Reflections by Maria Vertkin.
Facing our silence.
The recent string of police killings came on the heels of the coronavirus outbreak: we had just learned to declare an emergency. Now the training wheels are off and the world is responding to the bigger pandemic: racism. Statements of solidarity are flooding inboxes—including some surprisingly good ones. Brands from babynames.com to NASCAR are taking a stand. The pot has boiled over, creating new allies in the movement.
But we in the social sector, who dedicate our lives to fighting injustice every day, are not new allies. We know that this is nothing new, that although this moment is historical in its unprecedented show of solidarity, racism in America is centuries old, and police have been brutalizing Black people since their origins as slave patrols. I would like to hold us to a higher standard on social justice than NASCAR, but too many nonprofits and foundations are late to the party, and we need to talk about that.
I’ll start. Police have killed more than 5,000 people (disproportionately Native and Black) since 2015. At a rate of 1,000 per year, that’s nearly 10,000 deaths since Found in Translation was founded in 2011. But the words “Black Lives Matter” didn’t start appearing on our public-facing channels until June 1, 2020.
What took so long?
First, my excuses:
As an organization providing economic mobility through workforce development to immigrant women, we are a direct service organization. We have historically limited our activist communications to a small wheelhouse of topics—language access, health disparities, etc. We’ve said very little about broader social justice issues (e.g. white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism). I could tell you about how thin we are stretched as a small team doing big work. I could talk to you about the very real tradeoffs between allocating resources to programming vs fundraising vs communications. I could tell you our rationale for focusing on our specific areas of expertise, our own narrow but vital stream feeding the social justice ocean. But those would be excuses.
The reality is that racism affects the women we serve, as well as our team, personally, profoundly and directly. We have no excuse for not having taken a stance as an organization, visibly and publicly. And I as a leader have no excuse for having compartmentalized my activism to the personal domain when our (bigger, more effective) organizational platform is available.
The truth is, I am afraid.
I’m afraid of alienating our supporters if they hear what I really have to say. And by supporters, I really just mean funders. Fundraising is a game played by funders’ rules, on funders’ turf, and the last thing nonprofit leaders want is to make this any harder for ourselves. Already nearly half of the hardships nonprofits face are funder-created. I’ve long lost count of the number of times in conversation with a funder, with sums of money that could make or break us on the line, I made the calculation to bite my tongue. On one hand, centering donors is standard; on the other hand, it makes us complicit. It makes me complicit. So do I want to be complicit in the very injustices I claim to fight against, or in jeopardizing our mission with my big mouth?
Dear funders: If I’m honest, I’m not certain that all of you genuinely share our values—that is, are ready to take personal responsibility and organizational accountability for your role in overlooking or actively protecting the inequalities you say you want to solve. And I fear that your commitment to our work would not survive an honest conversation. I fear that you won’t want to talk about the ways you are complicit, because, let’s face it, I don’t enjoy talking about my own complicity either. It feels bad. And we, your grant-seekers and grantees, go out of our way to avoid making you feel bad. We desperately need you on our side, and so when you make another off-color remark, I summon a smile to cover my cringe. I mentally calculate the power you wield, the damage you can deal with merely a decision, and I let you off the hook.
What honesty would look like.
Could we have an honest conversation? It would involve facing the inconvenient truth that private wealth is amassed through exploitation, by paying people less than their labor is worth and pocketing the difference. And the inconvenient truth that much of the wealth of this country can be traced back to slavery and pillage. And maybe most inconveniently of all: that being in possession of far more than one’s share is in and of itself an injustice and actively causes harm. If we were to have an honest conversation about racialized inequity in our sector, we would need to talk about the incompatibilities of capitalism with liberation. We would need to talk about how confronting inequity in earnest poses a conflict of interest for you. So instead I talk to you about innovation, our elegant model, our win-win-win proposition, our track record, my passion, your ROI.
Here’s what I know: If you were to face the origins of your wealth, question the legitimacy of your possession of it, admit what your wealth costs society, you would fund very differently. You would give more generously, at a level that requires a lifestyle change, because you would prioritize working toward justice over the maintenance of your wealth. You would give large, multi-year, general operating grants only, to minimize artificial burdens on grantees, and to reduce the number of funders an organization needs. You would do away with grant applications (nearly half of grants aren’t worth the time they take, according to one calculation) and selection processes that eat up time we’d rather spend on our missions. You would make decisions within days or weeks instead of months. Instead of spending so much time selecting, you would rally your wealthy friends to join you in funding our important work. And you would prioritize funding Black- and Indigenous-led organizations. But despite nonprofits asking for these things continuously, most funders don’t operate this way, and that sends a message about your values.
What’s at stake.
Our work transforms the careers and lives of immigrant women, leveraging language skills into well-paying careers in one of the fastest-growing fields in the US—careers that not only elevate the women’s families and communities, but provide healthcare access to patients made vulnerable by providers’ monolingualism. In discussion of the ways race and racism interact with and shape our work, a board member reminds me that the number of Black lives destroyed by police violence is dwarfed by the number of Black lives destroyed by health inequities. She reminds me of forced sterilizations, of the long history of healthcare being weaponized against Black bodies, of the substandard treatment Black people receive today, so pervasive that not even wealth nor celebrity can shield against it, as exemplified by Serena Williams’ experience giving birth. She reminds me of the compounded adversities faced by the Haitian, Somali, and other Black immigrant patients with limited English proficiency who depend on our interpreters. Our work is vital, not just life-changing but life-saving. And that is why I am afraid to be “too political.”
Can we survive as an organization with the support of only funders who genuinely share our values? I do not know the answer to that.
Founder and Executive Director
Read more about how Found in Translation is stepping up to be more vocal about injustice, and starting the conversation with immigrants about race in America.