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Am I doing myself and my community justice?

2016_rvc-fellow-jaleesaWhen I walked across the stage this past spring, ending my five year journey in undergraduate education, one of the promises I made to myself was that if I were to join the thousands of freshly graduated millennials in the race to enter the workforce and in the rush to become “productive members of society,” I would do so by working on behalf of, or in solidarity with, communities of color. What does this job look like? And where I would find it? I didn’t know. I knew only that I did not want to join the white college-educated liberal masses in providing service-work in places that were, more often than not, peopled with black and brown bodies, impoverished, and bore little to no resemblance to the places where they grew up. No, I wasn’t about that life. I told myself that falling down the rabbit hole of “service”, “helping” and, even worse, wanting to “get to know my community” as defined by corporate sponsored organizations would be a sort of spiritual suicide.
Now that I’m three months deep into the Emerging Leaders of Color Fellowship, I find myself revisiting my graduation promise often. I find myself questioning and doing some critical thinking around my position as a fellow: Is this what working on behalf of communities of color looks like? Am I doing the work of justice? Or is it just adorned like a pretty accessory, changing based on the tides of current trends? As I asked myself these questions I realized that these thoughts were not unfamiliar to me. I was asking the same questions of myself when I worked as a student advocate at my university, during my internship in Olympia, and throughout all of my working experiences. The recurring question being: am I doing myself and my community justice?
On my fourth day on the job, I along with some RVC staff attended a two-day workshop called “Undoing Institutional Racism,” which helped me gain some clarity around some of my questions. During the workshop we were given the low down and dirty truth on the ways in which institutional racism is perpetuated in the non-profit sector, as well as in society. I learned that whether you’re a volunteer, a coordinator, an executive director, or a fellow, we are all gatekeepers within our organizations. I learned that although our missions may articulate a commitment to social justice & equity, and our offices might be staffed with a bunch of well-intentioned white, brown, and black folks. As an organization and as employees we can, and often do, end up replicating practices that are harmful to the communities we are trying to liberate.
For example, during the application process, hiring managers are we quick to dismiss qualified applicants simply because they didn’t like the format of their resume. When phone calls or emails come to the office are we selective about who gets a response? Are we intentional about who we receive money from and who we select to be on our board? Are we critical of our policies and practices?
As I continue to revisit these questions during my fellowship, I’m beginning to interpret these questions more as constant reminders to remain critical than as an assessment of myself within the capacity of a wage labor position. And that’s essential to engage in the work of justice & liberation. Part of the insidiousness of racism is that it’s cyclical, so the connections that I’m making across different corporate positions are not coincidental; they are expectations of existing within an institutionalized, racist system and just like at my alma mater. It is one thing in the non-profit sector to promote equity and social justice, but it’s another to create a sustainable model that reflects this.
Now that more months have passed since walking across that stage, I would change the promise I made to myself at graduation to this: continue to ask critical questions of yourselves and of others, because no one is exempt.

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