By: Jonathan Meagher-Zayas, nonprofit strategist
Potential Trauma Reminders Warning: mentions of sexual assault, racism, homophobia, and bullying at work
I always knew I wanted to support my community. Growing up queer and Puerto Rican, I could tell significant issues needed to be addressed and solved. As I navigated my career exploration process, I interned at an LGBTQ advocacy organization doing community organizing work and knew working for a nonprofit was the place for me.
I enjoyed working hard to serve and support community issues while having the freedom for innovative and status quo-breaking ideas. I did whatever I could to further my experience with more internships, jobs, education, credentialing, volunteering, and leadership programs. To this day, I remain committed to holding myself accountable for growth and focusing on community needs through nonprofit work.
However, despite improving my skills and listening to many leaders in the field on their advice, I still found myself in situations where I was forced to leave my nonprofit job and question whether this was the right sector for me.
After 11 years in the sector, I’ve left three full-time jobs without a job lined up due to traumatic experiences.
The traumatic experiences we endure working in nonprofits
…the real reason nonprofits continue to fail at staff retention and equity initiatives is that they refuse to address their oppression.
For most opportunities, I moved on to something better: more money, better responsibilities, and more leadership opportunities. Even though I moved onto something better, the move was almost always coupled with running away from some abuse and, frankly, exploitation.
Each situation followed a pattern. I came into the organization excited and ready to work. I worked endlessly for months getting to know the organization, figuring out issues, identifying and implementing solutions, and also raising more money than they had before. I was a stellar employee and gave my life to the organization. Then something bad happened, and my trust was broken.
The incidents varied but some of the worst included:
- Being sexually harassed by a donor, reporting it to the executive director only to be told that was how fundraising works;
- Witnessing a fellow fundraising employee commit racist, homophobic, and inappropriate (touching an intern’s face without consent) acts, reporting it to human resources only to be told that the employee was stressed and still in their ‘diversity learning journey; and
- An overwhelmed boss who bullied me so much that the board had to intervene and prevent this person from talking to me for the rest of my employment.
Each time the organization lost my trust. My confidence in their ability to execute their mission, support me as an employee, and advance equity disappeared.
The worst part of it was every organization tried to paint me as the issue. Organizational leaders said I was not skilled enough to handle the conversation; my communication skills needed to improve; I needed to calm down and give other people grace; I was not the right cultural fit for the organization. Then these leaders shared those feelings with others in the community which affected my future opportunities.
I continued to feel defeated, questioned my ability to do my work, and wondered if I wasted years working in a field that did not want me.
After hours of therapy and healing, I learned that even though I still have a lot to learn and grow, the fact I did not want to be complicit in problematic behaviors was not the problem. I came to the same conclusion each time: nonprofits were more willing to dismiss racist behavior than admit they did something wrong.
Also, this pattern is not something that just happened to me. I’ve chatted with dozens of individuals who left their nonprofit for similar reasons. Despite how much the leaders said they were passionate with good hearts and committed to diversity, they usually prioritized protecting themselves and the problematic employees. Of course, I’m simplifying the situations (and trying to be vague to avoid specific people attacking me). But over the last couple of years, the majority of nonprofit leaders I have interacted with have continued to complain about recruiting staff, keeping great talent, and increasing diversity, yet they let things like this happen. They focus their efforts and energies on external strategies without first assessing internal efforts. They tend to blame specific employees or larger issues because it is easier than holding themselves accountable.
Therefore, the real reason nonprofits continue to fail at staff retention and equity initiatives is that they refuse to address their oppression.
As our sector continues to have conversations rooted in racial equity and social justice, we see more training on diversity and implicit bias, more social media and email communication during the various awareness months, and more leadership statements after a tragedy has occurred. However, there have yet to be more admissions of complicity in oppressive practices, more acknowledgments of how organizations have benefited from years of racist policies, or even more apologies when a person within their organization spews racism.
I am summarizing based on personal experience and observations, but I would argue many of my fellow change-makers would say similar things. In order to actually make progress in these areas, I think many leaders need to focus on two things: understanding and acknowledging how oppression shows up in their organization and focusing on strategies leading to equitable outcomes.
Understanding how oppression shows up using an anti-oppression framework
Even with the many problems our sector has, I truly believe we have the opportunity to be at the leading forefront of equity.
To help identify how oppression impacts organizations, I utilize the Four I’s of Oppression framework. This framework names that oppression shows up in multiple aspects of our society, and oppression shows up differently in different ways. These different levels of oppression are:
- Ideological Oppression: The core idea is that one group of people is somehow better than the other and that group has the right to control and power.
- Institutional Oppression: Utilizing ideologically oppressive ideas, this level is systems, policies, and practices created to control and oppress certain groups of people. This can show up in multiple ways such as government systems monitoring access to resources, and organizations that have certain policies supporting some groups of people more than others.
- Interpersonal Oppression: Individuals from the dominant group disrespecting and mistreating others. The ideas and systems created in the first two levels of oppression create, protect, and reinforce opportunities for privileged identities, abilities, and power to treat other groups in inappropriate ways.
- Internalized Oppression: This shows up in what we as individuals think how our community should work and reinforces the other forms of oppression. Essentially, this is a person thinking, “well this is how things work and accepting it.” This can show up in both privileged and marginalized identities and usually takes unlearning beliefs and attitudes that stem from oppression to focus on challenging the status quo.
I encourage all of you to read more about the different levels of oppression. If we cannot name the oppression, we cannot know the best ways to tackle it.
5 equitable strategies to tackle oppression
Based on personal experiences, research, and this framework, I am proposing five strategies for nonprofit leaders to execute if they truly want to tackle oppression in their organizations.
1. We must encourage, promote, and enforce a growth mindset for everyone connected to our organizations. Much of the oppression in our sector is rooted in ideas and beliefs. These come from skewed educational instruction, influenced media consumption and reinforcement, cultural traditions and teachings, and organized belief systems promoting certain ideologies. Everyone cannot know everything, and there is still much learning and unlearning to do. We must focus on a growth mindset, meaning learning never stops. Organizations can understand ideological oppression and address it by:
- Providing training and workshops focused on equitable outcomes,
- Centering voices from marginalized communities,
- Investing in professional development and social justice education, and
- Supporting and learning from community leaders of color.
2. Nonprofit leaders must acknowledge oppressive systems and develop advocacy plans. As Vu Le’s NonprofitAF blog and The Ethical Rainmaker podcast have noted many times, nonprofits are created to solve community problems. Once those community problems are fixed, there is no need for that nonprofit to operate how it currently does or, frankly, even continue to exist. We as leaders must acknowledge the history of oppression in the sector (racist policies, the nonprofit industrial complex, and economic injustices) that affect the people we serve, employ, and engage. This may include how your organization benefited from these systems and caused harm. This strategy can be executed with the following actions:
- Research the history of your organization, community, and sector, and learn how oppression has impacted your work;
- Acknowledge the harm your organization might have caused and identify actions that will promote healing; and
- Develop advocacy plans that address oppression and issues impacting the people you serve and employ.
3. Organizations need to develop trauma-informed policies and procedures that promote trust, transparency, and authenticity. We must consider how oppression is integrated throughout the organization, name it, and then focus on eradicating it from the system. I want to acknowledge that we must consider trauma in this process. Trauma from your organization or previous experiences can impact a person’s perception of what needs to be done. Organizational leaders can enact this strategy by doing the following:
- Create a diverse team of auditors to review your current policies and procedures and make recommendations on how to improve them;
- Learn about trauma-informed practices and identify how your organization can integrate them into your operations;
- Develop a communications plan focused on transparency and building trust with everyone involved in your organization (not just your donors!);
- Host listening sessions with your staff and try to understand the barriers your organization creates that impact their ability to be as authentic as they want to be at work, and
- Organize your organization so that staff leading equity efforts are not reporting to positions that hinder new ideas or challenge the system (i.e. not human resources, compliance, or legal).
4. Encourage your employees to embrace a cultural humility philosophy. I learned about this in social work school, and I encourage many people to focus on cultural humility. “Cultural humility involves an ongoing process of self-exploration and self-critique combined with a willingness to learn from others. It means entering a relationship with another person with the intention of honoring their beliefs, customs, and values. It means acknowledging differences and accepting that person for who they are.” Cultural humility also recognizes the power dynamics and imbalances that exist and encourages people to fix them in order to develop respectful partnerships with others. By embracing this philosophy, we can build relationships with each other without assumptions of who they will be and also acknowledge there might be power imbalances there. Some actions to address this include:
- Conduct skill-building training related to cultural humility and inclusive communications;
- Facilitate relationship building team-building activities rooted in social justice;
- Host crucial conversations to discuss organizational and interpersonal issues; and
- Provide tools for employees to increase their interpersonal skills (ex. apologies, feedback, and self-advocacy)
5. Everyone should commit to being self-aware and accountable for their own actions and growth. We are the only people that can hold ourselves accountable. Others can just support or hold us in compliance. This means each person is responsible for how they internally address their own oppressive thoughts. Organizations can encourage and promote self-accountability by implementing actions such as:
- Conduct self-assessments focused on privilege and bias and identify individual areas of learning;
- Provide support for personal self-care and healing plans;
- Identify procedures on how to support employees who are overwhelmed and resort to toxic behaviors to cope; and
- Support employees in their healing by helping them get coaches, therapists, and mentors.
Even with the many problems our sector has, I truly believe we have the opportunity to be at the leading forefront of equity. With our commitment to the community, opportunities to challenge the status quo, and integration of innovation, nonprofit leaders will have the chance to be leaders in our fight for justice and equity. These are just a few suggestions and actions leaders can take. It will take time, resources, and energy. But I believe embracing an anti-oppression framework will make progress on our most pressing challenges.
Jonathan Meagher-Zayas (he/him) is a Queer Latinx Millennial nonprofit strategist dedicated to addressing equity issues, building capacity, engaging the community, motivating new impact leaders, and getting stuff done. He wears many professional hats, including Fundraising and Communications Strategist, Adjunct Social Work Professor, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultant, Leadership Development Trainer, Social Sector Career Coach, and Social Justice Champion. He can be reached at email@example.com or on LinkedIn.