As a communications professional, I have a few tenets I keep close to my heart. Simple language is best. Awareness is not a goal. The Oxford comma is a requirement, not a suggestion. And perhaps the most important: self-interests are more effective motivators than altruistic ones. In nonprofit communications, I’m always redirecting people from altruistic motivations (e.g. more equitable schools, justice for people of color) to selfish ones (e.g. I want to meet people like me, I want to improve my resume). They are harder to determine for nonprofits, as opposed to businesses trying to sell you things, but it’s vital in order to get people to take action.
In recent months, as awareness of racism and white supremacy (click here for a primer if white supremacy is a new term to you) seem to be on the rise, I’ve been thinking a lot about why white people like me do anti-racism work. And, more often, why they stop. It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable. It can endanger their relationships. So, what are the reasons to stay? And, if I stick to one of my core tenets, what are the selfish reasons to stay?
This is a different type of blog post than my usual nonprofit communications tips. These are completely personal to me and you will likely find a lot of differences in your self-interests. But these are the selfish reasons that I, a white woman in the nonprofit sector, decide to stick to anti-racism work. I hope they will help some of you, or even one of you, do the same.
In anti-racist work, failure is normal.
Part of white supremacy is being expected to know everything; questions and failure are indicative of weakness, not growth. In anti-racist work, I get to (and should) take a back seat from those feelings. Mistakes are normalized and failure is part of the process. I am at an automatic disadvantage in the work, without the lived experience of racism, but I know the only true failure is to quit. I can handle continuing to show up, and I trust that my colleagues will give me the grace to fail.
Anti-racist work gives me hope.
Paying attention to the news, scrolling through Facebook, and talking to my racist friends and neighbors are all activities that deplete my hope. They diminish me. But being in an actively anti-racist space, largely led by POC, replenish that hope. The relationships we build, the fights we win, and the connective tissue that brings us together fills me up again. It bolsters my hope in the future—and I know that we will win.
It makes a better world for me.
My children’s world will be better if it is more equitable, even if they’re white. Our medical system improves, our cities become safer, our schools get better teachers.
If we have a government that truly takes care of everyone when they are struggling, how much less will I have to worry about the people I love? When a friend gets a cancer diagnosis I won’t worry about how they will afford it. If I lose my job, I know I will have a safety net to rely upon so I don’t lose my home. A system that will benefit the people more will, necessarily, benefit me more.
These results will come from deeper investment, tighter regulations of out-of-control profit machines, and truly equal access to education and innovation.
It simply works better.
I’ve spent my entire career in nonprofits. That means I’ve seen more working models and theories of change than probably anyone should. And to be honest, I don’t remember most of them. What I do remember is discussing. So much discussing. These cerebral, complex conversations reimagine the work every year or so, and as a nonprofit staffmember it can be incredibly frustrating.
In fact, in graduate school I did this exercise where you had to select what you valued most: getting it done, getting it right, or ensuring everyone had a good experience. I’m a bit ashamed to admit I scoffed at the last option. Obviously, I didn’t prioritize if people had a good time. Why would I? This is work, not sleepaway camp.
In traditional organizations, the work is always the priority. Are you meeting deadlines; are you staying on task; are your program outcomes fitting into our excel spreadsheet? In anti-racist organizations, it’s different: relationships are the priority. How are you feeling; do we trust each other; are we aligned on how we’re trying to solve this problem?
It’s taken me this long to realize that the work is the relationships. We only get there if we go together.
This focus on relationships delivers better results than anything else I’ve witnessed in our sector. It provides longevity to the most challenging uphill battles our civilization has surfaced. You don’t stick to the work because cell A13 needs an N+13 value. You stick to the work because people depend on you and you depend on them. That trust runs deeper than anything I’ve experienced and it was created by people of color.
It makes me more human.
Many white people join anti-racist work to help people of color. But the truth is that white supremacy damages people of color and white people alike. The damage looks and feels different, but it exists for everyone. One way it shows up in white people is emotional disengagement.
For me specifically, I have a very hard time emotionally engaging with the work. That’s why, in part, I am so drawn to communications. I get to stay at an arm’s length to the work and clients. My job is not to do the work; it’s to gather the audience. It’s a form of self-preservation.
However, when really delving into anti-racist work, emotional engagement is required. Your heart is on your sleeve, for better or for worse. It forces you to unbury the scars white supremacy has left you with and lay bare the inadequacies you have, on some level, always known were there.
The unfortunate side of this is how painfully aware you become of the capacity you have to hurt people. And you do. It’s an inevitable part of anti-racist work: inflicting pain. No matter your intentions, you do it anyway. You will hurt people and embarrass yourself, and you will want to regret you ever tried to engage this work. You will question why you show up when you can’t do anything right, why something so difficult is worth it.
The only solace you have is that you can look at yourself a little more honestly in the mirror. You understand more of who you are. And if you’re lucky, you meet people who extend more grace to you than you offer yourself.
I hope you share some of these self-interests or can identify some of your own. And maybe when you’re considering skipping that meeting or think you can’t possibly do another zoom call this evening, this helps you show up. And I hope they help me do the same.
p.s. A dear friend of mine read my first draft of this post. He rightly called out how I was missing some of the biggest self-interests (the third-fifth reasons), which in and of itself was me acting out white supremacy. He was right and his feedback made this a much more accurate and, incidentally, personal post. Thank you.