. Henderson translates research into action-oriented solutions that will eradicate institutional racism and increase diversity on Capitol Hill.

    “The best way to change the future is to understand history.”

                     – Adam Ramer 

    The requirement for candidates to raise significant funds for their congressional campaign compounds the homogeneity on Capitol Hill. Due to the effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and unequitable wealth distribution, the lack of monetary inheritance within communities of color present significant barriers. Monetary inheritance within a family provides financial stability for future generations to thrive and take advantage of wealth-building opportunities. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center article, the income of households headed by Black people continues to lag behind households headed by white people. In 2014, the median Black household income was approximately $43,300 while the median white household income was about $71,300. The study also found that household heads with higher levels of formal education tend to have higher household incomes. However, the Black-white-gap in income occurs across all educational levels and indicates a lack of equitable opportunities for communities of color.

    Decades of racial discrimination, segregation, and disinvestments in communities of color have left families with fewer resources when under financial pressure. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted The New Deal to combat a housing shortage and to increase housing stock. In reality, this program was a state-sponsored system of segregation that pushed Black and Brown families into urban housing projects. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration furthered segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages within Black and Brown communities, a practice known as redlining. The Federal Housing Administration justified racial segregation by claiming property values would decrease if people of color bought homes near the suburbs. Although the New Deal was repealed in 1939, it has left behind ongoing stagnant racial inequities and deep wealth gaps between Black and white communities.

    Debt negatively impacts all families but is especially burdensome for families of color. Research suggests that while only 15% of white households have been late with debt payments, 27% of Black households have been late with debt payments. Without a social safety net or alternative financial means, more and more Black families may be at risk of taking out additional loans at high interest rates to pay their living expenses. This leaves fewer assets and means for families to support and assist their children with basic life necessities, such as housing, transportation, and/or college tuition.

    “There can be no learning without action, and no action without learning.”

              – Reg Revans

    According to Dr. Henderson, we can take the following steps to push back against the effects of institutional racism and increase leadership diversity on Capitol Hill:

    1. Community Rites of Passage Investment: We must strategically invest in our youth of color early, particularly investing in youths of color who are on a political track that requires financial means to succeed. Given that it takes a village to raise a child, our community should collectively craft solutions and invest in opportunities for our children to do so.
    2. Mentoring, Internships, and Fellowships: All professions, including political social workers and researchers, should challenge themselves to mentor and provide internships and fellowships to youth, undergraduate, and graduate students. These programs and opportunities, such as Emerge Virginia, will help students get acquainted with working in Congressional or State offices.
    3. Political Training Programs: This learning opportunity will help students develop skills around campaign messaging, fundraising, campaign budgeting, and all tactics pertaining to running for office.
    4. Political Action Committees (PAC): Support PACs, U.S. organizations that raise money privately to influence elections or legislation.
    5. Social Work Political Campaign Courses: Every social work program around the country should offer a course about social workers and political campaigns. This course should provide social work students with a year-long intensive training on politics, etiquette, debating, and different ways to prepare them for work in this realm.

    In order to increase leadership diversity on Capitol Hill, we will need to create more opportunities for people of color. Acknowledging the challenges and barriers they often face such as limited professional networks and political clout, we have to be intentional about bringing people of color into these spaces. We have to ensure that we are equipping youth and communities of color with the connections and resources needed to build wealth and maintain sustainability. As Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley urges, “we have to be disruptors, innovators, and we have to shake the table.”

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    Diversity

    How to Create Inclusive Environments for Black Students on Predominantly White College Campuses

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    Predominantly white institutions of higher education in the United States routinely point to rising enrollments of students of color as evidence of their commitment to racial diversity and inclusion. Indeed, from 1996 to 2012, college enrollments of minority students have increased exponentially. Across all types of institutions, the percentage of white college students enrolled in the United States fell from 84 percent in 1976 to 58 percent in 2015.

    Even so, Black enrollments in selective colleges and universities have remained consistently low for the past two decades. Regardless of shifting percentages, however, enrollment numbers are poor metrics for inclusivity. They say very little about the social integration of Black students once they arrive on predominantly white college campuses.

    Inclusivity depends on more than enrollment rates, it is about enrolled students coming to feel that they really belong in campus communities where they are valued and accepted. The prevalence of anti-Black incidents and the growing presence of white supremacist groups on college campuses suggest that America has not achieved true inclusivity for Black college students — and may be losing ground in some places.

    The U.S. Department of Education reports that the number of reported campus hate crimes increased by 25 percent from 2015 to 2016, right after the election of Donald Trump. Further, there have been high profile media reports of white students or college staff people who call the police on Black students and staff for engaging in routine activities such as sleeping in a residence hall common area or eating lunch on campus.

    Predominantly white institutions can cultivate more inclusive environments for Black students by moving beyond just numerical diversity. They should focus instead on subtle dynamics of campus exclusion, and the extent to which students feel they belong and are well mentored and supported.

    Mechanisms of Anti-Black Exclusion on Predominantly White Campuses

    Sociological research points to discriminatory dynamics for Black students on predominantly white campuses:

    Segregated white socialization. Anti-Black prejudice in the United States has long been reinforced by racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, and churches that make it possible for white students to arrive on college campuses without ever having interacted meaningfully with Black peers. With academic tracking, many white students can also be educated in predominantly white classrooms even in racially diverse public schools. As a result, many white students and faculty arrive on college campuses holding unchallenged racist myths and misconceptions about Black people.

    Hostile racial climates. Scholars find that a hostile racial climate leads to feelings of marginalization and isolation that harm achievement and retention for minority students. Greater numbers of minority enrollees do not necessarily lead to cross-racial interactions, or necessarily challenge dominant racial ideologies and master narratives. Black students experience hostile campus climates through everyday racial slights and the failure of faculty and administrators at historically white institutions to enact policies to counter racial and ethnic harassment.

    Assumptions flowing from college admissions policies. College admissions policies can contribute to the marginalization of Black students by creating presumptions that many of them may be less meritorious than their white and Asian peers. The Black–white SAT test score gap feeds into racist notions of Black intellectual inferiority and informs false narratives of affirmative action programs as discriminatory towards white and Asian applicants. Yet research confirms that GPAs are a better predictor of college performance than SAT scores; and many test scores have been found to rest on racially biased assumptions. Apart from assumptions spread by admissions rules, recent scholarship also suggests that some admissions officers discriminate against prospective Black students who are oriented towards social justice.

    How to Fight Black Exclusion on College Campuses

    Providing supportive and inclusive spaces for Black students is particularly important in the current social context. The following are suggestions that can be used by predominantly white institutions.

    • Develop new metrics for success. Stop using only numeral diversity in admissions or graduation rates as the primary metrics for progress. Instead, focus as well on measuring the racial climate on campus and student feelings of belonging and attachment to the institution.

    • Train people in how to discuss racial issues. Provide professional training for faculty on how to lead effective conversations about racism in their classrooms and as advisors. Provide similar training to administrators, staff, and student leaders.

    • Establish both safe spaces and brave spaces: Recognize that Black students need safe spaces on predominantly white campuses where they can have a reprieve from anti-Black racism. Simultaneously, create cross-racial “brave spaces” for all students to develop authentic and sustained interracial interactions, while providing them with tools and support to do so effectively.

    • Spread anti-racist narratives: Find multiple ways to counter harmful anti-Black stereotypes. For example, Test Optional College Admissions policies are already being used at many of the most competitive schools in the United States. And classroom curricula can also be used to further deepen students’ racial literacy. Additionally, universities should forcefully identify antiracist values as a core feature of their institution’s identity.
    • Anti-discrimination and harassment policies: Develop clear policies and procedures that outline consequences for discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, and other social identities. These policies provide accountability that is critical for combating hostile racial climates.

    Read more in Bedelia Nicola Richards, “Faculty Assessments as Tools of Oppression: A Black Woman’s Reflections on (Colorblind) Racism in the Academy” in Intersectionality and Higher Education: Identity and Inequality on College Campuses, edited by W. Carson Byrd, Sarah Ovink, and Rachelle J. Brunn-Bevel (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

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