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. 


Tired of Nonprofits Asking for Free Stuff, It’s all your Fault.

 Owls always look so angry. don't they. 

Owls always look so angry. don't they. 

originally posted on

As a former nonprofit fundraiser I want to tell you a secret… lean in a little… The truth is we train, teach, and coach nonprofits to ask for free stuff. Their boards question all expenses and they are literally forced to ask for free before paying. This is regardless of how big their budget is or how much their CEO makes. The problems with that system and methodology are for another day.

Lately, I have overheard and read countless stories of businesses, particularly start-ups, small businesses, restaurants and artists openly complaining about nonprofits constantly berating them for free stuff, discounts, auction items, etc. But I am here to tell you something hard to hear; the problem with all the complaining rests solely at the feet of the business owners.

Now before you get up in arms, you need to know that I get asked for free services all of the time. No, I haven’t attained a higher level of enlightenment. I am not so advanced in mindfullness as to not be bothered. What I did do, was spend time thinking critically about how to do pro bono, who should qualify, how I could create a win-win situation for both of us and common pitfalls that I experienced as a nonprofit staff member working with companies on pro bono projects.

Common Pitfalls in Pro Bono Programs

1. You over promise and under deliver — know your boundaries and what you can and cannot do

2. You lack an understanding of what makes nonprofits tick

3. You don’t understand the legal structure of nonprofit boards and how to manage them

4. You treat them as a “bench time” project and don’t devote your most awesome leaders to the team

5. You take on too many at one time and fail to deliver

6. You do not treat them as a real contract so it meanders as a project subject to mismatched expectations and scope creep

Create a Policy/Practice/Belief System

A few years ago I met Matthew Manos owner of through a client engagement. He is super passionate about pro bono and the delivery of quality services to nonprofits. He wrote a fabulous book “How to Give Half of Your Work Away For Free” that you can buy, download or read online. While that model did not prove to be sustainable for me, it was enough to get me thinking about the need to define a shape a program and put parameters and measurements in place.

Our Belief System about Probono Work:

1. They deserve to be treated just like a regular client

2. They should receive the same investment of time and attention regardless of their ability to pay, and

3. All services need to be delivered without strings attached.

So why is it your fault? Because you haven’t done the work to establish your own belief system and communicated it with others. Or because you think they should be grateful for anything and string a project out forever or get frustrated which causes the relationship to sour. Worse yet, you deliver a substandard product and word spreads.

Still interested? Here are some first steps you should take:

Your First Steps

1. Know your own market — Talk to nonprofit leaders

2. Know nonprofits and their distinct needs and differences

3. Understand how this builds off of your own portfolio of services

4. DO NOT make nonprofits jump through significant hoops to apply

5. Judge interest based on philosophical fit, capacity of nonprofit to receive services, and your own bandwidth

6. Be honest and set a threshold of time or a monetary amount

Two years into our own program and I won’t say it is perfect but putting the time in has meant that we can say yes, and more often no, and back it up with solid reasons. We have learned a few lessons along the way about capacity of a nonprofit needed to handle probono services, passion fit for consultants, and when to spot a project that is way bigger than what we can fit in our hourly limitation. We’ve also developed language around talking to clients about the program, its benefits, and what it isn’t designed for.

What if the next time someone asked you for free stuff and services you directed them to an application instead of feeling burdened by their request? (Here’s ours) It is simple, but also provides us easy places to say no.

Interested in starting your own probono program, email us for our probono manifesto with tips and ideas. Also, feel free to reach out. We are really passionate about helping companies think through this.

Process, Data, Maps - The 3 Things that connect Urban Planning and Strategic Planning

Insights from my first three months in Strategic Planning

Williams Blog Data-2.png

Three months ago I joined The Spark Mill team. I remember being nervous on my first day, unsure of what it would be like to be back in consulting but eager to start making connections between my urban planning work and the strategy consulting we do at The Spark Mill. As a graduate student, my last two years have been spent immersing myself in planning theory, learning about urban planning methodologies, and pushing for the experiences of black women in urban environments to ensure they are more visual in the planning profession.  Considering my background in planning, it has been the lens through which I view our work, and I have been able to make a number of connections between the strategy work planners do on daily basis and our work at The Spark Mill.   


Whether you are working with a group of residents to design a park, or working with an organization to understand their long-term goals, you can expect the process to be messy. Like urban planning, while certain models can be applied to make the process easier, there is no “one size fits all” approach here at The Spark Mill. Especially when working on plans that will ultimately shape the lives of people.  There are visioning sessions, multiple iterations of a deliverable, and countless opportunities to engage with key stakeholders; much like a comprehensive planning process. While these processes may make stakeholders feel uncomfortable and deal with undesired ambiguity, the process can result in a strategic plan that drives meaningful change within an organization, or in the case of urban planning, become a blueprint for a city that is vibrant and inclusive and meets the needs of all of its residents, especially those that have been marginalized.   


Data, both quantitative and qualitative, are important in any strategic process. At The Spark Mill, I have been able to witness how our survey data, interviews from stakeholders, and other client materials allow us to get a holistic sense of an organization. As urban planners, we are constantly encouraged to collect data from various sources, being sure not to over rely on quantitative data in our work, as this can limit the less formal and less technical understanding of how people exist in cities. Strategic consulting is the same – it is important for us to collect information from key client documents as well as to be on the ground engaging with an organization’s stakeholders.

3.     MAPS, MAPS, AND ROAD MAPS (not in GIS) 

Maps provide a depiction of relationships between various elements and can be used to capture themes and create a vision for the future. Geographic Information System, or GIS, is urban planning’s bread and butter and allows us to analyze and show spatial relationships using local and regional data.  At the end of a planning process, GIS can be an effective way to help community members understand the impact of a process spatially in both the present and overtime, much like a strategic planning roadmap which guides an organization’s work into the future. 

While all urban planning requires strategy, it is important for planners to also be aware of the informal processes that residents lead in their communities, processes that may not be driven by formal data and community meetings but are equally important to a community’s fabric. It is also important for consultants to read in between the lines and make connections between the practices we observe from our clients and the information we gather.

I look forward to continuing to use my planning lens in our work at The Spark Mill, especially as we expand deeper into community engagement which requires us to be creative, nuanced, and open to gaining a true and meaningful understanding of real community engagement in order to better help our clients.




The Book Shelf: The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

 The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

If you regularly read our newsletter you are familiar with our special section we lovingly refer to as "The Book Shelf."  Its origin story was a happy accident stemming from our own strategic planning session in 2017.   We discovered we were all voracious readers, but our book choices could not have been more different.  I personally have a Fiction then Nonfiction flow to my reading. 

The Why

To be in our line of work we have to be adaptive and regularly evaluate our tactics and tools. We promise not to use boilerplates, so we must constantly review new materials and new thoughts. We've been exploring design thinking and its application to strategic planning and change management. At its core, strategic planning done well is 100% in line with design thinking methodology. put this out as a guide to trying out human-centered design. Their web presence is amazing and you can download the guide for free. Thinking it would be a resource for all of our staff, I went ahead and grabbed the real-paper-smells-delicious version.

Top 3 Things I Learned

1. It's a gorgeous and quick read that is thoughtfully designed (always a big bonus)
2. Includes a few really awesome exercises that we look forward to trying out
3. Most important was a real heavy section on empathy work in order to design within a community 


As we delve deeper into authentic community engagement work with our clients we are often faced with decisions on depth and scope of engagement. This book provides a great resource to share that articulates the goal and purpose of human-centered design and co-designing within a community being impacted. 

Down with Generic Mission Statements - Up with "Essential Intent"

I’m over generic broadly-stated mission statements.  Aren’t you?  

I  mean, come on.  How many of us have come across (or perhaps even written) mission statements that say:  “We want to be the premier service provider in our industry as we serve our customers with integrity, innovation, and  quality.”  Ugh.  That doesn’t articulate mission - it generically embraces mediocrity!

On the other hand specific quarterly goals don’t always float my boat either.  While they may be clear, they don’t always help see the big picture about why you exist.  Wells Fargo gave their banking employees very concrete goals - we saw how that worked out for them!

What if instead of generic mission statements and disconnected goals, we created an "Essential Intent" for our organizations that clearly spells out what it looks like for our organization to “win."

Some examples of Essential Intent might be:

  • Every opioid addict in the City of Richmond to have access to treatment by 2020
  • Every veteran to have access to quality housing by 2022
  • Every Richmonder will be within 2 miles of healthy food options in the next 10 years
  • Every start-up in Virginia will have a stage appropriate place to go for help in 5 years
  • High-speed internet is available to every Virginian by 2025

In his book titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says “essential intent” is a clear statement that is more specific and measurable than a mission statement and at the same time more inspiring than quarterly goals.  When we boil our work down to essential intent, we make the “one decision that makes 1,000 decisions.”

Essential intent offers clarity to our work and teams that both inspires and focuses us on that which is essential.  Essential intent clarifies what it looks like for our organizations to “win.”

Imagine how that kind of clarity would transform your daily work! Not only does it give clarity to what is essential, it also gives permission to STOP DOING that which is NOT essential.  Yeah, those TPS reports that don’t contribute to the “win,” stop doing them and stop making your employees do them.  Why pay people to do work that isn’t essential to your organization’s “win?"

Just imagine how your work, your team, your organization would be different if we made "the one decision that makes 1,000 decisions”.  When we articulate and then act on our Essential Intent, not only does the organization “win”, but our clients our customers, our guests, our community wins.

Client Spotlight: The Story Behind a New Brand

Congratulations to Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission for the unveiling of their new regional food brand. Purely Piedmont was a collaborative project of The Spark Mill and Polychrome Collective. Magic happens when you align brand strategy and beautiful thoughtful graphics. This was a ConsultCorps project that sprang out of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville, VA. ConsultCorps is a group of experienced nonprofit consultants partnering with CNE to help clients solve problems and grow effectiveness. I am proud to be one of the founders of ConsultCorp - an innovative solution to finding the best consultant for your project. 

The Ask:

The Spark Mill was asked to investigate a brand for the Rappahannock Rapidan Food Council for the promotion of their locally grown agricultural products and make recommendations for the naming of the campaign. Results of this study were shared with the graphic designer to incorporate into a new visual identity to use to market the products grown and created within the region.

The Process:

We began by conducting a stakeholder survey and data review. This lead to two open Community Visioning Sessions where we sought information on audiences, brand voice, and purpose. All of the information was used to create a brand strategy including a proposed name!  

The Result: 

The brand should be balanced between simple and sophisticated and highlighting farming as a craft. It should feel comfortable to the residents but target the core audiences of the brand. The key to remember in branding is that it should resonate with customers most strongly, rather than describe the farmers and producers of the region. Visual cues included the Blue Ridge mountains, foothills, and the red clay soil. Tone of voice characteristics should include: genuine, trustworthy, and a little fun. A brand with a little dirt on it. 

We passed our comprehensive brand study over to the fine folks at Polychrome Collective who translated our recommended brand into an awesome graphic logo. 

Nonprofit Execs: Don’t Forget About Your People

The Spark Mill is dedicated to nonprofit sustainability. We understand that while mission and impact are the heart and soul of a nonprofit, there are many integral parts behind the scenes that make the magic happen.  Beyond defining your mission and establishing metrics to measure your impact, it is essential that you nurture your people. Yes, your people are your volunteers, donors and supporters, but your people are first and foremost your staff.

The hardworking nonprofiteer that is daily putting your mission into action – teaching parents financial literacy, educating teens on healthy lifestyle choices, providing meals to hungry children, answering phones, or writing grants. And yet, many nonprofit executives neglect or lack any formal strategic talent development or career progression plan for their staff – and to their loss:

  • Development attracts and retains – employees will stay longer, saving on expenses related to turnover and loss of productivity.
  • Development increases performance – employees will contribute more and in different ways.
  • Development boosts morale and engagement – a key performance indicator for organizational success.

Locally, we have an amazing resource!  YNPN RVA seeks to fulfill the professional development and leadership void experienced by young and early career nonprofit professional by providing them with:

  • a better understanding of the nonprofit sector in which they work
  • connections to peers and seasoned professionals
  • career planning and advancement insights
  • resources and tools to develop as a professional

We recently loved being at YNPN RVA’s Ask an Expert Social on Thursday April 27th from 5:30-7:30pm at Triple Crossing Brewery in Fulton.

YNPN RVA, powered by ConnectVA, is the local chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network that works to promote an efficient, viable, and inclusive nonprofit sector that supports the growth, learning, and development of the young and early-career professionals.  These are all attributes that The Spark Mill values, which is why we were excited to support and participate in this event.  

Check them out for more information.