MT: Alright, hey everybody. This is Mazarine Treyz with Wild Woman Fundraising and the Nonprofit Leadership Summit. Today I have the pleasure and the privilege of chatting with Denechia Powell who is currently in Atlanta and just moved there and working at Carolyn Peruth Consulting. Could you tell us more about you a little bit, Denechia?
NP: Sure. When I was going to school, that was during the time of Barack Obama’s election. I started getting into feminism and just learning a lot. Like what you do in college, right? Becoming more politicized and feeling like, wow, there’s a lot of things wrong with the world and I want to learn how to make change. I want to learn how to create change for people who look like me, you know? Because I know that just learning about black feminism just – all of these people who have been doing all this revolutionary transformative writings and organizing. I saw myself in them for the first time during there in college.
I started calling myself a feminist. That label felt so good and felt so natural for me. When I graduated from college, I thought, there’s no way that I can go work for some huge corporation. I want to do work that is meaningful. Not that working for a corporation can’t be meaningful. But I wanted to do something where I felt like I was investing in people and not profits, right? So for about the past decade or so, nearly a decade, I’ve been doing social change work, social justice work, and particularly in communities of color and LGBTQ communities as an organizer and a writer. Yeah.
MT: That’s wonderful. That’s actually how I first heard about you, because you wrote an article called Decolonizing Our Nonprofits. It really spoke to me because I have been talking for a while about how people need to build trust inside their organizations if they want to build trust outside the organization. How can we say we want to create a better world when we treat our employees in a not so good way? Why do we have such a massive amount of turnover in our profession as nonprofit workers? So before we turned the recording on, you mentioned a book called Emergent Strategy that has more about how to build trust. Would you mind speaking a little bit more about that?
NP: Yeah, so Emergent Strategy is this really, really great book written by a black queer feminist named Adrienne Maree Brown, who is based in Detroit. A lot of the organizing that I’ve done in the past few years has felt really emergent. So some of the different principles of emergent strategy is experimentation. So experimenting with different strategies that have not necessarily been tried in the past. But we know that these times that we’re living in call for creativity and experimentation. So not being afraid to experiment and do things that have not been done before.
Really approaching our organizing as science fiction. Adrienne Maree Brown is a follower of Octavia Butler. She’s a wonderful black science fiction writer who was based in Seattle. But approaching our movements like science fiction, because when you think about it, it kind of right now feels like this dystopian – I don’t know, we’re living in these times that feel like science fiction, right? Just unspeakable terrible things are happening. Families getting separated. Police killing our people. These things that shouldn’t ever happen. So we need to start approaching our movement as if this was science fiction, right?
Also she talks a lot about just looking at patterns in nature, right? Because Emergent Strategy is actually kind of like a scientific principle. Right? So the ways that fish travel, like a school. I think you call it a school of fish travel, right? And they are all going in the same direction. But they all have their own individuality and also birds, when they are in a flock, they are all moving in the same direction. But they still all have their individuality, their different strengths. So yeah. Collaboration is another thing that Emergent Strategy is about. We have to collaborate. We can’t be organizing in our silos because we’re not going to be successful that way. Then moving at the speed of trust is something that she talks about in that book. I think that kind of goes along with what animals do, nature does. They’re moving at the speed of trust, literally, right? Like I was talking to you earlier.
The way that we can build healthy movements is by moving at the speed of trust, because if we’re moving and we’re strategizing and we’re not trusting each other and we’re not building relationships with each other – like human relationships that are not just transactional, but they are also relational. Our movements are going to be healthier and they’re not going to be as affected.
MT: Yes. So that was really powerful, what you just said. I feel like some people might wonder sort of like, well, what’s wrong with the current structure? It’s benefiting me. Would you like to address that?
NP: For folks who say that, if the current structure of I guess our movements, our social justice organizations. If it’s benefiting you it’s probably because you have a pretty good amount of privilege, right? When I say privilege, meaning that you occupy like dominant positions in society. You are that default. You are that white, cisgender, heterosexual person with class privilege and so yeah. The structure probably is working for you because that’s kind of what this country was built on. Right?
So yeah. What I say to that is it’s really interesting how it’s turned out. Even in our movements and nonprofits and things like that, that it’s just kind of replicating. It’s kind of just replicating white supremacy and capitalism and all those other oppressive structures, right? That’s not how it should be, and when you think about it, how are people who are the most privileged making decisions for constituents or clients or whoever who don’t have privilege at all? How can you know about what being poor is like, or being queer? Being black, or how can you know what it’s like if you have never been in their shoes? I don’t care how much studying, how much years of experience, how much years of schooling you have. There’s nothing like lived experiences.
In my writing about nonprofits, I just talk about how important it is for the most impacted, the most oppressed to be leading our movements and to be leading social justice organizations.
MT: I completely agree. When I worked in domestic violence, it was very much a white, hetero, cisgendered led organization that could have been doing more to be inclusive of people of color in the community, and they were not. It was really problematic, and that was the really first taste I had at a nonprofit of not walking your talk. So there’s this thing called mission mirroring, recording here, which is about how you look all outside your nonprofit for the injustices but you’re not necessarily looking inside, which is where you’ll really be starting, which is something else your article says.
NP: Yeah, yes. It’s really interesting. I talk about, in my article, just my experiences with being at organizations that have the social justice values but at the end of the day didn’t seem like they were living by them or implementing them. I think that’s just what happens when organizations don’t change, when they don’t experiment, when they don’t do things differently. You keep hiring people who look like you, right? Who are in the same circles as you, and you can be very well intentioned, but still you’re not living by your values because there’s really nobody in the room who’s going to check you and be like hey.
Or there are people in the room who are coming from more marginalized communities. A lot of times you feel disempowered to speak up and call out when values are not being followed, right? So I think that – yeah. I think there’s just a lot of organizations right now who are so well intentioned. They have such great values. But internally, there’s nothing really in place to make sure that organizations are actually living in their values.
MT: Yes. So I’ve been presenting on how to build trust for a couple of years now, and that’s a reason I’m so excited to have you present at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit, Neesha. Because you are, I feel like, a really good voice for what it looks like when this doesn’t go well. Hopefully at your session, people might learn some ideas for strategies to maybe help respect our workers more and help people’s voices get heard and respect the multiplicity of genders and backgrounds in the room is what I’m hearing.
NP: Yeah, definitely. So it’s one of the different strategies that I talk about. I really hope during our session that we can like just draw from different folks’ experiences of what they are doing as far as making sure that the most impacted are leading organizations, are driving our movements forward. I talk about embracing abundance instead of scarcity. I think that just because we are nonprofits, we need to keep in mind that not all of us have this generational wealth to fall back on and to be like, I can work at this nonprofit and work on my passion for domestic violence, ending domestic violence or whatever it may be and live on this salary.
Some of us are coming from a working class poor background where our labor just historically has not been valued and we sometimes just go along with that. It’s like, I’m working at a nonprofit. I’m just going to settle for not getting a living wage or not getting health benefits or whatever because I’m doing it for the greater good, and that works for people who do have privilege and do have money to fall back on. But for folks like me who don’t, it’s just not going to work, right? I think just having that closure of scarcity. Like we’re just going to make due at our nonprofits and we’re not going to offer living wages. That makes people like me be like, okay. I am not supposed to be in the sector because I can’t even live off this, or, I should just be in the sector and just grin and bear it and just go on with this pop culture of scarcity, that there’s not enough for me.
That’s the change that I want to see, right? And that’s the change that so many people like me, so many of my peers, we’re doing this work. We’re doing this nonprofit work because we love it and because it’s for our communities and because we know that there needs to be people who look like us at the table. We just settle because we’re told by society and we’re told by other nonprofit workers who do have privilege and who are able to just have this standard nonprofit structure of embracing scarcity. We believe that, and I think that we need to really turn the tables and rethink how nonprofits get so comfortable and that scarcity culture.
MT: You know, I love the way you are pronouncing this word that I’ve always heard as pronounced scarcity. Because scarcity almost feels like you’re scarring yourself. You’re scarring yourself with expectation.
NP: I know. It might be a little southern twang.
MT: No, no, no. It’s a real thing though because it hurts your salary every single year that you get paid less. That’s why I wrote my book Get the Job: Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide, and that’s why I started blogging is because I saw different injustices being perpetuated. So that’s why I create the Fundraising Career Conference and that’s why I also created the Nonprofit Leadership Summit, because I was like, great. I’ve talked to the workers. Now I want to talk to the bosses and we need to figure out how we can get treated better. That’s the whole fucking point. Oh, I swore. Whoops.
NP: It’s okay. It’s okay. Make this your ship.
MT: So yeah. People just like have their family wealth to fall back on and then this is what happens. I’m always advocating people to ask for more. Ask for more. Ask for more. But it depends on who’s asking.
NP: Yeah, and also I talk about just capitalism and all these other systems make us feel like there’s not enough. We’re told that there’s not enough to go around for everybody and that’s such a lie. That’s a lie. We’re told this to keep us not wanting for more or not advocating for more, and I think our whole society needs to change in that way. That’s how people who receive public benefits and welfare, all these things that we pay taxes for anyway, right? Like we’re told they shouldn’t get that. There’s not enough for folks to get what they need. I just don’t believe that. That’s just something that we’ve been told by all of these oppressive systems.
MT: I completely agree. We’re at late stage capitalism right now and things are breaking down. So we do, unfortunately as you talked about in your article, still need nonprofits to catch people when they fall because the government is stepping away from providing services. So the sector is not going anywhere.
NP: Right, and you know, a lot of us nonprofit workers, we talk about oh, I’m working myself out of a job. Ultimately I want to work myself out of a job because I want to live in a world where we don’t need these nonprofits that provide these services or whatever. Yes, but I think that’s true and also that we’re not getting close. We’re not close to that right now just because there’s just a lack. There’s just a lack. Well, there’s not a lack. I’m embracing abundance, right? But yeah, the government doesn’t want to provide what they should, right? Without having the structured nonprofit communities. I talk about how our ancestors didn’t have nonprofits, right? They figured out how to take care of each other without nonprofits, right?
Yeah. I think they provide structures that we can take care of each other. But I think we have kind of forgotten how as community members to be able to take care of each other without nonprofits.
MT: Yeah. It’s why I am so excited that we’re going to have not just you speak, but also the Ontario Nonprofit Network speak about decent work, which is an initiative that they are researching right now, which is part of the UN’s ten things they want to see by 2020, which is higher salaries, less precarious work, more equitable or justice for people inside of nonprofits, and really having listening circles with different people around the province and actually over the whole country. Because they are the only association in Canada, really.
So they are going to be talking, Pamela Uppal and Cathy Taylor will be talking about that, which is some solutions to the problems we’re talking about. Sarai Johnson is going to be talking about leading in love and what that looks like. Hopefully it’s not just about equity. It’s about justice.
So one of the things – we had Desiree Adaway speak at our conference in April and she said, for all those nonprofits to think that they can get away with ignoring people of color and how there’s going to be a population shift, and there already is in many places. They’re just going to go out of business. You know? The demographic shift is just going to kill them.
NP: I just want to make a point around – so the title of the article of this presentation is based on decolonizing our nonprofits. I was talking about this with some of the other people in my consulting group. Can a nonprofit be totally decolonized? I don’t know. You know what I’m saying? I don’t know if we can create a nonprofit that is completely decolonized, because nonprofit is kind of like this colonial ideal, right? Because it’s like this kind of colonial thing. So can we totally decolonize it? Probably not. But we can do the work of decolonizing our minds and our practices within them, I believe. You know what I mean? So I think that’s really important.
I want people to not go into this thinking that oh, I’m going to learn this, this and this and our nonprofit is going to be decolonized. I don’t think that’s possible right now in this world we’re living in. We’re living in land that’s colonized and most people are, right? So I don’t think there’s a way for any nonprofit to be completely decolonized. Just because most nonprofits, we do have to interact with the state and the government in some way, right? I talk about like 501c3s and how they create all these barriers and things like that. So yeah. I don’t want to push the ideal that a nonprofit can be this totally decolonized thing. But I think we can decolonize the ways we’re moving and acting and being and thinking within nonprofits.
MT: I feel like it’s a really important distinction to make, and I want to say thank you for mentioning that. This is not a fix it session. This is a place we can all learn from each other and hopefully talk about strategies that we might want to start to experiment with.
NP: Yeah, and I’m really excited to hear about what other people are doing to decolonize their work at nonprofits. So I really hope it can be me talking of course, but just be really a dialogue, a conversation, a place for us to like think of things together. Just yeah. I’m really excited what we’ll generate from this conversation.
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