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In recent months, many organizations have been working to establish and share ways to contribute to racial justice. These actions include creating equity within their workplace, identifying and dismantling White-dominant values, and amplifying the voices of Black people and people of color.
To understand how nonprofits can champion racial justice as part of their organizational culture, we spoke with Executive Director & President Dr. Jeannine L. Lisitski about how she and her staff at Women Against Abuse, Philadelphia’s leading domestic violence advocate and service provider, created their racial justice initiative.
“Even then [in 2016], we were late in coming to the realization that we needed to be more active to uncover the structural and systemic racism that exists within all organizations based on White-dominant values,” Dr. Lisitski says.
She and her team began talking about diversity and inclusion with a group of staff from all programs, departments, and hierarchical levels. This group started a Racial Justice Committee to address inequities so they could better serve the communities that rely upon their services, which include a majority of Black people and people of color.
“We came to the point where this was critical to our mission of working to end domestic violence because there’s so many intersectional issues that come together to create such oppression. We know that violence is about oppression. It’s about control. Racism is yet another layer of oppression that our clients experience,” Dr. Lisitski explains. “Really, we need to address that because how can people be free from violence in a relationship if there’s racism, which is violence embedded and baked into our systems?”
In its simplest definition, being antiracist is actively fighting against all forms of racism. Dr. Lisitski explains that being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices each day. Being racist or antiracist is not about who we are, it is about what we do. An individual who is antiracist believes that racism is everyone’s problem, and that we all have a role in stopping it.
Just because your organization’s mission isn’t tied to racial justice in name doesn’t mean that racism isn’t a barrier between your work and your mission. Dr. Lisitski points out, “To some degree, even a nonprofit organization like Women Against Abuse that works to overcome oppression as an integral part of our mission, even we have been affected by systemic and structural built-in racism. We need to look at it, evaluate it, and change it and be willing to, not only acknowledge it, but take steps every day to work against it to change things.”
She shares a breakdown of the many forms of racism from The National Museum of African American History & Culture’s website, noting that each works in tandem with at least one other form to reinforce racist ideas, behavior, and policy:
Individual racism refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism in conscious and unconscious ways. The U.S. cultural narrative about racism typically focuses on individual racism and fails to recognize systemic racism.
Examples: Believing in the superiority of white people, not hiring a person of color because “something doesn’t feel right,” or telling a racist joke.
Interpersonal racism occurs between individuals. These are public expressions of racism.
Examples: Slurs, biases, or hateful words or actions.
Institutional racism occurs in an organization. These are discriminatory treatments, unfair policies, or biased practices based on race that result in inequitable outcomes for White people over people of color and extend considerably beyond prejudice. These institutional policies often never mention any racial group, but the intent is to create advantages for White people.
Example: A school system where students of color are more frequently distributed into the most crowded classrooms and underfunded schools and out of the higher-resourced schools.
Structural racism is the overarching system of racial bias across institutions and society. These systems give privileges to white people resulting in disadvantages to people of color.
Example: Stereotypes of people of color as criminals in mainstream movies and media.
When Women Against Abuse decided to adopt a greater focus on racial justice, Dr. Lisitski recruited experts to help the team establish a strong foundation for their initiative. “One of the first things we did was to invite in facilitators to host ‘courageous conversations’ throughout Women Against Abuse, talking about racism, and starting to open up the dialogue and learn a shared language within a safe enough space.”
Created and implemented by Pacific Educational Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to racial equality, COURAGEOUS CONVERSATION™ is a proven protocol that enables trainers to effectively engage organizations and teams in deep levels of interracial dialogue.
For Dr. Lisitski and the Women Against Abuse staff, these sessions were a first step to move past silence about how racial inequities shape their daily interactions. Through this understanding, they could create a culture centered around listening and responding.
During the sessions, Women Against Abuse utilized Art of Hosting practices to facilitate conversations of all sizes, maximize collective intelligence, welcome and listen to diverse viewpoints, and transform conflict into creative cooperation. This enlightening experience was the beginning of a change in the organization’s culture, as it became one in which issues of race and injustice are elevated as people are experiencing them.
To learn more about COURAGEOUS CONVERSATION and how your staff can benefit from Pacific Educational Group’s expertise and dynamic sessions, visit their website.
When forming their Racial Justice Committee, Dr. Lisitski and the Women Against Abuse Team viewed it as a communal effort within their organization. Dr. Lisitski shares how starting with an emphasis on inclusion and holding leadership accountable was key to establishing a strong and vibrant foundation for their Racial Justice work.
“We assembled people from all different departments and programs,” she says. “We also identified people from different hierarchical levels, like senior managers, middle managers, direct staff, and administrative staff.”
In addition to ensuring that a diverse group of individuals were represented at an organizational level, the team at Women Against Abuse specifically focused on recruiting Black people and people of color for the committee, as its goal is to amplify their voices, champion their ideas, and work together to create an equitable culture.
Through multiple courageous conversations over a period of days, they ended up with what they call “The Harvest Report.” “The Harvest was all the things that emerged,” Dr. Lisitski explains. “We had a lot of people’s ideas. Then we created an action plan out of that, that we called The Harvest. Through that, we started working on the identified next steps, and we did it through various structures. One is the Racial Justice Committee, as we spoke of, but then the senior management team had a big role to play in making sure some of those initiatives were implemented.”
The work you do and the topics you tackle as part of your racial justice initiative can be painful and difficult for Black people and people of color on your staff due to their lived experiences and related historical trauma. Their contributions should be respected and responded to with actions and meaningful follow-through from your organization.
“There’d be nothing worse than doing this work only for people to feel demoralized and disempowered by not being able to forward it and make progress,” Dr. Lisitski says. “When we decided to do this work, we made a commitment to constant progress, or else we won’t continue to do this work.”
To best support the Racial Justice Committee at Women Against Abuse, a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) liaison was designated to ensure that the committee was well-equipped to pursue their goals.
Dr. Lisitki explains, “We want to make sure that there’s a senior manager liaison to that Racial Justice Committee that touches in frequently to make sure whatever they need: resources, or if they need decisions made, or if there are barriers, that those can be addressed.”
In addition to staff members, board members for Women Against Abuse are dialed in to the work of their Racial Justice Committee. “We also involve our board and educate them, and give them tools so that they can live out race equity and justice even at their level, like within board discussions, by elevating voices of people of color at board meetings, survivors, et cetera,” Dr. Lisitski shares.
Many organizations unknowingly adopt and uphold characteristics of white supremacy culture. “That comes from these White-dominant cultures where we prioritize competitive individualism, where we have secrecy, we have a lack of transparency,” Dr. Lisitski says. “We have all these things that are destructive and not constructive.”
The first step to ridding your organizational culture of destructive values is learning them and recognizing them so they can be corrected. The trainers at Crossroads Antiracism taught Dr. Lisitski and the Women Against Abuse staff about these characteristics of white supremacy so they could do just that. To demonstrate what an organizational culture shift could look like, Dr. Lisitski lists examples of values she and her team seek to practice and promote in contrast with White-dominant values. These examples are from Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups:
These changes in thinking and communicating take time, but they are well worth the effort, because as Dr. Lisitski notes,“…working to become antiracist does not only benefit people of color, Black and Brown people, and Indigenous people, but it benefits White people because all of us have been negatively impacted by white supremacy and White-dominant values.”
Because Women Against Abuse serves many Black people and people of color, their staff knows that certain systems are not effective interventions. For example, many of their clients do not feel safe going to the police. These systemic barriers have prompted conversations beyond the walls of Women Against Abuse with officials and community members who can partner with their organization and work to break these barriers down.
“I think one thing that Women Against Abuse does pretty well is to organically work with all different stakeholders,” Dr. Lisitski says. “We’re always working with federal, state, and local politicians in organic ways and with all the different system partners in our city, whether it’s law enforcement or health and human services with community-based organizations.”
From local government agencies to neighboring nonprofits to loyal donors, many players contribute to the advancement of Women Against Abuse and their racial justice initiative.
“How are you going to change such a big issue unless you’re involving the whole entire community in meaningful ways, not just as, ‘Oh, what can we get from that person?’” she asks. “It’s always more than that for us in fundraising. It’s about building relationships, building community, and building a movement.”
Bringing donors into the fold during a pandemic can be challenging, but rather than solely relying on previous methods, the team at Women Against Abuse is getting creative. “What we’re planning now is … [to] have Zoom lunches with groups of our donors to focus on different topics, where you kick it off asking them what their experience is with whatever the topic is. Then you have specific prompt questions, and it just becomes a big discussion of interest to people,” Dr. Listitski explains.
Discussion topics will range from unity and courage to racial justice and living in a post-pandemic world. “We think that’ll help people to get a little more involved in our mission, but also, to reconnect in positive ways. To build that civic engagement and community, that’s so important as an authentic way of fundraising. I don’t even want to call it that. It’s like building a movement…To me, it’s integrated in the work. At the same time, I’m learning from all those folks from that discussion. I’m taking that and using it to enhance what we’re doing to have a greater impact.”
When asked how she and the staff continuously evolve their organization without burning out from exhaustion, Dr. Lisitski doesn’t hesitate to put forth a perspective that keeps many in the nonprofit sector moving forward.
“I think what would be more exhausting would be to live in a world with these issues and not be doing things to make a change…That’s a situation of helplessness. We’ve taken a stance that we can make a difference,” she says. “I think it’s very hopeful work. It never feels overwhelming because we’re doing it in a deep and authentic way with real partners, real networks who stand with us. Look, when you’re standing with that many people, you’re strong, you have the benefit of all those people with you.”