The , an activist fund led by and for women of color and intersex, queer, and trans people under the age of 35, recently launched a pilot effort, the Our Own Power fund, aimed at fostering grassroots organizations in the gender and reproductive justice fields. Rye Young, a trans-activist and executive director of the fund, spoke with PND via email about the importance of representation — the notion that organizations representing vulnerable communities should be led by members of those communities — and what nonprofits and foundations can do to boost representation within their organizations and in the sector more generally.
Philanthropy News Digest: What can nonprofits and foundations do to increase self-representation within their organizations?
Rye Young: An important first step that many organizations skip is to acknowledge that there is a representation problem in the first place, and to appreciate that this problem does not have an easy fix because it is the result of many factors. There needs to be a conscious effort made to understand how this lack of representation came to be and why it hasn’t been addressed.
Once that understanding has been established, real conversations need to take place focused on why self-representation should be an organizational goal and to determine how far the organization’s leaders are willing to go. For instance, how much funding should be allocated to training? Are those in leadership positions who come from outside the community served by the organization willing to step down from their roles? Can job qualifications be changed or replaced with something more appropriate?
When deciding what steps it can and should take, the organization also must acknowledge the legitimacy of the problem and the many factors behind it. The root causes behind the lack of representation are varied, layered, and deeply embedded within most organizations. So, any decisions arrived at to address the problem must be long-term, and there must be buy-in at all levels of the organization.
PND: Can you give us an example of the kinds of things that result in a lack of representation?
RY: Racism, patriarchy, ageism, ableism — all can result in staff and board members not being members of the community being served, and in turn that can lead to a culture, a set of norms, practices, and values that are reflective of a more privileged or dominant group. And addressing the issue should go beyond changes in leadership or a few key staff; it has to involve a deep examination the organization’s work at every level, from mission and values, to its theory of change, to programs and its human resources policies.
Another example of a root cause could be that your field requires certain types of specialized education, eliminating many eminently qualified candidates and resulting in a small, privileged pool of “qualified” applicants. But there are many drivers. What’s important is that we all do some deep thinking and learning as to what exactly is going on at our own institutions.
PND: Cultural changes like the one you’re suggesting typically take decades to be embraced by a majority. Can the process be accelerated? And should it be?
RY: It’s our opinion that what’s more important than being fast is being intentional and honest about what the problem is, the steps organizations are willing to take to address it, and the end goals. Sometimes, being patient actually can serve a change as deep and inclusive as the one we’re talking about. A change in who is leading the organization’s work shouldn’t be done hastily and without adequate preparation. In fact, all too often, in a change like this, folks from the community being served are thrown into leadership positions during challenging financial times and with very little preparation, training, or external support; essentially, they are set up to fail. But what definitely can help ensure the success of these transitions is for funders to rally around this type of change and support organizational plans that go deeper than just who serves as executive director or in a key leadership role.
PND: Not all forms of diversity are obvious. What can nonprofits do to ensure that their leadership and staff are reflective of diversity in all its manifestations?
RY: It is true that “diversity” programs tend to focus on the representation of identities that are not hidden. And there are many types of discrimination and representation gaps that tend not to be addressed because they are “invisible,” including class, gender identity, immigration status, and so on. On top of that, many organizations assume they know how staff mirror the many different aspects of diversity. But they miss a lot. One thing organizations can do to address that problem is to use anonymous surveys to learn what gaps exist in the organization, do an audit of their physical environments, and get feedback on the organizational culture to see whether there are barriers to inclusion they haven’t thought of. Groups also can use targeted outreach strategies to spread the word to the communities they serve when positions on staff open up.
PND: What is the Our Own Power Fund doing to ensure that young women, especially women of color and from the LGBT community, help inform the decisions affecting those communities?
RY: The Own Our Power Fund is answering the call from our grantee partners to trust young women of color and queer and trans youth to lead the work that impacts them. The fund also is working to address many of the things our grantees have identified that make it challenging for them to lead their nonprofits. The fund acknowledges that although many professionals in philanthropy truly believe in the value of centering the leadership of those affected by systemic prejudice and oppression, it is not unusual for funders to shy away from organizations that are controversial or too outspoken and to not support leaders who belong to the communities being served, or to grant them very little margin for error.
We hope to do it differently. We want to invest in gender justice organizations so that they can set the terms of their work and, to that end, will award one- and two-year capacity-building grants that help support organizations as they undergo a leadership transition or to provide coaching, skills-building training, or other types of professional development training for new leaders. We want to help them develop sustainable revenue models and, at the same time, foster self-representation more broadly by harnessing the power of vulnerable communities to tell their own stories.
— Matt Sinclair