The issues are as old as America, but the political and cultural moment feels new. As more and more voices join our national dialogue around systemic racism, police brutality, and white supremacy, nonprofits find themselves rethinking how they engage and communicate with their communities.
Our Communications team has been deeply engaged in Campbell & Company’s anti-racist journey over the last few years, and many of us live these commitments within and beyond our professional lives. This moment deepens and accelerates all of it. At the same time, we are where we are—a white team with a great deal of work to do, embedded in a largely white nonprofit and philanthropic culture.
To our many colleagues who might be on the same journey, especially our white colleagues, we thought we’d share what we’re reading and learning, how we’re rethinking our work, and where we feel like we’re running into the current boundaries of our field and roles. And as always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections as we all continue our work.
The psychology of racism was a focal point of Frantz Fanon‘s analysis of colonialism in his book The Wretched of the Earth. I found myself returning to this work over the last couple of weeks, especially as protests have unfolded, and am finding some of its insights helpful in making sense of the present moment.
I’ve also been eager to suggest that folks check out Unicorn Riot, a media collective that was recently praised by The New Yorker for its patient and uniquely intimate coverage of the protests in Minneapolis.
As a white person, I strive to stay aware of my complicity in racist systems and to answer the evolving question of how I can and should fight racism in my sphere of influence. There is no substitute for lived experience in this endeavor—taking direct action, having difficult conversations, making mistakes, and asking forgiveness. But books, films, and other texts can help us reflect on and learn from these experiences.
One book that left an impression on me is Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss. In addition to being beautifully written, Biss demonstrates the level of care and vulnerability that this important topic demands.
One of the questions I’ve been wrestling with is the role of communications—including nonprofit communications—in inviting people to imagine a different world. The scope of what’s possible—incremental reform or deeper transformation—seems to depend on it. You can see this as people encounter ideas like police/prison abolition and restorative justice for the first time. The first question isn’t do they support it; it’s can they imagine it? The same applies to really any work toward a world that isn’t ordered by white supremacy.
I guess I worry that the professionalized language we’ve created to manage the discomfort of talking about racism—essentially anything that would get captured and communicated under an organization’s DEI/REI/IDEA acronym—doesn’t often try to communicate on that visionary level. And among other things, it’s made me want to get out of my own technocratic comfort zone a bit and read more from folks who are trying to imagine and create entirely different systems.
One book in particular that I’m excited about is Until We Reckon, which steers directly into the hardest cases in ending mass incarceration—violent crimes—and asks us to imagine a restorative justice approach that works through the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. The author, Danielle Sered, leads a nonprofit organization—Common Justice—that puts this approach into practice with extraordinary results.
Vision is always the hardest part of nonprofit communications, and I think it’s worth taking some lessons from those who are doing that work most urgently in this moment.
To me, this is a time to ask some fundamental questions about our world and our role in it, particularly if you, like me, are a white person working in the nonprofit sector. As white people in the nonprofit sector, are we challenging ourselves to engage in not only learning, not only allyship, but also genuine acts of solidarity? Likewise, we’ve become comfortable talking about systemic racism—but are we actually doing the work to confront racist and exploitative systems, or just trying to make small changes within them?
In this time, I’m seeking out, learning from, and following the lead of bold voices with clear-eyed visions that challenge existing systems and imagine radically different alternatives, and reminding myself that any anti-racist work I do on myself and within the nonprofit sector is only a beginning step toward a better world: ultimately, it’s the work I do in solidarity with social movements and in the political sphere that makes the bigger change. And if I’m not thinking beyond what I do in my job, I’m not doing enough.
Among the items pushing my thinking and/or in my reading queue are:
This movement is upending so many of the norms that white people have accepted as truth that harm Black people and communities, especially norms about policing and protection.
As a white person watching the protests unfold and opening myself up to new narratives about public safety, I’ve been thinking about what norms in our work—nonprofit communications—are also harmful to Black people and communities, so that I can identify and interrupt them in myself and in others. This is a time for white people in nonprofits to listen to and learn from those who have been investigating the whiteness of the nonprofit sector for a long time. I’m reading things like:
Personally, I am working through some of the journal prompts of Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad with a friend from my hometown. It feels important for us to have a space to talk about how our understanding (and—often—lack thereof) of whiteness was shaped in a rural and working-class context. I’m also just talking to my friends and family about racism more intentionally—because I see that as the most meaningful way to move forward.