It is certainly no secret that the philanthropy and nonprofit sector in this country is led by white men. As a Black executive director, I consider myself fortunate, as I have been successful in this industry and have worked tirelessly to earn the respect of leaders in the sector. Despite my success, I face racism on a daily basis. I am not in this alone. Though there are few persons of color in executive positions, we agree that the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in a sector that is dedicated to social impact is problematic and has sustained a toxic culture of microaggressions and systemic racism.
Microaggressions are thinly veiled hostile words or actions that expose the conscious or unconscious bias of the aggressor. These aggressions might seem insignificant to the aggressor, but they cause real trauma to those to whom agressions are directed. Below are just a few examples of microaggressions that I have experienced in my lived experience as a Black man working in the philanthropic and nonprofit space:
When I was initially appointed as Executive Director at the Choir School in 2013, I used a professional headshot as my email icon. When I noticed that many in the sector did not respond to me in a timely fashion, I replaced my picture with my organization's logo. Within 48 hours, I landed a meeting with one of Delaware’s largest foundations. Since then, I have continued to keep my racial identity hidden when liaising for the first time with funders and nonprofit support agencies.
The racist microaggressions that I experience are degrading. On one occasion, I walked into a foundation’s office and told a woman at the front desk that I was there to meet with the head of the foundation. The receptionist insisted that there must be a mistake, as the foundation head was scheduled to meet with the Executive Director of the Choir School. I politely responded that I was the Executive Director. The receptionist looked at me and, without apology, asked me to take a seat and wait to be called.
I often experience racism when initially meeting foundation staff and nonprofit leaders. I am always sure to introduce myself and say my name (pronounced air-re-on) very clearly so that they can pronounce my name properly. Nine times out of ten, in response I hear, “Nice to meet you Aaron.” Though this frustrates me, I smile and pronounce my name once more for clarification, but again I am called “Aaron.” This is dehumanizing. Foundation leaders and nonprofit thought leaders do not realize how anxiety-inducing it is for a Black man from a very modest upbringing to request support from them given this imbalance of power and racial inequity.
This dynamic is further reinforced when attending high stakes meetings with members of my Board of Directors or staff, and foundation and nonprofit support leaders begin with speaking with and addressing questions to the white people in the room. This devalues my contributions as a person of color and suggests that all creative and innovative ideas were only generated by my white colleagues. Even though I am the Executive Director, and even though I have transformed my organization during my tenure, I am often left out of conversations. Though some may deem these microaggressions to be insignificant, they are racist.
Beyond microaggression the philanthropic and nonprofit sector has sustained a culture of systemic racism. This is most clearly demonstrated by how few Black Executive Directors we have in Delaware’s nonprofits, especially
in the Arts sector. Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) perspectives are needed to support and guide decision making with justice, equity, and representation at its core. Take, for example, one nonprofit support agency holding an event with sessions about social justice, and, despite dissementating a statement of solidarity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, did not choose a single Black speaker for the event. Had this organization had a person of color meaningfully involved in decision making, it could have benefitted from a broader perspective that could have prevented this lapse in judgement.
Additionally, charitable foundations and grant panels also fall short in their diversity and inclusion. These organizations give much needed support to BIPOC communities, but the majority of these funders do not have sufficient BIPOC representation. Even more concerning, many of these same foundations o nly have white trustees. This contributes to BIPOC organizations being granted fewer dollars than their peer institutions, most especially organizations affiliated with Black churches. Even more concerning, foundation trustees depend on trust built from their past personal experiences when making funding decisions. This negatively impacts grants from BIPOC led and serving organizations whose applications are consciously or unconsciously held to a higher level of scrutiny. This is the 21st century version of the slave auction block, with white men circling Blacks, assessing who is strong, and calculating who is built to last.
Given the extent of systemic racism and microaggression within the sector, it my recommendation that the following actions are adopted:
Diversity training sector wide.Given the urgent need to address microaggression and the nationwide dialogue concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion, every philanthropic organization and nonprofit must invest in substantive training.
Diversify foundation and nonprofit support agency staff members. T his diversification must take place from entry level to executive leadership positions. When approaching funders, BIPOC communities should find comfort in seeing themselves and their cultures represented in these critical positions. I urge Philanthropy Delaware, one of Delaware’s nonprofit and philanthropic support agencies, to recruit a highly qualified BIPOC candidate pool to apply for its recently vacated President and CEO position.
Diversify foundation boards and trustees.It is impossible to fully understand lived experiences that are not our own and, thus, BIPOC community representatives must be involved in making funding decisions and recommendations. At the present moment, many foundations choose to fund capital and special project requests which disproportionately rewards white agencies and penalizes those serving low income Black and Brown communities. These communities are particularly in need of nonprofit agencies that provide ongoing social services. I urge foundations to increase unrestricted, general operating support to meet these unmet needs.
Review and reconstruct funding policies.Funding requirements and guidelines disproportionately exclude or limit BIPOC communities, which is, by definition, systemic racism. All guidelines should ensure equitable access and equitable distribution of resources. Change is particularly needed in requiring grant applicants to be 501(c)(3) organizations, as many low income BIPOC communities offer programs through churches and other community entities that do not have this IRS designation, but do this important work.
During this time of reawakening to racial inequities, we must all pause and reflect. While it is true that discussion must be had, we also need policy change and action. The times have called us to be courageous and bold in examining our shortcomings, fortifying our assets, and replacing inequitable systems with ones that provide the necessary resources for communities to thrive. The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors take pride in their social impact. I urge them to address the toxic culture sustaining microaggressions and systemic racism and to take an active leadership role in creating equitable and just systems that serve as a model for corporate culture and public policy.
About the Author
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Arreon A. Harley-Emerson was appointed Director Music and Operations of the Choir School of Delaware in June, 2013. In this position, he is responsible for the musical components of the renowned music and social services program as well as the day-to-day operations of the organization.
Committed to the principles of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB), Mr. Harley-Emerson has established a thriving consultancy to assist arts and culture nonprofit organizations in remaining relevant in the 21st century. His work includes
longitudinal studies, strategic planning, board governance, resource and asset development, and board diversification. Mr. Harley-Emerson currently serves as the National Chair of the American Choral Directors Association's Diversity Initiatives Committee as well as President of the Delaware Arts Alliance’s Board of Directors.