By Rebekah Giacomantonio, culture disruptor and community healer
The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house” implies that system change will not happen from within.
I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for over ten years. I’ve been a volunteer, an intern, and a staff member.
And recently, I quit.
I’ve quit before, but this time I really think I’m done. I burned out, again, and some truths I’d been running from caught up with me.
Early in my politicization I was introduced to Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House”, the thesis of which is represented by the title. I’ve read that essay a dozen times, and I’ve quoted it hundreds of times. But, if I’m honest, I hadn’t fully integrated it’s teachings. Until I quit this last time.
“The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house” implies that system change will not happen from within. Not now, not ever. But for just about all of my career, I’ve been trying to make systems change happen, thinking I could leverage my white privilege to reform existing structures. I was wrong. The system will not be complicit in its demise. White people really need to realize this, stop trying to make “change from within” happen, and grab a sledgehammer. We’re only causing harm by running from this truth.
If you are reluctant to believe me, here are some receipts:
My first job out of college was at a nonprofit I’d worked for as an intern. By the time I started as a staff member, I’d already watched the people I worked for make a number of sacrifices, compromising their values and what they knew was right in order to secure contracts. This was especially true in the case of the contract I took the lead on when my boss left, all because we believed the best way to make change was to “change the system from within it.” We were trying to change both the Department of Education and the Department of Corrections. Here’s what that looked like:
After a few years of work at an all-girls public high school with an overwhelming population of non-white students, our (white-led) organization had established a significant level of trust with the students and the (mostly white) teachers. We’d given workshops and training and mentoring for students and staff in restorative justice. A youth council was being considered. Students knew my name and came to me readily with their issues. I was riding my high horse through the school hallways regularly, preaching the gospel of change from within to all who gathered around my soapbox.
One day, a few of the high-achieving students in their first year stole some Texas Instrument calculators valued at $150 each. It was around Christmas time, and the negligent substitute teacher had left the classroom and turned off the lights at the precise moment the bell rang while the students were still in their seats. This group of girls, under the pressure of poverty and a number of other manifestations of systemic racism, shoved as many of the calculators as they could fit into their backpacks, because the substitute had left the room before locking up the closet that stored them.
The next day, upon realizing that the calculators had been stolen, and that she would likely be held accountable for their theft even though she wasn’t there, the (not white) permanent teacher of that class sought solace in the community of teachers she worked with. Thinking she’d lose her job over this theft, this first-year teacher was terrified. The teachers began organizing and fundraising amongst themselves to cover the cost of the calculators so that their colleague wouldn’t lose her job. As I write this story, I am overcome with goosebumps and the tears beckon. Community was working! People were taking care of each other!
Internally I was polishing my metaphorical saddle.
As the teachers organized, the students who took the calculators confessed to their mistake, apologized to the teacher, and came to me, the restorative justice coordinator, to begin a circle process. It was happening! Culture shift! Change! Healing!
I went to the principal’s office to share with her all that I’d learned (for context, she was Latina.) She was relieved to hear all that had already transpired, and encouraged me to start the circle process. I did, meeting 1-1 with the students, and then their guardians who had all been called. Here I was, deep in the system, working for a nonprofit at a public school and creating change!
I began to envision the speech I’d give at the local bar that weekend, how I’d saved these young women and successfully dismantled the oppressive punitive disciplinary system of the Department of Education.
The progress we had made in years of work at that school was immediately crushed
I was calling another student into a 1-1 when the police arrived. Two white men in full dress came in and gave a speech worthy of a slot on the “Scared Straight” TV show. The students broke into tears. “My mom is right,” said one, “I’m bad, just like my dad. I’m going to prison just like him.” These students were members of the student council. Most of them were on honor roll. They were not bad kids. They were trying to survive in a world that didn’t see them worthy of survival.
The progress we had made in years of work at that school was immediately crushed. Why should the students trust restorative justice if the police were going to get called anyway? Why should the students trust restorative justice if when they made a mistake and acknowledged the harm they caused — even apologizing unprompted to the person they harmed and invited a circle process — the police were still called, and they were still threatened with time in prison?
The girls did not go to prison, as the police officers said they would, but they did get two-week suspensions on top of the trauma of the experience itself — and the circle process never happened. The teacher kept her job, though she did get reprimanded for not better equipping the substitute teacher, thereby leaving school property unprotected. Because word passed quickly throughout the school, none of the students at the school ever re-engaged with restorative justice work in the same way, and, when I asked the principal why she had called the police she said, “I had to, the total amount of the cost of the stolen calculators exceeded the limit for a restorative response. You didn’t think we were just going to do a restorative circle, did you?”
The system will never be complicit in its demise.
I thought I could work within the Department of Education, within a 501(c)(3) and create lasting cultural and systemic change, but when the rubber hit the road, I realized just how wrong I was.
In fact, my efforts to do both had actually caused harm. The students got vulnerable with me, and were punished for it. The teachers organized to protect their colleague, and she still received a professional demerit. People let their guards down, trusted in me, trusted in the work that we were doing, trusted in the process, and everyone got burned.
The system had given me an inch. It said that I could do restorative justice, but only in certain circumstances when it was advantageous for it, like when it increased test scores or filled a gap that an overworked administrator couldn’t fill. But when I pushed for another inch, when I started doing deeper work, when I put into question the status quo, when I was getting too close to the root of the problem — they would always hold me back. The system will not be complicit in it’s demise, and it would let me know that, everytime.
When I went back to my (white) supervisors at the agency that employed me, suggesting that we meet with the Department of Education and say we can’t work with them like this, when I said that we needed to use our power and reputation as an organization to create systemic change so that this doesn’t happen again, they said, “Don’t be silly, Bekah, we need those DOE contracts to pay your salary.” It was the first time I burned out, and it was the worst.
I didn’t learn my lesson, though, and went crawling back to nonprofits.
This time, I was transparent in my interview. “I’m here to disrupt the way we replicate systemic oppression in nonprofits,” I said. “I’m here to leverage privilege for real, lasting, social change.”
And my interviewer emphatically said, “Yes.”
Fast-forward no more than two months, and I’m on the outs. It’s me vs. my supervisor. Me identifying harm and them refusing to take accountability for the harm they’re causing or complicit in. I blamed it on the specific supervisor, the individual person, and found another job.
The nonprofit industrial complex expects us to conform or quit. It expects us to give up fighting the transformative fight or burn out fighting. It counts on us to get tired and leave or numb our way through our days. Mix this in with our own whiteness and ooof, it’s a fatal cocktail, y’all.
That next job was the worst of them all, though. My boss did not realize that she had been compromised. It was as if she was behaving from a script written by the inventors of white supremacy. I have not fully metabolized the harm she caused me, or the harm I witnessed her cause other people, and I won’t speak to it more. What I will say is that we have got to watch out. She was the type of person that had read all the books, listened to all of the podcasts, been through all of the training — and they still commit egregious harm. These types of people are too disembodied, too burnt out to see any of it, to recognize that any of those terrible actions belonged to them, not even when well-meaning, thoughtful folks come to offer them accountability and compassion.
My former boss just could not receive it, and I know she’s not unique.
It is a common thing I see for folks like me who go into the nonprofit industrial complex wanting to “change it from within.” Burnout or complacency are two terrible and all-too-frequent outcomes of this system. Almost all of my past supervisors have become the system they most wanted to transform. And all of them have been white people.
Do I think that they were malicious in their intent? No. Almost every one of my supervisors has said to me that they are trying to change the system from within. And I believe that they believe that. And perhaps, when they started working in the nonprofit industrial complex, it was true.
But then they got a raise — and another one — and another one — and then they started getting public accolades, maybe they witnessed a few small changes here and there and then — suddenly — they became the system. Oppressive, alienating, self-interested.
The nonprofit industrial complex expects us to conform or quit. It expects us to give up fighting the transformative fight or burn out fighting. It counts on us to get tired and leave or numb our way through our days. Mix this in with our own whiteness and ooof, it’s a fatal cocktail, y’all. A cocktail that is necessary for the toxic systems to survive, to continue keeping us all oppressed (because even when we feel free, none of us truly are until everyone is.).
So, white people of the nonprofit sector, I offer you these notes. If you must work in nonprofits, do so with extreme caution. Keep the following things in mind, and you might survive with your values intact.
1. When we push to create change within a system, we cause harm.
The system won’t let us create real change, and when we get peoples hopes up — when we convince them to trust us, to trust that this time will be different — we put them in vulnerable positions. And then when the shit hits the fan — which it inevitably will — we (white people) can walk away, and the people we are working with — the people who were already suffering just trying to survive — get the brunt of it. We leave them worse than they were when we joined them. Every. Time.
2. It is never individuals. It is always the system.
My teachers in Guatemala always used to tell me, “Ningún ser humano es desechable,” (“No human being is disposable”), and I think it’s really important to hold that truth, even when we are faced with people who are causing harm. They have fallen prey to a system that is voracious. Their principal mistake was not practicing the next point.
3. If you haven’t already figured this out: DO NOT ENTER THE NONPROFIT INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX ALONE.
Have people you love and trust around you, calling you in, offering accountability from day one. Otherwise, you will get swallowed whole.
4. “Your job is not your political home”
In a newsletter, Lutze Segu wrote, “Your job is not your political home,” and I think it’s really important white people begin to recognize that. Like really, deeply, integrate it into our consciousness. A good number of us choose nonprofits thinking that it’ll kill two birds with one stone (pay the bills, save the world.) So many of us have flocked to this work that we’ve flooded the sector. I get why we do it, I did it myself. In the preface of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by INCITE!, the authors make it clear that when the movement deems a nonprofit necessary to receive a grant, “[that] nonprofit would answer to the movement; it [is] not seen as the movement itself.” Our job is not our political home — our nonprofit is not the movement. Let that change you — let it shift how and where you work towards collective liberation.
5. The belief that we can change the system from within comes from privilege
Folks who live with oppression day in and day out know that the system won’t be complicit in it’s demise. If you are white and you don’t believe me, you need to diversify the content you are consuming. Try anything touched by adrienne maree brown, Mariame Kaba, Audre Lorde, or anything written on abolition.
6. Lastly, just transitions are a thing.
I know dismantling white supremacy won’t happen overnight, but the just transition from a racist, capitalist system and a broken social service system to a world where everyone is fed, free, and radiating in the fullness of their being will not be led by white people. We all know it’s true, so let’s start acting like it.
Rebekah Giacomantonio (she/her) was raised on the land of the Wabanaki Confederacy in what is now called Maine, where she now resides for the time being. Bekah supports community healing as a facilitator of transformative justice processes and restorative mediations. Through her facilitation Bekah aims to disrupt cultural norms that perpetuate harm and keep us from collective liberation. Bekah is also a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling with a somatics focus.