Being Black in White Spaces: Lessons for Nonprofit and Government Leaders

Breaking Down Racial Barriers: The Importance of Embracing Stories and Sharing Ownership in Predominantly White Spaces: 

The Second in a Series on Belonging

I was born in Harlem, NY and raised by a single mother in a working class household. We didn’t have a whole lot, but my mother loved my brother and me dearly and never hesitated to stress the importance of getting a good education - she saw this as a way to access more opportunities. She was right. My passion for learning and my mother’s relentless search for educational opportunities throughout NYC opened my world up in unimaginable ways, including allowing me to traverse class boundaries I don’t know I would’ve had the opportunity to do otherwise. At age 11, I was admitted into a top private school in New York for gifted, low income students of color. At age 14, I began high school at a Quaker boarding school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I can honestly say these were some of the best years of my life (although by senior year I didn’t think so – courtesy teenage growing pains). I met my lifelong girlfriends and the school’s Quaker values helped to cultivate my passion for social justice issues.

After graduating from the Westtown, I was awarded a full academic scholarship to the University of Richmond, one of the top liberal arts institutions in the country. Admittedly, I struggled at UR my first year. Academically I was fine, but socially, I had a hard time adjusting. It wasn’t just the fact that UR was a predominantly white institution; the class differences amongst my peers and me were palpable. They appeared to have few worries, while I was constantly burdened with having to balance schoolwork and on-campus jobs so I didn’t have to ask my mother for spending money. So, there I was, a black 18-year-old girl from inner city New York having to manage how to exist in this overwhelmingly wealthy and extremely white space.  

Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do.

The reality is, for most of my life, I have existed in white spaces. At school, at work, and in some social settings depending on where I choose to go. These experiences have been met with a great amount of racial anxiety, which I learned is actually a thing thanks to TMI’s Unconscious Bias Training. When I walked into rooms, I’d scan them and my mind would implode with a series of concerns. Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do. These are just to name a few, the point being, I was constantly in my head, as I know many black people are in these types of spaces.

As I have gotten older, with more confidence, spending more time reflecting on who I am and embracing this era of Black Girl Magic, the racial anxiety has lessened tremendously, but I’d be lying if I said it has gone away completely. When I think about the types of workplace environments that have allowed me to feel more comfortable, they have been those where coworkers, especially my white ones, acknowledge and are willing to engage in conversations about their privilege.  Where they are aware of the experiences I can potentially face when I walk outside of the office even if they attempt to offer a safe space at work.

It was no surprise that I am the only person of color at The Spark Mill.  When I first joined the team part time, I was clearly aware of this fact, but quite frankly used to it.  When I first sat down to speak with Sarah, the firm’s founder, she was as aware of the team’s lack of racial diversity as I was.  We talked about the need to build a team that was more reflective of our clients as well as the clients they serve. I was intrigued, not because I was willing to accept being a token, but because our conversation felt genuine. She was interested in getting to know me not simply as the black woman she wanted to bring on her team, but as Mariah, the masters in urban and regional planning student, University of Richmond graduate with a passion for black people, cities, and urban planning.

The reality is nonprofit and government organizations have a tremendous issue with diversity, including those whose core clients are in fact people of color.

In 2012, CommonGood Careers published a study called the Voice of Non-Profit Talent. This report revealed that while many nonprofit leaders express a commitment to diversity within their organizations, few organizations actually do enough to attract and retain people of color. And when they do, people of color are often tokenized and forced day in and day out to deal with the micro aggressions that are symptoms of larger systemic issues of race. The reality is also that nonprofits and government agencies are not the only ones who suffer from this problem and that many black people like myself have managed to cope with working in predominantly white spaces.

Giving Equal Power to People of Color

In the meantime, where a system may be slower to change, there are ways for organizations to help decrease the racial anxieties experienced on a daily basis while also working towards organizational change that gives equal power to people of color.

  • Recognize that a person of color’s job is not simply to be the person of color in the room. We have a voice, lived experiences, and most importantly, the hard skills necessary to advance and lead work within organizations.
  • Understand that for people of color working within organizations serving vulnerable populations of color, this work is extremely personal, and on a regular basis we are forced to balance a professional and personal lens. Double consciousness is real and sometimes extremely difficult to manage. However, when people of color are accepted for being themselves, when we feel as though who we are is embraced, and when our personal stories and voices coupled with professional expertise are trusted and welcomed throughout an organization, walls begin to be broken down. Breaking down these barriers may look different depending on your organization.

3 Questions to Ask to Help Break Down the Walls: 

  • How might you be more intentional about understanding the personal stories of your employees of color?
  • How might you work to better understand their experience being in a space built, owned, and operated by individuals who do not look like them?
  • How might you think about your approach to making them feel a part of your organization by sharing ownership of the spaces you both occupy?

All of these ideas are rooted in a 21st century view of community engagement. As a firm we have been reminding, nudging, and cajoling clients to think differently about belonging. To own their bias in the historical development of the programs and to commit to doing it differently going forward. 

Overwhelmed? We can help.