Nonprofits are an essential piece of the American fabric. They often play as the third leg of a tri-legged stool supporting many underserved and at risk communities.
Many nonprofit organizations are typically led by privileged White people that have never needed a Nonprofit organization in their upscale neighborhoods. Part of this said privilege enables these White people to profit from the disorganization and dilapidated nature of these communities; these are often predominantly Black communities.
As the recent unrest surrounding the murder of Freddie Gray has propelled into the national spotlight, there are two contrasting versions of Baltimore City. The Baltimore a majority of city residents, including myself, live in is similar to that experienced by Freddie Gray and his loved ones in Sandtown. The poverty and unemployment rates for Baltimore’s Black citizens are staggering. This lack of resources impacts the many things required to have highly functioning, well-ran communities and severely impacts school performance, access to health care, access to healthy foods, and even residents’ access to clean air. Luckily, this is where the third leg of the stool holding up unstable communities kicks in.
Moreover, nonprofits offer resources to residents who often do not have access to, or information about, obtaining said resources. One specific demographic in need of careful care and attention is the youth of Baltimore City. I’ve worked with kids in my city for years as an organizer and youth supervisor for Baltimore’s Youthworks program. I’ve worked through other nonprofits creating and teach curriculum focused heavily on job and college readiness ― crucial skills seldom discussed in Baltimore’s schools.
White people who are non-natives to Baltimore City lead these nonprofits ― almost exclusively. The uneven distribution of power in these organizations has outstanding effects on the Black communities and other communities of color they supposedly aim to serve.
As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly six years, I have witnessed displays of racism at the hands of White administrative staff. These offenses range from strict disciplinary practices one would expect for criminals to microaggressive acts of racism packaged in phrases such as “wow, you’re very articulate.” I have witnessed White people with power in the nonprofit industry speak to Black children in derogatory and degrading ways and even attempt to exploit them for their labor.
All of my years working in nonprofits, the goal has been portrayed as one day having the underserved community members step up and lead their own community initiatives. The goal is to have a community govern itself, to allow the White organizations to step back from Baltimore’s Black communities. For years I have been touted as an example of what these nonprofits can do seeing that I’m from one of the poorest and most violent communities in Baltimore City, McElderry Park.
I’m the first of my family to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree and a huge part of this is credited to the many nonprofit organizations that saw potential in a young, Black teenage boy from a rough area of the city.
It is crucial to note that many nonprofit organizations do great work and help better the lives of many of the residents they serve. However, my experience working under White management with the youth has allowed me to witness how easy it is for kids to slip outside of the reach and missions of nonprofit organizations due to the racism they face. Seldom are these White staff members prepared to properly nurture youth who have completely different circumstances and ways of expressing their trauma than the White kids they grew up around. I have seen youth discarded and ousted from networks of nonprofits simply for doing things kids do such as throwing rocks at a sign.
Seeing the little room granted by these nonprofits for youth in Baltimore City to make the simple mistakes that youth often make without being criminalized inspired me. I set on a quest to live up to the goal the White organizations claim to have held: community members guiding community members. In this new endeavor I decided to start my own nonprofit organization for Baltimore City youth in order to extensively prepare them for life post-high school graduation.
Unfortunately, this journey is not as easy as the mission would suggest. The first thing I was told in seeking advice from White leaders in the nonprofit complex is that I shouldn’t waste my time. Finding funding was very competitive and was especially difficult when competing with White-ran nonprofits. These organizations have better connections to foundations who distribute grants and are established enough to hire professional grant-writers.
I, a Black Baltimorean, someone who has worked with youth from my city for years, would have to compete with outside hands. Why? I’ll tell you why. Out of a budget of, say, $250,000 for a nonprofit, roughly 80 percent goes to salary. Many White people rely on their positions in nonprofits to feed their families and to live comfortably just outside the crumbling infrastructure of poorer neighborhoods. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far is that the goal in nonprofit work is not to build a community and have them ultimately govern themselves or to increase equity. Often, the goal is to eat. White people, even those dedicated to creating effective change, profit off of Black agony and grief. They have grant writers and because of that they keep the money from people who understand better the needs of their communities. White people have the connections to donors and control the narratives within the communities they serve. Entire White staffs in majority Black and Brown neighborhoods often lead to miscommunications of the actual needs and a lack of ability to meet them.
One sure way to combat this is by empowering those who live in underserved neighborhoods and communities to advocate for themselves. Until then, the cycle of privilege and White supremacy in the form of oppression via the intersection of class and racial identity are doomed to be an infinite loop. The Baltimore Star Project could certainly use a helping hand. Many of the youth in Baltimore City struggle to catch up with peers in other school districts in the realm of higher education. The Baltimore Star Project aims to mentor Baltimore City youth and establish a network of support from community members to help them for life post-graduation.