Leaving Abusive Relationships Is Especially Hard for People in Minority Communities

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Partners in abusive relationships — with psychopaths, narcissists, and other disordered individuals — often suffer in silence. This is especially true in marginalized communities.

Partners’ silence reinforces their isolation and reduces their capacity to end abuse and exploitation in these relationships.

What stops a partner from seeking help? Among the barriers to reaching out for a reality check — and support for leaving — are these common factors:

Shame. Partners worry that their association with a toxic person reflects poorly on them and that others will judge them if they know about the abuse they are tolerating. If they’ve left and returned, the shame feels greater.  Partners also often want to protect the “good reputation” of their toxic mate or the status the couple enjoys within a family or community.  If friends or family opposed coupling with the toxic person, the partner faces the shame of acknowledging the decision to ignore good advice and feels unworthy of support now.

Fear.  Partners of personality disordered people experience many kinds of fear as they contemplate seeking help. Fears range from the fear of retribution or stonewalling by the partner to the fear of being seen as crazy when they describe what is happening.  They sometimes fear that they cannot trust their own perceptions, or that they aren’t really seeing what they think they are seeing.

Hopelessness.  Partners may trust their perceptions that a relationship is toxic, and believe that others would sympathize with their situation, but still feel trapped by financial, cultural, and familial limitations.  As a result, they continue to suffer in silence, assuming that nowhere they turn will offer practical help in ending an exploitative relationship.

These three limitations affect partners of psychopaths and others with toxic personalities across categories of gender, sexual identity, race, religion, and relationship status.  For members of minority groups, barriers to seeking help are even greater.

Because members of marginalized groups are already stigmatized by society, they often work to “protect the reputation” of their communities, thinking that calling attention to dysfunction or violence within them reinforces negative stereotypes. For this reason, domestic violence and sexual assault are frequently under-reported within communities of color, religious minority groups, and LGBTQ communities.

In addition to the common forms of shame, fear, and helplessness that many victims feel, members of minority communities also experience fear that others will judge them for calling negative attention to the community.

They also fear that the legal system will not protect them as it should.  Because people from majority groups dominate criminal justice, legal, property, and financial systems, turning to people in authority to seek help with a toxic relationship is an extremely courageous and vulnerable act. But it could result in the system being unresponsive or shaming — or actually siding with the perpetrator.

In a worst case scenario, a victim could alienate friends, family, and community members by naming the problem and seeking help, only to find themselves treated poorly by the systems to which they have turned, resulting in more isolation and danger than if they had remained silent.

A famous example of how minority status increases vulnerability to psychopaths occurred in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous Milwaukee serial killer of gay men.

Dahmer was white. Many of his victims were poor men of color, men whose “missing” status would be less of a priority for white authorities to resolve. One of them, a 14-year-old Southeast Asian boy, Konerak Sinthasamphone, escaped Dahmer’s apartment, drugged, naked, and bleeding. African American witnesses called the police asking for assistance on his behalf.  White officers responded, only to return the minor to Dahmer, who had assured them that the two were a couple and everything was fine, despite the victim’s obvious distress.  Within moments of the police leaving the boy in Dahmer’s apartment, he was killed — a victim not only of the psychopath, but also of police ignorance, incompetence, and hostility toward minority people.

Aware of situations like these, victims from minority communities often seek help only with great caution, both when they face “stranger danger,” harassment, and hate crimes, and when they are victimized by intimate partners or family members. It is vital for people in the helping professions to be prepared to respond skillfully when people from minority populations take the risk of seeking help.

Police officers, lawyers, doctors, therapists, and clergy need an awareness of the patterns of victimization created by psychopaths and other troublesome people, as well as the special vulnerabilities of people in minority populations to exploitation and abuse.  When victims of toxic partners decide to reach out for help, we have a professional obligation to understand not only psychopathic abuse, but also what it means for a person in a minority community to come forward, to seek help, and, possibly, to exit their relationship.

Minority victims of toxic partners, like all victims, deserve to know that competent help is available when they take the important step to seek help, despite the barriers of shame, fear, and hopelessness.

Funders, Your Grant Application Process May Be Perpetuating Inequity

Illustration depicting a computer screen capture with a grants concept.

A few weeks ago, a fellow Executive Director of color and a friend of mine, “Maria,” was nearly in tears after failing for a second time to get a small grant. She doesn’t drink, or else I would have offered access to the personal minibar that I keep in my office. A shot of Wild Turkey and a brisk walk always cheer me up after a grant rejection.

“I’m so tired,” Maria said over the phone, “I can’t continue putting in my own money to keep this afloat. Maybe nonprofit is just not for me. It’s too hard.” She had spent over 40 hours on these two grants, and I had spent over 12 hours facilitating part of a board retreat, helping develop the logic model, revising the budgets, editing the narratives, and providing moral support.

The grant was a one-time award for less than 10K, and she had been told repeatedly, by different people at this foundation, that her work was important and much needed.

The purpose of this story is not to call out a particular foundation, but to highlight the fact that the standard grant application process needs a deep overhaul because it is leaving behind too many communities.

This past year, my organization assumes more and more the role of a quasi-funder. Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), was formed to build the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits while simultaneously developing leaders of color. We do this by selecting host sites and then sending emerging leaders of color that we train (and whose wages we pay) to these organizations, where they work full-time for one or more years to build these organizations’ capacity. The ethnic CBOs increase their capacity and effectiveness and ability to be involved at the systems level, and the field has a slew of awesome future nonprofit leaders of color that I will personally help to train to be kick-ass nonprofit warriors. Our inaugural cohort of ten leaders starts this September.

Because small nonprofits have to apply to be partners and host sites in our program, we have started being viewed as somewhat of a funder. (We have the best of both worlds: The joy of having to reject great organizations, and the fundraising-associated night terrors of being a nonprofit). I noticed the shift in dynamics when I was visiting these organizations as part of the review process, and some people seemed visibly nervous. As I mentioned earlier, program officers are instantly 27% more attractive than civilians. Suddenly, my wrinkles were marks of experience, my twitching left eye now charming, and this weird gap between my front two teeth a distinguishing feature. Not only that, but apparently my jokes on those site visits were 100% funnier too!

All of that is to say that I’ve been more sympathetic to the challenges that we brilliant, dashing funders are facing, as well as more cognizant of the elements that have been helping or hindering marginalized communities. (PS: I know the term “marginalized communities” can be controversial, and a future post may focus on this, but for now, let’s continue with this term).


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For the past few years, everyone has been talking about Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency. This is good. But when these things do not actually come with profound changes in systems and processes, they can actually cause more harm. Equity, in particular, has been a shiny new concept adopted by many funders. A basic tenet of equity in our line of work is that the communities that are most affected by societal problems are leading the efforts to address these challenges. And yet, many foundations’ application process is deeply inequitable, leaving behind the people and communities who are most affected by the injustices we as a sector are trying to address.

Eight signs that your foundations may be inadvertently perpetuating inequity:

Your application takes more than 10 to 15 hours to complete:  Some grants are ridiculously, hair-tearingly, wall-punchingly time-consuming. An ED friend, who is white, told me her team spent over 70 hours on a single grant once due to the dozens of pages of narrative, a complex budget template, and various attachments. 70 hours. This is a relatively large nonprofit with several staff who are all fluent in English. They didn’t get the grant and were very frustrated. Besides the fact that none of us have 70 hours to waste when there are so many community needs to address, if this grant is difficult for a team that’s fluent in English and in grantwriting, imagine how much harder it will be for an organization led by marginalized communities, who may not be fluent in English, or who may not have writing experience or outside support. If your application is basically a Ph. D. dissertation, you’re perpetuating inequity.

Your LOI is a mini application: An LOI is the first step for many grant applications. Its purpose is for the funder to quickly discern if an organization is a potential good match for its priorities, kind of like samples of naturally fermented sauerkraut at the farmer’s market. It is usually just a two-page letter. But some funders seem to think that this should be an entire grant application and ask for budget attachments, logic models, workplans, resumes, board chair signature, etc. This totally misses the point of the LOI, and an insidious effect is that it creates an extra barrier for grassroots organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, rural, disabled, etc.

You require more than five attachments: It takes little effort to require something—“Hey, we should ask them to submit three previous years’ budget-to-actuals reports and next year’s budget projections, so we can see how they’ve been growing”— but the repercussions for many communities are significant. For instance, it takes you all of 30 seconds to ask for and look at a Logic Model, but Maria and her team had to spend 10 hours to develop this, since they had never heard of it before. Yes, it was good for them to have it, but the same information could have been obtained by asking “Please tell us about your activities and how they will lead to short-term and long-term results for your clients and community.” The more attachments you require, the more inequitable your process is, because marginalized communities have less time and resources to create the various documents you require.

You require organizations to translate their budget into your format: Yes, there are organizations with crappy budget formats. But a part of the problem may be that funders each require their own budget formats to be used, leading to all sorts of confusion. Most of us in the field would love one standardized budget template that all foundations use. But that is not what’s happening; for every grant application, no matter how big or small, we have to take hours to recombine and move numbers around in order to conform to varying templates. And again, organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities will be disproportionately affected, since they have less time. Not every organization has a CFO, one trained in using arcane Excel voodoo magic to get numbers to align perfectly in order to increase their final application score. 

You overly rely on a scorecard to determine funding decisions: Score cards are a quick and simple way to distill complex information: 40 points possible for the narrative, 15 points for the budget, 10 points for the Theory of Change, etc. However, there are critical elements of an organization’s work that cannot be quantified: The value of the organization to its clients, historical traumas the communities it serves have faced, cultural elements of leadership, etc. These things are complex and messy, so we prefer not to deal with them at all. The score card gives us an illusion of objectivity, but it is an illusion, as well as a crutch. Use the score card as a tool for discussion, not as the primary means to make funding decisions. Equity requires us to take the harder path and deal with the messy stuff. 

Your grant is invitation-only: I know some funders are well-meaning, trying to reduce admin costs of processing endless requests so that more funding can go to the community, and trying to save potential grantees’ time. However, organizations led by communities of color, for example, will rarely have the same relationship with you, or run in your circles to eventually build a relationship with you, or have a big enough marketing budget to get noticed by you. The relationship-based funding model is inequitable because marginalized communities in general have fewer relationships with those who have power and resources. Unless you are specifically focused on finding and supporting these communities, your invitation-only process is likely leaving them behind, and you may not know it, because you are invitation-only.

You are rigid in the percentage of an organization’s budget you will fund: Some foundations will fund no more than 15% of an organization’s budget; some only 20%, or whatever. But organizations led by marginalized communities will tend to have smaller budgets, so they will likely get less funding in general. If an organization led by communities of color has a budget of 100K, and you only fund 10% of any budget, then they cannot hope to get over 10K, whereas an organization with a budget of 1 million will be able to get 100K. Applying a rigid fixed percentage means organizations and communities that most need funding will get the least funding. 

Your application takes more than six months to process: I know grant processes that take nine months to a year before applicants hear anything. Usually this is because the funders want to do a really thorough job considering every application. That’s commendable, but a lot can happen in nine months: Strategies change, cashflow dwindle, staff get laid off, babies are born, critical programs fold. The bigger, stronger organizations may be able to weather these various tumultuous changes, but many smaller organizations led by communities most affected by inequity, they in general have less buffer. The longer you take to make a decision, the less accessible and helpful you are to communities that are most affected by inequity.

Making the grant application process more equitable

In many ways, our grant application process is very similar to our hiring process, but it seems to be even more complicated: “We have a job opening available. To apply, please submit your cover, resume, credit history, personal budget, diploma, copy of driver’s license, professional development plan, three writing samples, work plan for your first 12 months on the job, your family tree, and five letters of recommendations.” We have archaic and inequitable hiring practices, and we wonder why we don’t have enough people of color in the field. We have archaic and inequitable grant processes, and we wonder why we don’t have enough organizations led by marginalized communities at various tables.

So, what should you do? Here are some suggestions, gathered with help from some of my hair-pulling, rapidly-aging, occasionally wall-punching colleagues:

Require most attachments AFTER you’ve decided to fund an organization. Once we organizations know we have a high likelihood of getting funded, we will clock-474128_640gladly polish the logic model, create a theory of change diagram, compile 12 years of budget reports, make a shoebox diorama of our relationships to other orgs, write and perform a puppet play explaining our evaluation model, or whatever else you need. This will save everyone’s time and sanity and will greatly help organizations led by marginalized communities, since they don’t have much time to spare.

Provide technical assistance throughout the process: Help organizations make their case. Give feedback and provide support, especially for stuff you require. You might be thinking, “But, that’s not fair to organizations that don’t get the feedback and support.” I would say that fairness often gets in the way of equity. If we want to support communities of color, and LGBTQ, disabled, and rural communities, we must focus more attention and resources on them.

Segment your grant into two or more tracks, one for larger organizations, one for smaller organizations: It is inequitable and ineffective to expect small organizations who have few staff and likely no grantwriters to compete with established organizations who have dedicated grantwriting support. They will always be left in the dust. Have the big orgs compete with one another, and the small orgs compete with one another. (Note: Do not give less to the applicants in the smaller-orgs track; if anything, give more.)

Fund a larger percentage of smaller orgs’ budgets: Nonprofits founded and led by marginalized communities tend to have smaller budgets, so the funding they receive is critical. Dispense with the whole “we only fund 10% of your budget” thing. If an organization led by marginalized communities does important work, if it’s fulfilling a need that no one else is addressing, why not fund 30% or 50% or even 100% of its work? This support, especially in the beginning, is critical to ensuring these organizations gain their bearing, create infrastructure, develop a track record, and survive long enough to get other funding. 

Create a simple renewal process: You already have a relationship with a grantee. Why make them jump through the same hoops and waste time when they should be focused on delivering services.

Ask applicants how much time they spent working on your grant:  Maybe ask this instead of the irritating sustainability question. Analyze to see if there’s a pattern between organizations led by marginalized communities and those that are not. Or run through your own application process by creating a fictional nonprofit and actually writing a grant. I’m willing to bet that most foundations have never had to experience what it’s like to apply to their own grants. 

And of course, stop being invitation-only. And give general operating funds, and give significant amounts that can help organizations grow. (Check out last’s weeks list of 12 awesome things funders are doing as they all help increase equity)

Less paternalism, more partnership

Overall, our grant application process needs to change. As much as we say that individual donors provide the largest chunk of funds for nonprofits, the reality is that this does not always apply to grassroots organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, disabled, rural, etc. These organizations usually have a stronger reliance on foundation support until they can establish a strong base of individual donors, which may take several years.

After I hung up with Maria, I chugged a small bottle of Wild Turkey from my mini bar and called up the program officer, who has been a great advocate for communities and leaders of color. The review team didn’t find some of the things she wrote to align with the grant’s priorities, I was told. That’s fine, I said, but why make a small grant so hard? Well, she replied, this is usually one of the first grants that small orgs seek out, and we want to make sure they develop some grantwriting skills; trial by fire, etc.

After venting to a colleague about how exhausting another grant was, I was told that the foundation designed this process to be challenging on purpose, in order to “help” nonprofits gain experience with difficult grants.

In each of the above scenarios, funders are well-meaning. But honestly, you’re just creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you perpetuate a difficult system and get others to navigate it, instead of questioning why it needs to be so difficult in the first place. If your foundation prides itself on a tough application process, it is priding itself for perpetuating inequity. You are proud of inadvertently leaving the communities most affected by injustice behind. If your process causes good people to want to quit nonprofit, something is wrong. And if these good people also happen to rank among the few leaders from marginalized communities doing this type of work, something is seriously wrong.

To achieve equity, we must focus on both content as well as process. The content in philanthropy has started shifting more and more toward equity, diversity, inclusion, etc. This is really great. But if the process doesn’t simultaneously shift, we’re not going to get anywhere. We must dispense with the belief that all organizations and communities have the same amount of time, and a full-time finance person, and a professional grantwriter. We must start to treat nonprofits, especially the ones led by leaders from marginalized communities, as partners, and support them to grow. The well-meaning paternalism of many grant application processes needs to stop.

These are all tall orders, and I am learning it the hard way, as my organization figures out our own process. We decided to accept handwritten applications, for example, and actually got an applicant who hand-wrote the application! But, I am positive we can do it. After all, we funders and quasi-funders are good-looking and smart, we can figure this out.

The Problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

The people of color that I’ve been talking to are getting kind of sick of the equity, diversity, and inclusion terms use by nonprofits. We love them, but the dissonance between their usage and actual practice is like getting poked in the eye on a daily basis. Case in point, at a panel I was on recently, a colleague of color told me that someone contacted her, saying, “Can you help us spread the word about this new job position? We want to diversify our pool of candidates.”

My friend said, “I wanted to ask, Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?” We both sighed; thankfully, the wine was plentiful that evening.

equityThis has been happening a lot recently, the usage of these feel-good and trendy terms without serious consideration for the challenging and time-consuming changes that we need to undergo to actualize them. Equity requires the embrace of risk and failure. True equity, and diversity and inclusion, cannot exist without them.

Unfortunately, our field is often frustratingly and ineffectively risk-adverse, paralyzed by thoughts of failure. So yeah, we’ll “diversify the pool of candidates” and then, most likely, select the “most qualified” person anyway, who is often White. I know many organizations who tout equity and inclusiveness whose staff and board are mostly White. They are highly qualified and awesome, but it is jarring when most of their clients are people of color.

Or we’ll “work with communities of color” and then, most likely, select mainstream organizations because these ethnic-led organizations “don’t have the capacity” or “didn’t put in a strong enough proposal.”

The voices of communities of color have been struggling to be heard on almost every single issue. And to everyone’s credit, I don’t feel like people are actually being exclusive. This recent trend of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a testament to the fact that we all recognize both the importance and the lack of engagement of these communities. However, recognition of the problem and talking about it are necessary but not sufficient elements to solving the problems of inequity. We have to be willing to try different stuff, fund differently, and accept a few failures.

Unboxing equity

By now, most of us have seen this graphic above, which displays very clearly the difference between equality and equity. But after we think, “Aw, that’s so cute; all these kids can now watch the game; equity is so magical,” how does it actually translate within our field? Let’s unpack this.

First, I’m not always a big fan of this image, because to the less wise, the short kid is obviously deficient and needs some serious help. The short kid represents entire marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, communities of color, poor communities, etc. But this kid can also symbolize individuals such as professionals of color, as well as nonprofits such as ethnic-led organizations. These communities and individuals have plenty of strength and assets and is not always just the baby in the group.

But anyway, let’s continue with the metaphor. Since my experience is with communities, people, and nonprofits of color, I’m going to hone in on that for this post today.

Regardless of who this little kid represents, the point is that we are always struggling to see over the fence. We’ll be lucky to get a two-by-four to stand on, much less a whole box, much less TWO boxes. In the case of ethnic-led nonprofits, the argument against giving a whole box to them has always been, “You’re cute, but you guys just don’t have the capacity. If we give you a whole box to stand on, you’ll probably just fall off of it. We can’t give you a large grant. Here’s a small one. Sure, all these problems we’re tackling disproportionately affect your communities, and you have the best connection to them. But come back when you are more organized.”

At a recent conference I attended, funders were congratulating themselves on capacity building around collective impact work. As much as I like collective impact in theory, the reality is that it has more often than not been screwing over communities of color, who cannot access funds to be significantly involved and thus are unintentionally tokenized. (See “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile,” where I compare ineffective CI efforts to the Borg from Star Trek).

“Collective impact has been leaving behind many communities of color,” I said from the audience, “how are you addressing building capacity for organizations that are led by these communities so that they can be involved?”

A funder took the microphone to respond. “I wish my organization was one of those with the flexibility to give $5K or 10K grants,” he said, “but we don’t do that. We give larger grants.” And of course, these ethnic-led nonprofits would never be able to compete for one of these larger grants. They are stuck in the capacity quagmire like college grads who can’t get hired because they have no experience.

The importance of risk and failure

Look, I’m not advocating for people hire staff willy-nilly, or for funders to be throwing money around at random. But the status quo is not working, and holding hands chanting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” without actually doing stuff differently is dangerous because it makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re not.

Here’s the reality: If we hire less experienced people from communities of color, yes, they will likely require more support, and they may fail more often. If we fund small ethnic-led nonprofits, yes, they will likely require more support and may fail more often. That kid has not had much experience standing on two boxes. His balance is being tested. He may fall down a couple of times.

But here’s another side to that reality: Those staff from communities of color are critical when working with communities of color, and our field does a lot of work with communities of color, to put it mildly. You can hire a less experienced staff of color and train them on technical skills. But you cannot teach someone to be a person of color. Believe me, I tried it; it was uncomfortable for everyone. So if your org works with clients of color, take some risks in your hiring. Don’t just “diversify the pool.”

Ethnic-led nonprofits organizations are the most effective in connecting to their communities, and they do it on shoe-string budgets. Since they have the strongest relationships, they are constantly asked to help with outreach, to sit on advisory teams, and to do other stuff for free. Then when they try to get more significant support, the response has historically been, “You don’t have the capacity” followed by “but why don’t you join the Cultural Competency workgroup of our awesome collective impact effort!”

Let me know your thoughts, and also check out my previous article on building capacity for communities of color.

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

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.

Are You or Your Org Guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement

A while ago, I was talking to a friend, another Executive Director, and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?” Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it. Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

In Seattle, if you’re a person of color and you walk down a dark alley late at night and you feel like you’re being followed, it’s probably someone trying to do some community engagement.

“Psst…hey buddy—Go Hawks!—you want to attend a summit? It’s about economic inequity. We need your voice.” “Daddy, I’m scared!” “Stay calm, Timmy; don’t look him in the eye.” “Come on, help a guy out! Here, you each get some compostable sticky dots to vote on our top three priorities! You can vote on different priorities, or, if you like, you put more than one dot on—” “Run, Timmy!”

This is why you should never take your kid down a dark alley in Seattle.

Needs Assessment, Ownership and Community Engagement

There are several reasons why TDCE happens. First, the nonprofit sector has all sorts of unwritten rules designed to be successfully navigated only by mainstream organizations (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) Second, 90% of funding in the nonprofit world is relationship-based, which screws over marginalized communities, who have much fewer relationships with funders and decision-makers. Third, due to existing definitions, many organizations led by marginalized groups “don’t have the capacity.” They’re “small and disorganized,” they are “not ready to be leaders in these efforts.” Fourth, community engagement has been seen as the icing on the cake, and not an essential ingredient, so it is always last to be considered. Fifth, many funders and decision-makers focus on sexy short-term gains, not effective long-term investments.

Look, I’m not saying anyone is intentionally trying to discriminate against certain communities. Everyone is well-intentioned. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency have risen to the front of people’s minds. Organizations are scrambling to talk about these issues, to diversify their board, to get community input. That is all great and all, but it has only been leading to marginalized communities being irritated and frustrated. Every single week, we leaders of color get asked to provide input, to join an advisory committee, attend a summit, to fill out a survey. Because of this well-intentioned mandate to engage with communities, we get bombarded with requests to do stuff for free.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is pretty dangerous, for several reasons. When people who are most affected by issues are not funded and trusted to lead the efforts to address them:

It perpetuates the Capacity Paradox. The Capacity Paradox is when an organization cannot get significant funding because it has limited capacity, so it cannot develop its capacity, which leads it to not being able to get significant funding, which means it can’t develop its capacity. This greatly affects organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities. And then they can’t be as involved, which leads to ineffective efforts to tackle issues. (See “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.”)

It’s annoying as hell. In every single issue, I keep seeing larger, well-connected organizations getting significant funding but are not effective at engagement. So they pester us smaller ethnic-led orgs to help. I was asked by a collective impact backbone org to be involved with planning a summit to engage communities of color. I advised them not to do it, and told them that I’ve been to far too many summits that suck (See: “Community Engagement 101: Why most summits suck.”) Next thing I knew, they organized the summit anyway, asked my organization to help with outreach, and asked me personally to translate their outreach material into Vietnamese! All for free, of course! (“Run, Timmy!!”)

It’s intrinsically wrong. We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting. Or a bunch of idiots who don’t know anything about science leading a committee on climate change and asking scientists to come testify about global warming. These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.

Most importantly, it doesn’t work and is even counterproductive. If TDCE actually works, then we’d have little to argue about. But it does not. Well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff get voted on and implemented. For example, at a meeting I was invited to someone said, “We need to put 100% of funding into early learning instead of splitting it among early learning and youth development” and I had to remind them that “Many immigrant and refugee kids get here when they’re older than 5, so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning. We need to support the entire continuum of kids’ development.” (See “Youth Development, why it is just as important as early learning“) Unfortunately, by the time a mainstream organization finally gets to that community feedback forum or summit to get feedback on their well-intentioned but crappy plan or policy, it is too late.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement sucks and is insulting. The sector needs to stop only supporting major organizations and hope that magically the people disproportionately affected whom we don’t fund will join in. Or at the very least, we should stop whining about it when they don’t. We organizations led by marginalized communities are tired and irritated at excuses like “We can’t invest in you guys because you’re too small,” coupled with the constant requests for us to be involved. Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.

As I said, everyone is well-intentioned. But Trickle-Down Community Engagement is harmful, and we need to all be aware of it and put a stop to it:

Funders: Review your investments for every priority. Are the issues you are trying to address disproportionately affecting some groups? Are those groups getting equitably funded and supported or are you just giving them token funding? Are they leading the effort or just playing bit parts on the side? If you are funding mainstream organizations to address challenges affecting marginalized communities, look at their budget request to see how much of it is to be shared with partner organizations that are led by affected communities. Stop being fooled by well-intentioned mainstream efforts that claim to represent marginalized communities but that are only tokenizing and using them. I’ve seen a well-funded coalition list over 80 diverse organizations as member, but on closer examination, several of these groups aren’t aware that they are members, or they no longer even exist!

Donors: See above paragraph. In addition, know that organizations led by marginalized communities tend to be smaller, so they need your support more. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same relationship with you or the same marketing and development capacity as bigger and better known organizations. Seek them out. Your support matters.

Mainstream organizations: Sorry, it seems like I’ve been beating up on you a lot. That’s not my intentions. You guys do awesome stuff and play critical roles. But review your projects and budgets, and examine your role and the dynamics you are contributing to. Are you building in funding to share with community partners, or are you just asking people to do stuff for free in the name of “community engagement”? Are you siphoning funding to address issues that other nonprofits should be tackling but they don’t yet have the capacity? Are you mentoring smaller nonprofits through strategic partnerships? Are you serving as an advocate for these groups, since you have better relationships with funders?

Organizations led by marginalized communities: Learn when to say yes and when to say no. I’ve seen too many small nonprofits agree to do outreach, to be partners, to even run programs for tiny amounts of funding. I’ve done it myself. My last organization, when it was much smaller, partnered with a bigger org who could not reach students of color. They asked us to organize a 2-hour workshop for over 100 diverse kids each month for a year. You know how much we got to do that? $2500 total, and we had to itemize and have receipts for every pencil we bought! The big organization who “partnered” with us got all the credit, of course. All of us can be so naïve, signing on to coalitions without researching first, lending our names to summits without due diligence, doing outreach and translation for free. It just perpetuates a terrible and ineffective system that continues to leave our communities behind. Learn to say no, to give feedback firmly, and to build strategic relationships.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, community engagement, etc. those are all good, but they can also be irritating, misleading, and even harmful if not done right. Trickle-Down Community Engagement is an example of good-intention poorly executed. If we want marginalized communities to be engaged, we need to fund and support them directly to be engaged. Community Engagement cannot be the icing on the chocolate cake of equity and social justice. It is the chocolate!

The American Dream Doesn’t Exist for the Poor

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Once again, the poor are being asked to help balance the budget. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been a strong supporter of the proposed school closures to assist with government budgetary shortfalls. However, he has been met with resistance every step of the way by the Chicago Public Schools Teachers Union. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled today to vote on the proposal that will close 53 elementary schools and one high school in predominately African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. Massive protests have erupted in the streets of Chicago in an effort for parents, teachers, and students to show solidarity in having their voices heard.

Chicago already has one of the highest murder rates for young people in the country. With all the slated school closures in lower-income neighborhoods, this will increase young students’ travel times to school as well as increase their risk of becoming a victim of gun violence. It will also present additional challenges and barriers for parents working in low-income service jobs to get their elementary age children to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Parents, who are already struggling, will have additional barriers placed on their ability to be active in school in addition to existing barriers such as lack of transportation, lack of money for public transportation, and long bus rides.

As a Child Protective Service Worker, one of the complaints that I often heard from teachers is that parent(s) weren’t involved, are often unreachable by phone, or are always late picking up their child. As a Social Worker, my job was not to judge the symptoms but rather than find out what barriers the parent(s) are facing in order to help them overcome those challenges. Chicago is supposed to be looking at how to reduce gun violence and adding more social workers to help with family support would be a step in the right direction. However, these school closures will have an equal or greater opposite effect, and it will be detrimental to the youth and families in these communities. The longer a child has to spend traveling to and from school, it dramatically increases his/her risk of pregnancy, prison, or death.

The American Dream is no longer the rule for the poor in this country. It’s an anomaly or a lottery for someone who is lucky enough to escape their income class. Instead of the “home for the free”, it’s the land of for profit prisons. It is my belief that a lot of social policies and increased burdens placed on the poor are intentionally instituted in an effort to increase instability and poverty in minority communities which leads to increased teen pregnancies, drug addiction, and violent crimes. Since slavery is no longer legal, there is a culture and a group of people who wants a slave class because it is profitable. This country was built on slavery and economic challenges of minorities because without income disparities we move closer to a society of equality.

Currently, corporations are making work agreements with for profit prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, and detention centers for free labor. The for profit prisons are getting paid by the government and corporations to abuse an inmate population that is predominantly minority with the added bonus of having no voice and no right to vote. There is no department of labor or laws to protect them from being abused and taking away their humanity. Slavery has successfully been privatized. Now, these prisons and those who profit from them want to use our communities to groom future inmates for their prisons.

In 2011, two judges were sentenced for selling and trading children to for profit prisons. Here is an excerpt from the Huffington Post:

Ciavarella, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor, filled the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes. The judge remained defiant after his arrest, insisting the payments were legal and denying he incarcerated youths for money.

As long as for profits prisons exist, those who profit will lobby against protective factors such as education, family planning, wage increases, and more social workers because these factors have proven successful in preventing children from the prison pipeline. Public School closures in minority neighborhoods are not just happening in Chicago. It’s happening all over the country. For those who actually make it to their 18th birthday, the second wave of attacks to insure the poor can’t get ahead is making a college education unaffordable.

The third wave, if you are fortunate enough to obtain a degree, is the extremely high interest rates for students loans given to financial need students and the debt you will incur for the bulk of your adult life. The finally attack happens in the employment arena where Right to Work laws and criminal histories being used against you forever contribute to the high unemployment rates and discriminatory practices against minorities. The policies being implemented are not designed to create graduates. They are designed to produce inmates. The American Dream does not exist for the poor.

What happens in the school board meeting today will affect those children”s life for the rest of their lives. Let’s fast forward 20 years in the future to see what these children’s lives may look like.

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