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When we hire white folks to work in communities of color, it can get confusing.

Image description: RVC fellows Elfnesh (left) and Marion (right) engage in conversation during a training session.
Image description: RVC fellows Elfnesh (left) and Marion (right) engage in conversation during a training session.

I moved to Seattle in 2004 to work for an organization serving South Asian women and families. Being a South Asian woman myself, I was thrilled at the thought of having a job that *paid* me to serve my community. In fact, that is still what thrills me about the nonprofit sector: we get paid to serve. While there are so many things to say about working in this sector, the joy of service and means of living intersect when you work in the nonprofit sector, and that’s pretty cool.

When I moved to Seattle to work at that organization, the staff was majority South Asian. I also had a white woman as my colleague; she was in a direct service role, and everyone she worked with was a South Asian woman. I have to admit: this confused me. Why was a white woman working at an organization explicitly (in mission, vision, programming) serving South Asians? I asked our Executive Director, who explained to me that she was the most qualified of all the applicants to take on this advocate role, with several years experience in direct service working with immigrant communities. After working there a few months I saw that indeed, she was quite skilled at her job and many clients loved working with her.

As the community organizer, though, I was most often in external conversations with members of the South Asian community who asked me, “why do you have a white woman working there if it’s an organization for Indians [replace “Indian” with Pakistani, Nepali, whichever community I was talking to at the time]?”. “Well,” I would explain with my ‘stock answer’ I created, “she has a lot of experience working with our communities, and a lot of experience working with the legal system, which our clients really need.” I said it and moved the conversation along quickly, because I had nothing else I could say to address this question. It was awkward, and more importantly it was constant; I came across this question countless numbers of times in the years I worked there.

This confusion showed up several times, and not just externally; it surfaced internally as well. One time, the white colleague and I went to visit a client together. The client prepared a delicious meal, and we talked about recipes and many other things for a couple of hours. As we were leaving, she invited me to come back and have chai with her, and I said yes. My colleague later expressed disapproval, saying that it was unprofessional to build a personal relationship with a client. The conversation was complicated; I can agree that in a professional counseling/social work context, having a personal relationship with a client is looked down upon, for good reasons that I’m sure are rooted in Western practices and ways of thinking. However, she wasn’t *my* client as I wasn’t actually doing direct services, I just happened to go along that day to help with child care. Also, inviting people over and sharing chai is a daily occurrence in many South Asian communities; whether it’s followed through on or not, the words “please come over again” are how you express a farewell in many of our languages. It was a simple cultural transaction. I ended up respecting the professional boundary and not following up with this client, and saw her again months later in communty.

Years later (after I had stopped working there), the organization was planning a performance arts project featuring South Asian women and their personal stories.This white colleague expressed interest in co-leading the project. As participants, my friend and I expressed our disapproval with this idea to the organizer. We couldn’t imagine having a white woman in the room while we were sharing our very personal ideas in what was meant to be a space for South Asian women. It felt voyeuristic. I followed up on this complaint with a 1-1 conversation with this white colleague, who was my friend at the time. We had a long conversation where I explained that it didn’t feel right for her to be present in the project, and I asked her directly, “why do you feel like it is okay to be leading this?” Her response was “Because this is a project of [the organization], and I’m a part of [the organization].” It was a simple response, and I couldn’t argue with that in particular; yes, she worked there and was a part of the organization. But still, did that mean she could be leading a project that aimed to create a safe space for South Asian women?  The organization decided not to let her co-lead the project, and I’m grateful they took our feedback at the time.

I recently spoke to Polly Trout, a white woman who founded Seattle Education Access (SEA) in 2002. “The mission of SEA was to help marginalized youth get back on track with education. By walking side by side with these young people, most of whom were both people of color and grew up in intergenerational poverty, really radicalized my politics. I was a typical white lady, naive and ignorant,” she chuckled. She told me a story of accompanying an undocumented student to a financial aid office, where the officer grilled the student with many questions, beyond what was even legal to ask. Polly said that the officer looked directly at her and said “I hope you understand, we have to be careful with those people.”

“White people don’t often see this despicable behavior in the daylight, right in front of them. We don’t have to see it, we hide from it and we are protected from it,” said Polly. Incidents like this sparked her journey and reflections. “By 2013, I had realized I made some really profound mistakes in 2002. My founding board was an all white board, which fed the white supremacy embedded in the culture of the organization. For that and some other reasons I resigned from SEA,” she said. “After leaving SEA in 2014, I made a vow that I was not gonna apply for any jobs that would be better filled by a leader of color,” she said.

“I started fantasizing about how I could do better if I started a new nonprofit.” In 2013, she founded Patacara Community Services, whose mission is to provide compassionate services to those who are suffering; currently, their focus is providing supportive services to homeless populations. “Our organization grew slow in the first years; many people of color didn’t believe that I was entirely committed to creating an anti-racist organization, and I was not willing to move forward without their support.” She says that this year (2017), the organization finally hired staff for the first time, and is in the middle of a board recruitment drive, creating a governance board that reflects the diversity of the constituents the organization serves. In fact she is currently recruiting board members, and is specifically recruiting first and second generation immigrants.

So I wonder: can you work at an identity-based organization when you don’t claim that identity as your own? Of course, the question is not actually this simple. There are nuances here: what makes an identity-based organization versus an organization that sees a particular identity in their services more than others? Would it be appropriate to have an administrative role and not an external role/one of direct service, if you don’t identify with the community you are serving?

I also spoke with Dana Arviso, Executive Director of Potlatch Fund which inspires philanthropy in Northwest Native communities. One of her coworkers is a white man, and she shared similar experiences of being questioned about him working there. She told me that this colleague of hers has a long history with the organization and that he is incredibly thoughtful in building relationships with their community. This colleague’s role is internally focused and they are thoughtful about this as well. For example, while he was the development director, Dana went to meetings with donors, and she still serves as the ‘external face’ of the organization.

If you’re going to be a white person working with communities of color you really have to know your role and know your place in the organization,” Dana says, “You have to take it pretty seriously and understand the need for and how to practice cultural protocols.” Perhaps most importantly, she said, “You have to be willing to hear when you’ve made a mistake and learn from that.”

Dana also raised a great point. “I’ve worked with Native organizations for 15 years now. I’m Navajo, raised in a tribal community in California. Coming to Potlatch Fund, I had to learn the protocols and practices of 50 federally recognized tribes in the Northwest. It’s always possible, even now, that I will make a cultural faux pas and not know it. What matters is having the genuine relationships with community members and building a level of trust, so that someone can guide you to know your place within the community that you’re serving and the spaces that it’s appropriate to be in.

After having all these conversations I’m convinced: the solution is to invest in leadership opportunities and nonprofit careers of people of color. I promise, I’m not just pointing this out because I work at RVC and this is what we are here to do. I just believe it’s worth stating explicitly. When I think back to almost 15 years ago when I began working for the South Asian organization I mentioned, were there a lot of South Asian social worker/counselor types, looking to work at a nonprofit? I doubt it. What were the applicant pools like at that time compared to what is available now?

I also have questions for you,

If you are a white person considering applying for a job at an identity-based organization that serves communities of color, consider:

  • What is your role at the organization?
  • Is this role better served by a person of color?
  • What are you bringing to the position that is unique/value-add?
  • What are you doing to build capacity in that community?
  • Do you check your privilege daily?
  • Are you able to identify your biases, and do you know how they surface in your interactions and decisions?

And, I have two thoughts for you and your organization to consider:

  1. You should know and acknowledge that you working there will be questioned, and the questions won’t come to you directly as much. They will come to your colleagues who are from the community. Have you considered how you are positioning your colleagues in community? Has your organization had frank conversations about this? It seems like a healthy conversation for any identity-based organization to discuss.
  2. You also should know and acknowledge that you will make mistakes in different cultural contexts, as everyone does. How do you respond to this, and/or what is the practice of the organization to acknowledge and learn from these mistakes?

By the way, I think this applies if you are a straight person applying for a position at an organization serving LGBTQ populations; an able-bodied person looking to serve differently abled communities, and so on.

I also have questions for you,

If you are a leader of color serving your community and you are considering hiring a white person:

  • Is this role internal or external? Is it direct service or administrative?
  • Are you prepared to answer questions from your community about them working there?
  • Were there applicants from your community that have many (but maybe not all) of the required skills, who could do the job with additional investments in professional development/mentorship?
  • Is there a plan to transition the position eventually to someone from your community?

And here’s a thought for you to consider:

Leaders of community based organizations are busy and need experienced talent to get the job done, especially when each person is doing the job of many people at once. Experience is key to having someone come in and hit the ground running, so you screen primarily for experience. Still, I urge you to consider the longer term investment into someone from your community, even if they don’t have a lot of experience. At this point, we are still looking at a numbers game–there simply aren’t enough people of color in the nonprofit sector who are equipped with what they need to be leaders. Yet, we form nonprofit organizations to meet needs unique to our communities. It’s time to screen for potential, and to structure in training and professional development for people in the community.

It’s true, your needs might be met by hiring a white person with all the skills required. Consider though, how is this hire helping the sector? How is this hire helping to build capacity in your own community, in service of which you started the nonprofit to begin with? As I said in the beginning: to get paid to serve your own community is a thrill, and a rare opportunity. These opportunities should be reserved for those who identify with the community being served. Are you seeking information or support to do this? Contact me, let’s talk. In fact, if there are enough of us, let’s all talk about this further, together.

I want to be clear: I am not criticizing you if you are a white person working at an organization serving communities of color. I am not criticizing you if you are a leader of color who hires white folks to work in your identity-based organization (or anyone who doesn’t identify with your community, for that matter).  Identity matters, and I know it’s not the only thing that matters. We can see effective work and practice in many different scenarios.

I want to ask the questions: What are these scenarios? What ‘legitimizes’ identity-based work? And ultimately, what are we doing to build capacity for our organizations and to develop leaders of color? The applicant pools generally look better/more diverse than 15 years ago. But can we imagine 15 years from now, and does it look as diverse and skilled as it should to meet our needs?
More pertinent to my job and our team at RVC, the question is How do we get there?

About the author: Uma is the Capacity Building Coach at Rainier Valley Corps. Uma is a 2nd generation South Asian who grew up on the east coast and has made Seattle her home since 2004. She has spent over 15 years in the non profit sector; her roles have been to organize communities, serve on boards, train, and to raise funds, mostly within and for communities of color. Uma believes that strong movements include grassroots philanthropy, community based strategies and leadership development, and is absolutely thrilled to join Rainier Valley Corps in exact alignment with her vision! She’s a lifelong learner and is grateful for her mentors, peers, family and community.

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  1. As a low-income white woman who has worked in the non-profit world, I fully believe and support what the author is writing here. I would go a bit further and add that wealthy folks have no business directly serving low-income populations. Who is most qualified on paper often are folks with privilege, while many of us who were raised in generational poor communities, with less privilge, would be the better outreach worker. Also, if non- profits paid livable wages, they would attract more people of color and low-income applicants. As long as non-profits pay smaller wages, and discriminate through hiring based on paper alone, many of these organizations will continue to be a drop in the bucket, and unable to connect and raise up whole communities.

  2. While I appreciate much of what the author is saying, maybe she needs to examine her own biases as well. She indicates that the particular white colleague she used as an example was good at the job and MOST important, the clients liked her. If the clients were comfortable working with a white woman, isn’t that what matters? Her argument would resonate more with me if she had indicated that the colleague’s ethnicity was a barrier to effective service delivery.

    As for the questions she would ask a white person wanting to work with a community of color, I would argue that EVERYONE should be asking themselves those questions, not just white folk. There is a somewhat simplistic notion at play here that ethnicity is the only factor in determining culture. How, for example, would a South Asian 4th generation American from a wealthy family with a Harvard education be inherently better able to relate to a South Asian recent immigrant whose formal education ended in 6th grade than a white woman whose background was far more similar to the client’s? Would she be asking that person to check her privilege also, or is the concept of privilege only applicable to white folk?

    Finally, I’m sorry, but the “I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing…” line rings very hollow and is incredibly very passive-aggressive. She makes it glaringly obvious that she is critical of the choice to hire a white person when one of the questions she would ask a leader is (paraphrasing) “When will you be getting rid of the white person and putting a person of color in that role?” The author does not approve of white folk working in identity-specific organizations. If she just owned that, I would have more respect for her.

  3. Thank you for this. Well written and understood. Would love to see how nonprofits have transitioned mission, vision, staff and board to represent their community served. Also, how there is a divide and disconnect between those in admin and those in direct service based on perceived knowledge and experience on paper. Madhu other thoughts but exciting conversation starter.

  4. for what it’s worth, as a white able bodied person who worked at an organization for folks with brain injuries, her post didn’t strike me that way at all. I found it very nuanced and balanced. I was struck by how carefully and conscientiously all angles were considered and addressed. I also found the “I want to be clear…” line and following comments forthright and clear. I know white folks are capable of projecting hostility onto p.o.c. Where there is a neutral tone, and I imagine this article could push a few buttons for white people working in identity based organizations that serve a primarily non white population. While the reading the article may produce some uncomfortable feelings, I would urge you to sit with them, examine yourself for defensiveness and reread the article. I think you may have been unable to hear everything the author said.

  5. Thank you, Lynn, for dispassionately articulating the reaction I had to this piece.

  6. Respectfully, you are making assumptions about me that are completely false. Just because I had a different take on the article than you did does not mean I “need to examine myself for defensiveness.” It has nothing to do with producing “uncomfortable feelings” nor was I unable to hear what the author said. I simply DISAGREE with some of what the author had to say, which I really should be able to do without others making inaccurate assumptions or trying to psychoanalyze me.

  7. I really appreciate this thoughful piece and it reflects many issues that I run across working in a culturally specific organization. The recommendations are spot on. I want to share a suggestion made by a white colleague in response to my questions (I am a POC) about how it would feel to be promoted over POC in the serving a community of color. She suggested negotiating with leadership to a dual appointment with a POC who only lacked managerial skils for a year until the POC was ready to assume the management position full time. I haven’t seen this option discussed much but it seems like a great way to build capacity and professional development for POCs while addressing short term needs for experienced managers who are White.

  8. You have unpacked so many things here. Thank you for sharing your wisdom on this difficult and complicated topic.

    I am in complete agreement with you. All organizations, regardless of client population, should reconsider hiring practices that simply reproduce the effects of white supremacy. White job candidates need to seriously contemplate WHY they should take an opportunity in a community-based org instead of *a member of that community*. Sometimes white folks need to step waaaayyy back. Sometimes we need to learn that not everything is ours for the taking.

    Fellow white folks, let’s not be so defensive when we are asked to consider the depth of white supremacy and how incredibly painful it is for people of color. Instead, let’s honor folks who take the risk of trusting us with this insight.

  9. This is a really important idea, I used to live in Whatcom county outside of Bellingham. My wife worked with youth there, who were all low income rural youth facing a lot of challenges. A well educated black woman from the south started working there and a lot of community members were questioning that. I’m not sure of the right answer but this article is definitely food for thought.

  10. I’m a nurse and offer or refer patients to support groups. I can offer information and empathy but the best person for support will always be someone who is in the ” community”. (eg. Cancer, Stroke etc).

  11. Thank you, Lynn, for your remarks, you eloquently articulating some of the issues that came to mind when reading this article.

  12. Having worked in nonprofit and mental health in Seattle for over 15 years, I have found, in my experience, that in matters of race, religion, culture and ethnicity, the most important questions are always going to be:

    1. Do I have a warm and productive relationship with our clients?
    2. Do my clients have access to the services they need?
    2. Are they fully taking advantage of those services?
    3. What can we as an organization do improve our ability to help them?

    These are the questions that need to be answered and the standards we should be measured against; it’s about them, not us.

  13. I like the balanced approach this article took on the topic. I also liked how it asked and answered realistic questions. I’m a cis gender gay white male who works in a quasi law enforcement profession in a hospital that serves a diverse community.

    I have seen first hand the different response a patient of color has to a caregiver that looks like them vs a caregiver that does not.

    I respect the writers argument to invest in a mostly qualified candidate who will look like the community they serve.

    I do not agree with actively removing a existing non matching empoyee who is qualified and fulfills the job duties to find somone who is matching the community. Now if that non matching employee leaves voluntarily and the position needs to be filled I think a candidates race matching the community can be a element considered, but be just that a element not the core reasoning if there hire.

  14. Let me be clear, our skin doesn’t qualify us for anything. Neither does our gender. So let’s please, judge the position with the person on a one-on-one. Throw out the stereotypes.

    There I said it. The thought process for the article was great. It needs to be said. I am so happy she wrote this. To answer her question “What ‘legitimizes’ identity-based work? ” The answer is simple. NOTHING. There is no “right” answer. It has to be done on a case-by-case basis. A “white man or woman” can be the perfect candidate in a non-profit cultural group if the person has the right experience. That is it.

    To contribute to the conversation I want to give my opinion on this question raised “what are we doing to build capacity for our organizations and to develop leaders of color?” My answer is we have to stop thinking in those terms. As a business owner of a cultural background with only 5 million people that identify culturally the same as me. I don’t want to be judged by my skin color, my cultural background or my gender.

    I want to be judged on my work. Let’s judge others by the quality of the work that they do. Let’s mentor others in areas we are strong. That is the best way to lift one another up. It is not by dividing us into classification. We need to stop doing that.

  15. I’ve been heavily involved in nonprofits dealing with a variety of issues for 40 years, as a volunteer, staff member, consultant, and board member. I really appreciate the candor I hear in this essay, and the good faith and openness I sense in the author. I trust her good intentions.
    That said, I agree with much that Lynn says. When an organization establishes any line between an in group and an out group, it runs a lot of risks. For example, some white led environmental groups are seeking and accepting American Indian leadership because they believe that American Indian culture is earth-centered and earth-friendly. Some times it is, but just like in the white community, most Indians are not very serious about protecting the earth. Pushing Indian leadership harms both the environmental action campaigns and efforts to improve the lot of American Indians: when white environmentalists are focused on the native leaders on stage in tribal regalia, they tend to ignore the run-of-the-mill folk living in shabby houses, dressed in shabby jeans, and eating Mac and Cheese for dinner. They see the threat of the oil pipeline, but not threats like junk food, exploitive employment, substance abuse and welfare dependence that are pandemic on most reservations and urban Indian communities. When the DAPL pipeline was cancelled, white activists turned their attention away from Standing Rock, to deal with other matters as determined by their life situation and their privileges.

    Hiring, promoting, and empowering people because of their membership in some group can help get the job done, but it can hinder, as well. When thousands of Vietnamese refugees came to the US in the ’70s, many were members of the corrupt South Vietnamese government and devoutly attached to a reactionary wing of the Catholic Church. As the leaders of their society, they were recognized and given leadership positions and privileges in the US Vietnamese community. Needless to say, they did not abandon their corrupt understanding of government or their extreme Catholicism. Vietnamese immigrants who did not participate in their church, or who resisted their corrupt practices, had little or no access to government services, even health care.

    I run a garden on the grounds of a transitional housing facility owned by an American Indian organization. All the gardening is by volunteers, of every race. Some of them are very good at engaging the homeless young people who live in the facility, some aren’t. Race and ethnicity are not good predictors of who can get a 19 year old to eat kale, to help make a salad for dinner, or not toss their cigarette butt in the tomato bed. When we had a resident suffer a mental health crisis in the garden, we didn’t look for someone of their ethnic background. If we had, the staff member who fit that description wouldn’t have had a clue. Instead, the person who helped was a grandmother, as gentle as she is tough. She was tremendous, and the care that person got before they got to professional help was better than any of the people of color who happened to be available could have given.

    Hiring based on race is racism when it’s done by a white person, and it is racism when it is done by a person of color using the institutional power available to them. Once you start, it’s hard to stop: I’ve seen a nonprofit that passed over a very qualified Puerto Rican and a very qualified Somali because the the former wasn’t black and the latter wasn’t “African American”. The person they hired didn’t last long.

    I don’t try to recruit garden volunteers from any particular group: I need all the help I can get. In NW Seattle, whites are the overwhelming majority, but in the garden, we have plenty of people of color. I suspect that is because we’re busy growing the food and teaching organic gardening and healthy cooking. Our work, our garden, is our recruiting tool, and that brings us more racial, economic, ethnic and gender diversity than I see in dozens of groups that create formal structures to address institutional bias with workshops, studies, plans or hiring quotas.

  16. As a white person in the non-profit sector, I have been actively seeking out this exact information, namely for the dialogue that follows. I really appreciate the reactions and reflections.

    The questions raised in this article hit pretty close to home, which is a very good thing. One of my initial reactions to this article could be summed up as, “But, I want to help! Why shouldn’t I help?” I readily admit that it is simplistic defensive response. Even so, I think it might encompass the gut reaction of many good-intentioned (naive) white people who find themselves applying for non-profit positions which predominately serve people of color. In that regard, I’d like to add one more question to ask oneself if you are that white person applying for that position: If you don’t get that job, are you going to stick around and volunteer for that organization, anyway – or will you just walk away and apply elsewhere? I believe that the answer is pretty telling. If this truly is a cause that you believe in and a community that you have been directly engaged with for some time, then I think that you should go ahead and apply. You will need to ultimately justify your presence within that organization, so you better be sure that you are coming from a place of authenticity – which has nothing to do with what degrees you have or what CRM databases you’ve worked with. That’s ultimately why having a member of that community take the position is a goal worth striving for: it’s the difference between just talking the talk and walking the walk. There are plenty of empathetic white folks who just want to help – but if you’ve never worn the shoes, you don’t know what it’s like to walk a mile in them. Give someone who has put in the mileage the opportunity to flourish, and find out where your good intentions could be put to better use.

  17. I think the author has written a very thoughtful and self-aware piece. These are complex issues with great nuance. However, I think a bit of a historical perspective is needed, as well.

    I am a white male (who is incidentally LGBT) in my 60’s, and for the past 40-plus years have dedicated my career to community service and helping people. When I got started in this line of work here in Southern CA, communities of color were a much smaller percentage of the general population. And, because these communities of color were primarily very recent immigrants, there were very few professionals of color providing services to them, either directly or indirectly (with the exception of African-Americans, who have a long and proud history of public service and civic engagement in America).

    So, quite simply, it was folks like me who stepped up and filled that role. Thankfully, as communities of color have matured and grown, and established their rightful place at the table, there are many highly qualified professionals of color who can now provide those services and who can now act as proud role models and take leadership positions. As the need has grown, so has the pool of people to better serve it.

    My point is to recognize the historical realities that old-timers like me were there back in the day doing things that were not valued very highly by mainstream white society. While I would certainly not suggest that I am more capable of providing direct services than a person of color to his/her community, I would respectfully ask that you value and appreciate the contributions I and my contemporaries made in the past, back when others in white society were ignoring the need and value of such service.

  18. I see so many of the points here. I really do. It is well thought out and a necessary piece.

    Just a few questions:

    1) If white people are causing all of the problems, is it fair that only POC should be working to correct those problems? Shouldn’t white people bear some of the burden in dismantling these institutions and repairing the harm caused?

    2) What would be an acceptable industry for white people to work in? I don’t mean this in a snarky way. If it is true that white people are harming POC by working in industries that serve POC, where should they go? Would it not be a problem if only POC worked in social justice positions? Wouldn’t the “why don’t white people care about social justice” article be right behind this one? I think that among progressive circles, it is time to start sprinkling in an acceptable path forward for white people who would like to do better. Not trying to put the burden on POC to define that path, but it at times feels like moving the goal posts.

    And just acknowledging that I am sure this is rife with white fragility, white tears, white defensiveness, notallwhitepeople, privilege, accusing POC of aggressive behavior, and whatever else.

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