Unfinished business: Why the social justice movement needs nonprofits
In 2020, social justice issues moved front and center in ways most of us couldn’t have predicted. As some of the largest and broadest demonstrations for racial justice in U.S. history erupted across the country, corporations came under greater pressure than ever before to take an active role in addressing social injustices.
At the same time, the events of 2020 highlighted how essential nonprofit organizations are to efforts to advance social justice.
Understanding equity vs. equality
The ongoing fight for equality in our country has traveled a long and storied road. The related but separate movement for social equity digs deeper into the ways in which opportunities are presented — or are closed — to different groups.
While equality means each individual or faction is given the same resources or opportunities, equity recognizes that each person or faction comes from different circumstances, which may require a restructured allocation of those resources and opportunities. Incorporating those factors into programs serving marginalized populations results in better outcomes; nonprofits make it their business to understand those complexities.
“Equity is a way, not a what,” André Ledgister, communications catalyst at Partnership for Southern Equity, told me. “We make sure our efforts reflect equity in that we take into account what specific community organizations need in order to access resources. In that sense, the work of nonprofits is to empower the community to create their own change.”
Nonprofit leaders know that fostering allies beyond donors, volunteers, and sponsors is critical to success. Similarly, for social justice activism to effect lasting change, education and advocacy efforts need to cross various divides to become truly multiethnic and multicultural.
“Nonprofit organizations teach, whether the work is relevant in science, in STEM fields, or in humanities and the arts,” said Vicki Crawford, executive director of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection. “The hope is that this type of education will open people up to exploring the ways in which we are inextricably linked; to open up the conversation around the commonality of all humans across the differences of race, class, gender, religious affiliation.”
Taking that understanding one step further means recognizing the ways in which we fall on either side of the ally relationship.
“Everyone has multiple identities, some of which can be privileged and some of which can be marginalized,” said Sharmila Fowler, founder, coach, and consultant for the Red Lion Institute. “Your particular situation really depends on which room you’re in. I could be a woman in a room full of women with very few men, or I could be an Asian American in a room full of many other ethnic identities and few Asian Americans. It’s important to recognize that your identity shifts around privilege and marginalization, and to allow for that fluidity of identification.”
Connecting the dots
Driving fundamental social change requires multiple levels of expertise and influence. For nonprofits, making connections and appealing to specifically focused stakeholders is a way of life. Already primed to network toward a goal, these organizations know how to pull the right levers to move social justice causes forward in an impactful way.
“For us, relationship acceleration is connecting those philanthropists, policy makers, community organizers, grassroots groups — putting everyone into the same room and saying, ‘Okay, this is the problem we need to address,'” Ledgister explained. “They’re all coming together from different areas of life, different industries, working together to push for change.”
Social justice can’t happen in a vacuum, nor can real change be achieved when dictated from outside the communities where the greatest need exists. In addition to creating social equity by clearing access to resources, nonprofits are positioned to build sustainable social change by inspiring community-based leaders and, more importantly, potential leaders.
“Supporting leadership development is so important,” said Ledgister. “Making sure community members have the opportunity to be trained on initiatives is essential to progress. They can bring that forward and continue to push for change in the way that best fits. Those in the community are closest to the issue; they are the ones closest to the solution.”
The hard, long-term work needed to move the social justice needle can be daunting. Organizations looking for quick solutions will likely be disappointed and unable to sustain the effort. But nonprofits are used to going for the long game. Change doesn’t happen in a funding cycle; it requires unwavering focus on the horizon despite the inevitable setbacks.
“All this work we’re doing, this is generational work,” said Ledgister. “I may not see results in my lifetime, but my daughter will hopefully see the purpose of this labor — when she goes into the marketplace and she’s not looked at as somebody that is ‘less than,’ when she is looked at in the fullness of her character and has everything she needs to thrive.”
Crawford agreed, recognizing that by drawing from the past, nonprofits and allies can better inform the future for the next generation. “It’s important to learn the history of a particular era, because that moment speaks to the present moment,” she told me. “Because ultimately, it’s unfinished business that we’re dealing with.”
If we are going to finish that business by learning from and improving upon the work of past social justice leaders, nonprofits will have to be at the forefront leading the way. With their boots on the ground and connections to local communities, nonprofits are the heartbeat of the development pipeline for future leaders, the ones who know how to listen as allies, lean on their constituencies, and push new paths forward. We need these leaders now more than ever, and it’s more important than ever to support them in every way possible.