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Three Ways to Honor POC Intellectual Labor

The Raw Watering of the Nonprofit Sector

hand touching water
Photo of hand touching water

By Florence Sum, RVC Fellow, Rainier Valley Corps

Raw water is natural water found in the environment that has not been treated and does not have any of its minerals, ions, particles, bacteria, or parasites removed. Raw water includes rainwater, groundwater, water from infiltration wells, water from streams in forests, lakes, rivers, and puddles in your backyard.

Apparently, enough people like drinking “raw” or “natural” water from bottles, enough for conglomerates to start companies. These companies capitalize on a resource that should be free (or at least made available for cheap) for their own financial gain. For example, a 16.9-ounce bottle of “artisanal” water can cost $1.50 per bottle (the equivalent of $9.07 per gallon). A company named Live Water sells a 2½-gallon bottle of “raw” water for $36.99 ($14.80 per gallon) and refills for $14.99 ($6.00 per gallon). Both of these products cost between 1,500 and 9,867 times the cost of municipal drinking water (tap water costs about $0.0015–$0.004 per gallon, depending on where you live).

How do people justify the cost of water at high prices, especially when affordable access (or close to free) to water should be a human right since it is essential to our livelihood? This is the point of contention for me. This is why raw watering is a verb and a metaphor for me. Raw watering pivots around exploitation.

Raw watering is the act of exploiting a resource by upselling it to consumers for one’s private benefit and reinforcing harmful narratives such as you can only be healthy if you have money. We see this narrative often, reinforced through various types of consumer products and in the ways our neighborhoods in urban cities are created i.e. food deserts, transportation deserts, and social service deserts.

Raw Watering Happens in Nonprofits all the Time

Have you ever been approached and asked for your opinion about how the City can better perform outreach and reach more people of color? Then, four months later, did someone else from the City ask you the exact same question, but nothing about their community outreach strategy has changed since you last talked to their colleague?  Then, does this same exact thing happen again, two years later?

Time and time again, this happens to communities of color where nonprofit organizations, foundations, and higher education institutions make decisions without meaningfully involving people of color. What happens is predominantly white organizations, consultants, and foundations rely on communities of color for their knowledge and information, then these entities co-opt the strategies of people of color (POC)-led nonprofits. These entities synthesize information into a report and profit off of methods, strategies, and practices people of color originally came up with or suggested. These entities then use this stolen knowledge as a weapon to reinforce inequitable structures.

I’ll outline three ways in which this happens in the nonprofit sector:

1. Giving and Philanthropy

People of color have been donating and setting up versions of community foundations before philanthropy was popularized by white culture. People of color have been giving to our family members, to our community, to local businesses, and to the causes we believe in before modern philanthropy. In the nonprofit sector, giving has been co-opted and repurposed to reinforce capitalistic and patriarchal values and structures to punish predominantly communities of color-led nonprofits.

For example, this occurs when small POC-led community-based organizations (CBOs) are made to compete for one-time $10K grants; small grants do not make enough of an impact on small POC-led CBOs, especially when funding does not sustain an organization beyond a year which leads to constant scrambling for funding. While foundations can easily invest in the sustainability of organizations by making these grants multi-yeared or increasing the dollar amount — they choose not to. Not only do they choose not to, they create additional rules and stipulations, such as saying, “We only want our money to pay for the supplies of Program X and not Y.” This reinforces a paternalistic narrative that small nonprofits can’t be trusted to know how to spend money or know what the needs are for their organizations.

2. Trickle-Down Community Engagement (coined by Vu Le)

People of color are always relied upon for our knowledge, for our strategies, and for our connections to the community — but we rarely get compensated for it.

“Can I pick your brain about how we can do racial equity work?”

“Can you attend this focus group, summit, community gathering, town hall?”

“Can you tell me how to recruit more people of color to my board?”

“Can you attend this meeting with me to bring your insight?”

What do you think?”

“What do you think?”

“What do you think?”

Our knowledge, time, and capacity continue to be raw watered to bolster predominantly white organizations, for them to get more funding and credit. This raw watering perpetuates the fallacy that people of color always need to be saved.  

3. Tokenizing poor and/or people of color

When it comes to fundraising, people of color are mainly in positions to tell their stories of success, trauma, or hardship without pay, without their permission, or meaningful involvement with how their stories get told.

A common example is the skewed narrative the United States (and probably the rest of the world) has about Africa. We view it as a poverty-stricken, corrupt, and war-torn third-world continent. Charity ads for various international nonprofit organizations bombard us with stories about life-changing technology for villages in Africa, war refugees, abandoned children, and more. While these predominantly white-led nonprofits solicit money, they continue to use the stories and images of black folks without meaningfully involving them in the storytelling process (pay, leadership, permission) or the organization’s decision-making process.

For some strategies about how to shift your marketing/storytelling practice, see Abesha Shiferaw’s blog about How to Tell Compelling Stories While Avoiding Savior Complex and Exploitation.

How Do We Stop Raw Watering in the Nonprofit Sector?

Here are some ways we can prevent raw watering from happening:

1. Give Credit Where Credit is Due

When we use a quote or someone’s model for outreach or facilitation, give credit and at least allow access to more information from the nonprofit. Also, there’s a ton of existing work created by previous generations in communities of color; we do not need to waste time reinventing the wheel.

Seattle has a large nonprofit scene, which means there are a lot of organizations doing meaningful and sometimes overlapping work. Before we launch an idea, we should do our research. We should find out, has someone done this work before us? Do we even truly need to start our own nonprofit organization?

2. Shift Power and Resources to Historically Underserved and Marginalized Communities

Invest in POC-led nonprofit organizations and POC leaders who are currently doing the work.

We have organizations and leaders who have and continue to advocate for their community. We need to reconstruct spaces to include more communities of color (refugees and immigrant communities included) to be the decision-makers on resources and policies.

3. Donate Your Time and Your Money to These Organizations

RVC is linked to a bunch of leaders of color and POC-led organizations, check out our Fellowship Program Partners and our Operations Support Program Partners.

So, what steps are you taking to prevent yourself from engaging in a raw water diet?

Thanks to my super boss Vu Le for helping me start this blog. We’ve been talking over the last few months about this raw water tomfoolery business.