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Leading in solidarity to reshape the nonprofit ecosystem

July 01, 2020

SolidarityWe are five women of color leading five organizations deeply embedded in the nonprofit ecosystem of Detroit and southeast Michigan. We have five missions, five work styles, and five voices. With mutual intentions and hearts, we have decided to work as a collective that honors the history and resiliency of Black and Indigenous people and communities of color. Together, our work offers nonprofits the critical support needed to advance their missions. Today, we stand in recognition of the privilege and responsibility we have to speak as leaders of nonprofit support organizations.

We embrace the challenge and opportunity presented by this unique moment. Here in southeast Michigan, as elsewhere, the Black community has suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic. And we have borne witness to brutal injustices at the hands of police. It has been tough. Some have responded to the moment by issuing statements of solidarity with the Black people of America. Individuals and organizations across the nation are reckoning with their experience of racism and anti-Blackness. But what does solidarity mean, especially in a moment like this? Our humanity demands we recognize ourselves as part of a larger whole, and the nature of our work in the nonprofit sector demands we recognize solidarity as an ongoing practice and process.

As human beings, as organizational leaders, and as stakeholders in the nonprofit ecosystem, we are tired of the neverending effort needed to beat back the stereotype that nonprofits are not efficient or able to survive without constant handouts. Some of our community-based organizations have been serving residents of southeastern Michigan for more than seventy years! (We see you, Russell Woods-Sullivan Area Association.) In this moment, we see an opportunity to rise up, to reimagine our work, and to cultivate a more just and beautiful world in transformative solidarity with others.

Our work together began with a look back at the history of and policies that have shaped the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit universe contains complexities with which all of us need to grapple. Events of the past few months did not create racial and gendered inequities in philanthropic funding. Nor did they shape the failed policies and misplaced public funding priorities that necessitated the creation of nonprofits in the first place. The pandemic and the brutal killings over the last few months of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and George Floyd have created a fierce urgency, within us and others, around the need to address the structural inequities that pervade so many of our systems.

Solutions to the challenges our communities face must come from those closest to the issues. And solidarity begins when we recognize that missions, needs, and fate of community-based nonprofits are interconnected. Such a recognition changes our work as nonprofit support providers. In the short term, we’re working together more than ever to address acute needs created by the pandemic; over the longer term we’re committed to addressing chronic needs at the systems level and leveraging our understanding of power dynamics in the sector to shape solutions that are inclusive, sustainable, and grounded in community-based structures and knowledge that already exist.

The most challenging aspect of solidarity is the revolution that takes place in our thoughts and actions when it is embraced. Our leadership practice in this moment disabuses the notion that leadership is the responsibility of a single, heroic figure. The five of us have learned to share leadership, and our work together has challenged us to interrogate the conventional wisdom around capacity building, fund development, data analysis and evaluation, and other nonprofit practices. It also has led us to acknowledge that self-care and the overall well-being of our organizations and staff require tending and attention, even though the dominant structures and culture in which we operate often contest and frustrate that process.

Support is synonymous with "holding up" or "bearing." It's a word we use to describe our function as leaders and organizations in a nonprofit ecosystem. Solidarity has brought us together to make all our internal structures and processes stronger. That scaffolding includes a growing trust in each other and the journey we've embarked on to reimagine leadership. As we continue to push ourselves to grow, we do so with the recognition that our Black and Brown sisters and brothers in nonprofits need more voices like ours to stand up and join with like-minded others to achieve the glorious futures we imagine for our communities.

Allandra Bulger is executive director at Co.act Detroit. Madhavi Reddy is executive director at Community Development Advocates of Detroit. Shamyle Dobbs is CEO at Michigan Community Resources. Yodit Mesfin Johnson is CEO at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work. And Donna Murray-Brown is CEO at the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

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