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In This Moment, We Must Be More Than Allies

Sandra J. Martínez, Director Of Public Policy

This piece originally appeared on on July 22, 2020.

I have spent the last few weeks and months feeling overwhelmed, angry, and — in moments — astounded by what is happening in our world. It has been frightening to learn of the outsized impact COVID-19 has had on Black communities and then to watch another Black man murdered at the hands of the police. It is too much, and it is too familiar, all of it.

As a Latina, I feel it is important to center Blackness in this moment. What we are witnessing — both with COVID-19 and with systemic violence — are diseases whose impacts are shaped and defined by anti-Black racism. Of course, racism exists for Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans. But this country’s racism, and the racism that lives in many countries, including El Salvador, my family’s country of origin, is rooted in and thrives on anti-Blackness. We must be willing to deal with how deeply it is embedded in the culture of this country and in everything we do, from how we do business, to the language we use or don’t use, from our interpersonal relationships to our point of view about the police. Most of all, we have to admit all the ways in which we look away when we are not comfortable, and in doing so, continue to perpetuate this problem.

But what has emerged of late is something I got an opportunity to witness in a different form in the late 90s, when I was a community organizer at a Black-led organization with a commitment to Black-Brown unity. What is second nature for this generation of activists, was not the case then, as the concept of intersectionality was not yet widely understood and practiced. If you were conscious of race, and had, what could best be described as empathy for Black struggle, and a commitment to social justice, there were not a lot of places to work on creating social change. I now see that my early exposure and commitment to working in a unified way to change systems was the best schooling on race and class, particularly when it is grounded in an understanding of Black political and social struggle. I learned how to work through differences using methods of principled struggle and dialogue. Those years have come to define how I view the world, my most trusted circle of friends and colleagues, and how I have approached much of my professional life since that time.

Now many years later, I sit in a privileged place inside a large private foundation. I landed here skeptical but willing to learn and am now familiar enough with this system to recognize its patterns and practices. Here, when a crisis happens, there is often a quick response, money out the door, some communication, some reflection, and back to business as usual. In the last few weeks, many colleagues have been meeting and trying to figure out what “to do” about “what is happening.” Many are unsure of how to talk about race and racism in direct and straightforward language. Many of us just did the same thing just a few months ago with COVID-19 — it was easier to talk about a pandemic we were all facing than it was to grapple with the familiar reality that Blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos were bearing the brunt and were more profoundly affected.

Many non-Black people and institutions have issued statements about their commitment to being allies. What does that mean? To me, an ally connotes an alignment that serves a purpose but isn’t necessarily deep — a relationship that is essential to achieve some goal. I don’t love the term. Being an ally is necessary but insufficient to achieve the kind of long-term change that is called for. So, what does it mean to really and truly center Black people in the struggle for racial justice in philanthropy? I believe we must do the following:

Interrogate this moment and all its challenges — we must be willing to look internally and ask why it’s happening and take the opportunity to reflect on our own institutions, including who we employ and how we do or don’t talk about race directly. We need to look at who we fund, what organizations we tend to favor, and which communities they come from. We have to break down the numbers and take a long hard look at them. We have to be able to acknowledge that we need to do more within our organizations to be better.

Stop thinking about Black-led organizations as in need of capacity building–we must ask ourselves why this is the starting point, and why we use a deficit model at all. We should reframe our approach to simply identifying what is needed, whether it’s a simple infusion of dollars or a loan. Our assumption that Black-led nonprofits are not already thriving and just need more funds to do so is part of the problem.

Ask all organizations about their racial justice framework –we have to be willing to have hard conversations with all organizations. If an organization run or staffed by one racial/ethnic community is serving another community of color, we must ask them how Black people fit into the work they do. If organizations don’t have and use a racial justice framework, we must not only ask why but be willing to consider this a factor in grantmaking decisions.

Ask white-led organizations about how race fits into the work they do — we have to do this, especially if organizations’ work is focused on communities of color. For too long nonprofits have been given a pass if the work is solid and the need is great. This is no longer acceptable. It allows organizations to not do the work it takes to do better and serve communities of color, effectively.

Challenge boards of directors to elevate issues of race — we must do this on the boards we sit on and be willing to respond to questions related to race from the boards we report to, as well.

Racism is embedded in the DNA of this country and anti-Blackness is everywhere. It’s in our homes, in our streets, in our schools and our stores and our government offices. From wherever each of us sits, and if we have the power to do so, we must become diligent at reflecting back what we are seeing and be willing to call out racism and racial injustice in the moment. We are experiencing the next civil rights movement; rather than view ourselves as allies we must see ourselves as unified with and be willing to be led by, Black people in this struggle and the struggles to come.

Sandra Martinez image
Director of Public Policy Sandra J. Martínez

Sandra J. Martínez plans, coordinates and oversees Cal Wellness’ public policy activities as a means of advancing its mission, achieving its goals and amplifying the impact of its grantmaking.

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