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Discussion: How Does Racism Show Up in Nonprofit Work?

May 29, 2019
Courtney McSwain & Selia Koss

When we think about nonprofits, we generally think of organizations, and the people who work within them, that are committed to creating social good, addressing a community need, or challenging an unjust system to build equity in the broader society. Not all nonprofits take the same approach to their work, but it’s likely that, if asked, most would say they aren’t perpetrators of racism. Despite being mission-driven, nonprofit organizations are just as susceptible to the influence of systemic racism—which shows up during the process of hiring and promoting, community engagement, and internal and external communications in the same ways we might expect to find in the corporate arena.  

As nonprofit practitioners committed to youth justice transformation, it is necessary for us to address how racism shows up in our work, at our offices, during our meetings and through our outreach in the community. We’ve selected a few readings that can help your organization discuss how racism might show up in your nonprofit work. We encourage you to read and discuss them among your teams. While one discussion won’t solve any problems, prioritizing ongoing internal education that is intentional will open the door to a more honest and transparent approach to dismantling systemic racism.   


Read these articles with your nonprofit staff and board and use the following discussion questions to open up a dialogue.    

Article 1 – Seeing and Naming Racism in Nonprofit and Public Organization dissects the many forms of structural racism that exist in nonprofit settings. While most nonprofits and public organizations label themselves as "anti-racist," defensiveness and denial often contradict anti-racist values. Racism exists within the frameworks of our organizations; we cannot dismantle it until we acknowledge where it shows up. Within your own organizations, reflect on these areas: Community, Power and Resources, Organizational Culture, Leadership, Staff Of Color, and Change Work.    

Article 2 – Helen Kim Ho tackles the issue of racial tokenism in non-profits in her article, 8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in NonprofitsIn an attempt to maintain an anti-racist reputation, people of color (POC) are often hired at organizations and end up tokenized or used as racialized props. This advances the power dynamic between wealthy, white nonprofit starters and POC. This article identifies the many ways structural racism furthers an oppressive power dynamic within nonprofits in the hope of mitigating it for organizations going forward.    

Discussion Questions:   

  1. What surprised you about these articles?  
  2. Was there anything you disagreed with?   
  3. Have you witnessed or experienced any of the instances illustrated in either article?   
  4. Survey the use of stories in your nonprofit work. Do people of color or youth show up in your storytelling, but not in your decision-making? How might you ensure people of color or youth have agency over their stories?  


Visit our “Anti-Racism” page for more resources.   

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